Thursday, September 11, 2008

Arthur Lowe: The greatest actor ever?

I blush to admit it now, but until recently I was of the view that Dad’s Army belonged in the second drawer of television sitcoms. This is the one above ‘delightful ephemera set in a living room that goes through into the kitchen’, but below the ones with something Important about them. This latter was more or less empty but for the black and white Steptoes and the first series of Reginald Perrin, and compared to these, Dad’s Army seemed delightful but insubstantial.
Let us agree that it is cheap and cheerful, and that parts of it are visibly under-rehearsed and under-budgeted. Many would certainly argue that it was a reactionary response to the immense cultural changes of the late sixties: a retreat into an idealised past which it gently mocks but always prefers to contemporary reality, nostalgia as anaesthetic.
Did Perry and Croft spend their careers bottling harmless nostalgia for Middle England? It may once have seemed so. Now their work seems to get richer and deeper all the time, and it is looking as though they did not so much shy away from reality as turn their backs on it, and that posterity has vindicated the decision.
Perry & Croft are the odd-pair-out of sitcom’s three great writing duos. In Dad’s Army they chose to completely ignore the social comment and growing realism pioneered by Galton & Simpson and carried on by Clement and LeFrenais, and drew on nothing else that was fashionable or conventional in television at the time. It was one of the last products of the great BBC variety tradition, which encouraged us to think of the tv set as a little theatre on which players parade for our amusement, not as a separate medium with its own rules and conventions. Dad’s Army is written for this little theatre. Contrastingly, Whatever Happened to the Likely Lads? is written for television. It has more in common with Play For Today than any kind of pre-television comedy.
Perry & Croft preferred to close their curtains to the belching chimneys and, holding fast to the vanishing definition of comedy that goes something like “the art of providing uplift through the depiction of amusing situations and characters”, looked to the great days of music hall (in which Perry, in particular, was steeped) and British comedy cinema of the thirties and forties (especially Will Hay) for the style they wished to duplicate.
Rather than hiding in the past, I now think that they were using the past to provide the correct backdrop for all that they thought most important in British comedy, and perhaps most in danger of being lost in the sixties shuffle. They came to praise tradition, not to bury it, and while this can be seen as the ultimate reactionary gesture, it has to be remembered that to anti-modernists nostalgia is far from an aimless, wishy-washy kind of attitude but a potent and galvanising force. To abandon the promise of sixties radicalism and to run, as early as 1969, in the exact opposite direction of cultural traffic is in itself a meaningful gesture, certainly not one made in ignorance of the cultural trajectory and momentum of the times. If Perry & Croft really could see the game was up this early then they, surely, are the radicals.
So they set to work. They got the right casts, wrote the right words and slowly it all started slotting into place. It was not welcomed by the BBC and even the public took their time, yet it has turned into a living thing, as well as a repository of lines and characters who endure as Sherlock Holmes or Pickwick or Gulliver do, independent of their eras and sources.
One of their great innovations for establishing a beloved rep company feel was the ‘You Have Been Watching’ endings, with the actors coming out one by one for your applause. (Imagine yourself looking at the monitors in the studio audience, the applause your own, perhaps increasing in volume or vigour for a particular favourite; James Beck, say.) Notice also how it forces awareness of an interesting tv convention: as at the end of a theatrical production, we applaud the featured players in contractually arranged star order, yet in the exact opposite order that they would take their bows on stage, the biggest star first instead of last. Why the difference? And how did they do it at the end of the Dad’s Army stage show?
One thing that dates the show is the large number of other members of the platoon who never do anything, other than loiter, stone-faced through the most ridiculous slapstick, mutely observing the antics in the front row. They have neither names nor personalities, they don’t talk, nobody talks to them and they don’t talk to each other. With the exception of Colin Bean’s Private Sponge - just occasionally brushed a crumb or two of exposition from Zeppo Marx’s dining table – they never have a single line of dialogue.
It is a typically unrealistic, theatrical, un-Play For Today, Perry & Croft kind of solution to a problem of logistics: the number of soldiers in a platoon is greater than the comfortable maximum of speaking parts in a sitcom. So artificial a solution would be deemed unacceptable today, in fact I’m not sure they much cared for it at the time. I suspect it is another example of how Perry & Croft ignored the conventions of their chosen medium in favour of those being evoked.
Corny old jokes are an inevitable side effect of this process. The humour is whimsical and gentle, even wistful, but shot through with sexual innuendo, slapstick and corn. That the writers thrived under each other’s influence is obvious: Croft was BBC insurance against Perry’s inexperience and penchant for dawdling whimsy, yet Croft without Perry is efficient but heartless, in the manner of ‘Allo, ‘Allo and Are You Being Served? Together their work acquired a natural balance that seems effortless. Here is a typical case of Perry gentility building and yielding to the Croft knockout punch:

Godfrey: The world’s gone mad. When I was a young man, some of we young blades decided we’d have a really good night out. We went to London; saw the show at the Gaiety Theatre. Then we had a really good slap-up supper, four courses, with wine. And then we all sailed home in hansom cabs. And do you know? We still had change left out of half a sovereign. (…)

Jones: Well I don’t think prices are too bad. Young Pikey and I went into the Rosemary Café in Eastgate the other day for lunch, didn’t we? You know what we had? We had brown windsor soup, we had whalemeat cutlets, we had mashed potatoes, swedes, tapioca pudding and a cup of tea. Ninepence. Mind you, it wasn’t very good.

