It was common practice for 1970s sitcoms to have spin-off films: “On the Buses”, “Rising Damp”, “Are You Being Served?” and “Porridge” were all given big-screen outings, with their usual casts in more expensive settings. It is now almost as common for 1970s television series to be revived as semi-parodic films, with new actors playing the old characters: “Starsky & Hutch” and “The Dukes of Hazzard” are obvious examples. What is novel about “Dad’s Army” is that it occupies a strange no-man’s-land between both types of film. It has been made nearly 40 years after the original series concluded, and features almost none of the original cast (because they are nearly all dead), but it makes no attempt to put a modern spin on the premise, to reboot it for neophyte viewers, or to do anything that couldn’t have been done when the sitcom was still running. Indeed, there was a “Dad’s Army” film in 1971 that served as a prequel to the series, which made it more inventive and self-contained than the 2016 version.
Just in case you aren’t as familiar with “Dad’s Army” as the film assumes you are, its main characters are all members of Britain’s Home Guard during the second world war. Either too old or too unfit to fight overseas, they keep calm and carry on with their day jobs in the fictional Sussex town of Walmington-on-Sea. And in their spare time they put on their khakis and train for combat, half-hoping and half-fearing that they will have to see off a Nazi invasion. But the film never stops to explain what the Home Guard is. It would be an understandable omission if it had been made at the same time as the series, but today it sends out a clear message: if you’re not one of the faithful, don’t bother watching.
From beginning to end, “Dad’s Army” preaches to the converted. Early on, a German officer paraphrases the sitcom’s beloved theme song (“Who do you think you are kidding, Mr Churchill?”), a joke – to put it generously – which will be meaningless to the uninitiated. Towards the end, when the dithery Lance-Corporal Jones (Tom Courtenay) admits that he has never actually killed anyone, Captain Mainwaring (Toby Jones) is incredulous. “What about those stories you’re always telling us about the Sudan,” he splutters. But in the film, Jones hasn’t mentioned the Sudan; Mainwaring is referring back to Jones’s war stories from the series, which is surely cheating. Also in the series, it is hinted that Sergeant Wilson (now played extra-languorously by Bill Nighy) is having an affair with the widowed mother of Pike (Blake Harrison), and that he may be Pike’s father. But in the film their family set-up is so well established that, if you hadn’t watched the programme, you might wonder why Pike keeps calling Wilson “Uncle Arthur”. Why doesn’t he just call him “Dad”?
Maybe the film’s writer, Hamish McColl, and its director, Oliver Parker, have taken the most sensible approach. Given that a comedy about some geriatric bumblers in a quaint English town was never likely to be an international blockbuster, you can see why McColl and Parker set their sights on the sitcom’s existing aficionados. But when a film aims for no higher praise than, “It’s just like the series, only not as good,” it becomes almost fascinating in its pointlessness: a perverse piece of conceptual art to rival Gus Van Sant’s shot-by-shot remake of “Psycho”.
Still, the sitcom’s many fans should be broadly satisfied. A nostalgic, gentle homage, “Dad’s Army” benefits from warmly lit, picturesque scenery, a generally affable air and a cast that could hardly be bettered. All the actors bring back fond memories of their 1970s counterparts without resorting to slavish imitations, and Jones paints a meticulous portrait of deflated dignity as Mainwaring. Unlike the series, though, the film is slow and rickety with a shortage of jokes and a wafer-thin plot (revolving around Catherine Zeta-Jones’s vampish journalist). True, those criticisms could be applied to most big-screen adaptations of 1970s sitcoms. But that’s why those spin-offs are largely forgotten, while the sitcoms that spawned them keep being discovered by generation after generation.
Dad’s Army in cinemas from February 5th