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The Britain of Dad’s Army is fading from memory

The notion of fighting for your country is totally alien to us today.

Simon Evans

Simon Evans
Columnist

Topics Culture UK

The most common observation to greet this week’s sad death of Ian Lavender, best known for playing Private Pike in Dad’s Army, is that it represents the end of an era. Specifically, the era in which cast members from Dad’s Army were still alive.

Indeed, that era must surely be the longest of any comparable sitcom cast. It began with the birth of Arnold Ridley, who played the delightfully doddery and kind-hearted old Private Godfrey, forever volunteering his sister’s cake-making contributions to help any military manoeuvre go with a swing.

Ridley was born – grasp the handrail, if you suffer from temporal vertigo – on 7 January 1896. He quavered his first tentative murmurs of doubt under Queen Victoria and Lord Salisbury, the last UK prime minister to serve from the House of Lords (at least until Lord Cameron sees his chance). Later that week, Cecil Rhodes resigned as the prime minister of the Cape Colony. Like his character, Ridley served in the First World War, where he was severely wounded at the Somme.

In 1897, John Laurie, aka Private Frazer, was born. His catchphrase, ‘We’re doomed!’, was surely the most famous in the show – apart from ‘Stupid boy!’, ‘Do you think that’s wise?’, ‘Permission to speak?’, ‘They don’t like it up ’em!’, and all the others that writers Jimmy Perry and David Croft bequeathed to a grateful nation.

Lavender himself will forever be associated not with his own catchphrase, but with perhaps the single most famous four words in British sitcom history: ‘Don’t tell him, Pike!’ Even now, Captain Mainwaring’s blundering bark of defiance, struggling to maintain his dignity and assert his authority over his German prisoner, captures so much of the British character, both real and mythical.

Dad’s Army, as surely even younger readers will know, was about the Home Guard, the volunteer force comprising mainly old timers, intended to repel any sneaky invasion Mr Hitler might attempt while men of fighting age were engaged overseas.

British culture’s preoccupation with the Second World War for decades afterwards has been well documented. One of the very few other moments as iconic as Mainwaring’s terse command is John Cleese goose-stepping around his hotel foyer in Fawlty Towers, and then insisting that his German guests started it. ‘Yes, you did, you invaded Poland!’

Of course, another era that came to an end some time ago now was finding the war funny. The Second World War forged some of the funniest, most original and deeply felt comedy this country has ever produced, both at the time and as memories cooled.

Not all of it was brilliant. I don’t in all honesty miss ‘Allo ‘Allo!, though I would never deny anyone the right to fill their jackboots if it is their tasse de thé.

But Spike Milligan’s The Goon Show, an anarchic teetering-on-the-brink-of-madness radio comedy, was seminal. It was inspired as much by the inescapable insanity of military life as was Joseph Heller’s Catch-22. It famously influenced pretty much everything that came after it for the next 20 years at least. What are now known as ‘dad jokes’ were for decades essentially quoting Bluebottle, Bloodknok or Eccles.

But today, the war is no longer funny. The Hun, aka Jerry or the Bosh, are now a warning from history. Echoes of the Nazis’ grim rhetoric are picked up in Tory anti-immigration waffle by the satellite dishes cunningly concealed in the largest ears in football commentary.

The comedy of the postwar era brought Nazis back down to size, mocking them as a self-evidently preposterous impertinence, a gang of ‘automatons’ in Mainwaring’s daringly damning judgement. But they are now talked of as something that ‘could happen here’, if indeed they are not in charge already.

Meanwhile, I fear that the end of another era has been evident lately. The era in which we could imagine a collection of volunteers determined to do their bit to defend their nation – however delusional this might seem with such meagre training and kit. To muster in a draughty hall, wearing scratchy woollen uniform and agree – however grumblingly – to be drilled by a pompous old bank manager with a swagger stick.

One never knows, of course. Peoples – and not just the British – have surprised themselves before. Resilience lurks undetected until called forth by active threat. But the reaction last month to army chief General Sir Patrick Sanders mooting the possible return of conscription was not encouraging, was it? (Even if he only said this – surely – to rattle the tin for a bigger defence budget.)

On Twitter / X – not the real world I know, but as close a proxy as is available to me in East Sussex – there was a strong sense that men of fighting age are now sharply divided. On one side, there were those expressing loyalty to causes other than the British Crown, and who are possibly even diametrically opposed to it. On the other, were those who you’d expect to be patriots but who are now so discouraged by this recent admixture in their nation that they can no longer see the point.

As for old timers like me, well, I wouldn’t mind marching up and down the Hove seafront on a Tuesday evening, but I can’t help feeling you’d be better off with a drone.

Historians now frequently talk about the Second World War as the foundational myth of modern Britain. By myth, they mean lie. We stood alone? Not so, they say. We had the economic might of the British Empire behind us and we should not flatter ourselves. Dad’s Army is often cited as part of this self-deluding faux-innocence, of our desire to see ourselves as the indomitable terrier among the foxhounds, however tongue-in-cheek it might have been.

Perhaps. But is today’s cynicism towards Britain really much of an improvement? ‘A civilisation begins in myth’, wrote Emil Cioran, ‘and ends in doubt’. It is not hard to see which end of the parabola we currently have hold of.

RIP, then, Ian Lavender. And RIP something else, which as yet, I cannot quite make out.

Picture by: YouTube.

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Topics Culture UK

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