Monday, 29 June 2009

ICONS OF OUR TIME: THE LION OF WALMINGTON-ON-SEA


The rest of the internet can discuss Michael Jackson if it wants to. If its all the same with the rest of you, I’d rather talk about a true icon of the Sixties and Seventies – Dad’s Army’s Captain Mainwaring.

Swisstone may be laying it on a little to call him “a pompous, incompetent buffoon with the courage of a lion”, but with that combination he’s essentially right. Contrast Mainwaring against another rank-wielding character from a great British sitcom, General Melchett from Blackadder Goes Forth. Melchett is perhaps best summed up in the final episode where he rails against the fact he’s unable to join his men in battle but must instead sit down to a sumptuous dinner. (“Curse this bottle of Chateau Dom Perignon!”)

Conversely, I must have seen the majority of the eighty-odd episodes of Dad’s Army and I can’t think of a time when Mainwaring orders a man to do something he wouldn’t do himself. In fact, when push comes to shove the portly twit will pull rank precisely to volunteer himself. (Swisstone and his commenters cite a couple of these.)

...which creates a juxtaposition which enriches the character. We’re abundantly aware that he donned his Captain’s pips for salutes, to gain a status he feels has been deprived him in his civilian life. Yet, from time to time we’re reminded that his opposition to fascism is also quite genuine, that he’d willingly fight for a world in which ‘fair play’ endures.

...which in turn enriches the comedy. (It’s hard to imagine that writers Perry and Croft did much without the comedy in mind.) Mainwaring’s bids for status-in-uniform of course work about as well as when he was in civvies, the series’ formula virtually revolves around robbing him of dignity. (Plotlines, it must be said, were rather rationed in Dad’s Army.) It remains funny, despite all the repetition, partly because actor Arthur Lowe conveys pompous umbrage as effectively as Oliver Hardy. Lowe could have bridled for England. (Which, come to think of it, he pretty much did.)

Yet allowing the character positive features, granting him some dignity to lose, gains such moments a resonance. As JB Priestley put it: “Good clowns never try to be funny, but are hopeful creatures, lost in a hostile world.” Krusty the Clown was more succinct: “First rule of comedy, kid. The sap’s gotta have dignity!”

Let’s sum up our tubby icon with a culinary metaphor he would doubtless have appreciated. Most characters in sitcoms are like sweeties, bought from the shop when you have some loose change. You taste on your tongue their saccharine rush, then they’re dissolved. Mainwaring’s more like a cake ordered from a master baker, someone who knows that throwing in a few tangy tastes will enrich the sweetness. Both are confections, but one is there to savour.

Coming Soon! My explanation of how the Village Hall stands for the Means of Production...

3 comments:

  1. I don't think his grabbing the captaincy of the Walmington LDV is just about local status, though that's part of it. What defines Mainwaring, in my view, is that, for all his patriotism, he never saw active service in WWI. According to backstory written by Perry and Croft, he tried to join up in 1914, but was refused on medical grounds. He finally forced his way into the army, only to have the Armisitice end the war just before he got to France. This gives him a definite chip on his shoulder when dealing with some other members of the platoon. Wilson, Frazer and Jones all saw active service, and even Godfrey has decorations for service as an ambulance driver. It's why he is so contemptuous towards Walker, who he sees as squirming out of his duty when Mainwaring wasn't allowed to do his, and why he's initially disgusted at the conscientious objector Godfrey. And Wilson at least is quite happy to needle Mainwaring about this when it suits him. However, Wilson never reveals until the final episode that he too had reached the rank of Captain in WWI - it's perhaps a bit much to read anything into a bit of retconning that Perry and Croft probably hadn't thought of when they wrote the first episode, but I like to think Wilson did this not to spare Mainwaring's feelings, but because if Mainwaring knew, he'd feel compelled to step down from command of the platoon in favour of Wilson, giving Wilson the one thing he doesn't want, responsibility. (Arthur Wilson, equal parts public school snob and traitor to his class, is another fascinatingly complex character.)

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  2. Might that be Swisstone himself, disguised as Anonymous?

    Not quite so sure over the final comments about Wilson, but can find nothing to argue about with the rest of it. Isn't there an episode where they all have to turn up for some ceremony in their military (not Home Guard) uniforms and Frazer in particular crows that Mainwaring will have no medals to wear. (He outfoxes them by turning up in his bank manager's suit.)

    He also seems to bundle up all such real or imagined bars to him, and consider they will be burnt away with the heat of War. After the dust is settled all of Wilson's "public school nonsense" will be done away with and a man seen for what he is. That was probably quite a common sentiment during the War, despite the paradox that a natural conservative should be a virtual Attlee-ite.

    Anyway, point-of-posting was just the apparent paradox that giving the character some dignity makes his pratfalls funnier.

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  3. Indeed to much talking of MJ, his last 15 years were about doing some dumb things, trying to became white.....that its the most stupid thing someone can do.

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