Dad's Army has been one of the biggest British movies of 2016 so far and saw Oliver Parker back in the director's chair while Hamish McColl penned the screenplay.
We caught up with the directing and writing duo to chat about the film, any trepidation about tackling such an iconic project, and bringing together such an impressive cast.
- Dad's Army has just been released on DV, so can you tell me a bit about the film for anyone why may not have seen it yet?
Hamish: We re-meet the platoon in 1944, the war is almost over and the allies are about to invade Germany. Mainwaring's platoon has spent the number of years doing an endless number of exercises and mundane tasks. However, the arrival of the glamorous Rose Winters - played by Catherine Zeta-Jones - brings the war across the channel and into Walmington-on-Sea.
- Of course, the film is inspired by the iconic TV series so where did the project start for you? And was there any initial apprehension about being part of this project?
Oliver: It started with producer Damian Jones, who I think is very canny in looking for opportunities. The story goes, one night he was watching The Voice, or one of those shows, got a bit bored of it and switched over to find Dad's Army running on a Saturday night and getting great figures. He thought 'my goodness, there is still a huge interest in this.' From that, he took that idea to my friend Hamish.
Hamish: I was worried about taking on something that was so loved and so perfect as a television series. However, I was reassured by just how wonderful those characters were and their relationships but I thought that there was still room to do something. So I started looking around for a story that would fill the big screen.
- Hamish, what was your starting point when you began writing the film's screenplay? You set the story much later in the war and I wondered how early in the writing process that was made and why that decision was made?
Hamish: It was made for a specific reason. I had been looking for a good period to set the movie and I was intrigued by Operation Bodyguard, which was a real-life allied misinformation operation that was put in place in 1944 to fool German high commanders as to where the allies were going to land in France. Was it going to be Normandy? Was it going to be Calais? If they could keep the Germans guessing, they would have to spread their force thinner along the French coast.
Because of that, dummy bases were put up all along the English coast, which contained lots of airplanes made out of balsa wood and inflatable tanks. When I saw pictures of these squaddies carrying these inflatable tanks, it just seemed perfect for Dad's Army territory. It was a wonderful illustration of the gap between the ambition that the platoon had to be involved in the war and the reality, which was very different.
- A question to you both, how often did you go back to old episodes of the series as you were writing the screenplay and preparing to shoot - or did you try to stay away from them? Also, did you do any kind of research did you do into this period and the Home Guard for the film?
Oliver: In terms of re-visiting the TV show, certainly in the early stages it was great to remind myself. I think Hamish saw every single one of them again.
Oliver: I saw many of them. They are all incredibly ingrained in one's memory because we both grew up watching the show with our families. It is astonishing how these characters and situations inform the interior landscape of your mind; they were all living in there. I would them compare that to what I had just read in Hamish's script and think it was remarkable how he had managed to capture the voices of those characters.
It was a combination of really taking those characters and putting them into this real-life situation at the end of the war and real jeopardy. It felt like it was actually lifting it onto a slightly different platform with a cinematic potential, which made it feel more exciting and possible.
Hamish: In terms of research, it is a comedy and it is not a historical thing. I did use a fair amount of research into the original comedy series and making sure that I knew about Operation Bodyguard. There was more faithful research done by those who were responsible for creating Walmington in Yorkshire, which is where we filmed.
Oliver: Yeah, the writer doesn't really care that much. The writer just says 'here you are, you sort it out' (laughs). He leaves it to us. I had a fantastic production designer in Simon Bowles, who is meticulous and falls deeply in love with the period that he has to convey. A lot of research was done into that period, the different forms of defence, and what life in the village would have been like.
Because we have an opportunity on film - rather than the deliberately limited sets of a television series - we can broaden our landscape and it is important to us that it does feel authentic. It is not a history show, but so many of those details help for everybody, including the actors, to create the world in which the story is set.
- Oliver, can you talk a bit about the casting process. You have brought together a wonderful group of actors and I wondered what you were looking for when you were casting these well-known central roles?
Oliver: Absolutely. As a starting point, we were trying to avoid it being a big brash comedy vehicle where you would get a great comedian that the audience might love to see, but wouldn't be malleable enough to adapt to the characters that we wanted. It was crucial to us that we went for that really in-depth and top notch performer. The key to starting the whole thing of was to cast Mainwaring because he is one of the most iconic TV performances ever and was so perfectly done by Arthur Lowe. We had to find some idiot who was prepared to sacrifice his career (laughs).
