A film of 'Dad's Army' a remake too far? Permission to ponder, Sir!

The idea is not necessarily doomed. If nothing else, it will be a fascinating cultural artefact

 

Share

It was a remarkably good few days for the idea of the remake. Piqued, no doubt, by the news that a film version of Dad's Army is shortly to break upon our cinema screens, the BBC's drama department recently revealed that it is in hot pursuit of another version of Lady Chatterley's Lover, while a small-screen treatment of Noah and his ark is already, as it were, in dry dock. Not to be outdone, ITV weighed in with a hint that it may be about to recommission that ancient television favourite The Saint – an enterprise which, if it comes off, will be the third time that the old warhorse has galloped across our screens in half a century.

The obvious question to ask about all these projects is: why bother? The original Dad's Army was one of the greatest sitcoms known to television: why tarnish its memory, even if the 21st-century cast runs to such distinguished thespians as Toby Jones (Captain Mainwaring) and Bill Nighy (Sergeant Wilson). Lady Chatterley, meanwhile, has been brought to the small and large screen so many times, and in so many forms (Young Lady Chatterley, L'amant de Lady Chatterley, Fanny Hill meets Lady Chatterly [sic] and so on) that there can scarcely be a clump of Peak District daisies left with which to ornament the female lead's pubic hair. As for Noah and his carefully crated fauna, we had a film version with Russell Crowe and Ray Winstone only the other month, and even in the capacious realm of biblical drama one can surely have too much of a good thing?

As a general rule, remakes of tried and trusted classics, or even quite good films and television series from a bygone age, are an unmitigated disaster. The second Blues Brothers film, starring John Goodman alongside Dan Aykroyd in place of the two decades dead John Belushi, customarily attracts a single star in the movie guides. The film Brideshead Revisited in no way improved on the 11-part Granada Television series from 1981, starring Anthony Andrews and Jeremy Irons, and to watch Russell Brand, Gemma Arterton and co blithely disporting themselves in the new St Trinian's franchise was to weep a little at the sight of so much 1950s guilelessness and subtlety fetched up on the rocks of modern innuendo.

In case this should sound like the cultural reactionary's standard complaint against any kind of innovation whatever – an argument usually based on the idea that a film or a book is not a template but a solid object tampered with at your peril – I should straightaway say that these objections are purely aesthetic. The re-animators of St Trinian's would probably argue that there is no reason why a story about an anarchic girls' school that worked in the 1950s cannot work in the 2010s and that plot, situation and cast are eminently transferable through time. To counter this is the thought that the originals were deeply enmeshed in the societal assumptions of their day: they were films about social class and about female sexuality, certainly, but a sexuality that was so occluded or otherwise sanitised that many of its underlying premises operate through sheer inference. To people this landscape with Russell Brand, roguishly at large in a world of suspender-clad houris, is to preside over a decisive procedural shift that cuts away most of the ties which link first to second generation.

At the same time, there is a second procedural, or even economic, shift at work. This might be described as the process that converts a cultural artefact, whether book, film or television series, into a brand, and whose engineering has the effect of allowing an entirely different set of rules to supervene. The youngish film watcher of 2014, who never saw Joyce Grenfell supervising a hockey game or Alastair Sim plotting to sell the whole concern down the river, knows only that St Trinian's is a school populated by ineffectual teachers and luscious-looking teenage girls in short skirts and black stockings. Anything else can be superimposed without the risk of all but the most hidebound of purists complaining.

Curiously enough, this tendency to near-complete reinvention is most pronounced in the world of literature, where "brand" writers such as Dickens and Conan Doyle have been reinvented and reimagined so many times that the contemporary versions have altogether parted company with their originals. Two or three years ago, for example, an American newspaper asked me to write a piece about modern recensions of Sherlock Holmes. Ballast was provided in the form of every piece of Holmesiana the office intern could find on Amazon – three substantial padded bags full, it turned out, in which Holmes worsted Sumatran rats, took up residence in the works of H P Lovecraft and very probably helped President Obama wage war on the Ku Klux Klan down in Ole Virginny.

Where the original literature has the status of a cause célèbre, a book's tendency to tug free of its moorings to an extent that sometimes renders it all but unrecognisable is even more flagrant. Lady Chatterley, for example, when brought to film or television screen, and however faithfully (or otherwise) reproduced, rarely has anything to do with a novel of the same name by D H Lawrence which, when set against the rest of his compendious oeuvre, is usually regarded as faintly embarrassing: it is merely a synonym for sex. Transgressive sex between social classes, too, which conveniently ignores the fact that Mellors, the gamekeeper, an ex-officer, is, as even Sir Clifford Chatterley remarks, "almost a gentleman".

