One of the greatest British TV comedy writers best known for Dad’s Army, Hi-de-Hi! and It Ain’t Half Hot Mum
Sunday 23 October 2016
With his co-writer David Croft, Jimmy Perry, who has died aged 93, created one of British television’s most memorable comedy series, Dad’s Army, with an audience of up to 18 million. But it had an uneasy start: in 1968, when Mary Whitehouse was campaigning to clean up TV, the BBC’s senior executives felt under pressure to avoid causing offence. Market research was called for: three 100-strong focus groups each spent a day watching the earliest episodes before they were transmitted and, according to the laconic Perry, 99% said they hated them.
The first woman who was asked her opinion said the show was rubbish and no one was interested in the Home Guard any more. Others felt that the material ridiculed the Home Guard’s behaviour at a time when Britain stood alone in its finest hour, and should certainly not be broadcast.
Fortunately the then head of BBC comedy, Michael Mills, decided to go ahead regardless – not with Perry’s title, The Fighting Tigers, but with his own, Dad’s Army. Perry was allowed to keep the song he had written for the series, Who Do You Think You Are Kidding, Mr Hitler?, which won him an Ivor Novello award. The programme ran until 1977, and is still regularly repeated.
Perry, an actor who had thought of the series when he was working for Joan Littlewood’s Theatre Workshop company at the Theatre Royal, Statford East, London, also deftly accepted without resistance a piece of casting by Mills that transformed the approach to social class as shown in the relationship between Captain Mainwaring and Sergeant Wilson. Arthur Lowe had been cast as the officious bank manager who was commanding officer of the Home Guard platoon at Walmington-on-Sea.
The original intention was that the sergeant under him would be a rough-hewn cloth-capped type. But Perry accepted the elegant John Le Mesurier as the sergeant. Perry remade him into a relaxed ex-public schoolboy and ex-army captain who always tries desperately to underplay his patrician background. The show ran to 80 episodes and a 1971 feature film, and was eventually recognised as the very essence of British humour, involving realistic sympathetic characters, and a gentle mocking of class consciousness and its instability in wartime conditions. A film version starring Bill Nighy, Michael Gambon and Toby Jones was released earlier this year. But Perry and Croft’s attempts at an American version failed.
Croft and Perry bounced ideas off one another and wrote together for a period of over 30 years. Along with Frank Muir and Denis Norden, Alan Simpson and Ray Galton, they were among the dominant writing teams of the period. They contrasted in both primary function and temperament, Croft tough in negotiation and Perry coiffured and urbane, rather in the style of Le Mesurier’s Sergeant Wilson. He guarded his privacy jealously and was rarely photographed.
He was born and brought up in Barnes, south-west London. His father was an antiques dealer with a shop in Kensington. His grandfather had been a butler in Belgrave Square, and some of his stories found their way into Perry and Croft’s last television series, You Rang, M’Lord? (1988-93).
As a child, he was told not to play with “common” boys. He went to Colet Court, the prep school for St Paul’s, where he saw that all races were welcome as long as they were rich. As the antiques business slumped with the approach of the second world war, his mother gave cookery lessons to aristocratic women left without servants. He became, as he put it, a closet socialist.
The cinemas and theatres of nearby Hammersmith were his main solace as his schooldays became more difficult. Faced with a school report which said, “We fear for his future”, and asked by his father how he would get on in life without qualifications, he replied: “I don’t need any qualifications. I’m going to be a famous film star or a great comedian.” His father said, in tones more sad than hectoring, “You stupid boy” – the same phrase that Captain Mainwaring would use years later to the rookie Pike in Dad’s Army, played by Ian Lavender
Perry left school at 14 and was sent to Clark’s college to learn shorthand, typing and – a final irritant – book-keeping. He was then apprenticed to Waring & Gillow, purveyors of high-class furniture, but moved out of London with his family when his father took over the shop of his uncle in (safer) Watford after hostilities broke out.
It was in Watford that the 16-year-old Perry served in the Home Guard, thriving on its concerts if not its drill, appeared in monthly talent shows at the Gaumont theatre, and generally gained the experience that would one day enable him to write Dad’s Army. He saw himself as a version of the muddled and mother-dominated Private Pike.
After call-up, he served in the Royal Artillery, principally as a concert party manager, and was drafted to the far east, where his experiences came in useful for his later series It Ain’t Half Hot Mum (1974-81). Once demobbed, he went to the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art on a serviceman’s scholarship. To raise funds, he became a redcoat at Butlins holiday camps, which was to help him create another series, Hi-de-Hi! (1981-88).
From Rada he went into repertory, his height and easy patrician looks then proved to be an asset, and for several years from the mid-1950s onwards ran the Palace theatre, Watford. He was having a rather lean time when Littlewood thought he might learn through the improvisation techniques she had perfected.
Perry, like many other actors, found Littlewood a bit of a puzzle and felt that his talents were being underused. He was on his way to Stratford East one day in the 60s when, after 17 busy but none too prosperous years as an actor, he conceived the idea for a television series which would include a plum part for himself: Walker, the fixer of the home guard platoon, who was a comic spiv and hustler. In the event, he never played Walker because the BBC pronounced that he could not be both writer and actor. Dad’s Army confirmed that Perry would become better known in the former role. He was appointed OBE in 1978.
Perry could send himself up as well as others. His autobiography was to be called A Boy’s Own Story, but it came out in 2002 under the title A Stupid Boy.
With Croft, he was in 2003 presented with a British Comedy Award for lifetime achievement. Croft died in 2011, aged 89.
In 1953, Perry married the actor Gilda Neeltje. He is survived by his partner, the costume designer Mary Husband.
• Jimmy Perry, writer and actor, born 20 September 1923; died 23 October 2016