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



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.

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