Entertainment & Arts

Dad's Army film spotlights role of women in the war

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Media captionThe cast of Dad's Army talk to Tim Masters

By its very nature, Dad's Army was always a male-dominated affair. But the new film version takes a different approach.

The clue was in the title. Women were rarely the focus in Dad's Army, the BBC sitcom that ran from 1968 to 1977 and is regarded as one of Britain's greatest TV comedies.

The show's recurring female cast members included amorous widow Mrs Fox, played by Pamela Cundell, who married Lance-Corporal Jones (Clive Dunn) in the final episode.

Image caption Wendy Richard with Arthur Lowe in the 1973 Dad's Army story My British Buddy

Private Pike's overprotective mother, Mavis, was played by Janet Davis throughout the show's nine series. Other guest stars included Wendy Richard and Barbara Windsor. In the 1970 story Mum's Army, Carmen Silvera played one of group of women volunteers who join Captain Mainwaring's platoon.

But one often-mentioned character who never appeared on screen was Captain Mainwaring's wife, Elizabeth. In the new Dad's Army film, out this week, she finally steps out of the shadows.

Played by Felicity Montagu, Mrs Mainwaring leads the local platoon of women from the Auxiliary Territorial Service (ATS) who stand alongside the men of the Home Guard in protecting Walmington-on-Sea from Nazi invasion.

Image copyright Universal
Image caption Dad's Army sees Captain Mainwaring (Toby Jones, fourth from left)) marching with Mrs Mainwaring (Felicity Montagu, third from left)

Jimmy Perry, Dad's Army's co-creator, had initial reservations about the introduction of Mrs Mainwaring to the film, but is said to have quickly come round to the idea once he saw the script.

The film's screenwriter, Hamish McColl, says that bringing female characters to the fore was central to the plot.

"It was one of the first things I wanted to do," he says. "The half hour situation comedy format had meant the TV series centred very largely on the platoon in the church hall. Women were seen, but not a lot of them.

"I wanted to make Walmington a more real place and to see the women and their relationships with the men. I felt that modernised it too for a new audience."

Joining Felicity Montagu as Mrs Mainwaring on the big screen are Alison Steadman as Mrs Fox, Sarah Lancashire as Mavis Pike and Annette Crosbie as Cissy Godfrey. Holli Dempsey plays Private Pike's girlfriend Vera, while Emily Atack plays Private Walker's girlfriend, Daphne.

What was the role of women on the home front during WW2?

Image copyright IWM
Image caption An ATS motorcycle messenger sits on her motorbike as she receives her instructions from a corporal during training in Camberley

Imperial War Museum historian Ian Kikuchi says there were 20,000 women in the ATS at the outbreak of hostilities.

"Women serving in the army was not a new thing, as women had served in the latter stages of World War One," he explains.

At first roles were quite menial, such as driving light vehicles, clerical work and secretarial work. This released men for service in other roles.

However, as the war went on those roles become more sophisticated and technical.

"By the middle of the war about half of the ATS recruits were going into anti-aircraft artillery roles," says Mr Kikuchi. "They weren't allowed to actually fire the weapons, there was a cultural sensitivity about women being in a killing role."

Image copyright IWM
Image caption ATS teleprinter operators at work at a London ATS HQ, May 1942

Membership reached its peak in June 1943 when there were more than 210,000 serving in the ATS - during the war there were 717 members killed, mostly by attacks on anti-aircraft positions.

Some of the most famous ATS members included the Queen and Winston Churchill's daughter, Mary.

"Part of the reason they may have joined was because the ATS had a poor public image at first," Mr Kikuchi says. "People thought there was something a bit disreputable about young women wearing khaki and getting their hands dirty."

The film, directed by Oliver Parker, sets the Dad's Army story in May 1944 as the Allies prepare to invade occupied Europe. But unknown to Walmington-on-Sea's Home Guard, there is a Nazi spy in the town who is trying to discover the invasion plan.

Image copyright Universal
Image caption Dad's Army cast: (from left) Blake Harrison (Pike), Daniel Mays (Walker), Tom Courtenay (Jones), Toby Jones (Mainwaring), Bill Paterson (Fraser), Bill Nighy (Wilson) and Michael Gambon (Godfrey)

Captain Mainwaring (Toby Jones) and his men also have to deal with the arrival of a journalist, Rose Winters - played by Catherine Zeta Jones - who wants to write about the platoon for The Lady magazine.

Was it important to Zeta Jones that there was a greater female focus in the film?

"For sure," she says. "When the script came to me I thought they've got it wrong, there were no women in Dad's Army and then I spoke to Olly [Parker] and he said they're not just bringing my journalist female character in but expanding out and seeing the great women behind these great men.

"They lived with great women who were keeping the home front safe and doing their bit - a big bit - so it's great to have that in this film."

Toby Jones adds: "It would be strange to make a movie now with a group of bachelors at the centre. I think you'd notice [the women's] absence now, more than you would have done before."

Dad's Army is out on 5 February.

Lee Miller: A Woman's War, a major exhibition of 150 photographs depicting women's experience of WW2, is at IWM London until 24 April.

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