EXCLUSIVE Dad’s Army Director & Writer Interview

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Dad’s Army is one of Britain’s best-loved television shows. The 1960s sitcom about the British Home Guard during the Second World War changed the face of television the moment its first episode was broadcast, and even now the antics of Captain Mainwaring and his platoon are repeated to viewing figures that current sitcoms would love to see.

The idea to recreate the series on the big screen after the 1971 film has been in development hell for some years, and the question on everyone’s lips was: who would be mad enough to take on such a task? Who could weather the cries of, “Sacrilege!” and get on with making a film that was a worthy successor.

Step forward Oliver Parker and Hamish McColl.

Meeting with MCM Buzz in the Corinthia Hotel in London, the director (Parker) and writer (McColl) are sat in a room that strongly resembles a psychiatrist’s office — a chaise longue in the centre of the room facing two chairs making up the interview space. It almost feels like the pair are about to spill the beans about their deepest, darkest, secrets, but instead they are about to talk all about their new take on Dad’s Army. Starring big names such as Toby Jones, Bill Nighy, Michael Gambon, and Catherine Zeta-Jones, the film is set to be released on 5 February and sees Walmington-on-Sea’s platoon coming face-to-face with a German spy.

Oliver Parker and Hamish McColl

Oliver Parker and Hamish McColl

When did you first watch Dad’s Army?

Hamish McColl: “I watched it pretty much from when it came out, because it was first shown in ’68 and I was born in ’62 so I must have watched it in the ’70s. I watched it with my family, my mother, father, and brothers, as a lot of us did at that time. It was something that was part of the furniture and we used to all sit down and watch it.”

Oliver Parker: “Absolutely, I’m just a couple of years older than you so I saw it from the beginning, from about the age of six and I remember it from when I was tiny. My dad was obsessed with it, and my whole family watched it so these characters were almost part of the family.”

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The remake of Dad’s Army has been up in the air for a long time. How did you become involved with the project, and how did you feel about taking on such a beloved franchise?

H: “I got involved because Damian Jones, the producer, came to me and asked whether I would be interested in writing a remake of Dad’s Army. I said no, that it was a crazy idea because the series is perfect, leave it alone — it’s been done before and it’s a national institution. So he told me to think about it, and I did, and I went back and looked at the TV series. It was the characters that really started it, they were so alive and so rich, so varied. Like Ollie said, we loved them all, they were part of the family so I thought there was mileage in them. So it basically became about how to find a story to fit the screen and move it from the TV show.”

O: “I remember an email coming through and it was from Damian, who I respected but didn’t know very well but was interested to work with. Then I saw the attachment in the email was about Dad’s Army and I thought, ‘What is he thinking?’ Then I saw what he was thinking because of who had written the script, and it was Hamish. He’s not just a mate; we’re partners in crime as we’ve worked together before, and so this was something that I had to read. It was enchanting, and, I thought, genuinely inspired – a really tough thing to do. It didn’t mean that I wanted to do it straight away, but it did mean that I wanted to talk about it.

“It was fascinating, and increasingly we became interested in the possibilities, the cinematic life that was in there. The main thing is the story and I think Hamish came up with something that was really devious – I don’t know how he bloody did it. Setting it during the other end of the war was lovely, and we start with these guys all depressed because they had done nothing to help. We bring the women forward which was another great ingredient, and then there was a spy in Walmington and we have a great showdown on the beaches with the Germans. So it was like, ‘Oooh, these are great cinematic ingredients here.’ And these elements weren’t just separate ideas, they all cohere and they force those characters, whom we know so well, into a slightly different shape and takes them a little further in some ways than we have seen them before. So it felt like it was worth the gamble.”

See the full version of the above video here

 

You’ve worked together before, on Johnny English Reborn. What was it like to work on Dad’s Army with each other?

Simultaneously…

H: “Great!” O: “Nightmare!”

O: “It was great, it was really great.”

H: “Sometimes when you work together there’s a click, there’s a sense of ability and a sense of pursuit. I really enjoy Ollie’s instinct for that, his appetite for that, and I respect him very deeply. That means I’m willing to chase the work, and I think we both do that.”

O: “We do, we have very similar backgrounds in some senses. Same mother.”

H: “What!?”

O: “I meant to tell you, is this a good moment?”

H: “Is this all because of that?”

O: “My brother!”

H: “You made a movie to tell me that?”

H: “Oh my god, and she’s our sister!” [Points to your humble BUZZ interviewer] “I too have my secrets.”

O: “Ahem… We both come from fringe theatre, obviously very bad fringe theatre in his case – no, no – he had great success with his fringe company. So we both had a similar kind of tendency to get stuck in, roll up our sleeves and think about how we were going to grapple with what we were working on. That is what you need, because films are bloody expensive. A lot of people that you have to deal with sometimes are quite complicated individuals, so it is great to get to the heart of the thing, the thing that you really want to do. I think we push each other and we are looking to improve the film. We may not succeed, but that was the intention! It was meant to be better than it is.”

H: “The intention is all.”

O: “So it is really good, and we both wear several hats – we’ve both acted, we’ve both directed, both written, and so we can make fun of each other’s work. ‘Call that a good script?’ ‘What’s that? You think that’s a good shot Ollie?’ We can understand the process for one another, but then have a distance at the same time. So far so good, we’ll see with the next one.”

