Bill Paterson marches to a new tune with Dad's Army
Scottish national treasure Bill Paterson thought remaking Dad's Army might be doomed. He tells Anne Marie Scanlon why he changed his mind
When news of a planned cinematic 'reboot' of the popular 70s sitcom Dad's Army (the nickname given to the Home Guard in Britain during the Second World War) was first announced, it wasn't met with universal praise. Even Bill Paterson, who plays Scottish undertaker and permanent pessimist "We're all doomed!" Frazer, said it was akin to "repainting the Sistine Chapel".
Paterson, who doesn't look close to his age of 70, explains his initial reluctance about the Dad's Army film. "I am a fan of the original," he tells me. "Although, if you tried to pitch it these days, to the endless commissioning executive levels, you wouldn't get far - a bunch of old guys bumbling around..."
Part of the reason for the original show's prolonged success was the recognisable caricatures - the mummy's boy (Private Pike), the tin-pot dictator (Captain Mainwaring), the gloomy Scotsman (Private Frazer), along with a spiv, an ex-public school boy and various other British 'types'.
However, the caricatures were written as real characters and the casting was perfect. Who else but Arthur Lowe could play martinet Captain Mainwaring? And of course there lay the problem for the film-makers. Scriptwriter Hamish McColl took the bold step of expanding the almost exclusively male enclave of Walmington-on-Sea (the fictional coastal town in both the original TV series and the movie) to include female characters. Women did appear in the original show, but they were few and far between and very much caricatures rather than fully fleshed-out characters. Hamish McColl soon sorted that out.
It also helps this new version that along with Paterson, the cast is a who's who of British acting talent - Toby Jones, Bill Nighy, Michael Gambon, Tom Courtenay, Daniel Mays, Felicity Montagu, Sarah Lancashire, Alison Steadman, Annette Crosbie and Catherine Zeta Jones.
Sarah Lancashire, who older viewers may remember as Raquel from Coronation Street and who put in a powerhouse performance in Happy Valley last year, gives Mrs Pike (who appeared in the original) back her humanity. Zeta Jones (Rose Winter) is a glamorous German spy posing as a journalist who turns every head in Walmington-on-Sea. The men are mesmerised by her sexy good looks, the women by her fabulous wardrobe. It was the expanded story, which "shows how together the women were while the men were so hopeless", and the chance to work with such a wonderful cast that convinced Paterson to enlist in Dad's Army.
Patterson grew up in the East End of Glasgow with no connection to the theatrical world. In his mid-teens he went on a school trip to the Citizens Theatre in Glasgow. "Most of them never went back," he tells me, "but I went back every night for years. I just fell in love with seeing theatre, films and plays. It never crossed my mind to be an actor - I was a surveyor for years but all my free time and energy was spent seeing shows."
Paterson did eventually leave his job when he got the chance to go to drama college to train as a teacher. When he had finished his degree he was invited to join his beloved Citizen Theatre and said: "I thought, 'Well, I'll do it for the experience.'"
Despite his huge success in film, theatre, radio and television and the fact that he's barely stopped working since he left drama school, his mother was always insistent that he was "a teacher really", he says laughing. "Right till the end of her life she was telling people 'he's a teacher as well.'"
While filming Dad's Army, Paterson lived in the same apartment block as Michael Gambon (Private Godfrey) and spent his spare time with the actor, who he has worked with several times in the past. "I've played his doctor about four times," he says laughing.
Gambon, although surrounded by national treasures and acting legends, steals the film with his portrayal of gentle, incontinent and memory-challenged Godfrey.
I remark that Gambon is so sweet in the role I'd like to cuddle him. "He might be a bit stinky. He has terrible problems with the waterworks," Paterson replies, but then seeing the shock on my face he adds quickly, "I don't mean Michael! Michael is tremendously well turned out."
During the early to mid 1970s Patterson spent a lot of time in Ireland, his company 7:84 took The Cheviot, The Stag and The Black, Black Oil to the Abbey Theatre. "We became regulars in Dublin and from 1972 to 1975 I was [constantly] back and forward to Ireland."
These days he doesn't get to Ireland as much as he would like.
During his career Paterson has been in many productions set during the Second World War, including an episode of Doctor Who. As a result of that his image has been preserved in plastic with a six-inch replica of his character Professor Bracewell. "It's lovely," he says of having his own action figure. "It's recognisable as me. I don't think it's flying off the shelves," he laughs, "but I've got three at home."
Although his own father was in the Home Guard, Paterson didn't have much material to draw on. His parents, like many of their generation, didn't like to talk about the war. "It was over and they got on with the rest of their lives," Paterson states, although then he goes on to say, "There was one thing my mother did talk about. After the Clydebank Blitz in 1941 my dad disappeared for a week. There was no message and she thought he had died."
Paterson's father had in fact gone to Clydebank, along with other Home Guard members and others, to help dig out the bodies.
"Thousands died," Patterson continues in his familiar soft tone, "because of the scale of tenement life. The destruction was colossal." He pauses for a moment. "So that was one big memory of the Home Guard but that wasn't Walmington-on-Sea, that was real."
Dad's Army is now showing in cinemas nationwide
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