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Dad’s Army

DJ Films. Directed by Oliver Parker.

Having said we rarely go to see a film here we are going to a cinema twice inside a week!

The good lady has long been a devotee of the Dad’s Army TV shows. She always tries to catch them when they are on repeat (which is every week it seems) even though I bought her the box set for her birthday or Christmas one year many moons ago; so we couldn’t avoid the new film featuring its characters.

It turns out there is a dedicated cinema only a couple or so miles from our new house. It had shut down for a while when we lived in Kirkcaldy but has since reopened and it was to there we went.

In the case of Michael Gambon as Private Godfrey and Bill Nighy as Sergeant Wilson the casting was spot on. Neither gave exactly a clone copy of the originals but conveyed their essence well. Bill Paterson as Private Frazer was maybe a bit too obvious a choice and Daniel Mays was a good enough Private Walker. Toby Jones – excellent as ever – was perhaps not quite bumptious enough as Captain Mainwaring. Neither did Tom Courtenay exude the bumbling nature of Lance Corporal Jones nor was Blake Harrison quite as petted as private Pike needs to be.

But this is to complain that the film isn’t the TV series. And it isn’t. There weren’t enough laughs for a start. A few giggles and the odd grunt. There were also some minor crudities which wouldn’t have appeared in the original (“They don’t like it up ’em” notwithstanding.) It was nice to see Frank Williams as the vicar still and the other surviving member of the TV cast, Ian Lavender, as a Brigadier Dier.

Like its predecessor film with that original cast, which didn’t really work, this version of Dad’s Army shows that 90 minutes is just too long to buttress the conceit of a 30 minute sitcom. The necessity for sustained plot weighs too heavily on the enterprise. Witness also the dire On the Buses films of similar vintage which nevertheless were a commercial succes. (Then again not one of the various TV episodes of On the Buses ever attained anything near the level of the poorest Dad’s Army one.)

The plot here consists in the presence of a German spy in Walmington-on-Sea and the intrusion of a woman from Sgt Wilson’s past onto the scene.

It is the women of the town, Cissy and Dolly (Private Godfrey’s sisters,) Mavis Pike (as played by Sarah Lancashire the best thing in the film – except when she had to simper) and Mrs Mainwaring who in the end win the day – not something I could have seen happening in a TV episode I have to say.

The best thing about it all, though, was the outtakes alongside the end credits, corpsing and such.

I wasn’t convinced by Capt Mainwaring’s non-uniform shirt and Sgt Wilson’s civvy tie; they both looked far too modern.

But there was one absolute howler; and it was repeated. Paris was twice mentioned as being accessible to Walmington’s inhabitants – by telephone the second time. In 1944? Pre D-Day? (The plot is entangled with the deception plan to convince the Germans that the invasion would be in the Pas de Calais.) No such communication was possible at the time.

All Clear by Connie Willis

Gollancz, 2012, 792 p

Warning: the book is a time travel story. It is difficult to discuss without getting ahead of (behind?) yourself. The following may contain spoilers.

This is the continuation of Blackout. Had I not read All Clear so soon after I would have put it off for a long time which could have been a problem as little concession is made to anyone who by chance hasn’t read the first book of the pair. We plunge into the story with no preamble.

Our historian heroines/hero, time travelling from 2060 Oxford, are still stuck in 1940, either unable to get to their drops or waiting in vain for them to open, and still worrying that they have changed history for the worse and will not be able to get back to their own time before the continuum exacts its revenge. Polly Sebastian in particular is up against a deadline, having been dropped earlier in her own time to later in the war and the “laws of time travel” do not allow her to overlap time frames. All of the historians have in one way or another saved the lives of “contemps” and two of them have prevented fires spreading in St Paul’s Cathedral. One even travels to Bletchley Park where he (literally) bumps into Alan Turing and later becomes a vital part of the effort to convince the Germans the D-Day landings will be in the Pas de Calais rather than Normandy. Meanwhile in 1944 Mary hasn’t been killed by a doodlebug but she has gone on to inspire an RAF pilot to develop the “flipping” technique used to deflect their paths. As Polly, dropped into 1940, she therefore knows she has already affected later history yet is nevertheless the main worrier.

There is more Science Fictional stuff revealed in All Clear than there was in Blackout, which makes the nomination for the 2011 Hugo at least understandable (but not forgiveable;) the working out of the plot is neat enough – though there is at least one loose end – and Willis’s prose is never difficult to read. Aspects of her digression/interruption technique are essential to the plot but she lays it on with a trowel and also uses it in other circumstances – without it the book may have been considerably shorter.

Polly eventually comes to understand the true situation – but it has been a long time coming. It’s also a realisation that had occurred to the reader less than a quarter of the way through Blackout, ie approximately 1000 pages earlier. In addition these Oxford historians do seem to have an alarming lack of knowledge of wider history beyond the “prepping” they have done for their drops. (But then, “What ten year period did you study?” was always a jibe directed at history graduates.)

Given the number of bombs and explosions the characters have to endure, the levels of destruction we are shown, it is a matter of wonder that any of London managed to survive the war. However, Willis’s point that the ambulance drivers, rescue workers, ARP wardens, shopgirls, etc were no less heroic and no less important to winning the war than the fighting forces is well made. One of the reasons for carrying on though (apart from sheer bloody-mindedness, a prime motivator for the British in continuing to oppose Hitler) is what else can you do? The alternative is to despair, to give up, to give in. “Up yours!” is surely a healthier response. And these days there is no such thing as a civilian – we are all targets. Ever since the invention of the aeroplane and the submarine it has no longer been possible to outsource the risk of warfare purely to the armed services. (There are perhaps thousands of examples to argue that it actually never has.)

The most flagrant example in this volume of Willis’s lack of knowledge/research over things British is that she has one of her characters pay for an item in the 1940s using a tuppence (2d) piece. Prior to decimalisation in 1971 (when the face values changed in any case) there was no such coin. The denominations available in the 1940s were ¼d, ½d, 1d, 3d, 6d, 12d (1/-,) 24d (2/-,) or 30d (2/6) and, in extreme cases, 60d (5/-) but never 2d. Neither was two half-crowns (total 5/-) enough to cover two tickets at eight and six (8/6.) I’m also fairly sure that no London shops would have been open on Boxing Day 1940 given that it would have been a bank (and therefore public) holiday in England. Another example of her lack of feel for the minutiae of British life is that she doesn’t seem to appreciate how utterly unlikely it would be for someone of poverty-stricken childhood circumstances ever to make it into the highest echelons of the legal profession (to enter it at all, in fact.)

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