‘Shoot Forty Dustmen’ – says Arthur Lowe

Captain Mainwaring’s pomposity is funny, but we don’t want to be like him. Our sense of humour is there partly to protect us from things we don’t like by making them seem ridiculous. Arthur Lowe’s performance does this job perfectly. His skill as an actor combined with equally skilled (or fortunate) casting created one of the classic comic characters of English literature.
The writers of Dad’s Army’ repeatedly claim that ‘Mainwaring became Arthur and Arthur became Mainwaring‘ – in the manner of many famous personalised roles. Yul Brynner was famous among the technicians who worked his stage show at The Palladium for ‘being’ the part. Arthur Lowe seems to have been closer to his masterpiece than most. Accounts of him by wartime and theatre colleagues seem to confirm this.
When this kind of extreme sympathy exists between a fiction and its creator, the character of one is likely to reflect on the other. Fans who shout ‘I Don’t Believe IT!’ at Richard Wilson in the street are displaying the way in which the fiction is identified with the creator. So what happens when facts about the creator become known to the consumers of the fiction?
Warren Mitchell was known for political beliefs which were the opposite of his creation, Alf Garnett, and that only served to give Johnny Speight’s monster more depth, if anything. For generations, gay actors hid their sexuality in order to keep acting. Rock Hudson knew that audiences of the time would not have been able to tolerate his depiction of macho roles knowing that he was gay.
Having been given a copy of The Complete Dad’s Army Scripts by a perceptive friend, I was a little disturbed to read this reminiscence by Bill Harman, Assistant Floor Manager for the early series.

‘Arthur’s politics seemed to a young, idealistic naive liberal thinker like myself to be somewhat to the right of Genghis Khan. He was a big fan of Enoch Powell, and claimed to be a prominent contributor to the fund set up to promote Powell to the PM’s job. A Labour government was in power, and one day at rehearsals, while a national garbage strike was causing major sanitation problems countrywide, Arthur unfolded his Daily Express, tapped his finger on the headline and said “Look at this” and he read out loud – “Edward Heath says it will be a hard road to victory.” He put down the paper and said: “I don’t want to read that sort of pathetic nonsense, I want to open my morning paper and see ‘Forty dustmen shot this morning.” Then we’ll get things moving!” Noting my surprise at this outburst he said to me, “Do you know what the eighth deadly sin is?” “No.” I replied. “Tolerance” said Arthur. I could see a twinkle in his eye as he said it, obviously tickled at the reaction his statements provoked.


‘Bill Harman Remembers’. Series Three, Episode Ten. Dad’s Army Complete Scripts. Jimmy Perry & David Croft.

Now, we cannot be absolutely sure what kind of ‘twinkle’, and have to accept that the Assistant Floor Manager ranks only slightly higher than the studio cat in the production hierarchy, but Bill Harman’s memory seems clear enough to be taken more or less at face value – and Lowe was not known for his drunkenness on set. Harman also seems to be basing his account on more than one event. So what effect does this knowledge have on our sense of humour? How does it invoke the Rock Hudson Effect? How do artistic appreciation and political hostility co-exist?
After thoroughly enjoying Saturday’s BBC special, I can testify that they can co-exist. But how is it possible to put aside extreme political hostility and laugh? The character of Mainwaring isn’t tainted in any way by this knowledge of Arthur Lowe’s politics, but then, the real-life Mainwarings of the 40’s and 50’s would have been the sort of people backing Powell in the 60’s. In their golf clubs and Rotary dinners, anyway.
As reactionary clowns go, the role of Mainwaring and its actor are very close, but unlike the Mitchell/Garnett chemistry, the sins of the actor tend to reinforce the absurdity of the role, increasing the deflation when the pomposity is pricked, and making us laugh more. In that case, the only people who should be worried by this revelation are, firstly, the latter day Powellites. Captain Mainwairing is making us laugh at Powell as well as himself and Hitler – the ultimate comic target. And secondly, those who feel that Arthur Lowe does not deserve to be made a Licensed Fool in this way, that his personality should not become part of the joke. That he deserves a better fate than Jeremy Clarkson.

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