Who Do You Think You Are Kidding, Mr. Hitler?

History and Memory

The regular cast of Dad’s Army. Front, from left: Ian Lavender (Pike), Bill Pertwee (Air Raid Warden Hodges), Arthur Lowe (Captain Mainwaring), Clive Dunn (Corporal Jones), John Le Mesurier (Sgt. Wilson). Back, from left: John Laurie (Frazer), Arnold Ridley (Godfrey), and James Beck (Walker). Of all the main cast, only Ian Lavender is still with us. Photo: BBC Wikipedia

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This is going to be about a British sitcom you may never have heard of, but don't click away from here just yet! And same to Brits who can't believe I'm writing about Dad’s Army in Non-Boring History.

What can I say? Someone who writes a newsletter on history aimed at people who don’t like history is an optimist. So why not write about a sitcom half of my readers don’t know, and the other half are sick of? Oooh, so many reasons!

Dad’s Army is a big deal in the UK, so I want Brits to think about why that is, and I would like Americans to see the show because it is a lot of fun (and kids love it! Just be prepared to explain some of the less woke references.)

Once the edgy British comedies of the 80s and 90s fade away in memory, there will still be Dad’s Army, even though (annoyingly) liberal newspaper The Guardian tried to order everyone to stop watching it, which I daresay led to a bunch of us planning an evening to do just that. Dad's Army has a uniquely universal and lasting appeal. Its warmth helps explain that. Mention The Office, and Brits wince. Mention Fawlty Towers, and we give a laughing cringe at the memorable embarrassment humor, but perhaps mutter something about how dated it looks now. But Dad’s Army? That prompts an “awww, bless”, even if we don’t say that aloud, followed by a sad “They’re all dead now.”

And Dad's Army is still making fans, right now, in 2021. It doesn’t quite pass the woke test (as I have hinted), but neither does real life, so the BBC has helpfully started posting “Here be dragons!” signs before a few of the episodes. Nothing horrific, I rush to add, but viewer discretion should be exercised.

Still, please consider making it a teachable moment, rather than passing on it, because it’s historically accurate, not hateful, and mild stuff. I’m thinking of silly old Corporal Jones’ references to fighting “fuzzy wuzzies” in Sudan in the late 19th century. There. Said it. The FW word. Sorry. But I had to explain. Mostly, it’s full of very good values like kindness and courage. I promise.

So What’s It About?

First off, it’s based on actual events. The British were so desperate in 1940 that they came up with the Home Guard, part-time militia units originally known as Local Defence Volunteers. In a radio broadcast, new Secretary of State for War Anthony Eden urged men who were otherwise ineligible to fight to sign up at their local police station. Eager volunteer Ernest Raymond, a novelist who had served in WWI at Gallipoli, got a less than thrilled reception:

I was at our police station after breakfast next morning. I confess I expected some praise for this promptitude . . . It was not forthcoming. The uniformed policeman behind the desk sighed as he said, “We can take your name and address. That’s all.” A detective-inspector [I know] explained this absence of fervor. “You’re about the hundred and fiftieth who’s come in so far, Mr. Raymond, and it’s not yet half past nine. Ten percent of ‘em may be of some use to Mr. Eden, but, lor, luv-a-duck, we’ve had ‘em stumping in more or less on crutches.”

My grandfather joined the Home Guard because he had a “reserved occupation” (he was a civil engineer) and so was ineligible to join the military. So, he became a sergeant in the Home Guard, changing into a uniform after work each night. He kept a machine gun locked away in a closet, a glimpse of which deeply impressed my dad, who was no more than six or seven when he saw it. Remember, this was and is a country in which guns are not a part of everyday life, and my grandad thought American gun culture was demented. Things were pretty bad when my grandad had a machine gun on standby.

Most men in the Home Guard were too old to fight. The very idea of the Home Guard was hilarious, but it must also have provoked an emotional surge from many people at the time, when they thought about it, and, if we really think of it, it will in us, too: Had Hitler's armies invaded in 1940, Churchill’s last line of defense, the troops fighting thousands of German soldiers and tanks on the beaches, on the landing grounds, and in the streets, would have been a ragtag band of mostly old men.

Dear God.

Who Do You Think You Are Kidding, Mr. Hitler?

For so many Brits, this show is forever wrapped in a blanket of nostalgia, associated with a war that was over long before we (yes, have to include myself here) were born, but that makes us feel solidarity with our grandparents, great-grandparents, great-great- grandparents, great-great . . . Etc. You see, many of us remember watching it as kids with people born in the 19th century, actual Victorians, because apart from some light innuendo that flew over our heads, there was nothing in the show to embarrass anyone. I look back in awe now at the thought that I watched it with They Who Actually Remembered the War.

