The profound trivia of Dad’s Army

25 June 2009

My transcript of the piece I read on Radio 4’s Off The Page –19th June 2009

  

Over ten years ago, the stress of my teaching job became so intense that I would suffer terrible dreams every night and regularly waking up screaming. Once awake, I would obsess about everything that had gone wrong and could go wrong, the missiles that my pupils threw at me, the abuse they’d shout out, the fights and squabbles I’d fruitlessly tried to stop, the booby traps that waited for me in the classroom after lunch.

 

Life seemed very bleak until one day I took a day off sick, unable to face the double helping I had of the class — before and after lunch! I chanced into the BBC shop, which was then in Bush House, and bought some CDs of the old beloved sit-com Dad’s Army. This was the radio show of the hit TV series about a motley gaggle of pensioners who comprise incompetent Home Guard in a seaside town on the South coast of England during the Second World War. I remembered laughing at it as a child and thought it would cheer me up.

 

That night, I woke up panicking about school again and put the Dad’s Army CD on. Almost immediately I was laughing at the show: the pompous bank manager Captain Mainwaring, his ironical upper-crust side-kick Sergeant Wilson, the bungling imbecilic butcher Corporal Jones, the fey, dreamy Godfrey and their nemesis, the vulgar greengrocer Hodges. The terrors of school receded. The next day I turned up to class with a smile on my face and bounce in my step, mouthing to myself Corporal Jones’ catchphrase “Don’t panic!”.

 

Since then, I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that I’ve probably listened to a Dad’s Army CD at least three or four times a week since while going to bed. The smallest details of the show have become part of the warp and weft of my life. When a pupil says something outlandish to me, I often reply, “I think you’re entering the realms of fantasy…” quoting Captain Mainwaring’s riposte to Corporal Jones’s absurd ideas. When an Ofsted inspector, a senior manager or anyone official asks me how things are going, I reply, “I think you’ll find things are running like a smoothly oiled machine…” and to motivate my colleagues I mimick Fraser’s observation, “We’re doomed!” Or if I’m feeling happy, I might remark, “I’m feeling so relaxed I think I might unbuckle my revolver holster…” Sadly, many people don’t know that I’m quoting lines from the show, and look at me rather quizzically.

 

My son has acquired my addiction. He’s eight now, but has been listening to Dad’s Army before going to sleep for about four years. The other day, he held up a soggy chip for inspection and said in a German accent, “I don’t like my chips soggy, I like my chips crisp and light brown…” His knowledge of the trivia of the show is encyclopaedic: a few weeks ago, some fiftysomething friends of ours quizzed him, asking him the most obscure questions, like who broke the running board of Jones’ van, and he could answer every one straight out.

 

The comedy in Dad’s Army is generated by the contrast between the seriousness of the context — the Second World War — and the comparatively trivial preoccupations of the characters. Mrs Pike’s obsessive mothering of her son, Mainwaring’s pomposity, Sergeant Wilson’s eye for the ladies, Corporal Jones’ over-the-top enthusiasm, Fraser’s doom-laden stories, Godfrey’s desire to go to the toilet. The show has a love of the trivial details of conversation and takes delight pointing out the absurdity of much of what we say and do.

 

It’s these details – seemingly trivial – that enrich the pattern not just of Dad’s Army, but of life. Thanks to the writers of the show, Jimmy Perry and David Croft, I’ve learned to love the trivia of everyday existence.

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