In 1940, with the Nazis expected to launch an invasion of Britain at any time, men who could not join the regular army – due to age, medical grounds or being in reserved occupations – were asked to volunteer and form a secondary defence force against the threat. Initially called the Local Defence Volunteers, they eventually became better known as the Home Guard – and would inspire the premise of one of Britain’s best loved television series, Dad’s Army.
Written by Jimmy Perry and David Croft, and airing from 1968 to 1977, Dad’s Army focusses on a Home Guard platoon based in the fictional seaside town of Walmington-on-Sea, and the various escapades they get up to: from training exercises, to squabbling with local citizens, the ARP wardens and each other, to – every now and then – contending with stray Germans. The show featured a cast of diverse and hilarious characters, with a number of now-familiar catchphrases (“Don’t panic!” “You stupid boy.” “We’re doomed! “Permission to speak, sir.” “Do you think that’s wise, sir?” “They don’t like it up ’em!”):
- Captain George Mainwaring (Arthur Lowe), the pompous leader of the platoon
- Sergeant Arthur Wilson (John le Mesurier), second in command, upper class, mild mannered and sensible
- Lance Corporal Jack Jones (Clive Dunn), third in command, ready to volunteer for anything and fond of wielding a bayonet
- Private James Frazer (John Laurie), a cynical Scottish undertaker
- Private Joe Walker (James Beck), a Cockney spiv known for his dodgy dealings. Sadly, Beck died in 1973 during the filming of Series 6.
- Private Charles Godfrey (Arnold Ridley), a frail and gentle old man
- Private Frank Pike (Ian Lavender), a mollycoddled young man with a childish attitude
Next week, a new film adaptation of Dad’s Army is coming out in the UK. (A feature film with the original cast already came out in 1971.) I wasn’t keen on the idea to begin with, and I haven’t been too impressed by the trailers, but I’m still going to go down to the cinema and see how it is. Meanwhile, in preparation, I decided to revisit the classic series, and pick my top 10 favourite episodes, which wasn’t an easy task. Episodes can generally be watched in any order, so if you haven’t seen Dad’s Army, I’d certainly recommend you’d try these out!
10. Room at the Bottom (Series 3, Episode 6)
Captain Mainwaring receives some very unwelcome news: he is not actually entitled to make himself a captain in the Home Guard, and must be demoted to lieutenant. Not long after, things get even worse, as he is forced to drop even further, to the rank of private. There’s a lot to like in this episode, from seeing Mainwaring in a private’s uniform, to a moment where Wilson briefly thinks Mainwaring has shot himself at the bad news, to the rest of the platoon (well, most of them) demonstrating their loyalty to Mainwaring at the end.
09. Is There Honey Still For Tea? (Series 8, Episode 3)
This episode gets points right at the beginning, for a hilarious sequence involving Mainwaring having a paper door installed in his office (the bank which he manages was bombed earlier on). But things turn a bit more sombre as Mainwaring learns that Private Godfrey’s cottage is scheduled for demolition to make way for a new aerodrome, and is given the job of breaking the news gently to Godfrey: some awkward and rather sad scenes soon follow.
08. The Desperate Drive of Corporal Jones (Series 5, Episode 5)
The platoon are on a training exercise where they must occupy a barn and deny it to the enemy. Staying behind to man HQ, Corporal Jones learns that due to a mistake in taking down instructions, the platoon have headed for another barn being used as a target for heavy artillery. A tense sequence follows as, with minutes to spare, Jones races to get to the barn and warn his comrades. In true Dad’s Army fashion, it manages to be hilarious at the same time, given that Jones has to bring two cars along – and is accompanied by Godfrey, who never learned to drive.
07. My Brother and I (1975 Christmas Special)
In this episode, we are introduced to Captain Mainwaring’s brother Barry, a loud, alcoholic joke-item salesman who has come to Walmington hoping to claim an old watch from his brother (whom he refers to as ‘Po-face’). Naturally, George is not pleased to have Barry turn up, particularly when he’s trying to host a sherry party without interference. Barry is also played by Arthur Lowe, and it’s great to watch him playing such a different character to Mainwaring. This, along with Mainwaring’s disconcertment, the reactions of Private Frazer and Warden Hodges (neither of whom like Mainwaring very much), and a funny moment involving cucumber sandwiches, make for a great episode.
