After almost ten glorious years that changed the face of British comedy, Dad's Army bowed out on 13th November 1977 with the final episode of its ninth series - Never Too Old. The series ended in a much quieter and more dignified manner than Captain Mainwaring and his platoon usually managed, stood on Walmington-on-Sea's pier after receiving a final dressing down from Warden Hodges, who had remarked coldly that they would never stand a chance against real soldiers. After a last pang of doubt from Pike, who wonders if that might just be the case, Mainwaring, Wilson, Jones, Frazer and Godfrey all reassure him that no enemy could defeat them: 'We'll stick together, you can rely on that,' Mainwaring tells him.
He then proposed a toast, 'To Britain's Home Guard!' - and for many people, it is still believed that this is where Dad's Army ended - but four years later, in 1981, a radio spin-off was created for stars Arthur Lowe and John Le Mesurier: a show that concerned itself with a pier not too dissimilar to the one that we left the men on. It had the slightly Carry On-esque title of It Sticks Out Half A Mile.
The series was not written by Dad's Army creator Jimmy Perry though; nor David Croft, his writing partner across all eighty original television episodes. It was, however, penned by two people who had previously worked within the Dad's Army team: producer/director Harold Snoad and actor Michael Knowles. Snoad had directed five episodes in 1969 and 70, whilst Knowles - who also wrote several episodes of Are You Being Served? - made his acting debut in one of the now lost episodes of Dad's Army, Series 2's The Loneliness Of The Long Distance Walker. He would later become best known in two further Croft and Perry sitcoms, It Ain't Half Hot Mum (in which he played Captain Ashwood), and Teddy Meldrum in You Rang, M'Lord?.
Chiefly, Snoad and Knowles had already been responsible for adapting the original Dad's Army TV scripts for radio, reworking sixty-seven in total.
In the shadow of the TV series, which is still a staple of Saturday evenings on BBC Two to this day, it is easy for the casual viewer to overlook radio altogether, not realising the important role it held in helping Dad's Army along its way to become so massively successful that it embedded itself into Britain's national consciousness.
After the official ending of the series, Snoad and Knowles, armed with their years of experience adapting Croft and Perry's scripts, clearly saw the potential a sequel to the comedy hit could have.
Initially, the programme was less of a Dad's Army spin-off than a flat-out sequel, as both Arthur Lowe and John Le Mesurier reprised their lead roles for a pilot episode that was recorded in the summer of 1981. It picks in 1948: a few years after the war, Mainwaring is at something of a loose end and has taken it upon himself to renovate the (fictional) town of Frambourne-on-Sea's dilapidated old pier - much to the bemusement of almost everyone around him. To do this, he requires a loan, for which he must ask a certain bank manager, with whom he is very familiar...
Lowe was so enamoured of the initial script that he pushed the writers to pursue a television commission. Sadly, none was forthcoming and they returned to the safer confines of BBC Radio 2, who commissioned a pilot and swiftly thereafter a series. Unfortunately, tragedy struck in Spring 1982 when, before scripts had been completed, Lowe died of a stroke aged just 66.
In his later years Arthur Lowe had suffered a series of major health problems, including a form of narcolepsy, and listening to the pilot there are times when one can detect a slur in his delivery, but it is by no means a bad performance. In terms of comic timing he had lost nothing, still as sharp as ever, hitting all the comedic beats, and bouncing off Le Mesurier as naturally as he had ever done in Dad's Army. The tension between the pair remains, as Wilson gently reminds Mainwaring that he is no longer his commanding officer:
'We're equals now.'
'Equals?!' Mainwaring splutters back, aghast.
In their new setting the characters do warm up to each other - albeit slowly. Mainwaring even calls Wilson 'Arthur' in the closing half of the episode. It is a pilot, entitled Loyal Support, that bears clear promise and was clearly intended as a gentle reintroduction to the characters, but now it listens more like a touching farewell to Captain Mainwaring.
Tragically the BBC also wiped the master tape, and it was long feared that that was it: the show would be forever lost to time. Thankfully that was not the end of the story as Snoad had taken the liberty of making his own copy, which he later gave to the BBC. It received its first broadcast in 2004 on BBC 7 as part of a special series entitled Some Of Our Archives Were Missing, in which classic programmes that had been supplied by BBC listeners in response to an appeal were finally (re-)broadcast.
That had not been 'it' for the the series either, for Arthur Lowe's widow, Joan Cooper (who played the second incarnation of Godfrey's sister, Dolly, in Dad's Army) sought out the writers at his memorial service to push them to persevere with It Sticks Out Half A Mile without him. Their scripts, he had thought, were of such quality that she was adamant it was what he would have wanted. After some rewriting a second pilot was duly recorded later in 1982, and a full series with twelve further episodes aired from the following year.
The storyline of the series is much the same as the pilot, only this time it's an older (albeit not a great deal wiser) Pike and the former ARP Warden Hodges who have taken up the arduous task of renovating the old pier. Wilson (who's now transferred to Frambourne's Bank) has supplied the loan, and while a little dubious of Frank's new business partner, he ultimately decides to bury the hatchet with their previous adversary. Ian Lavender, Bill Pertwee and John Le Mesurier all reprised their roles for the series, which followed the unlikely trio's mishaps as they worked on the doomed restoration of the derelict structure.