We both know Toby Jones well. Toby is quite a small guy and we can hold him down until he finally agreed to sign on the dotted line (laughs). He was absolutely crucial to us. We had both worked with him and we knew that he had a terrific ability to bring both pathos and detail to his comic creation. It was getting him in place that was the foundation stone and many other people were built around him. We were very very lucky that people were game enough to join us on what was a fairly risky journey. We all had moments of sheer terror (laughs) and thoughts of 'how dare we.' Then it became clearer how we dare and why we dare.
It was definitely a journey of finding one's own confidence and gathering a team who were all sufficiently committed. I think that it is a great tribute to, both Hamish's script and to the original creation, that these characters are so appealing. Really, it sort of evolved like that. When it started to move, it was very exciting the speed in which the platoon assembled.
- Female characters play a much bigger role in the film than they ever did in the TV series and that gives it a really fresh and different feel. Were these big female roles of Rose Winters and Mrs. Mainwaring in right from the start & how important was it?
Hamish: They were very important to me from the beginning. I wanted to refresh Walmington-on-Sea to make it a real place and see everyone who lived there. Through doing so, we get to see the platoon members reflected through their relationships as well as amongst their fellow platoon members. That was a really early decision that I had made. I then developed that out as I was writing the script into plot story, which is the arrival of this wonderfully glamorous stranger in town.
Oliver: I think it was one of the immediate attractions of the script; that Hamish had added another dimension. It was extremely exciting to bring out these characters who had been like phantoms in the television series. Of course, it is a fantastic joke that we never seen Mrs. Mainwaring, but it is one joke.
In the end, the mileage that you get out of having Felicity Montagu appear as Mrs. Mainwaring, what it gives you for the story and how is sheds light on Mr. Mainwaring himself, gives a lot more material for us to play with and gives us a lot more light and shade.
- How have you both found the whole process of bringing these great characters to a new generation? How much pressure and responsibility have you felt?
Hamish: I think once we had made the decision to do it, we got on with the work of doing it. In writing the script, I loved writing the script, I loved spending time with those characters, to hear them in my head and then to hear the voices of other actors and feel that that was possible. We all jumped through the hoop of why we should do it, but once we had, then we got down to the business that we love; which is hunting down the piece of work and making it as good, as whole, and has full of integrity as possible.
Oliver: It was a great thrill actually to see the premiere and feel the atmosphere of good will. That good will is generated from the original material but I think people are delighted to see these characters back. I know that some people are a little nervous and almost mistrustful of it but, within ourselves, we feel very confident that is not born of any cynical intention. There is a real desire to revive them and see them for a new generation in a proper cinematic context. That really does become your armour against your trepidation and all your fears. At a certain point, you just commit to it and go for it.
- Dad's Army is such a well-loved television show, what do think has made it so enduring?
Hamish: I think that it is a certain quality of community, which is seen most acutely in the platoon but also more widely in war time as people were thrown together and we united by one common purpose. I think that we are nostalgic for that time where people did feel... I think that we are nostalgic for community in a certain way and all of them were united by one thing; which was that they were all trying to do their bit.
On a comic level, the characters bump into one another, disagree, misunderstand each other, and argue, we feel the essential goodness of each and every one of them. I think that gives it a wonderful spirit, a generous spirit, and I think that is why it is so loved. I think those characters were written with a great deal of love and we respond warmly to them because of it.
Oliver: I think that is right. I think that it works both on a national level as an extraordinary British phenomena. Mainwaring is a very particular British comic hero and that doesn't fade as we still see him in the likes of David Brent or Black Adder.
Internationally, there is something deeply attractive about these flawed figures who, while we poke fun at them, in the end, would probably, in the right circumstances and if they haven't run away like screaming cowards, would lay down their life for their country. That is very touching. It is very important for us - comedy aside - to find the heart of it and the feeling of connection to these characters.
- Finally, what's next for you the both of you?
Oliver: Unemployment. Shame (laughs).
Hamish: Starvation and early death (laughs).
Oliver: We shall see. We do have a few things around.
Hamish: We are all working on various projects and they will come to fruition when they do. For the moment, we are watching this one sail out.
Oliver: I fully intend to pin Hamish down at some point and ensure that we find some other thing to pit our pitiful resources upon.
Dad's Army is available on Blu-ray & DVD now, courtesy of Universal Pictures (UK).