06. Asleep in the Deep (Series 5, Episode 1)
The local pumping station is hit by German bombs, and Walker and Godfrey become trapped while on patrol there. The rest of the platoon arrive to free them, only to contend with the still-collapsing building, and the rooms beginning to flood. As well as the usual humour, and quite a bit of danger and necessary quick thinking for our heroes, there’s a particularly impressive moment for Mainwaring: when the platoon draw lots to decide who gets the dangerous job of being at the front of the human chain shifting the rubble, Mainwaring gets a blank lot, but lies about it and goes to the front. He may be self-important and not that clever, but there’s no questioning his bravery.
05. The Big Parade (Series 4, Episode 1)
With Walmington having a parade of its various civil defence units, the platoon have a few things to sort out, from deciding which order the units will all march in, to getting their hands on a suitable mascot. This is simply another episode with lots of good jokes, as we see the platoon trying to catch a ram and then trying to rescue Private Pike from a bog; the ending, with the parade itself, is brilliant.
04. Ring Dem Bells (Series 8, Episode 1)
The platoon are asked to take part in a Home Guard training film…playing the Nazis. Mainwaring is adamant that nobody should see his men wearing Nazi uniforms; but after he drives them out to the film location, it turns out shooting has been postponed – and on the way back, they do indeed end up drawing attention to themselves: hilarity ensues. It’s a brilliant concept for an episode, and is used to its fullest. Private Pike is particularly good here as he gets into his role as a German officer, and the reaction of a naive pub landlord to finding sixteen Nazis at his bar is especially funny.
03. A Soldier’s Farewell (Series 5, Episode 4)
This episode doesn’t have much of a plot: it’s more like a day in the life of Captain Mainwaring. We see him struggle to keep the platoon up to his personal standards, first as they visit the cinema and don’t stand to attention for the national anthem, then as they behave in an unruly fashion on the bus home. Following a pleasant scene where Mainwaring enjoys a cheese supper with Wilson and Jones, he then has a bizarre dream in which he is Napoleon Bonaparte. This is one of those episodes that makes you feel sorry for Mainwaring: with his boring job and unhappy marriage, his work in the Home Guard is the high point of his day-to-day life, and here he struggles to get respect even there. The dream sequence is very good: Mainwaring-as-Napoleon is surrounded by the people he knows portraying British and French soldiers, including Warden Hodges, who likes to refer to Mainwaring as ‘Napoleon’ in real life anyway.
02. Branded (Series 3, Episode 11)
Of all the platoon’s members, Private Godfrey is certainly the least intimidating – an issue he addresses himself in this episode, as he hands in his resignation from the platoon. Godfrey explains to Mainwaring that recently he found a mouse in his home and couldn’t bring himself to kill it – so how is he supposed to do any better when he’s pointing a gun at a German soldier? This in turn leads to the revelation that Godfrey was a conscientious objector during the First World War, leading many members of the platoon to turn against him.
Dad’s Army has had its share of more emotional moments and episodes, such as ‘Mum’s Army’ and ‘Never Too Old’, but this is the best one. It’s very sad to see such a nice man as Private Godfrey being derided and snubbed by his peers, simply because of his decision not to fight in the previous war. Happily, the end of the episode sees things turn around for Godfrey, as he demonstrates his potential for real heroism, reveals some inspiring achievements from his past – and, true to character, is completely modest about it.
01. The Deadly Attachment (Series 6, Episode 1)
This choice is admittedly unoriginal: ‘The Deadly Attachment’ is probably the best-known individual episode of Dad’s Army. But that’s because it really is the best one!
This was one of the few times where the platoon actually came face to face with their enemy: in this case, the captured crew of a German U-Boat. They are given the job of guarding the Germans overnight until an armed escort can come and take them away – but the Germans don’t intend to stick around that long.
There are two main reasons why I love this episode. Firstly, it is actually quite exciting in the second half, as the Germans make moves against their captors, resulting in a tense standoff. Secondly, the sheer quantity of great jokes is above average even for this series. “Don’t tell him, Pike” is easily the best known gag, but there’s plenty more besides: all of Mainwaring’s altercations with the U-Boat captain (played brilliantly by Philip Madoc); Walker sorting out an order of fish and chips for the Germans; and Mainwaring giving his views on Germans in general (“They’re a nation of automatons, led by a lunatic who looks like Charlie Chaplin.”) If you’re only going to watch one episode of Dad’s Army, make it this one.