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The Guardian - UK
The Guardian - UK
Jack Seale

Dad’s Army: The Animations review – excellent lost episodes complete the comedy’s canon

Captain Mainwaring and Sergeant Wilson: unfussy line drawings efficiently evoke the characters in Dad’s Army: The Animations.
Captain Mainwaring and Sergeant Wilson: unfussy line drawings efficiently evoke the characters in Dad’s Army: The Animations. Photograph: Gold

Whatever else 2023 has been, its final months are proving to be quite the boom time for British comedy completists. Last month, ITVX sent shockwaves through the seen-every-episode-of-everything community when it nonchalantly released the whole series of Terry Jones and Michael Palin’s Complete and Utter History of Britain, including four instalments unseen since 1969. Now on Gold we have something not as revelatory but just as enjoyable, in the form of the affectionate compromise that is Dad’s Army: The Animations.

Three episodes of Jimmy Perry and David Croft’s classic sitcom on wartime, all from the second season shown on BBC One in the spring of 1969, suffered the fate of so many important programmes of the era: the BBC wiped the master tapes so it could record something else on them, and no backup film has been found. But they all exist in some form of audio. In 2016, A Stripe for Frazer was recreated by producing an animated approximation of the action, synced to a sound recording made by an amateur archivist. That guy hadn’t been holding his microphone up to his telly when the other two missing episodes were aired, but there is a viable alternative in the form of a 1974 Radio 4 adaptation, featuring most of the core cast. With the same animation team now drawing on the radio show, patched up and brought closer to the TV scripts with the addition of some new vocal performances, the final two pieces of the puzzle have been slotted in, as best anyone can.

What strikes you first is the excellence of the likenesses. Restricting themselves to monochrome to match the black-and-white original, the artists use unfussy line drawings to efficiently evoke the way Arthur Lowe marshalled his jowls and eyebrows to maximise Captain Mainwaring’s manic pomposity. They neatly capture the fine balance that John Le Mesurier struck as Sergeant Wilson, hovering inscrutably between confusion and knowing bemusement. Private Frazer’s sunken stare and Lance Corporal Jones’s fussy squint are also on point.

Inevitably, there are gaps that the viewer’s brain must fill in. As is standard in animated shows, characters who aren’t speaking make minimal movements – so there isn’t scope to recreate one of the deepest joys of the show, which is Mainwaring realising half a second too late that Wilson has just dissed him.

Dad’s Army: The Animations.
Solid … Dad’s Army: The Animations. Photograph: Gold

Happily, the first of the two new cartoon episodes, The Loneliness of the Long Distance Walker, has enough funny dialogue to compensate for the reactions being limited. It begins with the bootlegging spiv, Private Joe Walker – James Beck in the TV show, replaced here with a superb impersonation by David Benson – delivering the catastrophic news that he is to leave the Walmington-on-Sea Home Guard and be called up to the proper army. The men’s supply of black-market goodies is under threat. There is a nice moment where Private Godfrey (Arnold Ridley), after everyone else has fretted about not receiving whisky, gin and cigarettes, wails: “He’s bringing me a box of fudge! It’s for my sister!”

Mainwaring fires off a stern but, as it turns out, ambiguous telegram to the War Office in Whitehall, then makes representations in person, leading to a beautifully orchestrated scene that owes a debt to Abbott and Costello’s “Who’s on first?” routine. There has been a colossally unlikely misunderstanding, of the kind only the best comedy writers are brazen enough to include: the Brigadier who has the power to excuse Walker is looking for volunteers for a competitive long-distance walk, and thinks Mainwaring is offering him “a walker”. Mainwaring’s attempt to inform his superior that the man is J Walker, not “A Walker”, is in vain.

Unbowed, Mainwaring learns of a local initiative to keep able men at home if they are sole traders whose business would fail in their absence. There is a committee to which one can appeal, so Mainwaring nominates himself to advocate for Walker. As the Captain stumbles and rambles, thrown both by the chairman of the committee being a woman and by one of the panel members being Sergeant Wilson, it is a textbook bit of mangled Mainwaring oratory – although it is a shame we can’t see his face as Wilson sticks the knife in. “I’m sure Mr Mainwaring has no intention of casting any slur on the intelligence of the tribunal,” drawls the sergeant, drawn with his cheek resting wearily on the heel of his hand. “It’s just that when one talks as much as Mr Mainwaring does, by the law of averages a certain amount of what he says is bound to be rather unnecessary.”

Vintage lines such as that decorate a solid episode, cocking the gentlest of snooks at the busybody administrators who flourished during the war effort. And so, via a make-do-and-mend process that feels suitable for the material, the Dad’s Army canon – a comforting link to TV’s distant past – is complete.

  • Dad’s Army: The Animations aired on Gold and is available on Sky, NowTV, Virgin and TalkTalk.

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