Monday, 28 December 2015


This article was originally published in The Dundee Courier on 26th December 2015.

We're Doomed! The Dad's Army Story: Tuesday, BBC Two

From Andy Pandy to Zebedee: The Golden Age of Children's TV: Monday, BBC Four

Paul Whitelaw

The BBC, especially at Christmas, is entitled to wallow nostalgically in its own legacy. Last week it even wallowed twice with barely a hint of self-congratulation. On the contrary, We're Doomed! The Dad's Army Story depicted certain BBC executives as the myopic villains of the piece.

An affectionate comedy-drama about the troubled origins of the much-loved wartime sitcom, it showed how writers Jimmy Perry and David Croft (who also produced) struggled to convince their overlords – particularly BBC One Controller Paul Fox, perhaps unfairly portrayed by Keith Allen as formidably humourless – that a comedy about the Home Guard could work. With WWII still in living memory, might it be deemed insensitive?

It's laughable to think that a sitcom as benign as Dad's Army could ever be thought of as tasteless, but it was clearly a real concern in 1967.

So, while the story hit familiar behind-the-scenes beats – writers search for a great idea, slave over scripts and shape their vision, are forced into compromise by unsympathetic bosses before being proved all along that they were right – it was told in such a breezy, charming, witty way, it never felt redundant.

Packed with touching detail, good gags – I loved the fleeting references to Jon Pertwee and Trevor Eve - a nice sense of bright, smoky '60s period, and winning performances from an adroitly chosen cast of fine character actors – John Sessions' total transformation into the endearingly temperamental Arthur Lowe was miraculous – it was a refreshingly warm antidote to the BBC's notorious, and hopefully extinct, glut of dubious tears-of-a-clown biopics.

Despite its relatively brief running time, writer Stephen Russell managed to add depth to most of the principle players. The pathos of the frail Arnold Ridley, the flinty insecurity of Arthur Lowe, and the core dramatic struggle of Perry, a frustrated actor who desperately wanted a part in the show until he realised that writing was his calling, were handled with commendable sensitivity.

A poignant highlight was the scene of Perry shedding tears as his ageing comedy hero Bud Flanagan (Roy Hudd, who else?) recorded the Dad's Army theme song in one avuncular take. And yes, it ended with a “You Have Been Watching” roll call. Delightful stuff.

Another nostalgic labour of love, From Andy Pandy to Zebedee: The Golden Age of Children's TV celebrated the pioneering origins and reign of the BBC's generation-shaping children's output from the '50s to the early '90s.

Despite some curious narrative leaps – forgiveable, perhaps, given the 60 minute running time – this was a tender cut above most archival clip shows. It scoured the vaults with an evident sense of craft and care. It also made a point of explaining how innovative and important the likes of Play School, Vision On and, for all its dryly middle-class faults, Blue Peter were in educating and entertaining children. 

And kudos for devoting time to the inadvertently nightmarish spectre of Noseybonk from Jigsaw; truly The Child Catcher of '80s TV.

On a cheerier note, the sight and sound of eminent talking heads such as Johnny Ball, Bernard Cribbins and the man who injected some rare jazz/soul groove into kid's TV, Derek Griffiths, was enough to inspire a Proustian rush. You know you're watching a decent documentary about popular entertainment when it's inhabited by relevant, knowledgeable contributors, rather than fatuous modern comedians.

As former Blue Peter presenter Janet Ellis observed only half-jokingly, a channel entirely devoted to Cribbins' soothing presence could cure the world's ills. Now that really would be public service broadcasting.

I also challenge anyone to refute that the ambient voice of Oliver Postgate is the voice of God Himself. Merry Christmas.

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