It is really hard to describe the impact of Television on my Generation…especially to younger folks. And these days, I rarely meet a person who is older than me.
Thus visiting my Uncle Jackies house to see the 1957 FA Cup Final and hear Auntie Mary sing “Keep Right On To The End of The Road” before Peter McParland took out Ray Wood of Manchester United to win the FA Cup for Aston Villa…or watch the BBC News in my Grannys house and hear that the Manchester United team had crashed at Munich (February 1958)….or the Saturday in September 1959 when the TV Man delivered our first set…an Ekco….and we all sat down to watch the Farnborough Air Show….because in those days there was only one channel. Indeed the opening of Ulster TV at Halloween 1959 boosted local sales.
The point is …TV had arrived and we watched it……Robin Hood, Sir Lancelot, William Tell, Richard the Lionheart, The Buccanneers…..and the American westerns. And….Comedy. There was a LOT of Comedy….American Shows like Bilko and Jack Benny and British shows like Charlie Drake and Tony Hancock.
Memorably, Charlie Drake knocked himself out while performing a stunt on live TV. (My Granny always called him “that wee woman”) and perhaps the most memorable thing about Tony Hancock was the repetory company of actors….who appeared weekly in different roles…..June Whitfield, Patrick Cargill, Hugh Lloyd, Sid James, Frank Thornton, Kenneth Williams among them, who would themselves play roles in major comedies long after the erratic Hancock committed suicide in Australia in the late 1960s.
For a youngster like me, it was an introduction into how Acting worked. That …the man who played a Doctor one week played a Policeman the next week.
Television was not well regarded. Certainly not by Television itself. There was something almost apologetic about it. Huw Weldon tried to give us Culture. …Opera, Ballet, Art and Philharmonic Concerts. But really the viewing public just wanted Hancock and Charlie Drake. But the BBC insisted on a curious compromise where Gilbert Harding and “Lady Isobel Barnett” appeared in dinner jackets and fancy frocks on “Whats My Line?”.
Indeed Michael Bentine, one of the original Goons, fronted a sketch show called “Its A Square World” and once featured a sketch where Vikings sailed up the River Thames and went on the rampage thru the corridors and studios of the BBC.
Bentine received a terse memo from the senior management at the Beeb. It featured the immortal line that “BBC Television Centre is not to be used for the purposes of Entertainment”. Bentine framed the memo.
So TV was actually dismissive of itself.
That is actually a very curious thing. It completely under-estimated its own cultural impact.
So it was really in the late 1960s before TV properly established itself as something ….significant.
Take “Dad’s Army”. The idea is about Nostalgia and yet a late 1960s comedy series. The Second World War had ended only twenty five years before and the the me was familiar enough to two of the three generations who sat down to watch its first episode.
Britain was on the brink of defeat in 1940. Post Dunkirk, the newsreels spoke of plucky Eastenders defying the Luftwaafe, “careless talk costing lives”, “digging for victory” and “putting that light out”. On the other hand, the people who watched the newsreels knew of the black market, draft-dodgers and the tyranny of the air raid wardens. And of course the morale-boosting music hall songs.
And so a comedy was produced “Dad’s Army” which was a romanticised look at the unlikely militia which would have been Britain’s last line of defence in the event of a Nazi invasion….and setting these unlikely warriors in an English seaside town across the Channel from the Nazis was a master stroke.
The idea came from a BBC producer David Croft and a minor actor Jimmy Perry. Croft had been a British Army officer in WW2 and Perry had been a young man in the “Home Guard”….albeit briefly before joining the Army and serving in the units entertaining the troops….and of course Perrys experiences in entertaining the troops and as a young comedian in British holoday camps led to more comedy series success.
As I inderstand it, the BBC rerecorded over the original first episode so it no longer exists but my recollection is that the opening scene was an anniversary dinner set twenty five years after the formation of the Warmington-on-Sea Home Guard….where an elderly Captain Mainwaring (pronounced Mannering) is recalling old times and the episode goes into a flashback.