Pike: I was sick.

Brain Versus Brawn is a fine example of the mix: beautifully observed character comedy in the first scene, in which Mainwaring is poignantly upstaged at a gala dinner, then some blistering slapstick in an extended sequence in which the platoon attempt to mount and drive away a fire engine; minutes pass in the attempt, all the characters are given a chance to shine.
The episode in which Mainwaring leaves Wilson in charge of the platoon while he has his ingrown toenails removed is an odd one. It’s like Croft has gone away and left Perry in charge of the programme. He returns (Mainwaring, that is), hobbling about on crutches with bandaged toes that he must frequently extricate from the path of heavy-booted feet, to find Godfrey wearing a nose-shield, Pike with a machine gun in a violin case and Fraser nursing a pregnant mouse.
Discipline is soon restored, but there remains the problem of the vicar, who has also joined the platoon in his absence. Mainwaring, and Croft, reassert themselves in the following dialogue:
Vicar: I asked myself: ‘Could I stand by and watch my wife being raped by a Nazi?’ ‘No,’ I said to myself, ‘I couldn’t’.
Mainwaring: But you’re not married.
Vicar: I have a very vivid imagination.

They are in many ways among the most unpredictable of writers: each episode of Dad’s Army has a different feel, and you never know quite what you are going to get from week to week. The cast, too, occasionally seem to belong in different shows. Some of the performances are so broad – Bill Pertwee’s, for instance – that it’s like a revue when they’re on. Clive Dunn is another. He’s brilliant, really brilliant (oh, the moment in The Honourable Man when he 'does cobblers') but he’s always Clive Dunn.
Other performers are routinely prone to breaking the fourth wall (as these buffoonish actor chaps say) with wrongly delivered or remembered dialogue. (Often, it must be said, when they have very little to learn.) This kind of spell-breaking would be impossible today: any fluffed lines are either taken out in the editing or more likely lead to the scene being aborted there and then in one of those no-longer-amusing Denis Nordern-type moments. But Dad’s Army, like a lot of older comedy, is full of occasions when the fluff actually ruins a joke, but the old troupers carry on like they were taught to, and the production team do likewise. It’s reminiscent of those old 78’s made by the great music hall stars, issued complete with false starts, coughs and errors.