Altogether now (and Americans are welcome to join in on the chorus): Who Do You Think You Are Kidding, Mr. Hitler? I know you guys all hate clicking, but go on, humor me! Sets the right mood! Good for the soul! And you won’t quite get it otherwise. DOUBLECLICK! AT THE DOUBLE! Then (if necessary on your device) hit the arrow button that appears in the bottom left corner.

Excuse me? What is this doing in Non-Boring History?

Folks, this is Serious Stuff. This is the first of occasional posts on History and Memory, the name historians have given to the history of our memory of the past. This is very different from what historians typically do, which is the interpretation of what happened in the past. History and Memory is the interpretation of how we as a society have interpreted the past.

Feel intellectual yet? Or just confused?

Don’t give up! This is one of the most fun ways I can think of to show what History and Memory means: Dad’s Army! Brits may be surprised. Americans and folks from other nations (hi guys!) will, I hope, enjoy discovering it. We all win!

So let's start with that catchy theme tune, as sung by Bud Flanagan, which you're going to be humming for the rest of eternity. Here’s Bud, back in the 30s or 40s. I would love to show you guys a photo of Bud recording in 1968, together with the Coldstream Guards (who played the outro theme). But it belongs to a parasitic corporation who want me to pay them $50. Nah, I won’t. You can see it for yourself on their site.

Bud Flanagan Photo: BBC. Fair use.

National Treasure Bud sang many memorable songs in the Thirties and Forties as one half of the singing duo of comedians Flanagan and Allen. Bud did most of the actual singing, while Ches Allen sort of hummed along.

Bud Flanagan’s performance of the Dad’s Army theme has confused people, even those who lived through the War, who said they remembered singing the song during the War. They didn't. It was written for the series in 1968.

During the War, Bud Flanagan had even more of a vested interest in the Allied victory than most. Born in the flat over his parents’ fish and chip shop in the East End of London, his real name was Chaim Reuben Weintrop. He was Jewish, the son of Polish immigrants. He took the name Bud Flanagan from the hated sergeant under whose command he fought in the trenches in World War I.

A Comedy About People Serving in World War II? How Did They Get Away With That in 1968?

Quite. World War II had ended only 23 years before, leaving Britain shattered. The War (it was always called that, The War) was very much within painful living memory: Veterans were still in their forties and fifties in 1968. One BBC boss, according to Dad’s Army producer David Croft,

was very worried about whether the show was taking the mickey out of Britain’s Finest Hour. For a while Dad’s Army was on the verge of not going ahead.

Perish the thought! It did go ahead, of course, and for the next nine years, the nation was hooked.

But, from the vantage point of 2021, it is amazing it ever got commissioned. This was, let’s remind ourselves, a sitcom poking fun at veterans’ wartime service, and within living memory.

But here's the thing: People who actually lived through the War didn’t take offense. And this despite the fact that the show made the heroes out to be blithering incompetents. In the closest American equivalent, POW sitcom Hogan’s Heroes, it was the Nazis who were inept (or appeared to be). So what gives?

Part of the answer simply has to be the British affinity for self-deprecating humor, something that Americans struggle to understand. Actor Hugh Grant once said something along the lines of “When you tell Americans your next film is rubbish, they believe you.” In the US, anything other than cheerful self-confidence has your friends gently suggesting you get help for your self-esteem issues. As I like to say in response, self-esteem wasn’t a thing in England in the 1970s: After The War, we couldn’t afford it.

A Bunch of Characters

The characters are the biggest reason for the show’s popularity. How incompetent were these characters, exactly? Meet them.

Pvt. Charles Godfrey: He must be eighty if he’s a day. A retired salesman of menswear in a department store, he is gentle, unworldly, a bachelor who lives with his sisters, and has a serious bladder problem. Catchphrase: “May I be excused?”

Pvt. James (Jock) Frazer: In his 70s, the town undertaker is the worst stereotype of a dour, money-pinching Scotsman who likes a wee dram. We Scots were just so happy a Scot was in the show, and actually played by a Scottish actor (a Shakespearean actor, John Laurie!) we ignored all that. Catchphrase: “We’re doomed, I tell ye, DOOMED!”

Pvt. Joe Walker: The stereotypical “spiv”, or wartime black marketeer, he’s involved in shady deals for booze, stockings, and the like. He always has something for sale. Often seen with this week’s girlfriend.

