DAD’S ARMY MEMORIES
by JEFFREY HOLLAND
First published in the fanzine Hello Campers, September 1996. Copyright Jeffrey Holland and Rob Cope.
DON’T PANIC ! Well, I didn’t, in fact quite the opposite. On that July day in 1975 I didn’t give a monkeys. I was called in to audition in London for a stage musical of Dad’s Army and I didn’t want to go. I was quite happy in Chichester playing in Cyrano and Enemy Of The People but the day was fast approaching when my departure from that glorious place was imminent. You see I was booked for the first two of the four play season and I had to leave. My two fellow actors with whom I shared a house were both staying for all four plays but not yours truly. So when the call came instead of being delighted at the prospect of further employment, I was in fact completely apathetic. I shudder to think now of the possible consequences of such an attitude. I certainly wouldn’t be writing this…
Well, I did make the trip and did do the audition and you’ll find a description of it in my interview with Rob in issue no. 1 which I won’t waste space repeating here. Much to my delight I was booked to play in the ‘Home Front Company’ (a polite term for chorus!) as a fireman, along with a land girl, Bevan boy (miner), a policeman etc. All respectable reserved occupations and I also had to play a small character part as a mad German inventor. A part I relished as I was teamed up with Bill Pertwee as a German general, stepping out of the warden’s uniform for a few hilarious moments. We had such fun doing those scenes. Part of my duties too were to understudy Pike and Walker.
The first day of rehearsals was a nerve wracking affair when on that bright August Monday morning we all arrived at a little church hall just behind the Richmond Theatre. I remember seeing the TV cast arriving one by one and sticking together like glue as did we ‘underlings’ because no-one knew anyone else. Over coffee I found myself standing next to Arnold Ridley and as our eyes met I summoned my courage and said “Hello Arnold, I’m Jeffrey Holland” to which he replied “My dear fellow, you have the advantage of us !” I must say it took me a while to work out what he meant. However rehearsals eventually got underway and it wasn’t long before we were all one big happy company.
We were to opening in Billingham at the Forum Theatre on 4th September 1975 and on the day we arrived the Stage Doorman, a simple fellow (who must have lived on Mars) saw John Le Mesurier walk in and having just taken a phone message for someone looked up and said “Excuse me, Sir, are you Arnold Lowe ?” John looked at him with that wry ‘Wilson’ smirk and said “No, not really !” At last the opening night came and even after a few ‘trims’ in rehearsal the show still ran well over three hours long. They persevered for a while and kept it going until we were to transfer to the Shaftesbury Theatre in London for an October opening. Lord Delfont, who was co-producer, came to see a run and gave us all a pep talk afterwards which was very encouraging but what we didn’t know was that he was appalled at the running time and insisted on severe cuts which resulted in a much tighter show, but left many of the principals, particularly dear Clive Dunn, licking their wounds when most of the musical numbers were pared to the bone. But that’s showbusiness. One of MY proudest moments was in the very opening number which was a montage of British defiance of the German offensive and the climax was a solo line by yours truly shouting provocatively, “What do you think of that, Adolf ?” (as heard on the original cast album, for those who have it…)
We got underway at the Shaftesbury and did wonderful business packing ‘em in for many weeks and then, much to my dismay, my understudy skills were called upon. It so happened that Ian Lavender, I forget the reason, couldn’t make a particular Wednesday matinee and I had to go on and play Pike. Horrors !!! Well, Lord knows I did my best but sadly to almost complete silence. I delivered all of Pike’s lines in my best Ian Lavender impersonation and when I got to a gag – nothing. You see it didn’t matter what I did or how I did it, I simply wasn’t Ian Lavender. The only laughs I did get were from the rest of the company sniggering up their sleeves at my predicament. It certainly was an experience and one, I’m glad to say, I never had to repeat but one I will never forget.
The show ran until the end of March 1976 when we all took a couple of weeks break before starting on a nationwide tour. There were a couple of cast changes though and a major one involving me. I was at home one morning shortly before the end of the London run when the phone rang. It was Jimmy Perry to ask if I would be prepared to take over the part of Walker on the tour. I was flabbergasted but none the less delighted. As it turned out John Bardon who had been playing the role (Jimmy Beck died two years before) didn’t want to commit to a six month tour as he had other fish to fry so as I was the understudy anyway it would make sense for me to do it. I felt I was too young really (only 29 at the time) but no-one thought that would matter so I agreed. I’ll never forget my first night as Walker as long as I live. The wonderful moment when, after the patriotic opening montage, the scene parted to reveal Captain Mainwaring and his men in a triumphant tableau which always got a tremendous round of applause – and this night I was part of it. I almost cried with pride ! We had a marvellous tour which lasted six months in all. There were however some unfortunate cutbacks necessary. As the tour progressed for some reason the theatres got smaller. We realised we were unable to tour the Church Hall set. It was rather bulky and some theatres couldn’t house it, so it had to go. We finished up with just a painted cloth instead, but although the scenes were just as funny, they weren’t quite so lavish. We also lost part of our 18 piece orchestra and finished up with just 8 musicians. It was a shame really. The audiences who hadn’t seen it before never knew the difference. But we did.
My last and perhaps most enduring memory (before I bore you all to death) involves the birth of my son. In July 1976 we were playing a week at Richmond – where it all started – and I got a phone call whilst waiting to line up for the matinee finale to tell me my wife had gone into labour. Now, a the time we lived in Coventry and my wife’s obstetric history was far from good. So I did the unforgiveable. As soon as the curtain fell I legged it for the first train home, leaving them to cope without me for the evening performance. Now some might say that was highly unprofessional, and some did – and some were right, but to me my wife’s and my potential baby’s health were of the utmost priority. I was lucky enough to have two understudies – one for Walker and one for the made German scientist and these boys bravely went on for me. I made it to my wife’s bedside in good time, and the baby wasn’t to be born until 2.30 in the morning so in fact I could have stayed for the show but I wasn’t to know that at the time ! There were complications however, and I was glad I was there after all. Mother and son ended up doing fine. I crept nervously back to Richmond the following evening only to find I had been sent for to present myself at Arthur Lowe’s dressing room door. I knocked, went in and was duly scolded for being an unprofessional naughty boy. The show must come first ! Didn’t I know this ? However I apologised and explained and the matter was forgotten. I did the show and went home that night in order to visit my family at the hospital the following morning. When I got there I was delighted to find that the very first bouquet of flowers to arrive at the bedside was from none other than the Lowe’s.
Doing that show was one of the happiest years work I can remember. Not only did it change my life but also my career. I tremble to think what might have happened to mehad I not bothered to go to that audition ! As a consequence I was asked by David Croft to guest in two episodes of Are You Being Served ?, two episodes of It Ain’t Half Hot Mum and even a small part in one episode of the last series of Dad’s Army itself. When Hi-de-Hi! came along they already had me in mind for Spike, and the rest –as they say – is history…
In closing, I can’t leave you without quoting Captain Mainwaring’s final speech just before the curtain fell. He walked to the front of the stage and with his usual poise and dignity uttered these words:
“The Home Guard never went into battle. But the two million men – shop assistants, factory workers, doctors, lawyers, men from every walk of life – gave their spare time and in some cases their lives, to defend their homeland. And if ever this island were in danger again, men like those would be there once more – standing ready.”
That moving speech never failed to bring a tear to my eye and a lump to my throat at the end of every performance we did. Thank you Captain Mainwaring from this ‘stupid boy’ for a most rewarding and memorable part of my life.