May, 1944. As the Allied armies massed in the British Isles prepare to invade Occupied Europe and strike a mighty blow against Hitler’s Reich, a heavy responsibility falls on the men of Walmington–on-Sea’s Home Guard platoon. They must prevent a Nazi spy discovering the Allies’ deliberate campaign of misinformation – Operation Bodyguard – and thus learning of Eisenhower’s plan to invade Normandy rather than Pas-de-Calais. As the clock to D-Day ticks down, can Captain Mainwaring, Sergeant Wilson and their eager but occasionally ragtag unit prevent total catastrophe befalling the Allies’ war effort?
“THERE’S A WAR ON…”
We have Simon Cowell and The X-Factor partly to thank for Dad’s Army. “I was in front of the telly on a Saturday evening three or four years ago, not wanting to watch The X-Factor,” recalls producer Damian Jones of his eureka moment, “so I channel-surfed and there on BBC Two was Dad’s Army.” Enjoying the re-run of the revered Jimmy Perry and David Croft comedy, The History Boys producer tuned in again the following weekend. “Here it was, still on at prime time and still funny. I thought, ‘This is mad for a 30 or 40-year-old television show!’” Intrigued, the filmmaker tracked down the viewing figures. He discovered that nearly three million Britons were still tuning in every week to watch the well-worn, beloved wartime comedy, and even more for Christmas repeats. Viewers were still lapping up the misadventures of Captain Mainwaring and his men.
Interest piqued, Jones approached the Dad’s Army estate with the idea for a movie. “They were open to it,” he remembers of their first meeting, “so I got (screenwriter) Hamish [McColl] on board and we shared our thoughts with them. That’s how it started to come together.” Co-creator David Croft’s widow, Ann, her family and Jimmy Perry were each pitched the idea for a big movie adaptation. Each, in turn, gave their approval.
The key decision was to transplant Dad’s Army to a point later in the war than viewers had seen in the classic comedy. For McColl, the Allies’ real-life subterfuge campaign that had been cooked up to throw the Germans off the scent of their real D-Day targets – Operation Bodyguard – offered the perfect mix of high stakes and rich comic potential. “When I started the research, I saw photos of members of the Home Guard holding up inflatable tanks and balsa wood planes,” remembers the screenwriter, “and I thought, ‘This is Dad’s Army! This is perfect’. It’s got all the aspirations of war and all the comedy of an inflatable tank.”
A meeting with Dad’s Army’s co-creator, Jimmy Perry, offered a final pre-shoot blessing. “He’s in his nineties now,” says director Oliver Parker, “a little frailer but still full of energy. He talked about the characters, about how some of them had been through [the Great War] and some hadn’t, and the actors and writers too. Jimmy was a kind of Private Pike figure.”
Perry’s own early reservations about the project were quickly assuaged when McColl’s script landed on his desk. “I thought it was a bloody ridiculous idea,” he chuckles, “but when I read the script, I thought it was great. They’d got the idea, they’d got the characters. They’d made some drastic changes, but Hamish is a clever bloke and he’d got it in one. And they’d learnt a lot from watching episodes of Dad’s Army.”
“WOULD YOU MIND AWFULLY JUST FALLING IN…”
With Dad’s Army’s storyline and script locked down, the casting process kicked into gear. Rather than looking for facsimiles of the original Dad’s Army cast, director Oliver Parker, producer Damian Jones and their experienced casting director, Alex Johnson, looked for actors capable of making characters their own. “We were very clear that we were casting Captain Mainwaring, not someone doing Arthur Lowe doing Captain Mainwaring,” stresses Jones, “and that was the same for every character”. Finding the right Mainwaring was crucial. “His shoes were the hardest to fill of the lot,” concedes the producer, “but Toby Jones was always our first and really only choice to play the role. He’s an actor who lends gravitas to a project and he made the role his own wonderfully.” Unusually, Hamish McColl also had the actor in mind while he was penning the screenplay. “I could hear Toby’s voice very clearly for Mainwaring,” he reveals. “He just seemed right to me, and I couldn’t think any more highly of him as an actor. The fact that I’ve cast a smaller guy is not to do with Arthur Lowe,” stresses Parker, “but because this idea of Mainwaring as a little Napoleon leading the platoon seemed intrinsic to the original creation.”
Recreating Mainwaring and Wilson’s relationship in a way that offered a new, but equally hilarious slant on the Arthur Lowe/John Le Mesurier dynamic required another actor of similar stature. “Bill Nighy was always first choice for Wilson, and thank god we got him,” says Damian Jones. Adds Parker: “It had to be Toby and Bill. The next thing I knew they were up for it.”
From there the rest of the stellar cast began to fall into place. “We were so fortunate,” says Damian Jones. “We couldn’t have thought of anyone else, which is a credit to Oliver and Alex Johnson. Michael Gambon was brilliant as Godfrey, Tom Courtenay was wonderful as Corporal Jones. Pike’s a hard one, but Blake Harrison? Done. Danny Mays plays Walker beautifully, and the same with Bill Paterson as Frazer. And Catherine Zeta-Jones does this type of comedy so well.”