As a new film version of Dad’s Army shoulders arms and prepares to march into cinemas, Joy Persaud chats to Toby Jones and Michael Gambon about reviving a national institution.
Think of the words “Dad’s Army”...
...and it’s likely that an image of the band of men who dominated one of the most popular British comedies will sneak into your mind’s eye. Or perhaps you’ll recall the theme tune, with its teasing “get lost” message to Hitler.
The largely inept crew of much-loved characters is set to be revived on the big screen, played by a cast that boasts Sir Michael Gambon, Toby Jones, Tom Courtenay and Bill Nighy. But after nine successful TV series, being in the shadow of this national treasure surely can’t be easy?
“At first, you think it’s a terrible idea,” admits Toby Jones, who plays the cranky Captain Mainwaring. “You think, I don’t want anything to do with that; it’s a ridiculous idea. Those characters and actors are so lodged in the national imagination. I mean, it’s gone beyond being a TV series into being a kind of legend of the country.
“But, weirdly, having people like Michael and Tom and Bill involved in the show, and seeing the quality of the script and how brilliantly it respected the tradition of the show—but also reinvented it, in a way—I suddenly thought, Why would I want to deny myself being involved in that fun, of being with those actors?
“I don’t think it ever went away, the fear that we were desecrating some tradition. But we all had such fun that we were able to forget about it while we were making it.”
Michael Gambon, in contrast to his affable and loquacious co-star Jones, is a man of few words. But the 75-year-old bellows his deep, gravelly laugh frequently and utters sporadic quips that elicit mirth from those around him.
Asked about his part in Dad’s Army—Gambon plays the bumbling Private Godfrey—he’s not exactly evasive, but won’t or can’t say how he’s reprised the role, paring it down to a simplistic, “He’s just a very nice man who doesn’t say much. I don’t know what he is. I thought the actor playing him originally was brilliant, so I just copied him, really. The same voice and the same pottering around…I don’t know, I can’t really answer the question.”
Gambon and Jones clearly have a strong rapport. When asked whether this chemistry existed on set, Gambon enthuses, “Oh yes, we all like each other and we had great fun and we just did it. It was very happy, wasn’t it?”
Jones agrees, and stresses that an admiration for his fellow actors, many of whom have decades of experience in the business, was key for him.
Who do you think you are kidding, Mr Hitler?
The home guard, made up of volunteers ineligible for military service due to their age or profession, was tasked with defending the south coast of England from invasion. The men were initially armed only with old shotguns, museum relics, pipes with knives fastened to them and air rifles. They were expected to fight against trained German troops with basic weaponry, buying the army time to form a frontline defence.
“The stakes are both high and very low,” observes Jones. “There’s a war going on [in Dad’s Army], but you’d never know it. There’s that sense that although they should take it seriously, they find a way not to take it seriously. There’s the reassurance that you know exactly how each character is going to respond. So it’s gentle in that way; there are no great shocks.
“It’s very reassuring for people and the whole family can watch it; it’s not going to offend anyone. But it genuinely has great moments of slapstick or stupidity or idiocy. The primary thing is that we hope people come out as a family and laugh at it. It’s like visiting an old friend.”
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