The golden age of television
Ahead of a talk at the Belfast Book Festival, Dad’s Army actor Frank Williams tells Andrew Doyle sitcoms have peaked
Picture the scene. It is 1940. We are at a train station in a seaside town on the south coast of England. A vicar, a verger, an air raid warden, and the local mayor in full official regalia are frantically pumping away on a push trolley as it soars down the railway line in pursuit of an out-of-control steam train. They look ridiculous.
Fans of Dad's Army will recognise this scenario as the climax of The Royal Train, a much-loved episode from the sixth series. For Frank Williams, the actor who played the vicar from 1969 to 1977, this is one of his fondest memories. "It was hard work," he tells me, "but it was also enormous fun."
Now at the age of 82, Frank has been working in television for six decades. He has shared the screen with an enviable range of comedic luminaries, including Tommy Cooper, Morecambe and Wise, the Two Ronnies, Peter Sellers, and Thora Hird. But it will always be his role in Dad's Army for which he will be best remembered.
Frank describes the Rev Timothy Farthing as a "not very pleasant, rather tetchy vicar" who made life as difficult as possible for Captain Mainwaring and his motley crew in the Home Guard.
In 2003, Frank co-wrote a book about his experiences called Vicar To Dad's Army: The Frank Williams Story, and tomorrow he'll be at the Crescent Arts Centre in Belfast to talk about his life and work.
As far as Frank is concerned, the "golden age of British comedy" lasted from the late Sixties to the early Eighties. When our conversation turns to modern-day sitcoms, he isn't exactly rhapsodic.
"I don't watch a great deal of comedy on television now because, well, quite honestly a lot of it doesn't appeal to me. I don't think commissioners get it right. Comedy shows take time to develop, they need to be nursed. I fear that if the BBC were confronted with Dad's Army now, it wouldn't have survived for more than one series."
With this in mind, it is no great surprise to hear that one of the few modern comedies that Frank has enjoyed is John Morton's W1A, a show that pulls no punches in its depiction of the BBC's commissioning process.
"I thought it was brilliant," he says. "To me, W1A satirises all that's wrong with decision-making in television." He pauses for a moment. "I'm going to get into trouble for this," he adds with a laugh.
Frank's first foray into television comedy was playing the role of Captain Pocket in The Army Game (1957-1961). Thanks to the recent DVD release, fans can enjoy all 50 surviving episodes, although three times that many were actually broadcast. It is because of DVDs and the internet that the old shows from Frank's 'golden age' are reaching a whole new generation.
"Children love it. We have this Dad's Army reunion weekend every year in Thetford in Norfolk, where we did most of the location filming. On the Sunday we have an open day, and lots of families come along: great-grandparents and great-grandchildren and everybody in between. And they're all fans of Dad's Army."
I ask Frank why he thinks the show has endured. He puts it down to the skill of the writers, Jimmy Perry and David Croft. "They were very clever with their comedies because they always set them in the past. This means that they never date. It Ain't Half Hot Mum and Dad's Army were in the war, Hi-De-Hi! was a Fifties holiday camp, and You Rang, M'Lord? was set back in the Twenties."
Frank is especially proud of his performance in You Rang, M'Lord? which ran for four series from 1990 to 1993 and starred Su Pollard, Jeffrey Holland and the late Paul Shane. "I suppose playing the vicar in Dad's Army did land me quite a bit in clergy roles. In You Rang, M'Lord? I was promoted to being a bishop, so the Church seemed to haunt me."
You Rang, M'Lord? is one of the great forgotten sitcoms of the late-20th century. It is a genuinely subversive show that mercilessly satirises the exploitative nature of the ruling class, not to mention its portrayal of a sympathetic lesbian character in the form of Cissy Meldrum, played by Catherine Rabett.
"I think it had a lot to say," agrees Frank. "I thought it was a great series and I feel privileged to have been a part of it."
Frank believes that Dad's Army likewise sought to make a point as well as entertain. "In many ways it had a serious side," says Frank. "It was an affectionate look at the Home Guard. It's about a group of people who really care passionately about what they're doing. It's not just a comedy."
I suggest that these days patriotism is often seen as something negative. "Yes," he agrees. "I think that's sadly true. But Dad's Army didn't actually wave the patriotic flag, it just took it for granted that England was a good place to be, that it needed defending, and there was this group of old men who were going to defend its shores to the best of their ability, to the last of their breath."
The sentiment seems timely, given last week's D-Day commemorations. Frank grew up during the Thirties and Forties, but living in the London suburb of Edgware meant that the threat of war was remote. "I was eight when the war began. I suppose I was quite sheltered in a way, so it didn't really impinge on me emotionally.
"People who lived in the East End near the docks obviously had a very different perspective from people like myself who lived in a relatively quiet area. The only bombs that ever fell anywhere near us were really by accident, or when they wanted to unload before going back to Germany."
Appropriately enough, one of his memories of wartime involved the Home Guard. "I remember a seeing German plane coming down about a quarter of a mile from where we lived. There was a man falling out with a parachute, and my mother went to fetch Mr Humphries.
"He was part of the local Home Guard and lived a couple of doors away from us. He probably did a kind of Captain Mainwaring and summoned the troops. I don't suppose the German pilot was any real menace to them because he was on his own."
Frank's experience on the periphery of the war is similar to that of the characters in Dad's Army. Like Frank's home in Edgware, the fictional town of Walmington-on-Sea is relatively free from the threat of bombs. As Frank points out, there is "very little of the real impact of war in the show". It is perhaps this lack of genuine jeopardy that enabled the writers to make the war a suitable backdrop for comedy.
