Why ‘Dad’s Army’ still makes us laugh

For all their fractiousness, they really are all in it together

Share
Related Topics

It seemed to me I was warned at inordinate length about Hurricane Sandy, given that I was 2,000 miles away from it.

The storm came and went, and much the same thing happened with the American election, which failed to live up to its billing as a cliffhanger, and about which I read a hundredth of what my newspaper offered me. Yes, yes, the fate of civilisation was in the balance, but with my poppy in my lapel, I kept thinking: "What about us?"

Then something came along to remind me of the last time we really were an "us". Clive Dunn, Corporal Jones of Dad's Army, died aged 92. Dunn actually did see action in the Second World War; he then joined the televisual home guard, and helped to reheat those wartime embers over nine series. Dad's Army still occupies BBC2 prime time every Saturday evening, reminding us of what Churchill was all too fatally right in calling our "Finest Hour". I myself own the boxed set and have watched every episode many times. One of my favourites is The Two and a Half Feathers, a maverick outing, perhaps written after a good lunch, in which Jones narrates an incident of the Battle of Omdurman concerning a platoon cursed by "an old fakir", relentlessly, and very funnily pronounced by the bumbling butcher as an "old fucker". (A peculiar characteristic of Corporal Jones, incidentally, is that he had less hair in 1898 than he did in the 1940s.)

The appeal of Dad's Army is that it is highly amusing and radiates a sense of security. The men are locked into twin hierarchies: the military and the social. Private Frazer plots to usurp Captain Mainwaring as leader of the platoon, but is shamed by one of Mainwaring's intermittent displays of heroics. In another episode Sergeant Wilson nearly becomes a full bank manager (as opposed to an assistant manager), but the branch he is given is blown up.

The world is reassuringly strictured. In the bank, Mainwaring reproves Pike for saying "Bye bye" to a female customer instead of "Good morning". But for all the fractiousness, the characters really are "all in it together".

In fact, a large part of the show's appeal to me personally is that church hall, with the bunting, the picture of the monarch, the dusty radiators, the stacks of folding chairs. I was born 20 years after the end of the war, but I had a church hall childhood: cub scouts, sea cadets, amateur drama. It was the big society before it needed capital letters and a political campaign.

But it is our keenness on recalling the Second World War that explains those incessant repeats. Among the bestsellers this Christmas will be Max Hastings' history of the conflict, All Hell Let Loose (a million copies sold), The Second World War by Antony Beevor, and Destiny in the Desert by Jonathan Dimbleby. An assistant in my local Waterstones pointed all these out as being Christmas bankers, notwithstanding – or perhaps because of – their traditionalist covers (in Beevor's case, nothing more ingratiating than a green map of the world). Dimbleby had recently given a talk at the store, and the audience had been "middle aged, yes, but not old" – not like the audiences you see for those wartime nostalgia shows called things like Keep Smiling Through that, along with tribute acts and spiritualists, prop up our provincial theatres. An ageing population will continue to favour the war history or novel, and there is always Michael Morpurgo to recruit the youngsters.

Do we favour the Second World War rather than the First? Morpurgo's great successes, Private Peaceful and War Horse, suggest not; Downton Abbey and Parade's End pointed the same way. But anxiety has already been expressed that the centenary of the Great War might turn into a celebration of barbarism. We can be sure that no such neuroses will surround the 70th anniversary of the D-Day landings, also planned for 2014.

In The Great War and Modern Memory, Paul Fussell suggested that the First World War was so traumatic as to break free of its historical moorings, becoming "the essential condition of consciousness in the 20th century", but he also suggested that in many minds the two wars are elided. My own suspicion is that most Britons think of 1914-18 as a sort of ham-fisted rough draft for a narrative that achieved perfection in 1939-45.

