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...