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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A Christmas Carol (BBC 1977)

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Broadcast on the 24th of December 1977, it’s fair to say that they don’t make them like this anymore.  It’s completely studio-bound and at times places characters, via the wonder of CSO, in front of illustrated backdrops.  For some, this artificiality might be an issue but I feel that the non-naturalistic moments are strengths not weakness.

One of the main pluses of this production is the quality of Elaine Morgan’s adaptation.  Dickens’ novella wasn’t particularly long and she was able to compress it down quite comfortably to just under an hour.  Everything of note from the original story (including much of the dialogue) has been retained and it’s interesting that the likes of Ignorance and Want (often removed from adaptations) are present and correct.

Michael Horden, an actor who always seemed to play bemused and vague characters, is excellent as Scrooge – although since he lacks bite and arrogance he’s better as the story proceeds (especially when Scrooge is finally presented as a humble and chastised man).

John Le Mesurier only has a few minutes to make an impression as Jacob Marley, but he certainly does.  His scenes with Horden were complicated by the fact that both weren’t on set at the same time (Marley, as befits a ghost, was only ever seen as an insubstantial presence).  This isn’t really a problem though, since both actors had such good timing they were able to make it work.

The arrival of Patricia Quinn as the Ghost of Christmas Past sees Scrooge revisit his own past.  The establishing shots of Scrooge’s schoolhouse are presented via a series of illustrated images, with Horden and Quinn overlaid.  You can either view this as a necessity, due to the production’s low-budget, or an inspired choice.  One nice moment occurs when we move into the schoolhouse and there’s another illustration – which then morphs into a real-life scene.

Almost unrecognisable, thanks to a heavy beard, is Bernard Lee as the Ghost of Christmas Present (although his voice is unmistakable).  Paul Copley is slightly too jolly and irritating as Fred, but this a rare production mistep.  Clive Merrison, with an impressive wig, is a fine Bob Cratchit whilst Zoe Wanamaker is equally good as Belle.  There’s plenty of other familiar faces, including John Salthouse, John Ringham, June Brown and Christopher Biggins whilst the brief opening narration is provided by (an uncredited) Brian Blessed.

Although there’s many adaptations of A Christmas Carol available, this one is certainly worth your time – partly because of the quality of the cast, but also due to its fidelity to Charles Dickens’ original story.  Many adaptations can’t help but make various “improvements” but Elaine Morgan was content to let the strength of the tale speak for itself.