The TV sitcom Dad’s Army ran on the BBC from 1968 to 1977 (nine series, 80 episodes) with repeats still running to this day (Saturday, BBC2, 8.25 p.m.) and I sometimes watch these repeats with my dad (92) and we laugh like idiots and I sometimes watch with my son (23) and we laugh like idiots and sometimes the three of us watch together (combined age 169, should that be of interest) and we all laugh like idiots but I was not minded to laugh like an idiot during this film, possibly because I was not minded to laugh at all. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it, goes the saying, and while this isn’t something you’re ever told by Carphone Warehouse when it’s begging you to upgrade, it would have proved good advice in this instance, should anyone have wished to hear.
I had my initial reservations, as did we all, I expect. Indeed, when I first heard there was going to be a big-screen update my gut reaction said, ‘No, no, no’. And also, ‘No’. Followed by, ‘No’. But then, fool that I am, the cast list was announced and I perked up enormously. The casting is a dream as it’s Toby Jones (Mainwaring), Bill Nighy (Wilson), Tom Courtenay (Jones), Michael Gambon (Godfrey), Bill Paterson (Frazer), Daniel Mays (Walker) and Blake Harrison (Pike). It could work, became my thinking. You can’t gather all that talent — Gambon! As Private Godfrey! — and have it come to nothing, became my thinking. But then, fool that I am, I did not factor in a feeble script, endless pointless slapstick and the sort of ooh-er-missus humour that wrings every double entendre it can from ‘roly-poly’ and then returns for more. (I like roly-poly, but not that much.)
Directed by Oliver Parker (Johnny English Reborn), and written by Hamish McColl (Johnny English Reborn, Paddington and, for theatre, The Play What I Wrote), the film takes us back to Walmington-on-Sea, 1944, and our home guard platoon, as led by Captain Mainwaring. (Toby Jones imitating Arthur Lowe, but then Mainwaring wouldn’t be Mainwaring if you didn’t imitate Arthur Lowe, so there’s no way round that.) Here, the jeopardy has been upped in that there is a Nazi spy (Catherine Zeta-Jones) in their midst, not that they know she’s a Nazi spy, as she is masquerading as Rose Winters, a journalist from The Lady. But the trouble is, we know her for what she is, so we must simply wait for everyone else to play catch-up. And wait. And wait. And wait. It is so overstretched it’s properly painful.
Rose is, of course, a femme fatale, creating rivalries all over the place. She turns Wilson’s head and Mainwaring’s head and Pike’s head and any head going, basically. This even leads to one of those farce scenes during which her various admirers hide behind sofas and doors and leap out of windows. Any nuance from the original series is entirely absent as it insists on making the covert overt. Pike, for example, is openly acknowledged as Wilson’s son, while Wilson is openly acknowledged as sharper than Mainwaring. (In the series, Wilson would have a good idea, which he’d then let Mainwaring claim, and this gave their relationship real pathos and depth.) They have also brought Mrs Mainwaring (Felicity Montagu) on screen for no good reason, which ruins that particular joke — never seeing Mrs Mainwaring, for all those 80 episodes, was the point of her.
There is no vulnerability to any of the characters, who are disappointingly indistinguishable anyhow. Bill Paterson’s Frazer, for example, is not especially lugubrious, while Tom Courtenay’s Jones is not especially excitable. Meanwhile, Nighy is Nighy while Harrison simply reprises his dimwitted role from The Inbetweeners. Best, by far, is Gambon! As Private Godfrey! He makes Godfrey sweetly adorable, at least. And in a supporting role, Sarah Lancashire as Mavis Pike does try to add emotional heft, but it only ever amounts to a sliver.
With the various catchphrases popping up clunkily whenever and wherever — ‘we’re all doomed!’, ‘stupid boy!’, ‘don’t panic!’ — this always feels horribly contrived. The only decent moment, in fact, occurs when the out-takes are played over the end credits and we see Gambon’s mobile going off in a scene, and everyone stays in character, and it’s genuinely funny. So here’s my advice: ask to see this film backwards and then don’t stay for long.