It would be futile, in the end, to complain about any of this, for it clearly proceeds from an elemental urge to find symbols and explanations for things in books whose original authors almost certainly imagined that they intended something else altogether. To go back to the posthumous adventures of Sherlock Holmes, three-quarters of a century after his creator's death, large parts of the modern audience clearly find something in Conan Doyle and in Dickens – something that may very well not have been there a century ago – which is capable of endless projection into the modern age without The Sign of Four and Great Expectations appearing to suffer in the transit.

As to how this transformative urge may affect the upcoming version of Dad's Army, my hunch is that though it may not turn out to be a particularly good film, it cannot fail to emerge as a fascinating historical artefact. The original, after all, began appearing barely a quarter of a century after the events it purported to describe: my father, who had joined the Local Defence Volunteers on the day it was founded, maintained that the atmosphere was absolutely authentic. Seventy-five years on, we are not going to get a portrait of what it was like to man the home front in 1940. We are going to get an idea of what a 21st-century sensibility thinks it was like, with all the magnifications and evasions that this implies. All of which suggests that there may be a good deal more cultural value in the remake than critics generally allow.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Account Manager, London

£18000 - £22000 per annum, Benefits: Excellent Uncapped Commission Structure: ...

Sales Executive, London

£18000 - £22000 per annum: Charter Selection: This exciting entertainment comp...

Retail Business Analyst

£300 - £350 per day + competitive: Progressive Recruitment: Ecommerce/Retail/E...

Project Coordinator

Competitive: The Green Recruitment Company: The Organisation: The Green Recrui...

Day In a Page

Read Next
The Lada became a symbol of Russia’s failure to keep up with Western economies  

Our sanctions will not cripple Russia. It is doing a lot of the dirty work itself

Hamish McRae
The Israeli ambassador to the US, Ron Dermer, has been dubbed ‘Bibi’s brain’  

Israel's propaganda machine is finally starting to misfire

Patrick Cockburn
Save the tiger: The animals bred for bones on China’s tiger farms

The animals bred for bones on China’s tiger farms

The big cats kept in captivity to perform for paying audiences and then, when dead, their bodies used to fortify wine
A former custard factory, a Midlands bog and a Leeds cemetery all included in top 50 hidden spots in the UK

A former custard factory, a Midlands bog and a Leeds cemetery

Introducing the top 50 hidden spots in Britain
Ebola epidemic: Plagued by fear

Ebola epidemic: Plagued by fear

How a disease that has claimed fewer than 2,000 victims in its history has earned a place in the darkest corner of the public's imagination
Chris Pratt: From 'Parks and Recreation' to 'Guardians of the Galaxy'

From 'Parks and Recreation' to 'Guardians of the Galaxy'

He was homeless in Hawaii when he got his big break. Now the comic actor Chris Pratt is Hollywood's new favourite action star
How live cinema screenings can boost arts audiences

How live cinema screenings can boost arts audiences

Broadcasting plays and exhibitions to cinemas is a sure-fire box office smash
Shipping container hotels: Pop-up hotels filling a niche

Pop-up hotels filling a niche

Spending the night in a shipping container doesn't sound appealing, but these mobile crash pads are popping up at the summer's biggest events
Native American headdresses are not fashion accessories

Feather dust-up

A Canadian festival has banned Native American headwear. Haven't we been here before?
Boris Johnson's war on diesel

Boris Johnson's war on diesel

11m cars here run on diesel. It's seen as a greener alternative to unleaded petrol. So why is London's mayor on a crusade against the black pump?
5 best waterproof cameras

Splash and flash: 5 best waterproof cameras

Don't let water stop you taking snaps with one of these machines that will take you from the sand to meters deep
Louis van Gaal interview: Manchester United manager discusses tactics and rebuilding after the David Moyes era

Louis van Gaal interview

Manchester United manager discusses tactics and rebuilding after the David Moyes era
Will Gore: The goodwill shown by fans towards Alastair Cook will evaporate rapidly if India win the series

Will Gore: Outside Edge

The goodwill shown by fans towards Alastair Cook will evaporate rapidly if India win the series
The children were playing in the street with toy guns. The air strikes were tragically real

The air strikes were tragically real

The children were playing in the street with toy guns
Boozy, ignorant, intolerant, but very polite – The British, as others see us

Britain as others see us

Boozy, ignorant, intolerant, but very polite
How did our legends really begin?

How did our legends really begin?

Applying the theory of evolution to the world's many mythologies
Watch out: Lambrusco is back on the menu

Lambrusco is back on the menu

Naff Seventies corner-shop staple is this year's Aperol Spritz