Wednesday, 28 September 2011
David Croft RIP
David Croft, who died on September 27 aged 89, was the joint creator of some of BBC Television’s best-loved and most enduring situation comedies
With his writing partner Jimmy Perry, Croft devised and wrote Dad’s Army (1968-77), the whimsical, affectionate lampoon of the wartime Home Guard which, thanks to unceasing repeats, continues to draw viewers, old and new, a decade into the 21st century.
After Dad’s Army ended its original run, two more of Croft and Perry’s classic series — It Ain’t Half Hot, Mum (1974-81) and Hi-de-Hi! (1980-88), with Croft producing — enjoyed huge success.
With a new writing partner, Jeremy Lloyd, Croft created and scripted Are You Being Served? (1972-85) and ’Allo ’Allo (1982-92), and (again with Jimmy Perry) You Rang, M’Lord? (1988-93). In his seventies, Croft collaborated with Richard Spendlove, a former railwayman, to produce Oh, Dr Beeching! (1995-97).
A nostalgic preoccupation with class ran throughout Croft’s work, intertwined with repeated references to campness, an echo of his early theatrical background. His characterisations of gays often proved controversial; one BBC eminence took one look at Mr Humphries, the mincing menswear assistant portrayed by John Inman in Are You Being Served? and declared: “The poof will have to go.”
Inman, stoutly supported by Croft (“If the poof goes, I go”), quickly achieved stardom and weathered the long-running controversy fomented by gay lobbyists who complained that Croft and Lloyd had portrayed the character in a stereotypical and offensive way.
Croft’s work frequently placed him at odds with his masters at the BBC. Paul Fox, as controller of BBC One, objected vehemently to the basic premise of Dad’s Army . “You cannot,” he told Croft, “take the mickey out of Britain’s finest hour.”
Neither was Croft’s inversion of the old class divides in tune with the 1960s cultural revolution and talk of a classless society: the portrayal of the pompous Captain Mainwaring (Arthur Lowe) as a petit-bourgeois snob and Sgt Wilson (John le Mesurier) as a languid patrician was a stroke of genius.
Inspired by Jimmy Perry’s real-life wartime exploits in the Watford Home Guard, Dad’s Army became one of the most popular comedies ever screened on British television, relished as much by those who had served in the wartime auxiliary services as by viewers still unborn when the 1940s sirens sounded.
Yet initial reaction was mixed. Sean Day-Lewis in The Daily Telegraph identified a “nervous sense of humour” in the portrayal of events which, in 1968, remained well within the memory of most of the viewing audience. At a pre-transmission screening of the first episode organised for the BBC by a market research company, one woman complained: “Haven’t we had enough of this old wartime rubbish?” Even John le Mesurier predicted it would be “an absolute disaster”. But when Croft received the firm’s report — most of it critical — he simply slipped it beneath the pile in his in-tray and forgot about it.
In the event, an initial audience of eight million in 1968 had more than doubled by 1972, and there was critical as well as popular acclaim. When the original series ended in 1977, The Guardian lamented its passing, saying it had “given us finer farces, straighter faces, richer characterisations and a good deal more social observation than most of the more pretentious dramas.”
Despite his patrician air (he arrived for the first day’s filming of Dad’s Army in his 1954 Rolls-Royce Silver Wraith), Croft was ever alert to the spirit of the age. As the historian Dominic Sandbrook observed: “[Dad’s Army’s] gaze was firmly fixed on the past. It celebrated a lost era of austerity and collective endeavour, but its appeal depended on the domestication of leisure and the new individualism of the affluent society.”
Against the grain of the times, Croft wove in few references to sex, and his early work with Perry was largely male-dominated; the women in Dad’s Army, for instance, were all marginal and either boot-faced or tarty. But in Are You Being Served? such types moved centre stage in the shape of the middle-aged Mrs Slocombe (Molly Sugden) continually lamenting the state of “my pussy” to the young Miss Brahms (Wendy Richard).
Set in a fading department store called Grace Brothers and launched in 1973, Are You Being Served? was Croft and Jeremy Lloyd’s metaphor for the parlous state of a once-great nation of shopkeepers. “Grace Brothers was Britain,” noted the journalist Stuart Jeffries , “a disunited kingdom that had started crumbling during the war and, against all the odds, against all the laws of physics and of good taste, still kept going, supplying a dwindling bunch of customers with things that they surely could not want.”
In Hi-de-Hi!, Croft’s next collaboration with Jimmy Perry, female characters continued to loom large, notably the terrifying Gladys Pugh (Ruth Madoc) setting her cap at her boss Geoffrey Fairbrother (Simon Cadell), and the poignant figure of Peggy Ollerenshaw (Su Pollard), the would-be Yellowcoat doomed to perpetual servitude as a chalet maid.
Another Croft and Perry series set in a man’s world, It Ain’t Half Hot, Mum, featured characters criticised as racial as well as gay stereotypes, and the series — now fettered by modern constraints of political correctness — has never been repeated. Set in a Royal Artillery depot in India in 1945, it followed the fortunes of an Ensa concert party, a collection of oddballs and misfits overseen by a homophobic battery sergeant major (Windsor Davies) and two ineffectual officers (Donald Hewlett and Michael Knowles).
Croft rebuffed criticism of some of the characters, pointing out that the concert party’s female impersonator “Gloria” (Melvyn Hayes) was not homosexual but a transvestite. In You Rang, M’Lord? Croft introduced the first recurring lesbian character in a British sitcom in the shape of Cissy (Catherine Rabett).
