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This Re-Make Is Doomed - And Not Even Bill Nighy Can Save It

28/04/2014 15:15 BST | Updated 27/06/2014 10:59 BST

This year's big news from the British film industry is now out. One of Britain's most popular TV comedies, Dad's Army, is to be revived on the big screen, in a home-grown production starring major box-office stars Bill Nighy and Toby Jones. It looks, at first glance, a fine idea - the show is consistently voted in the top five of the nation's favourite programmes; it continues to be a DVD best-seller, and a dedicated museum in Norfolk, where it was filmed, receives thousands of visitors a year. Fifty years on, the series is still going strong. But in reality the news is dispiriting. When the remake fails, which it will, an otherwise impeccable brand will be tarnished (even the show's creator announced ominously that he's "letting them get on with it"), and we will be left wondering again why the first instinct of TV and movie executives today is to remake something rather than nursemaid new ideas.

Bill Nighy is a terrific actor, to be sure, one of the best in Britain. And his style is certainly reminiscent of John Le Mesurier, the original Sergeant Wilson. The two men share the same poise and languor, the same ability to slow down the tempo of a movie so that it beats to their rhythms. Nighy has Le Mesurier's melancholic distemper, and his capacity to be absent in all but body. There is no one better to conjure up Wilson's loneliness and dislocation. Toby Jones, too, has something of Arthur Lowe's Captain Mainwaring - hectoring, haughty, a man whose life and body have run to fat, but who sees war as an opportunity to revitalise and achieve meaning.

Indeed, the problem isn't the cast. The problem is the audience. Dad's Army is about old people. It is about decline. Almost no one in the TV version was aged under 50, and most of the cast were over 70. The world it depicted was decaying, too: grubby passageways strewn with cobwebs, timber-framed houses lit by oil lamps; the stillness of a rural idyll governed by medieval traditions. Nowadays, cinema is the province of the young: rom-coms with Jennifer Aniston; slapstick teen movies; digital Sci-Fi; family animations; and endless action films. There hasn't been a major movie about really old people for thirty years. And Dad's Army can't be any other entity. The last hurrah of the comically decrepit, their bravery, their haplessness, is its essence. One can't ghoulishly rejuvenate them in order to make them more germane to the iPhone generation.

There is another problem, too: comedy tends to turn on the familiar. Stand-up has always obsessed over the struggles and caprices of modern life. Sit-coms do the same. But the world of Dad's Army has ceased to be even nostalgic. It is simply lost. The newspaper stories about school children who think Winston Churchill is a dog selling insurance may source the apocryphal but their message has a ring of truth. Youngsters may know the facts but they can't know anything of the spirit.

The real issue, here, however, is the pusillanimity of the movie business, and its failure to take risks. Everything is a sequel, a prequel or a spin-off. Everything needs to be a reference to something else. Everything must have franchise potential. The same names are cast again and again to repeat in each new role the very idiosyncrasies that defined them in the last. In this way no one suggests making a comedy about life in Britain during World War Two. Instead, they suggest remaking Dad's Army. And the contagion has spread to television - Dr Who, Sherlock, Randall and Hopkirk, Upstairs Downstairs (and in the US, Dallas, 90210, Kojak, Knight Rider). The sadness is not only that the remakes are manifestly inferior to the original - Dr Who, for instance, sacrifices its former mastery of story-telling to the cheap whizz-bang of CGI digressions and meaningless plot twists, so that one has the sense of sitting through a gorgeous, junky pop video - but that new ground is no longer being broken. Innovation is dying off in mediums populated by people who have collectively lost their confidence - overwhelmed by the internet and buffeted by recession. For a time, one imagines, both movies and TV will continue to become narrower art forms, in which the derivatives feast on themselves. But a turning point must happen. Audiences will walk away rather than be force fed the same ingredients in perpetuity. New ideas will have to be pioneered, in spite of the blood and pain, if networks and studios are to survive. The theatre impresario, Hugh Beaumont, once said that there were three things guaranteed to thrill the public - "novelty, novelty and novelty." It's a lesson the celluloid business has forgotten.