Dad’s Army was a success at the box office. It didn’t have to fight too hard…
Are You Being Served? And Dad’s Army on the big screen reviewed by Brian Slade
Writer and producer David Croft had the Midas touch when it came to comedy. Aside from the odd flop, like Come Back Mrs Noah, the shows that he created and wrote with alternating creative partners Jimmy Perry and Jeremy Lloyd were comedy gold for the decades where British comedy was at its greatest. Croft was an expert in writing, character building, producing and most definitely casting, sometimes working with somebody in a most minor role and then returning to that actor years later with a role that he though perfect for them. But on top of that creative genius, Croft was also a shrewd businessman and he knew how to get more from his successes than just commissions for further series.
For comedy performers in the 1970s, summer seasons and panto were still the norm to supplement the income from any successful television shows. With the array of hit tv series at his disposal, David Croft was more than happy to exploit his on screen success with stage versions. Dad’s Army, Are You Being Served?, It Ain’t Half Hot Mum, Hi-de-hi! and ‘Allo ‘Allo were all despatched to theatres, with most of their casts intact, and all were as much of a success as their television versions. However, for the first two of his successes, Croft went one stage further and attempted to transplant his success to the big screen, resulting in movie versions of Dad’s Army and Are You Being Served?
The two attempts to convert sitcom success into movie box office winners had very different approaches. For Dad’s Army, it was tried and tested – the same cast and characters in exactly the same situation as the television series, while Are You Being Served? took its cast into completely new territory.
The television series of Dad’s Army had been going strong for three series by the time the movie version came along. Filmed in 1970, the movie version tries to strike a balance between fans of the show and new audiences. It retained the same cast, but the storyline establishes the reason for Captain Mainwaring and his platoon coming into existence. The rehash of The Man and the Hour, the first Dad’s Army episode in 1968, isn’t the only selection of borrowed material. In fact the film collects a number of stories and exchanges from the first three series, unsurprising given that the show’s writers were behind the screenplay.
Differences were inevitable between the movie and the television series given that the feature had a budget afforded to them by Columbia Pictures. Hardly in a position to object, one cast member was switched as regular Carry On star Liz Frazer took over the role of Mrs Pike. Despite being a minor character, it’s not a change that was particularly necessary and certainly not one that worked. Perhaps of greater divergence from the show though was the introduction of the Germans. To that point, and indeed for the vast majority of the television series run, the Nazis were a hidden enemy. Part of the appeal of the show is that the platoon were continually coming up with ways to thwart the arrival of the Nazis despite the fact that they never actually showed up. The movie went a step further as we not only saw the Germans, but we also got an insight into what they thought of their potential opponents, which does rather take the shine off the Walmington-on-Sea tale.
Dad’s Army was a success at the box office. It didn’t have to fight too hard as despite the feel of it at times being a stitched together ‘best of’ compilation, we still loved the ragtag collection of heroes and the vast majority of the audience would never turn their back on them. That said, the penchant for turning sitcoms into movies shows that the British movie audiences were quite content to watch any of their television stars at the cinema…Dad’s Army shared the top 10 British box office successes of 1971 with On the Buses and Up Pompeii, and more would follow throughout the decade.
David Croft had achieved immense success with Are You Being Served? despite it having been rushed onto screens to avoid dead air during the Munich Olympics massacre of 1972. It had been on screen for five years when the movie version was released. With his alternative writing partner Jeremy Lloyd, Croft was once again behind the screenplay, but this movie took a very different turn. The television show was of course about the people of the menswear and womenswear counters of ageing department store Grace Brothers. The movie took them out of their trusted situation, a brave move in stark contrast to how Croft had approached Dad’s Army.
In an episode of the second series of the television show, young Mr Grace had planned on decorating the shop floor, offering an incentive to the staff to take holiday while the works go ahead. The staff refused, whereupon he tried to convince them by offering them a holiday in some rather unappealing destinations, resulting in them taking holiday and money during winter, an unpalatable result of their negotiations in the days before continental travel was commonplace.
It is this story that Croft returned to for the movie version. Again, the department is being decorated, but this time the group do go on holiday, ending up in tents in Costa Plonka as their hotel doesn’t have room for them having thought Grace Brothers were two people. Lots of interplay follows as the plot becomes ever more bizarre: Mrs Slocombe becomes the object of desire of a terrorist, who in turn holds out in the hotel which comes under attack during his revolutionary plans, with the Grace Brothers staff innocent victims caught in the crossfire. It all ends when young Mr Grace comes charging through the hotel walls in a tank to utter his immortal words, ‘You’ve all done very well.’
Despite the ropey plot, there is plenty of time for the same bawdy goings on that happen in the department store. Mr Lucas, long desiring to try his luck with Miss Brahms, is now clear of the hierarchy of the department and attempts to woo his opposite number, but the pursuit of Mrs Slocombe by Cesar the terrorist ends up in multiple cases of mistaken identity and subsequent failures of amorous intentions.
Croft and Lloyd pull some gags from the show, and the movie benefits from that. That said, it suffers because its arrival in 1977 was at a time when the movie versions of sitcoms were losing their appeal. Are You Being Served? has long been debated over since its demise in terms of its humour, perceived stereotyping and appropriateness, but its popularity ensured it stayed on television until 1985. It’s perhaps in part due to the movie that Croft and Lloyd decided that the characters could be accepted outside of the department store and created the 1991 spin-off, Grace and Favour.
Despite the success of the television shows and stage versions of them, Croft never ventured into film versions of his other successes. It’s hard to see that a movie of Hi-de-hi! would have worked, and given the speed with which It Ain’t Half Hot Mum has disappeared from view, it is perhaps not disappointing that it never received the big screen treatment. ‘Allo, ‘allo would perhaps seem the one Croft success that might have been best suited to a movie adaptation, but by then times had changed and Croft was tiring of the BBC’s changing approach to comedy.
Dad’s Army did of course make a reappearance on the big screen in 2016, some years after Croft and Perry’s death. With the Croft family’s approval and involvement, the Home Guard were reborn with a new cast of Britain’s finest. For so many years people had said it was the actors that made the show, and of course they were remarkable to a man, but there is a charm about the likes of Toby Jones, Bill Nighy, Michael Gambon and a host of others that make the modern version palatable. Once again the German’s are a very visible and real threat, and it is amusing to see spy Catherine Zeta Jones send Jones’s Mainwaring into a spin. But unlike the original, the women are powerful in the new version and come to Mainwaring and the gang’s rescue on the beaches.
David Croft and his writing partners were relentlessly successful across four decades on television, and perhaps Dad’s Army and Are You Being Served? were doomed to be held up as inferior to their television originals. But for fans of those shows, they both carry enough humour and nostalgia to justify their existence. Seeing the Grace Brothers staff out of their safe environment is a jolly if predictable novelty and the chance to have a full 90 minute run of Walmington-on-Sea’s finest…well what could be better than that?
Published on October 13th, 2022. Written by Brian Slade for Television Heaven.