Vicar of Walmington
WE HAD a rare family outing to the cinema recently, to see Dad’s Army. For those aged 40 and over, the TV series Dad’s Army was an inescapable part of family evenings around the television — yes, that’s what people used to do. For my grandchildren’s generation, however, it is simply a quaint old programme which is repeated from time to time on BBC2, drawing an inexplicably large audience.
The film has a strong storyline, and made us laugh, although not in the way that the broadcast series always did. A dozen years ago it was voted fourth best British sitcom of all time; for the record, the winner was Only Fools and Horses.
Time and mortality have been at work on the original cast, and only two of them appear in the film. One is Ian Lavender, who, in the TV series, played Pike, the junior bank clerk excused military service because of his flat feet, but in the film is cast as a senior officer. The other is Frank Williams, who retains his role as Vicar of Walmington-on-Sea.
Lavender was the “stupid boy” constantly chastised by Captain Mainwaring. The Vicar and his verger also had a somewhat strained relationship with the commanding officer, whose men used his vestry and church hall for their parades and training.
Frank lived in Edgware, near my home, during 30 years in London. Both of us were active in the local Anglican scene. Although at that time occupying opposite ends of the ecclesiastical candle, as it were, we occasionally enjoyed a little churchy repartee at local events.
Until he retired in 2000, Frank was on the General Synod, a familiar voice and cheery face for the catholic cause. As well as a noted actor, he wrote several plays, including one on the Passion which I recall as both powerful and moving. And now, here he is, almost 50 years after Dad’s Army first appeared, with a brief cameo to remind us of his constantly harassed, mildly camp vicar keeping the wartime torch of faith alight in Walmington.
He is, I ought to record, younger than me — but not much.
Loss of an old friend
THE woman on welcoming duties at the church door said to me, “Terry Wogan’s died.” I went in, and the man handing out the books said, with a hint of shock, “Did you hear, Terry Wogan’s died.” I made my way to my seat, and the woman sitting next to me turned and simply repeated the mantra: “Terry Wogan’s died.” It was something of a surprise that the preacher didn’t manage to include the great voice of Radio 2 in his Candlemas sermon.
Middle England, and specifically middle-aged England, had lost its favourite friend, albeit an Irish one.
David Bowie’s death, a few weeks earlier, took up no fewer than 11 pages of The Times. I know, because I counted them. Terry’s took up only two. That probably tells you more about the tastes of the paper’s editorial staff than those of their readers. Bowie was an artist who changed the face of popular music; Wogan’s was a personality that lit up half the nation. And those of us who worked with him knew that what you heard or saw was what was truly there.
A cradle Roman Catholic, he had struggled with the idea of a personal, loving God since the death of his baby daughter, but he never publicised his doubts. Indeed, he attended mass regularly with his wife. “I believe in people,” he would say, when asked about his beliefs; so perhaps we could call him a second-commandment Christian.
If, however, as Jesus asserted, true faith is recognised by its “fruit”, and, as the apostle said “Love is the fulfilling of the law”, then probably he is home and dry.
“The play’s the thing”
THIS year, I suspect that those of us who are Shakespeare addicts will get our fill. The fourth centenary of his death in April will be marked by new productions of his work on stage and television, and will undoubtedly unleash a flood of books about the Englishman who is probably the greatest dramatist the world has ever known.
I was introduced to his genius by a brilliant young English teacher in my sixth-form days. Until then, I had thought of his plays as texts to be studied, problems to be solved, not fields of wonder to be explored. I hope I carried a bit of her enthusiasm into my own brief career as an English teacher.
I am fairly sure that we try to force-feed teenagers with Shakespeare before they are mature enough to begin to understand him, let alone enjoy him. His language is unfamiliar, most of his humour — endless unfunny puns — a far cry from ours. But, for many a hitherto sceptical student, the right moment does eventually come.
Eureka for the Bard
I REMEMBER a fifth-form class (as we used to call them) in a school in Tottenham, north London. We had been working our way through Shakespeare’s Richard II, and had just been reading the wonderfully nuanced scene outside Flint Castle, when the King’s great adversary, Bolingbroke, stands before him. The King is cornered, but defiant. Bolingbroke may have the soldiers, but he has the Divine Right. He witheringly dismisses his contender’s gesture of obeisance, but in fact the game is up.
We paused the reading, and a boy said, in a voice full of fresh wonder: “Sir, it’s bloody good, isn’t it?” Without entirely endorsing his first adjective, I agreed, and the class gave a little round of applause — not for him, not for me, but for the great Bard of Avon. One to celebrate this year, surely?
Canon David Winter is a retired cleric in the diocese of Oxford, and a former head of religious broadcasting at the BBC.