Adapted From Issue 30 of "Platoon Attention!"
Jimmy Perry and David Croft created the Dad’s Army stage show following the phenomenal success of their wonderful characters on the television, in film and on radio. Taking the TV series to the live stage would mean that many tens of thousands of the show’s adoring fans would have the magical experience of seeing their favourite characters in the flesh.
But the move to the stage meant a few changes had to be made. By the time the stage show version came to fruition, the cast had lost Jimmy Beck, who’d died in August 1973. Although his character of Walker was not re-cast on television, it was decided that a substitute would have to be found for live theatre. The casting of another actor for the role had already been done twice in the radio version; unsuccessfully with Graham Stark in 1973, and then from 1974 with the perfect choice of Larry Martyn. Despite Larry’s brilliant portrayal of the character vocally, and his physical appearance which could easily have been made up into the part for stage, another actor new to the show was cast.
John Bardon, who is now much better known for his role of Jim Branning in EastEnders, was cast as Private Joe Walker. Bardon, when in costume, certainly looked the part, and he did a reasonable job of the Walker voice – though to my mind not nearly as well as Larry Martyn.
From the outset, all the other cast agreed to take part in the show. Arthur Lowe would, naturally, lead the company, alongside John Le Mesurier, Clive Dunn, Arnold Ridley, Ian Lavender, Bill Pertwee, Frank Williams and Edward Sinclair. Even lesser roles from the show were reprised for stage, including Janet Davies as Mavis, Pam Cundell as Mrs Fox, and Joan Cooper as Dolly Godfrey.
One fact that is not well known at all is that even John Laurie planned to take part in the show! I discovered this when studying his work diaries during my research for a book I am currently writing about the actor. John clearly showed his initial intentions to be there with the cast when he pencilled in dates for the 1975 season, beginning on the 11th of August 1975 with “D.A’s Musical (Billingham)” which continue with dittos to the 23rd August 1975. Then from the 25th he pencilled in “D.A. Musical London” with a down arrow indicating that it ran from that date onwards. On the 26th and 27th of September 1975 he wrote “D.A. Previews”.
These entries have all been crossed out at a later date after he’d made the decision not to take part. John’s ailing health and the expected long run of the show forced him to decide against taking part. He was no longer keen on driving, and he felt that performing for the daily and nightly shows would be too much for him physically. So while the others gallivanted round the country on stage, John Laurie relaxed, doing the occasional advertisement, radio interviews and a variety of other work.
So without the strong force of John Laurie, by far the cast’s most seasoned stage actor, a substitute had to be found. This was not an easy task; it is almost impossible to replace an actor of John Laurie’s calibre. But Jimmy Perry and David Croft somehow managed to do it with an excellent choice in casting Scottish actor Hamish Roughead as Frazer.
Roughead was a character actor who’d learned his trade in repertory theatres in Scotland, but he was not well known to the mass audience of television, so despite his physical and vocal similarities and rather good impersonation of Private Frazer, the role was cut down significantly. And unlike the other characters, Frazer did not get a solo singing spot. Mind you, it isn’t likely that John Laurie would have either - he wasn’t proud of his singing - but had he been in the show John would undoubtedly have recited some stirring poems.
The rest of the cast did get a chance to sing. Songs were spattered throughout the show along with impersonations of famous 1940’s radio stars and a few sketches from the show for good measure. From the opening to the finale, the cast all sing their way through a repertoire of patriotic tunes from the war.
Jones sings an absolutely brilliant rendition of The King Is Still In London, a song made popular originally by such stars as Ambrose and Billy Cotton. Jones had another song earlier in the show called Too Late, in which he reminisces about his days in Khartoum, trying to relieve General Gordon. However after the show moved from Billingham to London this was cut, as the show was too long. It later reappeared in the line-up when the show went on tour, due to a clause in Clive’s contract.
Pike and Walker sing a rousing ditty with the help of Carmen Caramba (Bernice Adams in a take on popular wartime singer/actress Carmen Miranda). Pike, in a very strange dream sequence, is wearing a banana-skin suit and singing the wartime song When Can I Have A Banana Again?, which was originally sung by Harry Roy and His Band in 1943. In this medley Walker replies to Pike’s question with the song Yes, We Have No Bananas. Carmen strutted her stuff, tempting Pike with the bananas and other fruit in her elaborate headdress.
One stirring moment was Arnold Ridley’s recital of Lords of the Air. Backed by a choir of heavenly voices, provided by the girls and boys in the company, Godfrey reads the words with intense pride in his country and in the RAF, whom he is watching battle the Luftwaffe over the English Channel.
A great musical scene comes in the form of The Choir Practise, which was adapted from the television sketch The Cornish Floral Dance, as seen in the 1970 Christmas Night With The Stars. All the cast and company were involved, and the scene is both tuneful and hilarious.
Even Arthur Lowe and John le Mesurier had lead singing roles, when they recreated the music hall and radio duo of Flanagan and Allen. They sang Hometown dressed as the popular wartime pair, who had been part of radio’s The Crazy Gang.
The show had more than just the music however. Several sketches were performed, with the cast all in character as if it were a TV episode. The Choir Practise fits into this category, and another sketch from TV was The Morris Dance, adapted from The Godiva Affair. This had the platoon practising their Morris dance for an upcoming performance. This time round the Vicar and the Verger are all involved, and Walker is on the accordion. This line-up changed slightly when the show went on tour.
