Dad’s Army: This time it’s impersonal

I saw it last night. Not the original 1960s TV show Dad’s Army, but the remake, in the cinema at Aldeburgh, a place where but for the cappuccino machine Captain Mainwearing and the rest of the characters would have been totally at home. Like all remakes, it was. And it left me thinking ‘why did they bother?’

OK, the story so far. Loose end. Friend who has no intention of going to see it confirms she has no intention of going to see it. Have had dinner, don’t particularly want to go to the pub on my own and unlike 13 Minutes which I had wanted to go to see which was on for one single day last year, Dad’s Army seems to be on for most of February at this cinema. Which I’m sure has nothing whatsoever to do with Bill Nighy living just down the road. Nothing wrong with Bill Nighy, who is totally fine unless you do the “OMG, You’re…. you’re BILL NIGHY!” which I can see might get a bit wearing after the first 100 times. As he said, it took him a long time to become an overnight success. So flicks, anyway.

So to the story such as it is. It’s 1944 and all threat of invasion of England has passed. Threat of invading Europe is however, looming, so a German spy in the trimly ‘definitely would’ shape of Catherine Zeta Jones mit no discernable Cherman exent but with quite a determined cut to her not-yet sagging chin which I presumed was meant to make her look ruthless and foreign. She inconspicuously carries an alligator-skin suitcase carrying an Enigma machine, with a chrome-plated Luger strapped into the lid. Posing as a freelance writer but wearing conspicuously better clothes than mine, allowing the camera to close-up rather caddishly on her arse more than once by accident, she arrives in Walmington-on-Sea to find out about the huge army camp poised to launch its soldiers and tanks into France on June 6th. Charming the entire platoon, as well she might and universally loathed by every female character, she accompanies the Home Guard as they go on patrol. Corporal Jones falls over a cliff, the platoon find a chain to use to rescue him and find that it’s been securing the line of inflatable Sherman tanks that CZJ is delighted to find are decoys, put there to fool Hitler into thinking the real invasion isn’t going to be in Normandy but in the Pas de Calais.

A U-boat arrives to pick her up, Captain Mainwearing’s men are pinned down by machinegun fire from the landing party and just when things look bleakest, the female ATS arrive to provide flanking fire, distracting the Germans while spivvy Walker drives his lorry at the German’s boat. CZJ having shrewdly changed into slacks although sadly out of shot swims for it, the Boche are routed, Walker becomes a hero and Pike discovers he’s not a boy any more. The end. Go home. Nobody snored.

I even laughed twice, but it was nothing like the original. I think one of the problems was spinning a half-hour plot out over two hours. Captain Mainwearing’s wife appeared as the leader of the ATS, but there was still nothing much she could do to pad-out the extra time.

There were, as someone who has spent probably altogether too much time studying things German over the past two years, some idiosyncracies that distracted. The chrome-plated pistol, for a start. Quite why the landing party would have brought a machine-gun with them when they were just there to pick up Catherine Zeta Jones. Why they would have surfaced in broad daylight inshore, other than ‘because we can’t film it at night’ although if they had they wouldn’t have needed the U-boat CGI as much. CGI, for a much more irritating thing. It never, ever looks real for the simple reason that it isn’t. The Enigma machine couldn’t have transmitted anything because it was a coding machine, not a transmitter and no spy-master in his right mind would have sent one to England anyway.

But more, the appeal of quaint old streets that looked the way things did in 1944 pales a bit when you actually live in a place that looks that way anyway. The narrow Georgian High Street of Walmington wasn’t that much different from Woodbridge in any sense that matters except I’ve never seen Catherine Zeta Jones’s tweed-tailored rear end in the Thoroughfare or for that matter sadly any other part of her. Nobody, CZJ, the platoon, the landing party, or Pike and his girlfriend would have been rolling around in the sand on the beach because it would have been covered in barbed wire. Even going to the beach would have been suspicious. Surviving a paddle in itself would have been suspect because it would show that you knew where the mines were, the same ones that blew a 16 year-old Ken Russel’s girlfriend to pieces when he and she went for a romantic stroll in the dunes. Didn’t know why his films were a bit odd? Now you do.

Is it a bad film? Well, no. It has its moments and like all institutions, it self-references. Much in the way that when you go to see Shakespeare you used to be expected to roll around clutching your ribs and hyperventilating with hope-the-neighbours-can-hear-it laughter whenever anyone says ‘will’ (as in ‘our bodies are our gardens, to the which our wills be gardeners,’ geddit? Oh for heavens sake, bodies, gardens, yes? Productive. Therefore wills being gardeners, we can shape our wills, change things by doing, and at the same time one’s will is your actual, well, you know. Look, I’ll show you later, after dinner. Now shush or you’ll miss the next bit. Oh don’t be like that.)

And Dad’s Army: The Movie has its mutedly OMG moments. The inflatable dummy decoy tanks floating into the air – well, we know about that here, because I can show you where some were actually tethered, near Parham. The cleansing fire scouring the Nazi hordes from our shores for another, here where we will never, ever know what really happened at Shingle Street. The time Sergeant Wilson calls Pike his son by accident, for example. It just slipped out. But not fnarr fnarr, obviously, because Dad’s Army wasn’t like that. Although this one was, in part. Corporal Jones rolling around on a sofa with his hand stuck down someone’s blouse was a moment that I didn’t really want to see. Yes, I know he’s supposed to be this great character actor, but just no. And not Catherine Zeta Jones. Just don’t be STUPID, ok?

Mrs Pike claiming that her roly-poly would knock CZJ’s roly-poly into a cocked hat was a moment that wouldn’t have been in the TV show either. Nor the forced ‘you just slipped her a sausage’ that was crow-barred into the script presumably when someone thought they were doing one of the last, desperate Carry On films. The doom-laden hypocrite Fraser wasn’t anything near Fraser enough and Pike, despite the real actor who’d played him appearing in another role, wasn’t Pike enough, although Godfrey was and Mainwearing near as makes no difference. Walker, the spivvy chancer oddly was a much more convincingly rounded Walker character than in the original.

But CGI. Look, I understand. You can’t find three Spitfires very easily these days although I do know where you can get two P-51 Mustangs and a Spitfire, if you ever need them. Nor a U-Boat in one piece. But it doesn’t work. The colours are always just that little bit not right, but more than that, the movement isn’t. Yes, I’m sure it’s very difficult, but so was Tom & Jerry and they didn’t pretend to be real.

It couldn’t be the original, not least because most of them are dead. The writer did Paddington and Mr Bean films. I’ve never seen either. If I wanted to watch Mr Bean I’d a) be seven years old and b) go and watch Keaton doing it better and without the ludicrous gurning. Am I slating it? No, not really. It was alright. I just don’t think it’s going to be re-run every month for the next 50 years though, somehow.

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