David Croft: Comedy writer and producer who helped create hits like ‘Dad’s Army’, ‘'Allo, ’Allo’ and ‘Are You Being Served?’
Wednesday 28 September 2011
For 30 years, David Croft helped create some of the most memorable characters in situation comedy. Captain Mainwaring, Corporal Jones, Mr Humphries, Mrs Slocombe, Sergeant-Major Williams, Bombardier "Gloria" Beaumont, Ted Bovis, Gladys Pugh and René Artois became television legends, loved by millions who tuned in to Dad's Army, Are You Being Served?, It Ain't Half Hot Mum, Hi-de-Hi! and 'Allo 'Allo! Croft's skills as a comedy producer enabled him to spot potential successes and become part of two long-term writing partnerships, with Jimmy Perry and Jeremy Lloyd.
In Dad's Army (1968-77), he moulded Perry's raw idea – originally entitled The Fighting Tigers and based on the actor-turned-writer's experiences in the Home Guard – into one of television's best loved sitcoms. Croft turned round Perry's premise of featuring a dynamic sergeant with a silly-ass bank manager as the commanding officer. Perry had envisaged Arthur Lowe as the sergeant, but the BBC's head of comedy, Michael Mills, suggested also hiring John Le Mesurier.
"I was not happy with the thought of John Le Mesurier as the officer and bank manager," Croft explained. "John is at his best when terribly laidback. At the same time he had been strongly suggested by Michael Mills. When the Head of Comedy makes a definite suggestion you have to have a very good reason for not taking any notice. We hit on the idea that maybe Arthur should be the pompous grammar school bank manager who appoints himself officer, while John should play the ex-public school chief clerk and sergeant." Thus was born the running class joke of having a lower-middle-class bank manager, Captain Mainwaring, commanding a man from the upper classes, Sergeant Wilson.
Around this pair, Croft and Perry added five other distinctive characters: Lance Corporal Jones (Clive Dunn), the butcher and veteran of the Battle of Omdurman, who met any emergency with the cry of "Don't panic!"; Private Godfrey (Arnold Ridley), the old man of the platoon; Private Frazer (John Laurie), the undertaker with the gloomy prediction: "We're doomed, we're all doomed!"; Private Walker (James Beck), the spiv; and Private Pike (Ian Lavender), the junior of the platoon mollycoddled by his mother.
There were concerns among BBC management about whether Britain's "finest hour" should be the subject of humour, but they were appeased with the guarantee that Dad's Army would be a nostalgic look at the country's triumphant past. Even then, the programme was not an immediate hit and, when viewer research at the end of the first series proved negative, Croft buried the paperwork. A slow-burning success, the sitcom went on for nine years and 81 episodes, attracting audiences of up to 20 million. There was also a feature film, stage show and radio adaptation.
Born near Poole in 1922, the son of actors, Reginald Sharland and Anne Croft, Croft made his first screen appearance with his mother in a cinema commercial for flour. He was brought up in London, and when his father left for Hollywood his mother, a musical comedy star, switched to producing stage shows. While at Rugby, Croft made his stage début in her production of Primrose Time in Brighton (1937) before training at secretarial college and taking singing lessons. When his brother Peter played John Mills' batman in Goodbye, Mr Chips (1939), Croft was cast as the batman in flashback.
When war came, the family left London for Bournemouth, where Croft worked as an air-raid warden while appearing on stage and in a BBC radio revue, Acid Drops. He served in the Royal Artillery, and while in India was made entertainments officer, before moving to Singapore.
After a short spell in the War Office, Croft returned to acting. Repertory theatre was followed by his West End début as Eric in the musical Wild Violets (1950). Then for 10 years he organised concert parties and summer variety shows and put on productions at Butlin's camps – more experiences he would draw on later. He wrote pantomimes for productions around the country and at the London Palladium, sang in TV shows and joined Cyril Ornadel to write songs for BBC programmes such as The Petula Clark Show and Variety Parade.
