There has been since the early days of television an active trade in programming between the United States and Great Britain. Fueled, obviously, by our common language, that trade brought America into my living room through programs as varied as “Kojak,” “Bonanza,” “Car 54,” “Bewitched” and “The Fugitive,” to name just a very few of several dozen American shows that engaged my young years.
British shows have found an audience here, too, though not nearly on the scale that U.S. television was embraced in Britain. This trade imbalance has caused Americans to miss out on a few British gems, chief among which I would place a World War II situation comedy called “Dad’s Army” that ran from 1968 to 1977 and which is currently available in its entirety on Netflix.
Evangelizing for “Dad’s Army” is an act of homage on my part to one of the most endearing comedies ever to earn beloved status in 1960s and 1970s Britain. The series depicts, with profound affection, the incompetence, bravado and pomposity of the Home Guard detachment charged with defending from German invasion that stretch of the fictional seaside town of Walmington-on-Sea “from the Novelty Rock Emporium to Stone’s Amusement Arcade.”
The Home Guard, a real organization, was designed as Britain’s last line of defense should the Nazis overcome the Royal Air Force and the Royal Navy and touch British soil. It was composed largely of men beyond fighting age but equipped with memories of service in World War I and various hotspots throughout the once vigorous British Empire.
Their weapons were whatever came to hand, their leaders whomever was available. In Walmington-on-Sea, George Mainwaring (pronounced “Mannering”) was available. He is the manager of the town bank, treasurer of the Rotary Club and, being such a solid citizen, a natural choice for the captain’s armband.
Perhaps the easiest way to illustrate how thoroughly Captain Mainwaring (played by Arthur Lowe) inserted himself into the hearts of the British people is to mention that a bronze statue to him has been erected at the town of Thetford, where the series was largely filmed.
The show is packed with memorable comic characters — some subtle, some slapsticky, some pathetic in the traditional sense of pathos.
But Mainwaring’s pomposity is the foundation of the series. He is rarely granted the funniest lines and yet he is the funniest character. His vigilance against the Nazi threat is easily matched by his vigilance against slights to his dignity. His love of country is complete, his assumption of British superiority total, his assessment of his little detachment’s capabilities hilariously high.
“Dad’s Army” became legendary, I think, not just because it is funny but also because it casts a loving eye over men who truly were ready, in the twilight of their lives, to give to their country whatever they had left, even if the cause was lost and the barbarians were hammering at the castle doors.
Honor is due those men, even if, in the security born of victory, it is awarded in the comfort of comic form.