A new film tells the story of how Dad’s Army came to the screen. But would it have been commissioned today?
Next month, the BBC will show We’re Doomed! The Dad’s Army Story. Set in 1967, it’s the tale of how Jimmy Perry and David Croft, played by Paul Ritter and Richard Dormer, came up with an idea for a sitcom called The Fighting Tigers. A year later, it was being broadcast as Dad’s Army, its theme tune tum-ti-tumming its way into the national consciousness for all time.
The film ends after the first episode is broadcast, because the rest of the story is well known: Dad’s Army ran for 83 episodes, and in broadcasting terms has proved nigh-on immortal. A fortnight ago, a repeat of Dad’s Army, shown on BBC2 in Saturday-night prime time, was the top rated comedy in Britain that week, with 1.89m viewers.
Apart from the story behind its birth, Dad’s Army itself is being remade as a film. Other classic sitcoms are also being revived. Last week it was announced that new versions of Porridge, The Good Life, Are You Being Served? and Up Pompeii! are being prepared by the BBC in 2016, on the back of the successful jump-starting of Open All Hours last year. Taken as a whole, it appears that someone thinks the future of sitcom lies in its past.
Ironically, therefore, one of the questions raised by We’re Doomed! is how new ideas make it to the small screen at all. The film is a terrific behind-the-scenes story, showing how Perry, a struggling actor, and Croft, an established BBC producer in need of a hit, created a classic. As our reliance on old sitcoms suggests, it wasn’t easy. The film shows management scepticism, poor early audience reports and an insubordinate, initially uninterested cast. The writers, Perry and Croft, are portrayed as buccaneering heroes whose nemesis is the stuffed-shirt controller of BBC1, Paul Fox (played by Keith Allen).
It’s a forced march into development hell that took place almost half a century ago, yet it fits a current pattern. Two years ago, the comedy producer John Lloyd, the man behind Spitting Image and Blackadder, said that comedy commissioning in the UK “simply doesn’t work”. Today’s broadcasters, he said, are risk-averse and distrust creative talent. “There’s a lot of changing of things and fiddling about. Then the show either doesn’t go on air or is unrecognisable from the original idea.”
In We’re Doomed!, Perry and Croft are forced to compromise at every turn in the face of resistance from BBC management. They are supported by the head of comedy, Michael Mills, but cut dead by Fox. The management change the name and the title sequence, they don’t like the casting and, above all, Fox thinks the subject matter is too contentious — it was, in his mind, too soon after the war to “take the piss”.
So how does the genesis of Dad’s Army, now a sanctified classic, compare to the process of creating TV comedy today? I showed We’re Doomed! to James Wood, the writer and creator of Rev, who has several comedies in development, and Lucy Lumsden, the outgoing head of comedy at Sky and formerly of the BBC. Shane Allen, the BBC’s comedy commissioner, had of course seen it already.
“A number of the situations Perry and Croft faced are exactly the situations I’ve faced a number of times,” Wood says. “They had an incredibly supportive head of comedy — and I’ve experienced those — and a channel controller who was less certain about the subject matter and had concerns, some of them legitimate, some of them more personal. A persuasion job went on. Casting was important. They made the show, and the sheer quality of the show got it on.”
Allen describes the situation as “painfully similar — the channel controller was all-powerful, and the genre heads had to fight their corner quite a bit. It’s still pretty much like that.”
The current channel controllers at BBC1 and BBC2 are Charlotte Moore and Kim Shillinglaw, both of whom come from a documentary or factual background. Shane Allen was previously at Channel 4, where his run-ins with the channel controller Jay Hunt eventually led to his departure. The impression across the board is that getting channel controllers “on side” is as vital, yet also as difficult, as it was in 1967. This may be one reason why the BBC seems to be going back to so many known quantities, rather than taking risks.
Lumsden points out that not all changes imposed from above need be pernicious. Fox’s insistence that Perry and Croft change the Dad’s Army title sequence from real footage of goose-stepping Nazis to something less direct led to one of the great animated title sequences. More recently, she points out, it was the then controller of BBC3, Stuart Murphy, who suggested to James Corden and Ruth Jones that their one-off script about a Welsh wedding might work as a series if they rewound and showed the audience how Gavin and Stacey met. “I hope it’s not as simple as ‘commissioners don’t get it,’” she says.
Commissioners are, however, paid to make difficult decisions: Fox’s concern that it might be too soon after the war to make fun of the Home Guard was surely a valid one.
James Wood says that when Rev ventured into difficult territory, he found that BBC commissioners were encouraging, not prescriptive. “In series three, Sam Bain wrote an episode about our Rev employing a white-collar criminal who’d been convicted for ‘offences relating to child images’ — that’s not normal sitcom material. We assumed there would be caution and resistance to this storyline. There was a sensible level of sensitivity about it, but actually we were hugely supported.”
Lumsden points to the Men Behaving Badly 1998 Christmas special, in which Dorothy got one of Gary’s “sticky tissues” stuck to her face, as an example of a controller getting it wrong. “It was knowing when — particularly at Christmas — you overstep the mark. The offence from the joke outweighed how funny it was for BBC1. That was a shock. And that was Christmas Day. I know Peter Salmon, who was in charge at the time — he didn’t have the best Christmas that year.”
The struggle is to find something that, like Dad’s Army, is not merely critically lauded, but a mainstream hit. Both Catastrophe and Peep Show, for example, have rated lower than Dad’s Army repeats. With the proliferation of platforms, there are plenty of niches for niche comedy, but popular, fun-for-all-the-family entertainment is harder to eke out. At no point in We’re Doomed! is the channel that will host Dad’s Army even mentioned. Nowadays, it’s one of the first discussions to be had — and writers and talent shun the mass market.
“Everybody wants to be on BBC2,” Allen says, “because you can do more experimental stuff where the pressure on ratings isn’t enormous. On BBC1, you’re front and centre.”
There is also, he says, some antipathy towards the mainstream, a hangover from the days of alternative comedy. “You’re seen as having sold out, doing something a bit safe. There’s a weird thing where mainstream is a dirty word in this country — which is just the opposite of America. That’s what I’m constantly trying to fight against.”
One problem is that, when it comes to comedy, viewers have particularly personal views about what is and isn’t funny. With the advent of social media, they can express those views in an instant. In 1967, a comedy could go out and miss without it being hammered on Twitter and careers being blown out before they had begun.
“They were a little bit protected,” Lumsden says. “You could grow something and you could stand next to a great golden sitcom for support.” Dad’s Army ran alongside Till Death Us Do Part. “Now I think things are judged so harshly on their first outing on those channels — which is why we don’t get as many ideas as we’d like. But we shed those slots at our peril. We’ve got to keep the doors wide open to keep attracting as many ideas as possible, and just make sure we support them. We have to try to give them second series, even if the first ones don’t quite fly.”
Neither the two comedy heads nor James Wood are in any doubt that Dad’s Army would get commissioned today. “If you were to write an army comedy with characters who were that distinct and memorable, I think you’d stand an extremely good chance of getting it on — either swiftly or if you were persistent,” Wood says.
Lucy Lumsden agrees. She just wishes more Dad’s Armies would come along today. “We are oversupplied with the whole authored, specific area. But we are really undersupplied with broad, mainstream ideas that are brave enough to stand out.
“You want pieces that are about something, that take a world or a setting or a new character and land it confidently on screen. Every commissioner is always looking out for that.”