“Who Do You Think You Are Kidding, Mr Hitler?” The Timeless Appeal of Dad’s Army and its Historical Relevance

Written by Kathryn Robinson. Edited by Sam Ellis.

When Bud Flanagan sings that famous first line of the theme tune, you know that you are about to witness thirty minutes of relentless mockery of the Home Guard. Or do you?

Dad's_ArmyDad’s Army was a British sitcom aired on the BBC from 1968 to 1977 and was written by Jimmy Perry and David Croft. Interestingly, the majority of the actors in this programme – as well as Perry and Croft – had some sort of military background.

Mainwaring was the pompous but patriotic commander of the platoon who resented his popularity being constantly eclipsed by the gentle, public school-educated Wilson. Jones was worryingly enthusiastic and battle-experienced in comparison to Pike who was perpetually anxious about his mother catching him out without his scarf. Fraser was pessimistic and often two-faced especially towards the elderly Godfrey. And lastly, there was Walker: the eternal spiv but immensely likeable.

These characters and the show itself are still as amusing now as they were then but I think that although Dad’s Amy appears to make fun of the Home Guard, it rather subtly and cleverly pays tribute to them. It can also tell us a lot about the history and historiography of the Home Guard and the Second World War.

On the 14th May 1940, War Secretary Anthony Eden made a broadcast on BBC radio announcing the creation of an organisation called the LDV (Local Defence Volunteers), more commonly known as the Home Guard, who would deal with the possibility of Nazi invasion threats towards Britain. Although they were sometimes not taken seriously, their presence during the war and particularly at times of panic about an imminent German invasion was invaluable.

During the first episode, The Man and the Hour, Mainwaring – speaking in 1968 – gives a speech about the dangerous times in which the Home Guard worked to achieve victory. At the end of Dad’s Army’s run, the last scene of Never Too Old includes the characters facing the camera whilst giving a toast to the Home Guard. By doing this, the writers quite clearly laid out their agenda that the Home Guard be recognised at heart as a valuable and courageous organisation. It is undeniable that the audience laugh heartily at the programme but I think what the audience at the time and what the viewers now are laughing at is the characters not the concept.

There are many examples of the features of the Second World War in the programme. Rationing is often included because there are two characters that are on opposite sides of the system: Jones is a butcher and therefore represents the legitimate face of the system whilst Walker is a black market trader who represented the defiance of this wartime control.

However, Jones often uses rationed commodities to get what he wants. In The Man and the Hour, Jones bribes Mainwaring with two steaks to let him become the Lance Corporal of the platoon. Walker’s activities are frowned upon by Mainwaring and Wilson for the sake of appearances but actually result in helping them. In The Test, it was Walker who supplied the balls for the cricket match against the ARP wardens and he uses the opportunity to sell them to Mainwaring at an extortionate price. It is interesting to note that Walker’s character has been influential in the formation of historiography on the black market during this time, most notably for Mark Roodhouse.

The programme also includes many examples of wartime stereotypes. For example, in War Dance, Mainwaring expresses his disgust that Pike is going out with a girl from the ATS (Auxiliary Territorial Service) because “you never know where these girls come from”. Similarly, in All is Safely Gathered In, land girls are represented as spending more time flirting with the soldiers than getting involved with work for the harvest. Perry and Croft do this partly to allow the audience to laugh at the pompous attitudes of people like Mainwaring and therefore the attitudes that some people held at the time.

However, the most important way in which Dad’s Army includes the history of the Home Front is through the concept of the wartime community and its various challenges. The Home Guard regularly argue with the ARP wardens and the vicar and verger. For example, in The Day The Balloon Went Up, the Home Guard finds has to face some difficult questions about who had dared to write a rude word on the vicar’s harmonium. Such difficulties are usually begrudgingly resolved through Mainwaring’s persistent appeals to recognise that they are all fighting a common enemy in their own ways.

More positively, Mainwaring’s patriotic speeches in many an episode mostly show that the platoon and the town were committed to fighting the war together despite their disagreements. The topic of the wartime community continues to be hotly discussed in the historiography and Dad’s Army shows both sides of the debate.

So what possible use can we get from a sitcom aired four decades ago in which the majority of the actors have sadly passed away? The fact that the popularity of this programme has endured for a long time is enough to make us sit up and take notice. But more importantly, the ways that the programme has portrayed the war and influenced historiography are subtle, yet absolutely vital. In the immortal words of Jones, we should have permission to speak about it…at length.