Bye-de-bye: a fond farewell to the godfather of British sitcoms
John Walsh looks back at the work of David Croft, co-creator of Dad's Army and 'Allo 'Allo
Prolific writer and commentator John Walsh contributes columns to the paper as well as writing features, interviews and restaurant reviews. He has been editor of The Independent Magazine, literary editor of the Sunday Times and features editor of the London Evening Standard.
Wednesday 28 September 2011
David Croft and his writing partners gave the world immortal phrases: "Don't tell him, Pike!" and "Listen very carefully, I shall say zis only vunce" and "Mister Gunner Lah-di-dah Graham" and "Ah've been having a terrible time with mah pussy," and "You stupid boy!" and "Morning campers!" and "Don't panic!" and a hundred others.
They may not be lines of Shakespearean depth and resonance, but they're firmly embedded in the brains of anyone who watched BBC1 in the 1970s and 1980s.
Without Croft, who has died at the age of 89, we would never have fretted over the condition of Mrs Slocombe's pussy in Are You Being Served?, or learned of the Nazis' plan to steal the priceless painting Fallen Madonna Mit Der Big Boobies in 'Allo 'Allo, or wondered if Sergeant Wilson's indulgence towards Private Pike in Dad's Army might conceal a family secret.
Without Croft, we'd never have had the most unlikely chart-topping song in British pop history, "Whispering Grass" by Don ("Lofty") Estelle and Windsor ("Sergeant-Major") Davies.
In a statement, his family said the "truly great man" had died peacefully in his sleep at his home in Portugal.
Tributes immediately poured in from writers and comedians. Actor Melvyn Hayes, one of the stars of It Ain't Half Hot Mum, described him as "genius" who was "a privilege to work with".
Nostalgia was the key ingredient of almost all Croft's sitcoms: a look back at 1940s or 1950s Britain that was always affectionate. The soldiers in Dad's Army – based on the Home Guard, who were supposed to defend the English coast while the real army was fighting overseas – were too old, too young, too sick or too crooked to have joined up.
Their attempts to follow the orders of the bank manager martinet Captain Mainwaring and the wholesale incompetence displayed by all involved combined humour and pathos in a tradition that derived from Noel Coward and Terence Rattigan.
Much of Croft's work was autobiographical: he served in the Royal Artillery during the war, had run-ins with stroppy ARP wardens (the platoon's sworn enemy in Dad's Army), been entertainments officer in India, and produced stage shows at Butlins holiday camp.
He transformed these experiences into comedies of class. His favourite subject was snobbery and the human urge to look down on others. The snooty ballroom-dancing Stewart-Hargreaves in Hi-de-Hi, the caste-obsessed Rangi Ram in It Ain't Half Hot, Mum, the grotesque Mrs Slocombe in Are You Being Served?, the pretensions of Mainwaring – these are fine additions to the rich tradition of fictional snobs.
David Croft and his writing partners, Jimmy Perry and Jeremy Lloyd, set the gold standard for sitcoms in the late 1960s, maintained it over 20 years and came up, time after time, with new ideas to make audiences roar.
It's quite an achievement. Permission to weep, sir.
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