Pvt. Frank Pike: Not yet called up for service. A bit dim, a lot naive, and mollycoddled by his mother. He’s also Sergeant Wilson’s unacknowledged son.

Lance Corporal Jack Jones: A veteran of the Sudan (1890s) and World War I. He owns a butcher’s shop, and is keen but excitable. Catchphrases: “Permission to speak, sir”, “They don’t like it up ‘em!” (referring to the victims of bayonets, which is as much as any of us wants to know), “Don’t Panic!” (yelled while panicking.)

Sergeant Arthur Wilson: Public School (posh boarding school) educated, World War I officer, now a lowly bank clerk involved in a long-term, unmarried relationship with Mavis Pike (Frank’s mother). He’s a bit wan, but middle-class Capt. Mainwaring feels threatened by his upper-class status. He also works for Mr. Mainwaring at the bank during the day, as does Pvt. Pike. Catchphrase: “Is that wise, sir?”

Captain George Mainwaring (pronounced Mannering): Middle-class bank manager. Pompous, bossy, terrified of his wife, the unseen Elizabeth. He’s also fundamentally decent, as are they all. Catchphrase: “Stupid Boy!” (directed at Pike)

Plus supporting characters:

Air Raid Warden Hodges: A greengrocer by day who likes exercising power in his wartime role, and who takes a particular dislike to Captain Mainwaring. Catchphrase: Put that light out!

Timothy Farthing (always known as The Vicar): Doesn’t like sharing his office and the church hall with the Home Guard. It’s often implied, but never confirmed, that he’s gay.

Maurice Yeatman (The Verger): The caretaker of the church, fiercely loyal to the Vicar, whom he addresses as “Your Reverence”. Conspires with Mr. Hodges to undermine Mainwaring and the Home Guard.

Never Seen It? Watch It Now or Later

Watching an episode will add greatly to your enjoyment of this post. Be careful: All over the web, you will run into knock-offs, remakes, and all sorts of stuff I don’t want you watching first. Here’s a classic episode I found on YouTube (with Dutch subtitles). If you get addicted, someone will be streaming the whole run somewhere, although you will likely have to pay. Oh, and kids love Dad’s Army. Just, again, be aware that it’s a product of the 1970s, because of course it is.

Nostalgia Ain’t What It Used to Be

We can’t separate Dad’s Army from nostalgia. One reason it has aged so well, despite being made in the 60s and 70s, is that it was made about an earlier era. Seeing actors off-duty in photos and videos from the 70s, in longish hair, sideburns, safari suits, and aviator glasses, is always a jarring reminder of when the show was actually made.

And yet most of these men, the actors, were not distant from the War. John Le Mesurier (Sgt. Wilson) served as an officer in the Royal Tank Regiment. Edward Sinclair (The Verger) served in the Light Infantry. Clive Dunn (who was cast as the ancient Corporal Jones despite being only in his forties) fought all over Europe and then spent four long years as a POW. Arthur Lowe (Captain Mainwaring), unable to fight because of poor eyesight, was nonetheless a sergeant and radar technician.

Older cast members had served in World War I. Actor John Laurie, who played Pvt. Frazer, was an artilleryman in the trenches. Arnold Ridley (Pvt. Godfrey) was bayoneted in the groin, and lost much of the use of his left hand from injuries suffered at the Battle of the Somme in 1916. He often suffered blackouts. We didn’t know any of this at the time. It was normal, and it was normal not to make a big deal of it.

History and Memory

Most of the people who watched Dad’s Army, even in the 70s, did not remember The War. We were all too young. To a great extent, though, we feel as though we DO remember the War: When we hear “Home Guard”, we think of these guys. When we think of Air Raid Wardens, we think of Warden Hodges, yelling “Put that light out!” We know the sounds of the siren, and the all-clear. We know about ration books, British Restaurants, and identity cards, spivs, and fear of invasion. In an age in which few go to church, the best-known Vicar may be actor Frank Williams’s character in Dad’s Army.

UK kids actually study the WWII Home Front in school: Detailed studies of everyday life. Why, though? They could just watch Dad’s Army. Why was it even put in the curriculum? Honestly? I think it was Dad’s Army.

As for the wartime generation themselves? Those who stayed home made us feel as though the War were still on. My grandparents still didn’t take sugar in their tea until the day they died, thanks to wartime sugar shortages. They reminisced about fire-watching, rationing, all of it.