A nice sketch called Command Post was included which was developed from a scene in the 1971 film. This saw Mainwaring and Wilson in a command post looking out to sea, and discussing their plans in an invasion. This short sketch is one of the real gems of the show. An original sketch was written for the opening that saw the Vicar and Verger, who while walking in the black out are accosted by Hodges for flashing a torchlight. Also heard was Mrs Fox, caught behind a water tank with Mr Bluett! And a scene called Unarmed Combat, which was loosely based upon scenes from Command Decision saw Mainwaring teaching the platoon how to fight hand to hand.
With scenes involving the platoon requiring extras to make up the ‘back row’, a few extra platoon members had to be found. Regular ‘back row’ boys like Colin Bean had declined the offer to appear in the show, so a few new characters were created. Graham Hamilton, a member of the company, became Private Meadow. Eric Longworth, better known in the TV show as the Town Clerk, took on both that role and the character of Private Woods. Norman Macleod, who was not only professional singer but also Bill Pertwee’s brother-in-law, played Private Maple (named after his 1950’s group The Maple Leaf Four). And later on tour Michael Bevis became Private Staines. As well as the character of Dolly Godfrey, Joan Cooper played Mrs Holdane-Hart of the WVS, and Jeff Holland played a mad German inventor alongside Bill Pertwee’s General Von Seltz of the German High Command.
Furthermore the cast did an array of impersonations of the comedy greats from BBC Radio during the war. Arthur Lowe did northern comedian Robb Wilton, reciting his popular monologue The Home Guard. Bill Pertwee did an outstanding performance as the cheeky chappie Max Miller. Joan Cooper and Pam Cundell did a very good performance as Elsie and Doris Waters’ characters Gert and Daisy. Arthur Lowe, Ian Lavender and Michael Bevis also teamed up to play the Happidrome threesome, Lovejoy, Enoch and Ramsbottom. There were other features in the show too.
This patriotic mix of music, comedy and nostalgia went down well with the public it seems, but the critics were very surprised by the disjointed approach. Most of the reviews written following the preview on the 26th of September 1975 were ranging between the bemused and the scathing. The critics, it seems, had expected the show to flow as one long live episode rather than a collection of sketches and songs. Almost all those reporters who attended the preview night on September 26th had made at least one negative remark about the show in their review that followed.
Many made comparisons to Happy As A Sandbag, another West End show that had opened a month before in the Ambassadors Theatre just down the road. Both shows were packed with nostalgic 1940’s songs, and the critics in their wisdom took this trend to be some sort of political statement against the 1975 lack of morale in society, rather than the nostalgic fun Perry and Croft had intended.
Two events in the show however proved to be highlights to many of the critics; the rendition by John Le Mesurier of the famous song A Nightingale Sang In Berkeley Square, and the appearance near the end of the preview performance by the real Chesney Allen. In the scene where Arthur Lowe and John Le Mesurier sang Hometown, they moved arm and arm across the stage to the opposite wing, and each time they got there, they’d come back with another pair of Bud and Ches look-alikes. But the real Ches, a friend of Jimmy Perry’s, switched in the wings with John and came on for this one-off performance. In doing so he apparently brought the house down as it dawned on the audience that they were seeing the real thing!
When the show closed at the Shaftesbury in January 1976, the team had a break and then prepared for a national tour. This point saw several of the cast drop out. John Bardon and Hamish Roughead left the cast. Jeffrey Holland, who had proved his worth in the company, was promoted by Perry and Croft to take on the role of Walker for the tour. For some reason, Frazer was never recast – perhaps a replacement was too hard to find. Because of this, Frazer’s dialogue was dished out to others. In the Morris dance scene it was now Warden Hodges who upsets Jones’s whiffling rather than Frazer.
Also leaving the cast were Pam Cundell and Janet Davies. Actress Peggy Ashby took on the role of Mrs Fox, and Bernice Adams became Mrs Pike. And the characters of Privates Meadow, Woods and Maple disappeared too when Graham Hamilton, Eric Longworth and Norman Macleod all left the cast. Other changes in the lesser cast also occurred through the tour, especially as the show was cut down with some of the leading cast not there.
The most significant change in cast came halfway through the tour. Clive Dunn, who was not that keen on the show, did not want to do the tour. He was persuaded to do so on the proviso that his song Too Old, which was cut after Billingham, would be back in the show. And Clive also agreed that he only had to go as far as Bournemouth. At that point he left the tour, which went on to Newcastle, Richmond, Brighton and Bath with the popular actor Jack Haig taking over as Jones. There was some irony in this substitution because the part of Jones was originally written in 1968 for Haig, who had to decline the role because of other work.
It is interesting that there is once again a trend to perform Dad’s Army in the theatre. I personally find it hard to imagine seeing Bardon and Roughead in their respective roles as Walker and Frazer, though handpicked by Perry and Croft and no doubt very good. Even the gifted and much suited Jack Haig wouldn’t have quite been Jones when compared with Clive Dunn. So it is very interesting to hear and read the reports that both the Tring and Portsmouth plays were wonderful tributes to the series with very lifelike performances by these amateur actors. And in more recent years too there have been professional Dad's Army stage tours with a whole new cast. Amazing. Good on them for keeping the show alive, live. But they'll never be as good as the original, in 1975-76.