Dad’s Army – The Battle of Godfrey’s Cottage

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No doubt helped by endless re-runs, Dad’s Army remains one of the most familiar British archive sitcoms.  For some, this familiarity has bred contempt, but whilst parts of it have worn thin over the years (Corporal Jones really needs a good slap) the sheer number of episodes means that you can still stumble over a less well-known instalment which will have a few surprises.

This is particularly true of the surviving episodes from the first two series, as their black and white nature has meant that they don’t get repeated as often as their colour counterparts.  And two episodes from the second series (Operation Kilt and The Battle of Godfrey’s Cottage) were only rediscovered in 2001 (in film cans which had spent twenty five years rusting in a garden shed) which gave even hardened Dad’s Army watchers at the time the chance to experience something “new”.

As a child, it was the large-scale visual episodes which appealed, such as The Day the Balloon Went Up, which saw the platoon set off in hot pursuit after Captain Mainwaring, who’d been carried away by a barrage balloon!  As I’ve got older, I find the character-based episodes to be more to my taste.  Ones such as Branded (which saw Godfrey’s courage called into question) and A. Wilson, Manager? (Wilson’s promotion infuriates Mainwaring) now entertain me more.

Although the comedy in Dad’s Army is often broad, it’s also based on historical fact.  The Home Guard was poorly equipped to begin with, which was a worry for many – especially as a German invasion was believed to be imminent.  With guns and ammunition in short supply, other methods of defence and attack had to be found – this webpage has some interesting information, such as the fact that one Home Guard unit carried pepper with them, which they intended to throw into the enemy’s faces!

In The Battle of Godfrey’s Cottage, Mainwaring calls his men to the Novelty Rock Emporium, which will be their command post in the event of a German invasion.  The viewer, armed with the knowledge that no invasion was ever attempted, is immediately placed at an advantage over the platoon.  Therefore when the church bells ring and everybody jumps to the wrong conclusion (the Germans have arrived) we can be secure in the knowledge that everything will be all right.

This might been the cue for some slapstick comedy, but instead Perry & Croft go a little darker to begin with.  Mainwaring, Jones and Frazer believe that they’re the only members of the platoon left in the town who can deal with the Germans, so they head off to Godfrey’s cottage (an ideal place to mount a defence, due to its strategic location) in order to make a last ditch attempt to repel the attackers.  All three accept that they’re going to their deaths, but deal with this stoically.  It’s only a brief moment, but it’s a lovely character touch that says so much.

There’s a certain amount of contrivance which has to employed in order to get the plot to work.  Mainwaring, Jones and Frazer have now reached Godfrey’s cottage and Jones puts on an old German helmet (from Godfrey’s adventures in WW1) to defend himself.  The other members of the platoon, approaching the cottage, see a figure with a German helmet and naturally jump to the wrong conclusion.

Godfrey’s genteel home life – he lives with his two sisters, Dolly (Amy Dalby) and Cissy (Nan Braunton) – is rudely shattered by the arrival of Mainwaring and his machine gun.  If Godfrey seems to be a little disconnected from the realties of life, then that’s even more the case with his sisters.  Dolly’s reaction when she hears that the Germans are coming is just to fret that she’ll have to go and make a great deal more tea for all of their new visitors.

Possibly the most interesting part of the story is how the various members of the platoon deal with the pressure of being under fire.  Pike is naturally terrified, Mainwaring is resolute and determined to fight on to the bitter end, whilst Wilson is somewhat hesitant and indecisive (no real change from his normal character then).  But when Wilson believes that the “Germans” in the cottage have surrendered, he initially wants to send Walker out to negotiate with them, whilst he remains behind in safety.  It’s small character moments like this which make The Battle of Godfrey’s Cottage a very rewarding episode to rewatch.

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The Galton and Simpson Playhouse – Car Along The Pass

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Ray Galton and Alan Simpson’s writing career started in the late 1940’s (when they were both confined in the same tuberculous sanatorium) and it continued for the next thirty years – coming to an end with this series.  After The Galton and Simpson Playhouse was transmitted in 1977, Alan Simpson retired from scriptwriting whilst Ray Galton carried on, working with several other collaborators (such as Johnny Speight).

Galton and Simpson, are of course, best known for Hancock’s Half Hour (six radio series and six television series), Hancock (their seventh and final television series written for Tony Hancock, featuring classics such as The Bedsitter, The Lift, The Bowmans, The Blood Donor and The Radio Ham) and Steptoe and Son.

Following Tony Hancock’s decision to fire them as his writing team, the BBC offered them carte-blanche to write about anything they wished, and so the Comedy Playhouse series was born.  One episode, The Offer concerned two rag and bone men and it seemed to have potential – out of this came the long-running Steptoe and Son.

YTV’s The Galton and Simpson Playhouse seemed to be a conscious nod to this series, as the programme clearly emulated the style of Comedy Playhouse (one off comedy playlets featuring some of the best acting talent around).  It’s a pretty decent effort for them to bow out on, as whilst it’s fair to say that their writing heyday was in the 1950’s and 1960’s, this series isn’t completely without merit.

Having said that, it’s a shame that it kicked off with Car Along The Pass, easily the weakest of the seven shows.  Henry and Ethel Duckworth (Arthur Lowe and Mona Washbourne) take a cable-car trip in the Swiss Alps.  Henry hasn’t enjoyed his holiday at all and things don’t improve when the cable-car stops when it’s only half way across.  The passengers are told that repairs will take a few hours, so naturally Henry (since he’s an Englishman) decides to take charge.

Henry Duckworth has faint echoes of Lowe’s most famous comedy character (Captain Mainwaring from Dad’s Army).  Both are rather pompous and incredibly proud of their country of birth, but Mainwaring is also a basically decent man (plus he has the rest of the platoon to keep him in check).  Duckworth is just a blinkered bore, with no redeeming qualities whatsoever.

There’s plenty of comic potential in taking a disparate group of people and trapping them in a confined space – after all, Galton and Simpson did this to great comic effect with the Hancock episode, The Lift.  But Car Along The Pass is a very pale imitation.  Had Henry learnt anything about his fellow passengers, or himself, then it might have been worthwhile – but his worldview remains the same at the end as it was at the start.

He’s dismayed to find there’s only a few British people aboard and even more upset to discover that means he’s surrounded by foreigners.  The one that seems to cause him the most pain is a smooth-talking German, Heinz Steiner (Anton Differing).  Steiner is something of an anglophile and professes a love of rugby (which he played whilst at public school in England).  When Steiner asks if Duckworth attended public school, the Englishman is reticent.  “That, um, is something that we never ask in England.  We just know.”  Predictably, Ethel spoils the moment by saying she didn’t think Henry played rugby at Witham Grammar, she though he played football instead.

Steiner wonders if Henry has visited Germany.  Yes, he says, in 1945.  The presence of French and Italians gives him further scope to restate the superiority of the English.  During this, it’s hard to decide whether we should be laughing at him or with him.  It’s the Alf Garnett problem, I suppose – some of the audience will probably agree with his sentiments whilst others will view him as an out-of-date dinosaur.

My affection for Arthur Lowe means that I can find some merit in this (although you have to dig deep) and Anton Differing is very good, but to be honest, Car Along The Pass is pretty poor stuff.