Considering Croft and Perry weren't involved, Hodges, Pike and Wilson's characters all remain very recognisable - although Hodges's first name is now given as 'Bert' rather than 'Bill'. Aside from this continuity mishap there is very little deviation from the iconic source material, and the character-driven, gentle-paced form of storytelling that made Dad's Army such a success similarly continues. Snoad and Knowles introduced a number of new characters to give the series its own life and flavour, such as Guthrie, who has a perforated eardrum, which seems to confuse Pike a great deal:
'It means he's got a hole in his ear,' Wilson tells him.
'Surely we've all got one of those?'
There's also the bank clerk, Miss Perkins, who is in love with Wilson (much to Pike's distain). However, the new cast don't alter the style or tone of It Sticks Out Half A Mile from that laid down in Dad's Army at all: they're perfectly in step with the world we all know. As such it's a continuation of the Dad's Army story that any fan would enjoy.
The series is particularly noteworthy for featuring some of John Le Mesurier's final performances: poignantly, just as Arthur Lowe had done so shortly after recording the pilot, he too died mere months after completing the first (and thus only) series. It seems highly likely that the comedy would have returned had this not been the case.
Shockingly, despite by this time being well into the 1980s, after the initial broadcast and customary repeat run on Radio 2 there followed a mix up between BBC departments that resulted in the master tapes for the series proper being wiped. Lost episodes were - and remain - a problem that seem to plague the Dad's Army family of programmes, even unto the last. Fortunately, all editions have since been recovered, largely due to original off-air recordings made by fans; although it took some years to reclaim them all in decent quality.
You might have thought that this was the end of the road - or indeed, pier - for both It Sticks Out Half A Mile and the wider Dad's Army ecology, but Snoad and Knowles had other ideas. Retiring the Dad's Army characters and focusing squarely on the pier restoration plot, the pair developed a TV pilot with the BBC. Entitled Walking The Planks, it starred Michael Elphick, Richard Wilson and Donald Hewlett, and was aired on 2nd August 1985.
Despite being warmly received by the viewing public, however, the BBC passed on the idea. Unbeaten, Snoad took the format to ITV regional franchisee Yorkshire Television, who soon commissioned a full seven-part series.
This time Bernard Cribbins took Elphick's place in the lead role of Ron Archer, a character inspired by Hodges's role in It Sticks Out Half A Mile. Wilson reprised his role from the BBC pilot as Ron's brother-in-law, Richard 'Dickie' Talbot, and whilst his place in the dynamic filled Wilson's shows, he played the role with a slight aura of Captain Mainwaring about him.
Despite only running for one series, the comedy - named High & Dry - garnered a fair level of success on ITV when broadcast in 1987. Seen today it appears to have been produced on something of a tight budget with no location filming, meaning the entirety of the pier sets had to be created in a studio - ambitious to say the least! This results in the slightly odd spectacle of Bernard Cribbins's Ron hanging awkwardly out of an obviously prop car chatting to his son, Trevor (played by Angus Barnett, who takes over Pike's role) in the opening scene of the first episode.
Wonky sets aside, the series took the framework of It Sticks Out Half A Mile and played up the class divide in the relationship of its two leads, with Cribbins and Wilson making for an intriguing double act. However, the series is perhaps most notable for Richard Wilson's performance, which almost feels a warm up for his iconic role as Victor Meldrew in One Foot In The Grave just three years later. Meldrew was a character that became so iconic in the nineties that his name became the conversational shorthand for a grumpy old man.
One curious point of note is that whilst Harold Snoad wrote High & Dry alongside Michael Knowles, he was credited under the pseudonym Alan Sherwood owing to the terms of a contract he was under with the BBC at the time. The pair hoped to produce a second series, but it never transpired.
These days, both men continue to salute and be a part of all things Dad's Army. Snoad is the vice president of The Dad's Army Appreciation Society (founded in 1993 by Bill Pertwee) and their adapted radio scripts continue to be revived in the popular two-man touring stage production Dad's Army Radio Show. Every episode of It Sticks Out Half A Mile has also been released for free by the BBC on audio streaming service Spotify, released on CD and buy to download formats, as well as enjoying occasional repeat runs on Radio 4 Extra.
However, one important question still remains: after the series' self-confessed "seaside saga of post-war pier perpetuation" did either of these sitcoms actually get the pier restored, renovated and returned to its former glory? And the answer is ... no.
Where to start?
Pilot - Loyal Support
Dad's Army completists won't want to miss out on listening to an episode of this warm farewell to some of Dad's Army's core characters, but it's the pilot that's the most memorable for featuring the final interactions of one of British sitcom's most iconic double acts, Arthur Lowe and John Le Mesurier as Mainwaring and Wilson.
Set in 1948, this radio sequel to the classic TV comedy Dad's Army features several of the much-loved characters from the original series. Arthur Wilson (John Le Mesurier) is now managing a bank in Frambourne-on-Sea, and the pilot episode sees him visited by his old Captain, George Mainwaring (Arthur Lowe), requesting a loan to save the town's pier from demolition.
Sadly, Lowe died shortly afterwards, but the series was revamped to feature Wilson, his clerk Pike (Ian Lavender), and ex-ARP Warden Bert Hodges (Bill Pertwee) as the man with the renovation plan. Can they restore Frambourne's pier to its former glory?
Written by Harold Snoad and Michael Knowles (who adapted Dad's Army for radio), the series also stars Vivienne Martin as Miss Perkins, with guest stars including Glynn Edwards, Hilda Braid, Christopher Biggins and Betty Marsden.
First released: Thursday 3rd October 2019
- Publisher: BBC Digital Audio
- Minutes: 390
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