And those who went off to fight, or did important and secret work at home? They didn’t talk about it, not until my generation were adults, starting in the 1990s. That’s when I found out that my grandfather the engineer helped design radar towers. The deputy headmistress of my old school was employed at the Ministry for Economic Warfare. The former headmaster of the boys’ school, Francis Cammaerts, had been a spy. That last bit of information I learned from Clare Mulley’s fantastic (non-academic) book, The Spy Who Loved. The link is to a two-minute video of Clare talking about her book.

As for those who had seen active service, perhaps one way to deal with the trauma was through laughter. We, of course, had no clue.

I don’t think I am making this up. And here’s why.

Tenko Nights

Conditions were horrific in Japanese POW camps. A quarter of Britons imprisoned in them died. Those who survived were broken, physically and mentally. Among them, my first step-great-grandfather, who only lived a few years after the war ended. Many found therapy, as do other veterans, in clubs for others who had suffered as they had

Recently, the BBC featured what it called a “bizarre” activity that the London Far East Prisoner of War Clubs staged for their members in the years after the War: Tenko Nights. “Tenko” was the name for the tortuous roll-calls of exhausted prisoners in Japanese camps. On Tenko Nights, former POWs would chat about their experiences, and then, and this is the gobsmacking bit, at about 10 p.m., a few POWs came out dressed in enemy uniforms that had been brought back at the end of the War, and commanded everyone to fall in and be counted. The men paraded around the room. These Tenko Nights were even held on a grand scale, at London’s massive Royal Albert Hall. Actors pretended to beat and denigrate former POWs, but everyone was smiling:

In 1956, veteran Bryn Roberts commented: "It gives great pleasure to us and to them [the actors] to be able to laugh at some of the things that were not so entertaining when we were prisoners."

The BBC article suggests that Tenko Nights were therapeutic, and have much in common with psychodrama, a modern technique for treating people with PTSD today.

It’s hard not to think that, maybe, just maybe, if that’s the case, then Dad’s Army served some of that function for people who had lived through the Blitz, and the terrifying fear of a Nazi invasion.

Memory by Proxy

But what does Dad’s Army mean to Brits who have no recollection of The War, but do have deep, loving memories of the wartime generation? First, as I have suggested, the show has left a lot of us feeling we were actually there, even though we absolutely were not, and tied that false nostalgia in with warm memories of those who really did live through The War.

Make no mistake, Dad’s Army has helped shape how we think about The War. When I speak in schools, and talk about Air Raid Wardens, who, I know from reading, were a diverse bunch, I find myself channeling Warden Hodges, yelling “Put that light out!” And like every Brit, I have been heard to exclaim “Don’t Panic! Don’t Panic!” or, in a Scottish accent, “We’re doomed!” No wonder Americans think I’m weird. But Dad’s Army isn’t just for catchphrases, coffee mugs, postage stamps, parades, and museums (although, yes, it has been featured on or in all these things). It’s part of the language, the culture, the national identity. It is impossible for most Brits to think of the wartime Home Front without thinking, consciously or not, of Capt. Mainwaring and his bumbling part-time soldiers.

Strangely, we have become more protective of the memory of the veterans. It’s hard for me to believe that Dad’s Army could be made today (as opposed to remade, which it has been, and not well). If anything, many Brits have become more sentimental, more nostalgic, since the wartime generation began to vanish (which is normal, and I will revisit this). I daresay all the Brexit-related divisions have had an impact, although I don’t want to belabor that point. I had a lovely time with thousands of re-enactors at a WWII Weekend in Haworth, Yorkshire, a few years ago, and if politics came up, I didn’t hear it. There was much conviviality (look at those smiles) and drinking of beer (probably not unrelated) among people with no personal memory of WWII, but, doubtless, much memory of Dad’s Army. Oh, and “American” soldiers who spoke in broad Yorkshire accents.

Annette at the WWII Weekend, Haworth, Yorks. UK. Photos ©Annette Laing, 2018

The War is Over/Is the War Over?

The series did not depart without a respectful and touching tribute to the real Home Guard. I have cued up the very last scene of Dad’s Army, in which the cast broke the fourth wall, by looking directly at the audience. This is followed by the traditional end credits rolling for the very last time, in 1977. It’s well worth a watch.

Well, I say the very last time, except for the stage show, the radio version (a few episodes of which you can hear worldwide), the movie, the remake, and the TV reruns all the way to right now.

All of the actors are gone today, except for Ian Lavender who played young Pike, and Frank Williams who played the Vicar. But none of them have gone anywhere.

I could leave us with the lads marching forever into the sunset, but I want to show American readers, and remind British readers, how the series belongs to everyone in the UK, as an imagined memory of the War that also serves as a real memory of real wartime survivors and of childhoods spent among them.