H: “There may never be a next one now, now that I know that we’re brothers.”

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Were you on-set to help out then, Hamish?

H: “I was on set. Not all the time, but I went frequently because I had to make sure that he didn’t do all the wrong shots. It’s useful sometimes for me to be there as a writer, as much as a presence as any real active intervention. It’s also lovely for me to be there to see it come alive because filming is very collaborative; a script is only a road map to a movie so it is lovely to see what happens when all you’ve had is voices in your head, and suddenly there’s a man in a field saying your lines. It’s great!”

There are, of course, some famous moments and phrases in the television show. How did you adapt the original narrative for the film?

H: “In terms of the quotes I knew they had to be in there, and people wanted to see them, so it was a question of finding the right place for them in the story. So no overusing them and using them where they were best-suited within the frame of the story. So when you have Frazer say, ‘We’re doomed!’ he has to be facing doom, and then you’ve earnt it.”

You have such a stellar cast for the film. How did you decide who to cast in these iconic roles?

O: “Well the first challenge was to get Mainwaring because that, in a way, was the highest of those hurdles and it is an impeccable original performance – so how were we going to do that? Both of us have worked with Toby Jones, separately, and I think we both felt that there was almost nobody else that you could consider. I mean apart from this script which Hamish had concocted, for me it was about how could we begin to do this because who could possibly be the voices that he channelled? So Toby was absolutely crucial to that, and he was very nervous about it in the same way we were. You’ll find shattered nerves all over the track of this thing. Toby is a wonderful acting magnet in the thespian world, he is deeply admired and he’s a master, he plays comedy beautifully. Even in the rehearsals we could see what he was striving for and the way he was working on it. And he knows Hamish’s work too, so it felt like there was a determination to get this thing right and into shape.

“In terms of the other cast members, Bill Nighy seemed to be an absolutely perfect modern incarnation of Wilson, and various other people like Michael Gambon [Private Godfrey] too. Michael was actually the only one who wasn’t a little bit nervous about the film; most people were nervous and I think for some reason he had such a game spirit. Literally 30 minutes after I spoke to his agent I got a call back saying, ‘He’d love to be involved, sounds like great fun.’ And he comes along and beautifully, gallantly, creates something that is almost impossible to recreate.

“Tom Courtney as Jones I find has a deeply moving presence in the film, one of the things that was important to us was to not go for big broad comedy but to try and root these characters. Funnily enough I think the original Clive Dunn is a terrific Jonesy, but for me this felt like the opportunity to go for something that was a little more authentic in terms of age. The pathos that you get in Tom is a lovely element in this story, and I think other people also found heart in it.”

H: “When he says that line, ‘I’m sorry Captain, it’s all my fault falling off the cliff like that’ it’s so moving.”

O: “I know, beautiful.”

H: “There’s a sweet sadness in his soul.”

O: “And the other lovely thing, of course, was to have all those roles for women which was Hamish’s idea and was really one of the great contributions to the script. So you feel like you’re building quite a large repertory company, and I think in the end there was quite a lot of excitement between them, a feeling that they were all in this together so if it all goes badly then we all go down together.” [See an exclusive about The Women Of Dad’s Army here]

Dad's Army 2015 Official Trailer

You give women much more of an important role than they have in the TV series – Mrs Mainwaring isn’t even seen in the original for example. What was it like adapting their role in the film?

H: “I kind of knew that I wanted to do this. It’s funny – when I get into productivity I really trust my instincts on something and coming to this I knew I wanted to have the women straight away, before I even had my story. I wanted to see Walmington as a real place, and the men as more real because of their real relationships with women. I wanted to see it as an inhabited town, and that all of this was available to us as a film rather than like the television show which struggled with that and had a limited budget. So I really wanted that, and I knew that from the top. Then, of course, it actually moved into the plot, particularly through Catherine and the mysterious woman that comes to town. I’m pleased that they give breath, life, and perspective to the whole town and the platoon and it feels like, in an odd way, that it has modernised the television series because these women were not seen enough. I’m pleased about that.”

You’ve mentioned that you, and some of the cast members, were nervous about taking on the film. Was there any trepidation on set?

O: “They ran away! ‘Michael back, back!’”

H: “We found Blake in France, hiding in a wood.”

O: “The first day was close to miserable because it was pouring with rain in the middle of Yorkshire and we were saying, ‘Can we start shooting? We only have 35 days to get this entire film done so we’ve got to get going!’ So everybody was holding their nerve, and it was literally ‘Don’t panic!’ in that situation.

“I think once we got into it people really began to enjoy it, and Toby, as the spine of the thing, was a huge force. He was a genuine leading man, in the best kind of way, because so many scenes revolve around his status within the scene. So we were chasing that down, and I think we got increasingly more into it and we needed to because there’s a lot of ground to cover.

“These light comedies actually take a long time to get the right tone, whether we do or not, that’s what we were trying to get and increasingly I think people began to find their feet and realise that they could feel safe with the script, for a start. That platoon ensemble is hugely important in a sense of support, and I think in the end it was a hoot and there was a lot of fun had by the cast. As much as we tried to put them down, it was almost irrepressible. Too much fun, one could say! But we had a very good time.”

Dad’s Army is released in the UK on Friday 5 February

Interview by Roxy Simons


VIDEO The Women Of Dad’s Army
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