It is not just the writing that we run the risk of taking for granted in Dad’s Army. There is, in particular, one performance that should, I think, be recognised both as the culmination and the perfection of a particular kind of British comic acting. It’s so good you can’t see the strings and levers; you miss the skill and the confidence of it. This performance is of Captain Mainwaring by Arthur Lowe.
If a performer is so good they never let you down, sometimes you stop seeing what they do. A sitcom performance that is utterly convincing in its recreation of a recognisable personality type tends to be recalled, and enjoyed, as the character itself, as if it’s someone we know. It’s an ironic tribute. For it is as actors that we recall those who fluff their lines, or get the emphasis wrong, or in some other technical way remind us of the artificiality of what we are watching. It is as actors we recall those whose technique is sufficiently distanced from realism by design that we are never allowed to forget it is a comic performance. And it is as actors we recall those who impose a pre-existing comic personality on to a role, so that it never takes on life independently.
But Mainwaring never surprises us because he never does anything out of character. We get used to Lowe’s excellence, we become ungrateful, we stop seeing how constantly inventive he is, how every line and gesture is separately hilarious, yet so carefully absorbed within the overall performance that never for one second do we get the chance to sit back and think of him as Arthur Lowe, the comic actor, in a cold BBC studio in 1973. He’s Mainwaring, always. We get the effect and see none of the mechanics. He’s just too good.
As an actor, we do not want him to have any personality distinct from that of his creation. This is presumably the reason why a whole bunch of divergent testimony as to his character and habits tends to be tidied up at the end of books and documentaries as the general understanding that Lowe and Mainwaring were basically interchangeable. How could they not have been? We never sense consciousness of performance in what he does, except maybe when he is given physical business, ending up with his hat and glasses askew. Then, perhaps, the actor shows through the skin, but certainly in dialogue and gesture he is peerless.
Even his catchphrases always, always work. Every single ‘you stupid boy’ pays its way; it works even when it is audaciously used as an episode punchline (When You’ve Got To Go). It’s not even true to say he doesn’t fluff lines. He does, fairly often, but always from deep within the skin of his man. Even if they did keep stopping for retakes back then, chances are they wouldn’t have bothered with Lowe’s.
There’s an exchange in The Honourable Man that illustrates perfectly how in Perry & Croft performance and script can often combine to produce something unique in its effects, and shows how a lesser actor may have actually earned a more generous response.
It’s a typical Perry and Croft situation: broad and foolish, yet still genuinely poignant. Mainwaring, jealous that Wilson has received a title, has contrived to send him off on motorcycle practice so as not to steal his own thunder during the arrival of a Russian dignitary. There’s a bit of motorbike slapstick from John Le Mesurier’s stand-in, then an exchange of comic dialogue so funny, and played so perfectly, that I’ve watched it many times without even realising it is a joke at all.
Mainwaring is at the ceremony, and some representative of army top brass asks him who is in charge of the platoon in Wilson’s absence. “Lance Corporal Jones,” he replies. Is he reliable? “Oh, yes – first class man,” says Mainwaring.
Such is the perfectly-judged arrogance of the man that he is far too busy inwardly congratulating himself for getting Wilson out of the way to think for a second about the question he has been asked or the answer he has given.
Think of all the stupid things you have seen Jones do, because they are all things that Mainwaring has also seen Jones do. And yet so pleased with himself is he, and so proud of his men, and so irrationally certain of his prowess at moulding them into a fighting force, that the question of Jones’s competence is instantly, unthinkingly dismissed with “Oh, yes – first class man.” It is a moment that cannot be improved, and it is so funny, it doesn’t get a single laugh.
In a documentary on Perry and Croft the BBC did many years back, Bob Monkhouse spoke of the value of lines that are not gag lines but are funny precisely because “that is what the man would say.” This is an example of exactly that, but in fact, a lesser actor may have been able to get a bigger laugh with it. All they would have to do is nudge us into noticing it, by comically overplaying the line, bringing the absurdity out more clearly. But Lowe never steps outside of the material in this way. (His exact opposite in this respect, and I think you’ll see I’m right even as you instantly recoil from the prospect of admitting it, is John Cleese as Basil Fawlty. I know we’re supposed to go around saying that Fawlty is one of most beautifully judged characters in sitcom, but you only have to imagine Leonard Rossiter in the role to see how this enormously likeable programme could be improved.)
Arthur Lowe did more than Dad’s Army, of course, and he was by no means confined to variants on the Mainwaring character, certainly not in the first half of his career. I get the feeling that he could have done anything at one time. He could certainly sing, and he appeared in West End musicals. What seemed to lead him definitively into petty authority figures were the genetic accidents of bad eyesight and premature baldness that marked his card as surely as any casting director. That rich brown voice added the final layer of conservatism to the persona, and the Gods spoke. As surely as for Clive Dunn, his physical appearance dictated the range of characterisations he was offered. But he's good in films; several for Lindsay Anderson, a pompous critic who has his head sawn off by Vincent Price in Theatre of Blood, adding immeasurably to the fun in No Sex, Please - We're British and, with Ian Carmichael, a fine alternative to Naunton and Wayne in Hammer's very pleasant remake of The Lady Vanishes.
And he is wonderful in a charming albeit unhilarious ITV series called Bless Me, Father in which he is a grouchy, if quietly mischievous, Roman Catholic priest. He affects a convincing Irish accent throughout the three series, and while you may initially enjoy it because you're expecting Mainwaring in a dog collar, it slowly dawns on you that this is, in fact, a very different, equally beguilling characterisation. After a few episodes it really does seem like two different men, in whose company you feel equally happy. The closest to it in sitcom is, I suppose, the aforementioned Rossiter, who created in Perrin and Rigsby two totally different characters, each in their own totally different way two of the greatest acting performances of all time. It still amazes me the way people prattle on about Marlon Brando or Laurence Olivier, as if either man could have come within a mile of the things Rossiter was capable of. Yet such is our odd sense of judgement on these matters we tend to feel that the fact that Rossiter was hilariously funny as well as brilliant detracts from rather than adds to the seriousness of his talent.
Lowe may have lacked the range and unpredictability of Rossiter, but still it could be that Mainwaring is the best-written and realised character in sitcom history, and I urge you to take any episode at random and really watch this man at work. And consider the material with which he is working.
For those with eyes and ears, Dad’s Army offers a wealth of insight into class, era and society, just as Will Hay and the Carry On films and Tony Hancock do. The period setting is a blind because the scripts are not putting any contemporary spin on the material: the comedy in Dad’s Army is only fractionally racier and more impudent than that which was genuinely enjoyed in the war years; it is exacting pastiche rather than parody.
Because the dominant tone is celebratory rather than deprecatory, it is easy to pigeonhole it as safe, cosy humour, in which the occasional sharp line or observation is more than made up for by the equal likelihood of seeing Pike being marched through the streets with his head stuck through a detached stretch of park railings, or Jones falling into a threshing machine and emerging without his trousers on. But this in itself is a political gesture to post-Python sensibilities. Already the signs are obvious that it is a programme that will outlive even its most vaunted peers. It seems effortless because it isn’t. Nothing else has as much claim to the top drawer, or to a drawer all its own. And at the very heart of its special greatness is the peformance of Arthur Lowe.