Let’s start with the good news about the Dad’s Army film. This new big-screen adaptation of the beloved BBC series (it ran for nine seasons, from 1968 to 1977) has attracted some of the finest acting talent this country has to offer, and without exception they approach their roles with a relish and joy that’s delightful to behold.
It’s a tough act to extend a comedy from individual 30-minute episodes in to a full-length feature, as a somewhat ill-conceived Dad’s Army film proved in 1971 – it felt like three episodes haphazardly strung together. This new film is rather better than that, and while it has its faults, the performances are almost all fine, and there’s strict adherence to the broad, gentle, rather daft wartime (and post-war) humour that defined the original series.
The premise is the same: half a dozen men, mostly elderly and too advanced in years for active service, comprise the heart of a Home Guard platoon in the fictional seaside resort of Walmington-on-Sea. These amiable old boys are (in theory, at least) Britain’s last line of defence if the Nazis were to invade across the Channel. They are, predictably, a ramshackle, ineffectual bunch in their own distinctive ways.
They’re led by Toby Jones, an outstanding character actor and every inch a match for the great Arthur Lowe as Captain Mainwaring, the absurd, bumptious little bank manager who takes his role with touching seriousness – as though he were of Churchillian stature himself.
Bill Nighy, an obvious choice, takes John Le Mesurier’s role of Sergeant Wilson – Oxford-educated, faintly refined, hesitant and no stranger to irony.
And the big names just keep coming: Tom Courtenay is a plausible Corporal Jones: (“They don’t like it up’ em,”) while Michael Gambon raises a smile as absent-minded old Private Godfrey and the estimable Bill Paterson is unyielding as dour Scot Private Frazer.
It’s a terrific core cast, who together play out a story that just about hangs together. In 1944, the Allies are preparing to target Normandy, but wish to keep their plans secret from the enemy. So Walmington becomes one of two places from which the Allies might conceivably be launching their invasion.
It becomes clear that a German spy is in Walmington, looking for clues; and this news coincides with the arrival of one Rose Winters (Catherine Zeta-Jones), a glamorous woman allegedly writing a story about the local Home Guard for The Lady magazine. She’s flirtatious, attractive and by Walmington standards, exotic; it also turns out that Wilson was her tutor at Oxford. Rose easily turns his head, and also Mainwaring’s; her charms easily distract them from the possibility she might not be all she seems.
But Walmington’s womenfolk, who never made their presence felt in the TV series, are suspicious of Rose. Intriguingly, the women are given a big slice of this story, and they too are brilliantly cast: Mainwaring’s soldierly, no-nonsense wife Elizabeth, who remained resolutely off-camera on TV, is beautifully played by Felicity Montagu. Sarah Lancashire, Alison Steadman and Annette Crosbie all have significant roles. (It’s a delightful running gag that Crosbie’s eighty-something character, Cissie Godfrey, works out the spy’s identity long before the hapless men.) While Zeta-Jones may be trapped in an essentially one-note role, the other actresses here get a chance to shine.
All this is fine, as is the resurrection of the series’ most popular catchphrases: “Stupid boy!” “Permission to speak, sir,” and “Don’t panic!” among them. And screenwriter Hamish McColl often injects a sharp wit into proceedings: when the clueless Private Pike (Blake Harrison) asks what the spy in their midst looks like, Nighy suavely replies: “We don’t know, Frank. That’s rather the point of spies.”
It’s also surely a good thing that neither McColl nor his producers entertained the thought of ‘updating’ Dad’s Army to suit modern sensibilities. It’s a period piece – especially in its gentle, cheery humour.
Yet at times it does feel more like a Dad’s Army tribute rather than a new Dad’s Army film. Some of the comic sequences fall flat – notably a disastrous early scene in which the platoon are chased around a field by a bull. Director Oliver Parker seems to lack the flair for staging action pieces, and in general the film suffers from a lack of zip and pace. Overall, though, its sheer amiability – and the sight of brilliant actors letting their hair down and having a ball – just about wins through.
Read David Gritten's incisive film reviews every month in Saga Magazine. Plus, there's more about Dad's Army in the February 2016 issue of Saga Magazine. Subscribe to the print edition or download the digital edition today.