Frank explains the contradiction. "You get this idyllic idea of life in Walmington-on-Sea where everybody is friendly with everybody else. Even though there's a war on, it seems a sort of peaceful time if you know what I mean. It's
the sense of a community pulling together for the common good. It's reminiscent of a bygone age which I think a lot of people look back on with affection."
Does this mean that community spirit is a thing of the past? "Well people do live much more separate lives now, don't they? It slightly depresses me when I see young people wandering around with their nose buried in a mobile phone, texting each other. I'm beginning to sound like a grumpy old man."
Perhaps inevitably, the conversation moves on to the recent reports of a possible Dad's Army film with Toby Jones as Captain Mainwaring and Bill Nighy as Sergeant Wilson. I am reminded of the attempt to revisit the Carry On franchise in 1992, 14 years after the series had finished, using a cast of modern comedy stars. The result, Carry On Columbus, was derided by Carry On stalwart Joan Sims, who wrote in her autobiography, High Spirits, that "it was as if a whole new generation of comic actors were speaking a foreign language badly".
I mention this to Frank, who admits to having felt sceptical when he heard the news. "My initial reaction was that they shouldn't mess with it. The original cast were iconic. But the more I've thought about it the more I feel quite positive, because Jimmy and David created some wonderful characters and it would be very interesting to see other actors having a go."
As we near the end of the interview, Frank tells me about the stage version of Dad's Army that was produced at London's Shaftesbury Theatre in 1975, before touring nationally the following year. "Everybody really enjoyed it," he says. "It was a lovely hot summer, endless blue skies week after week. It was just a wonderful time. The Dad's Army years were the happiest of my life."
Recalling that 'golden age', Frank's voice takes on an unmistakably wistful tone. The novelist, Angela Carter, once described nostalgia as "the vice of the aged", but for Frank, it is something to be celebrated. He still enjoys watching Dad's Army on DVD. "Not for myself," he insists. "I just think the timing between Arthur Lowe, John Le Mesurier and Clive Dunn was so brilliant that I'm lost in admiration for them every time I watch it."
There is a part of Frank that will always be chasing that steam train in Walmington-on-Sea. And who would deny him that pleasure?
A life on screen ... Frank’s most cherished roles
Eustace Wallasy in The Queen Came By (1955)
“It was my first big television part,” Frank recalls. “I loved doing it. It’s a brilliantly written play. All television then was live; the BBC would film the Sunday play, which would be repeated on the Thursday, so you had to go in and do it again.”
Captain Pocket in The Army Game (1957-1961)
Frank’s breakthrough role. The show starred William Hartnell who later went on to play the first Doctor Who. As the shows were broadcast live, the DVD release in 2008 came as something of a surprise to Frank. “As far as I knew, they were all live programmes, but obviously somebody at Granada Television was quite crafty and did some surreptitious recording.”
Malcolm in Emergency — Ward 10 (1957-1967)
One of Britain television’s earliest soap operas.
“I enjoyed hovering between life and death,” recalls Frank, whose character had a serious operation. “And then I got better, be
cause that’s what they did in the TV soaps back then. These days they kill them off at the drop of a hat.”
Various roles in Harry Worth (1960-1970)
Worth’s self-titled series ran for almost 100 episodes and Frank played numerous characters. “People didn’t seem to mind in those days; you could play one role and then come back in another week as someone different. Harry was the most delightful man, one of my favourite people.”
Wasunski in Anna Karenina (1961)
An adaptation of Tolstoy’s novel starring Claire Bloom and Sean Connery, rediscovered in the BBC vaults in 2010 and later released on DVD. “I enjoyed it very much. It was rehearsed as a proper play, so even though I only had a smallish part, I was there for the whole process.”
Various roles in Diary of a Young Man (1964)
This series was directed by Ken Loach and Peter Duguid. According to Frank it was “very much ahead of its time”.
The Reverend Timothy Farthing in Dad’s Army (1969-1977)
Frank describes this show as “one of the great classics of all time”. In 2004 it was voted as number four in the BBC’s Britain’s Best Sitcom poll.
Charles the Lord Bishop in You Rang, M’Lord? (1990-1993)
This early ’90s sitcom was Jimmy Perry and David Croft’s final collaboration. It is one of Frank’s favourite shows. “I think it’s wonderful, and I just don’t know why the BBC has never repeated it.”
Belfast Book Festival highlights
Ways With Words: Literature Development Day
A development day for writers and other literature professionals. The afternoon session will focus on self-publishing. Crescent Arts Centre, 10.30-4pm. Tickets £20
The festival welcomes the award-winning poet and author of New Weather (1973), Why Brownlee Left (1980), Quoof (1983) and Moy Sand and Gravel (2002).Crescent Arts Centre, 8pm. Tickets £8/£6 concession
Alan Johnson in conversation with Stephen Walker
Alan Johnson’s This Boy is the remarkable story of a woman struggling to raise her family in the slums of 1950s Notting Hill Gate; her daughter who fought to rescue her from illness and debt and her son, who went on to be Home Secretary.Crescent Arts Centre, 1pm. Tickets £8/£6
More Tea Vicar?
Dad's Army Vicar Frank Williams invites you to join him for a hilarious afternoon of television nostalgia. Crescent Arts Centre, 3pm-5pm. Tickets £8/£6
With characteristic verve and integrity, Ann recalls her life and highlights the people and events that most influenced her along the way. Crescent Arts Centre, 8.00pm. Tickets £8/£6
Mary Kenny in conversation with Noel Thompson
Mary recalls her life experiences with a combination of humour and charm.Crescent Arts Centre, 8pm. Tickets £8/£6 firstname.lastname@example.org