Maybe the best thing about “Dad’s Army”is the casting. Jobbing …elderly even…actors who found the roles which defined their careers.
Thus Arthur Lowe who had been Leonard Swindley in “Coronation Street”, a Labour Prime Minister in “Bill Brand” is forever Captain Mainwaring. John Le Mesurier and Clive Dunn, regulars with Tony Hancocks team in the late 1950s are forever Sgt Wilson and Coroporal Jones. John Laurie, a Shakespearean actor from the 1930s is always Private Fraser.
And of course the traditional British comedy staple….Class….is subverted. The Officer commanding, Mainwaring is grammar school educated and a bank manager is superior to Sgt Wilson, the assistant bank manager, an aristocrat and a field officer in WW1…Mainwaring had been desk bound.
The running gag that Wilson is affectionely known as “Uncle Arthur” by office junior Private Pike who is blossfully unaware that his widowed mothers lodger is actually his father.
So tonight’s BBC drama “We’re Doomed!” tells the story of how “Dad’s Army” came to be made. It is more likely to be an affectionate portrayal rather than a hatchet-job on the reputations of the creators or the actors.
Indeed the actors were flawed. Alcohol freely flowed on location and a contributory factor in at least one death. But they were also an argumentative bunch. Arthur Lowe was a committed Tory and Clive Dunn was an equally committed socialist. John Le Mesurier was twice betrayed…once by his friend Tony Hancock and later his wife Hattie Jacques and yet remained a thoroughly decent human being.
The acting…to be honest ….is variable. Perhaps it is inevitable that elderly actors….Lowe, Laurie and Arnold Ridley will look as if they are on the point of forgetting lines and it is never quite certain that the bumbling Wilson is really the bumbling Le Mesurier.
And yet they have the skill to portray pathos. Mainwaring is trapped in a loveless marriage…”Elizabeth” is never seen and appears on the verge of finding love in one episode….Wilson, the toff, attracts suspicion when he is seen with a young female naval officer (later revealed to be hisdaughter and the gossipy Private Fraser, volunteering never to speak of it). Or old Private Godfrey who was cruelly ostracised by the others when he announced he was a conscientous objector in the First World War….but it later emerged he had the highest gallantry medal as a medical orderly.
In the Golden Age, TV was careless of its impact on popular culture. Indeed the BBC regarded “popularity” and “culture” as incompatable. There is now an entire genre in Drama which tells the story of the making of TVs greatest hits.
Most have not been flattering. Favourites like Tony Hancock, Tommy Cooper and Hughie Greene were monsters. So was Kenneth Wiliams. So was Peter Cook (a bully to Dudley Moore). Hattie Jacques was flawed as was Sidney James. Wilfred Bramble and Harry H Corbett (Steptoe and Son) hated each other. Frankie Howard hated himself.
But some of the dramas have been affectionate….Morcambe and Wise and “The Road to Coronation Street”.
Indeed in USA, the stories of “Gilligans Island”, “Charleys Angels” and “Mork and Mindy” have been told as dramas.
Popular Culture is an important part of History. Drama … (and Comedy) is an excellent means of telling History.
And yet having neglected Popular Culture as inferior, BBC are making efforts to redress that balance. Serious programmes are made about Spike Milligan, Les Dawson, Bob Monkhouse, Larry Grayson and several others. Again these programmes can be overly respectful or hatchet jobs. The thing about show biz insiders is that they know the truth and too often, stars who are much loved by the public are not held in the same esteem by the people who actually knew them.
Undoubtedly the great names of the 1950s and 1960s influenced later generations. The Goons influenced Monty Python and Monty Python influenced everybody. But I dont think Steve Martin served the memory of his hero Phil Silvers by re-making “Sgt Bilko” in the 1990s. So perhaps it is worrying that a movie “Dads Army” will be released in 2016. Excellent as Toby Jones, Bill Nighy and Tom Courtney are….Lowe, Le Mesurier and Dunn cannot be replicated.