Certainly the two are elided in Remembrance Sunday. That is our sacred day, and the Cenotaph is our sacred site, far more so than any cathedral. Michael Foot never recovered from wearing what he called "a perfectly smart green jacket" and others called a donkey jacket on Remembrance Sunday in 1981. Last year, Charlie Gilmour said in court that he didn't know what the Cenotaph was. He found out when he got 16 months for swinging from it during the student riots.

Central to our politics is what Christopher Hitchens once called "the cult of Churchill". The central credo of the cult is "do not appease", hence the Falklands War, and Blair's involvement in Iraq. Hitchens's essay on the cult concerned its appeal in America as well, but it was written 20 years ago, and the bust of Churchill to which George Bush had given pride of place was returned by Obama to the British embassy whence it came.

Soon, we will have Churchill all to ourselves again, and the danger is that we share the fate of the Old Bulldog in retirement: a befuddled depression at our lost glories, relieved only by outbursts of charm and heavy drinking ... and humour, of course: so here's to Clive Dunn.

Andrew Martin is the author of 'The Somme Stations' (Faber)

React Now

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

Recruitment Genius: Junior Web Designer - Client Liaison

£6 per hour: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity to join a gro...

Recruitment Genius: Service Delivery Manager

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: A Service Delivery Manager is required to join...

Recruitment Genius: Massage Therapist / Sports Therapist

£12000 - £24000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A opportunity has arisen for a ...

Ashdown Group: Practice Accountant - Bournemouth - £38,000

£32000 - £38000 per annum: Ashdown Group: A successful accountancy practice in...

Day In a Page

Read Next
 

Riyadh is setting itself up as region’s policeman

Lina Khatib
Ed Miliband and David Cameron  

Cameron and Miliband should have faith in their bolder policies

Ian Birrell
No postcode? No vote

Floating voters

How living on a houseboat meant I didn't officially 'exist'
Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin

By Reason of Insanity

Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin
Power dressing is back – but no shoulderpads!

Power dressing is back

But banish all thoughts of Eighties shoulderpads
Spanish stone-age cave paintings 'under threat' after being re-opened to the public

Spanish stone-age cave paintings in Altamira 'under threat'

Caves were re-opened to the public
'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'

Vince Cable interview

'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'
Election 2015: How many of the Government's coalition agreement promises have been kept?

Promises, promises

But how many coalition agreement pledges have been kept?
The Gaza fisherman who built his own reef - and was shot dead there by an Israeli gunboat

The death of a Gaza fisherman

He built his own reef, and was fatally shot there by an Israeli gunboat
Saudi Arabia's airstrikes in Yemen are fuelling the Gulf's fire

Saudi airstrikes are fuelling the Gulf's fire

Arab intervention in Yemen risks entrenching Sunni-Shia divide and handing a victory to Isis, says Patrick Cockburn
Zayn Malik's departure from One Direction shows the perils of fame in the age of social media

The only direction Zayn could go

We wince at the anguish of One Direction's fans, but Malik's departure shows the perils of fame in the age of social media
Young Magician of the Year 2015: Meet the schoolgirl from Newcastle who has her heart set on being the competition's first female winner

Spells like teen spirit

A 16-year-old from Newcastle has set her heart on being the first female to win Young Magician of the Year. Jonathan Owen meets her
Jonathan Anderson: If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

British designer Jonathan Anderson is putting his stamp on venerable house Loewe
Number plates scheme could provide a licence to offend in the land of the free

Licence to offend in the land of the free

Cash-strapped states have hit on a way of making money out of drivers that may be in collision with the First Amendment, says Rupert Cornwell
From farm to fork: Meet the Cornish fishermen, vegetable-growers and butchers causing a stir in London's top restaurants

From farm to fork in Cornwall

One man is bringing together Cornwall's most accomplished growers, fishermen and butchers with London's best chefs to put the finest, freshest produce on the plates of some of the country’s best restaurants
Robert Parker interview: The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes

Robert Parker interview

The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes
Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

We exaggerate regional traits and turn them into jokes - and those on the receiving end are in on it too, says DJ Taylor