Alexander Larman has reviewed the Region 2 release of The Very Best of Dad’s Army. A classic British sitcom is presented on a disc with adequate picture and sound quality, but a good documentary.
Dad’s Army is one of the greatest British sitcoms ever made. That may seem like a sweeping statement, but it’s not, for two reasons. Firstly, most British sitcoms of the last 30 years have been so awful that they are, rightly, swiftly forgotten, so to claim distinction for any individual one indicates some longevity, especially if it’s over 30 years old. Secondly, it’s wonderfully acted, with character actors giving it their absolute all in some of the most iconic parts ever written.
If that seems like hyperbole, consider some of the influences. In Captain Mainwaring (Lowe), we have the archetype of the arrogant, overbearing control figure who is nowhere near as clever as he thinks he is; characters from Father Ted to Edmund Blackadder all resemble Mainwaring to some extent. In Pike (Lavender), we have the idiotic sidekick, here depicted with more sympathy and depth than in such characters as Baldrick and Manuel from Fawlty Towers. And, even in Jones (Dunn), we have the basis for Hillary Briss from The League of Gentlemen, albeit on a more prosaic level (for a start, we’re always fairly sure what’s in his sausages). Yet few programmes manage to present the characters with such humanity as here, without needing to resort to excessive surrealism or scatological humour to get an easy laugh. The episodes here are, allegedly, the very best; while I would disagree, they’re about as good a selection as any other.
The Deadly Attachment
This is the episode in which the platoon have to look after the captured German prisoners, or alternatively the one with the oft-quoted ‘Don’t tell him, Pike’ line. It’s a mark of the relative darkness of the programme that the Germans aren’t presented as cuddly or blundering, unlike in say, ‘Allo, ‘Allo, but as deeply unpleasant villains, with the intention of punishing all those who resist them, including Mainwaring. A great episode, and very funny.
Keep Young and Beautiful
Here, the platoon is to be inspected, and the…more venerable members of the squad try desperately to make themselves look younger. Therefore, Mainwaring gets a wig, Wilson a corset, and Godfrey, Jones and Fraser experiment with embalming fluid. Probably the closest that the programme came to Joe Orton territory, this is a hilariously funny episode, and the best on the disc. The final parade scene is so uproarious that I literally cried with laughter while watching it; not bad for a so-called ‘cosy pensioner’ sitcom.
Never too Old
The final episode ever, and Jones gets married. By this stage, the writers Fred Perry and David Croft were starting to run out of ideas, and so the overall tone here is more reflective and less uproarious than the other episodes, with even the potentially glorious comic complications of Jones’ marriage being largely subsumed to an almost elegaic tone, with a final toast to all members of the Home Guard, where the actors appear to half step out of character. A fine episode in terms of the acting and writing, but not exactly a barrel of laughs.
Asleep in the Deep
This one’s about the platoon attempting to rescue Godfrey from a building, and managing to flood it. It’s a strength of the programme that it managed to make potentially dull situations highly amusing, by the wonderful interplay of the characters. I could happily watch Mainwaring call Pike ‘stupid boy’ indefinitely, while Jones shouts about how the ‘Fuzzy-wuzzies don’t like it up ’em sir, no they don’t’, and Godfrey sleeps in a corner. Never mind that the plot here isn’t as anarchic as some of the others, it’s still highly enjoyable.
Sons of the Sea
A rather standard episode, and it’s slightly confusing to see this on a selection entitled ‘the very best of.’ It’s not that this story, about Mainwaring and co getting lost while rowing a boat, and believing that they’re in France, is weak exactly, more that it lacks the banter between the characters that makes the series so enjoyable. There are also a couple of moments here which reveal the writers’ weak spot, namely a slight tendency towards sentimental patriotism. The cynical might feel that this sort of attitude is somewhat passe, given that we no longer live in an age of idealism; all the same, there’s something rather comforting about a world at war where the worst thing that happens to any of the characters is being ‘taken short’, as Godfrey finds more than once. The weakest episode here, but still a good one.
It’s a 30-year old 4:3 transfer of a video master; you wouldn’t expect miracles, and you don’t get them. The transfer isn’t bad exactly, with reasonable colour and some detail, but it’s not noticeably better than VHS, with some irritating smearing and artefacting somewhat marring the presentation. Still, it’s more than adequate, and at least it doesn’t suffer from having been converted to NTSC, or vice versa.
Well, this definitely isn’t Saving Private Ryan, despite being based on nominally the same subject (if you watch Ryan, while imagining Ryan as Pike, Tom Hanks as Mainwaring and Tom Sizemore as Wilson, it seems a very different film!). The mono mix is fine, if unexceptional, with clear dialogue and a good presentation of the Formby-esque theme song, which thankfully hasn’t yet been treated to a dance remix. That said, the theme song to Only Fools and Horses has, so it may only be a matter of time.
Only 2 here, but one of them is quite substantial. It’s a 30 minute documentary about the series, with some fine archival clips and some amusing interviews from the like of Chris Tarrant, Patrick Moore and Richard and Judy, where they talk about the various characters and their favourite scenes. We’re not talking in-depth stuff here, but it’s all fairly interesting. The other extra is a collection of brief biographies of the main cast; it’s nothing wildly interesting, and it’s too short to be of much real interest.
While I’ve been writing this review, a round on University Challenge was based entirely around Dad’s Army, indicating the level of interest that people still have in it, simply because of the quality of the writing and the acting. BBC’s DVD is OK in terms of picture and sound quality, and the addition of the documentary is a nice touch. I’ll now resist the temptation to end with the random inclusion of a ‘hilarious’ quote, as it all makes much more sense in context, you stupid boy.
It’s the end, but the moment has been prepared for…
Continue the conversation over on The Digital Fix Forum