Tuesday 04 October 2011
Further to your obituary of 28 September, in August 1996 I went to interview David Croft at his home in Suffolk, an area he had fallen for while filming on location with Dad's Army, which he co-wrote, produced and directed, writes Brian Viner. White-haired and florid-faced, Croft had the look of a country squire but the quietly authoritative air of the senior army officer he had been. A major at 23, he'd left the army on the verge of being made a lieutenant-colonel with a seat on the Japanese war crimes tribunal.
More than anything, though, he was huge fun. I remember we had a delicious al fresco lunch, prepared by his charming, redoubtable wife, Ann, and an interview I'd thought might last an hour chugged happily on late into a warm summer's afternoon. Croft told me all sorts of things about Dad's Army that I hadn't known, for instance that he and Jimmy Perry, who'd conceived it, had at first wanted Jon Pertwee to play the bumbling Captain Mainwaring. Only when Pertwee declined did they cast Arthur Lowe, who made the part so irresistibly his own, but could be tricky to handle. Brilliant comic actor though he undoubtedly was, Lowe's priceless pauses were not always born of immaculate timing. "Very often he was wondering what the hell to say next," Croft told me. "He never used to take his script home. He'd say, 'I'm not having that rubbish in my house'. So he'd read it for the first time in the taxi and would finish learning it on the set. I used to field complaints from the rest of the cast." Similarly exasperating was Frankie Howerd, the star of Up Pompeii!, which Croft produced. "Like Arthur he used to learn his lines in our time, not his. He was magic as soon as the audience arrived, but pretty tedious for the rest of us."
Croft was much fonder of John Le Mesurier, Dad's Army's Sergeant Wilson, who, just as Lowe had Mainwaring's pomposity, was no less vague than Wilson. Between takes, Le Mesurier used to sit on his own, with female production staff practically elbowing each other out of the way to do things for him. "He'd murmur, 'my dear, your hair is so charming that way' and of course they'd melt," Croft recalled. "I once heard him say to a particularly beautiful make-up girl, 'I say, could you wind my watch?'"
Croft was aghast at the way television comedy in general, and the BBC's output in particular, had developed since his own heyday. "It's all about instant ratings, nothing is nurtured," he complained, which is as true now as it was 15 years ago. He was lucky to have worked when he did, but not as lucky as we were to have him.
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