Commemorating Captain Mainwaring

Arthur Lowe played Captain Mainwaring as a character not unlike himself, pompous, stuffy, self-regarding, but, at the end of the day, a decent man. So even though he doesn’t evoke quite the same affection as, say Corporal Jones, it is right that he was selected to memorialize Dad’s Army in Thetford, the town where the series was filmed. His is not the only statue to a TV character (think Mary Tyler Moore in Minneapolis, or The Fonz in Milwaukee), but none can be this widely loved in its own nation. I caught up with him on a visit to Thetford in 2019. He’s smaller than actor Arthur Lowe was, and he’s sitting. I could sit with him, which was just lovely. The Home Guard? They were us. A bit useless, doing our best, imperfect, our hearts in the right place.

Annette Laing with Capt. Mainwaring statue, 2019. © Annette Laing

And here to take us out are three performances that each, in their own special way, echo the love that Dad’s Army evokes.

First, here’s musician Adam Miles Amer on solo guitar. The young folk on stage look a little uncomfortable at first, but then you see them bopping along . . . Dying to sing but not daring . . . The little audience loves it. Someone yells “Don't tell him, Pike!” a famous line from the show.

The Tickhill Ukelele Group of Tickhill, S. Yorkshire, in the north of England in 2015, playing the rarely heard long version of the theme.

Last but not least, Waltham St. Lawrence Silver Band, a brass band founded in 1886 in a village in Berkshire, to the west of London, with their Dad’s Army singalong from 2018. For the record, nobody in the audience needs the lyrics. Even in posh, reticent Berkshire, they’re going to sing Dad’s Army, because that’s what you do when you're English, and the man in the white jacket with the baton gives you a smile and a nod. Remember, the audience are singing in a hall where they are competing with a brass band, and you may struggle to hear them singing at first. And then you realize they're belting it out. It's not just a TV theme. It's a beloved national folk song, and it carries with it the spirits of the ancestors.

Find Out More

Home Guard unit, 1941. Photo: Imperial War Museum

This article on Arnold Ridley (Godfrey)’s wartime service is a terrific read, and I have Nonnie (Non-Boring History fan) Pam from England to thank for it. It also tells you a lot about the fundamental decency of the program: The Real Life Wars of Dad’s Army Actor Arnold Ridley (BBC) If you’re wondering about the name, Ridley, the answer is in here, too.

There is serious academic work on Dad’s Army and Popular Memory, but I haven’t access to it right now, so this was my best shot. If you’re insanely keen: Corinna M. Peniston-Bird (2007) ‘I WONDERED WHO'D BE THE FIRST TO SPOT THAT’, Media History, 13:2-3, 183-202.

Jeffrey Richards devotes an entertaining chapter to Dad’s Army in Films and British National Identity: From Dickens to Dad's Army. I came across this as I was finishing up, and am tickled that we make many of the same points. That said, he also says (and I love it) that while it’s nostalgia, it’s a very positive force: That nostalgists have contributed much to saving threatened landscapes and buildings. I have to admit, I find this convincing and appealing, a nice counterpoint to the persistently bleak outlook of many in the UK at the moment.

If you’re interested in the Home Guard, do check out Norman Longmate’s The Real Home Guard. Incidentally, the co-writer of Dad’s Army, Jimmy Perry, was in a Home Guard unit in Hertfordshire, and Pvt. Pike is semi-autobiographical.

Did I make you a fan? Join the Dad’s Army Appreciation Society

Go on pilgrimage to Thetford, visit the Dad’s Army museum, check open hours (I didn’t, I missed it), book a tour well ahead (the museum can advise), see Capt. Mainwaring’s statue. And do the Tom Paine stuff, which is Thetford’s other claim to fame, a story for another post. Annette’s Tourism Rule: Never wander aimlessly about a place you’re visiting. You’ll end up in Starbucks, wondering why you bothered.

Dr. Annette Laing, the Non-Boring Historian, is a former professor of history and member of the Africana Studies program at Georgia Southern University. With a background in early American and modern British history, she writes on a variety of subjects at Non-Boring History for busy adults with zero time who aren’t even sure they like history, but need something more out of life than doomscrolling. Subscribe for FREE and get access to most posts. For the full experience, and/or to support Annette’s outreach, a paid subscription is as little as $5 a month or $60 a year. Either way, do sign up, and have Annette on tap to introduce you to stories that relate and enrich life, most of them translated from academic history and original documents. And do tell a friend! Posts are written with American audiences in mind, with one eye on folks in my native UK, but folks from around the world are warmly welcomed!