One of Croft’s biggest rows within the BBC was over ’Allo ’Allo, the outrageous farce which poked fun at the French Resistance, the German occupiers of wartime France and the airmen of the RAF, investing everyone with appalling cod accents. Asked how he could countenance equating the heroic French with the evil Gestapo, Croft would patiently explain that ’Allo ’Allo was not intended as a comment on either.
“What we are sending up,” he told an interviewer, “is a whole genre of stiff upper-lip films and TV series like Colditz and Secret Army in which people actually did utter, in deadly earnest, lines like 'Listen vairy carefully, I will say thees only once.’” Despite frequent complaints about its political incorrectness, ’Allo ’Allo found favour with many heavyweight fans, among them Lord Rees-Mogg and (it was rumoured) the Queen Mother. Even more remarkably, the BBC succeeded in selling the series to more than 40 countries, eventually including France and Germany.
Croft’s style of comedy derived from an ensemble of instantly engaging characters and the creation of an enclosed arena in which their antics could be varied almost ad infinitum. In close on 500 scripts, Croft prided himself on never having ventured into the “domestic comedy” field; neither, he maintained, had he written more than a handful of “gags” .
Instead his scenarios exploited the potential of what he described as a “trapped environment”, sending the valiant geriatrics of Dad’s Army on a never-ending round of futile manoeuvres, and the grotesques of ’Allo ’Allo on a series of bizarre missions which everyone knew would end in catastrophe.
Many Croft-Perry-Lloyd characters were caricatures, at least in part, of the actors who played them. Croft himself admitted that Captain Mainwaring was “an extension of Arthur Lowe”; the actor could be as prickly as his character, and often arrived in the studio without having learned all his lines. “He never used to take his script home,” Croft explained. “He’d say: 'I’m not having that rubbish in my house.’ So he’d read it for the first time in the taxi and would finish learning it on the set. I used to field complaints from the rest of the cast.”
Croft was born David John Sharland on September 7 1922 at Poole, Dorset, and brought up in Finchley, north London. His father, Reginald Sharland, was an actor and his mother, Anne Croft, a popular theatrical star of the 1920s and 1930s, who ascribed her fine singing voice to the precaution of swallowing a raw egg in a glass of sherry before every performance. Reginald Sharland went to Hollywood shortly after his son was born and became a radio star in the United States.
David was sent to Rugby, but owing to financial constraints left before his 16th birthday. He took courses in shorthand, typing, singing and dancing, helped out in his mother’s production company, and took bit parts in films . He was planning to join his father in California when the Second World War broke out and the family moved to Bournemouth, where David served as an air raid warden — an experience which would provide much material for Dad’s Army.
In 1942, aged 19, he joined the Royal Artillery. After contracting rheumatic fever in north Africa, Bombardier Croft was sent home to convalesce and then underwent officer training at Sandhurst. Posted to India, he arrived as the war in Europe ended, and was assigned to the Essex Regiment at the Urulli camp outside Poona. He was made brigade entertainments officer, and as a major helped to oversee the evacuation of Japanese PoWs from Singapore.
Demobbed in 1947, Croft produced summer shows at Butlin’s holiday camps, took small television roles, joined the BBC Show Band Singers and wrote songs, sketches and even pantomimes for stars such as Tommy Steele and Norman Wisdom .
With the launch of commercial television in 1955, Croft joined Associated Rediffusion as a light entertainment script editor, and in 1959 moved to Newcastle-upon-Tyne as a producer for Tyne Tees. It was there that he first worked in situation comedy, producing Under New Management, set in a derelict northern pub, and writing a musical sitcom called Sunshine Street.
He remained in light entertainment when he moved to the BBC in London and produced The Benny Hill Show before Hill (whom he could not abide) decamped to ITV. He produced Hugh and I (1962-68), with Hugh Lloyd and Terry Scott, and Beggar My Neighbour (1966-68), in which he cast his future writing collaborator Jimmy Perry as Reg Varney’s flamboyant brother.
When Dad’s Army earned him fame in the late 1960s, Croft was a BBC staff producer, but he soon reverted to being a freelance, although almost his entire television career was spent working for the BBC. In later life he reflected that, had he stuck to his staff job, he would have been retiring at about the time he was writing the pilot programme for ’Allo ’Allo.
Like most successful comedy writers, Croft was happiest working office hours in collaboration with a regular partner. They would sit on opposite sides of a table, tossing dialogue ideas at each other. Then one of them would pace the room while the other made notes. At half time, they would change places.
The essence of Croft’s comedy style was rigorous discipline. Farce, he believed, depended on painstakingly worked-out detail and perfect timing. Even the apparent gibberish of Corporal Jones’s flights of fancy, or the ludicrous mispronunciations of Officer Crabtree in ’Allo ’Allo, were worked out to the last syllable.
More than 30 years on, the appeal of Dad’s Army endures. Repeats attract more than 10 million viewers, and the famous “Don’t tell him, Pike!” scene has repeatedly been voted the funniest television moment of all time. Polls continue to name it the nation’s favourite comedy, and in 2000 the British Film Institute, ranking it 13th in its list of the best television shows of the 20th century, declared that “purely in terms of its sustained popularity the show is without equal”.
Among Croft’s many honours were Bafta’s Desmond Davis award in 1981 for his outstanding contribution to television, and a Royal Television Society silver medal in 1991. In 1978 he was appointed OBE for services to television.
His autobiography, You Have Been Watching..., appeared in 2004.
David Croft married, in 1952, Ann Coupland, with whom he had seven children. One, Penny, followed her father to become a highly-regarded television comedy writer. Another, Rebecca, married the star of one of her father’s comedies, the late Simon Cadell who played Geoffrey Fairbrother, the incongruous holiday camp entertainments manager in Hi-de-Hi!