Keen to produce, Croft turned down a six-month contract as a BBC trainee when Associated Rediffusion hired him to put together programme ideas and read scripts. He was made redundant after two years, but continued staging summer shows and pantomimes, then was offered a producer's job at Tyne Tees, where he made 250 programmes, including Under New Management, a sitcom set in a derelict pub, with storylines by Johnny Speight. The first sitcom he wrote himself, with music, was Sunshine Street.
Moving to the BBC in 1961, Croft produced and directed episodes of The Benny Hill Show before finding his first sitcom success as a producer with Hugh and I, starring Terry Scott as the ever-unemployed bachelor son and Hugh Lloyd as his mother's money-earning lodger. He followed it up with another popular sitcom, Beggar My Neighbour, with Peter Jones, June Whitfield and Reg Varney. When Croft later cast Jimmy Perry as Varney's even more loud-mouthed brother, the newcomer presented his idea for Dad's Army and the BBC's head of comedy suggested they write it together.
Another actor and aspiring writer, Jeremy Lloyd, approached Croft with a script based on his experiences as a junior assistant at Simpson's department store in Piccadilly. As with Dad's Army, Croft reshaped the idea, adding to the menswear-department setting the ladies' outfitting staff. The result was Are You Being Served? (1973-85),another long-running hit with an ensemble cast, set in the Grace Brothers store. Unlike Dad's Army it relied on innuendo and double entendre, such as the references to Mrs Slocombe's "pussy".
Croft had another hit up his sleeve, co-written with Perry. It Ain't Half Hot, Mum (1974-81) was based on Perry's years in a Royal Artillery concert party in India, where Croft had gained similar experience: Battery Sergeant-Major Williams (Windsor Davies) faced an uphill task whipping the performers into shape.
The local wallah, Rangi Ram, was played by a blacked-up Michael Bates, which led to accusations of racism, alongside those of sexism for the Sergeant-Major's references to his subordinates as a "bunch of poofs", but, with audiences of up to 17 million, Croft and Perry were unperturbed.
The partnership continued with another long-running series, again drawing on the pair's experiences, both having staged shows at Butlin's. Hi-de-Hi! featured the entertainments staff of the fictional Maplin's, set in 1959, when holiday camps were at the height of their popularity. They followed it with You Rang, M'Lord?, based on the stories that Perry had heard about his grandfather, who was a butler in a house in Berkeley Square.
As if his writing success with Perry were not enough, Croft had continued his partnership with Jeremy Lloyd and produced most episodes of all these sitcoms. After the disastrous Come Back Mrs Noah and Oh Happy Band!, which was little more successful, Croft and Lloyd hit winning form again with 'Allo 'Allo! (1984-92), a spoof of the drama series Secret Army and French resistance films. Catchphrases again abounded – "Leesten very carefully – I will say zis only once" – and though it was also subject to criticisms of racism and sexism, up to 17 million watched it. Grace and Favour followed, transplanting Mrs Slocombe, Captain Peacock, Mr Humphries, Miss Brahms and Mr Rumbold from Are You Being Served? to a rundown country manor house bequeathed to them by Young Mr Grace, which they ran as a hotel.
Oh, Doctor Beeching! was Croft's final sitcom success, devised with a new writer, Richard Spendlove, a former railway worker who sent him the idea for a sitcom about the staff of a small country station fighting for survival during the axing of lines and stations in the 1960s. Blaming a new BBC management regime for its failure to commission a third series, Croft claimed in his 2004 autobiography, You Have Been Watching..., that it had "little sympathy for standard family comedy".
Certainly, Croft could claim to have had his finger on the nation's comedy pulse for almost half a century. He once said: "The British have a great sense of humour – especially of the robust, vulgar, music-hall variety – and we are also alone in that we like to laugh at ourselves rather than say how good we are. We send up our class structure, our pomposity and our incompetence. The truth, however, is that we are a competent, artistic and clever lot of people."
David John Sharland (David Croft), writer, director and producer: born Sandbanks, Dorset 7 September 1922; OBE 1978; married 1952 Ann Callender (four sons, three daughters); died Portugal 27 September 2011.
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