Bill Pertwee, who died recently, always cited Dad's Army as his best work. He knew it would endure, he said. And how it has. Always voted in the top two or three of the nation's favourite shows, endlessly repeated, a DVD best-seller.
At first glance, its appeal seems curious. It was shot at breakneck speed - like all location filming - and you can see the joins. People tread on laughs, forget lines, miss their cues and crash into the furniture. There's a shabbiness to it (which itself seems to quaintly conjure up the make-do and mend of wartime). And it always looks like it needs one more rehearsal. Yet this show is pure gold. It puts to shame all of its smoother, slinkier rivals.
Part of its appeal is old-fashioned escapism. Its characters bowl about in a long-lost world that we ache to inhabit - life is ordered, cosy, the little row of timber-framed shops. It is a toy town. It has lived more or less the same life for hundreds of years. We catch it just on the eve of its death, soon to be obliterated by supermarkets, yobs, technology. Its occupants feared the Luftwaffe bombs, but it was upward mobility and on-line shopping that killed it.
The real lifeblood of Dad's Army, however, is truth. Back in the early days, when its cast were black and white smudges, the comedy was Feydeauesque - romps and farces, or old-fashioned music-hall slapstick, people tipping paint pots onto each other or setting fire to the seat of their pants. But soon the actors began to take over. They brought depth, a sense of history, a feeling of reality. Everything took on new rhythms. The writing shifted to accommodate them, bringing into focus their relationships with each other, their situations, their ennui. This was no accident. Arthur Lowe, who headed the cast, was one of the greatest actors of his generation - nearly sacked from repertory theatre for the "smallness" of his performances, which eschewed theatre's love of hyperbole and went for naturalism instead. Lowe was a master of underplaying. His co-star, John Le Mesurier, was from the same stock. He was still, reticent, a genius of the oblique. He embodied the aphorism of the minimalist actor: "Don't just do something: stand there." Both made the camera work for them. Both reduced others to stagey fakes. Both were flesh and blood.
No where is this more evident than in the relationship between Lowe's Mainwaring and Mesurier's Wilson - a relationship written with such sensitivity, depth and attention to detail that it could form the basis of a play by Arnold Wesker. To the outside world, where he is the feared bank manager, Lowe's Mainwaring is blustering, haughty, craving status. He famously barks at his customers and at the hapless Home Guard volunteers under his command. He is given to tyrannical rages. But bit by bit, the layers peel away. We learn that he's also a loner, that his mother died when he was small, that in his grief and anguish he resolved to put aside sentiment and feeling in favour of achievement. We learn that he has a horror of ending up like his drunken father, and we see that his pettiness, his addiction to etiquette, his need for routine, is an attempt to exert control over a mind that is always on the edge of despair. Power is his recompense and his security.
Wilson, too, is equally complex. He seems to be everything Mainwaring abhors - a silver fox, handsome and smoky voiced, evading burdens, teasing the moralities of his age. He charms waitresses, shop assistants, secretaries ("that's a very pretty blouse, my dear, where did you get it?"), all of whom tremble at the knees. "You've never had to work for anything," shouts Mainwaring, seething with envy, "your father something in the city, brought up by a nanny, you just had to sit back and let everything come to you." But it's not so. Wilson, too, is not what he appears. His childhood has robbed him of trust, whistling round empty staircases in a stately home, playing by himself, a stranger to his mother. He is rootless and afraid. He makes love to his mistresses but he does not love anyone. He is held together only by the lewd, dilettantish pleasures that are themselves the evidence of his scars. In one show, a long-lost daughter appears, taking him by surprise, and the reminder of his own absence from life shatters him. Episode by episode, these two broken men do a war dance of their own, comically goading and loathing, yet occasionally surrendering to one another and finding succour in their commonality.
It's no wonder Bill Pertwee put Dad's Army at the top of his pantheon. For those who think it's just a circus of slapstick, people dangling from drainpipes after the ladder has been knocked away, think again.
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