Close your eyes and you might just be back in Walmington-on-Sea in the early 1940’s. Or at least in a living room in the late 1960’s. From whatever distance you view your nostalgia for the Second World War as seen through the lens of classic sitcom Dad’s Army, the ‘new’ episodes re-created from three missing shows, will hit your nostalgia buttons bang in the middle.
UKTV have re-made three episodes of the comedy, set in the fictional south coast seaside town of Walmington, as the originals were taped over - as the BBC routinely did at the time - after they were first broadcast by the BBC in 1969, and now they will be broadcast them on the Gold channel in August as Dad's Army: The Lost Episodes.
One of the lost episodes, A Stripe for Frazer, was released as an animation by the BBC in 2016 after the soundtrack was discovered in the archives of BBC West Midlands radio presenter Ed Doolan, who recorded thousands of hours of television in the Sixties and Seventies.
At a screening of one of the re-created episodes, Under Fire, I was initially concerned that Gold’s version with a living, breathing cast, would be the comedy classic version of Lip Sync Battle, with actors perfectly parroting scriptwriter David Croft and Jimmy Perry’s line in the style of the original actors.
This was a particular worry as the episodes feature several actors who have previous in the re-creation game. Both Kevin McNally (who plays Captain Mainwaring) and Kevin Eldon (Corporal Jones) appeared in the Radio 4 series The Missing Hancocks. As Tony Hancock and Bill Kerr respectively, they took Hancock’s Half Hour shows which had gone missing from the BBC archive and cleverly re-imagined their predecessor’s performances, while sensibly avoiding direct imitation.
Robert Bathurst, who takes on John Le Mesurier’s role as the urbane Sergeant Wilson, appeared as the actor in a BBC Four biopic of Le Mesurier’s wife Hattie Jacques.
Like the Hancocks, McNally said he wanted the new Dad’s Army shows to be “a loving re-creation” of the originals. Of the process of making the programmes, he said: “It was incredible to find out how everyone in the room was moved to find their characters - but slavishly following them is not fun. There is a balance.”
And that balance has been perfectly struck by the cast and producer/director Ben Kellett, who deliver something comfortingly familiar yet fresh, with some terrific performances that, while not quite making you forget the originals, bring something new to the party. Timothy West, replacing the originally cast Bernard Cribbins as Private Godfrey, makes the character seem even more appealing than before, with the leonine West becoming meek and childlike.
At the other end of the scale comes Kevin Eldon as Private “They don’t like it up ‘em” Jones, who has Clive Dunn’s original slapstick funny bones, plus a hint of danger that comes from Eldon’s career as the king of edgy, surreal character comedy. David Hayman makes Private Fraser smoother and much less of a swivel-eyed cliched Scotsman than the original character, while Robert Bathurst, with hair far longer than would have been respectable in Forties Britain, is less distracted, and rather sexy, a feeling that was never engendered by the original series.
The characters may have a slightly new spin, but the look of the production is entirely faithful to the original, with the sludge green interiors of the Church Hall and Mainwaring’s office the same as ever.
Dad’s Army is the sitcom that never went away thanks to recent Saturday night repeats on BBC2 Two which regularly topped the channel’s ratings. These three extra shows will fill the hold in the canon (or should that read cannon?) very nicely.