I FIND it difficult to watch programmes that feature the clergy, because, generally speaking, the production is riddled with errors. One glorious exception in the BBC canon is life at St Aldhelm’s, Walmington-on-Sea, somewhere on the East Sussex coast, where the Revd Timothy Farthing is Vicar.
Walmington is, of course, the fictional setting for the BBC series Dad’s Army, which first entertained a nation in the 1960s and ’70s with the antics of the Home Guard. Captain Mainwaring, Sergeant Wilson, Corporal Jones, and Privates Pike, Godfrey, Walker, and Frazer created plenty of hilarity in their often heroic but usually misplaced endeavours. Into that mix came the over-protective mother of young Pike; the officious ARP Warden; and the Vicar and verger of the parish church.
The golden jubilee of Dad’s Army falls this year; so I want to mark the anniversary by considering the use of the Book of Common Prayer in Walmington-on-Sea.
The church life of the period is pretty accurate, because Frank Williams, who played the Vicar, was and is a faithful churchman. He grew up as a boy singing matins and evensong, and, later, was exposed to what we used to call Prayer Book Catholicism at Ardingly College, John Keble Church, Mill Hill, and later All Saints’, Margaret Street.
In his autobiography, Vicar to Dad’s Army (Canterbury Press, 2002), he records how he became an “adviser on most things ecclesiastical”, and prevented all sorts of blunders.
CHURCH life in Walmington would seem to be pretty middle-of-the-road: matins and evensong are the primary sung services. It is not unusual to see the Vicar in surplice, scarf, and hood as he prepares for service.
St Aldhelm’s has a fine musical tradition. In Walmington, when there are no recruitment forms for local defence volunteers, Wilson has to use the choir recruitment form, whose initial question is: “Are you sound in the canticles?”
They were very sound in the canticles at St Aldhelm’s, since both morning and evening prayer are clearly sung according to the Book of Common Prayer. In the episode “The Bullet Is Not for Firing”, the verger complains about members of the Home Guard doing bayonet practice during evensong: “Blood-curdling it was, right in the middle of [the Vicar’s] . . . responses.”
In the same episode we meet the church choir as they rehearse in the Vicar’s office. Mainwaring, even though he is married to the daughter of the Suffragan Bishop of Clagthorpe, is not pleased to have his court of inquiry in the main hall disturbed by the singing of the morning canticle, the Jubilate Deo.
The Vicar agrees that the choir will sing something quieter, and they go for the evening canticle, the Nunc Dimittis. Jones is overcome by the sound of it during the giving of his evidence, and thinks he can hear “angel voices” calling him into the next life. “If that is what it is like to go, I like it,” he observes.
I KNOW that some members of the Prayer Book Society feel strongly that Prayer Book services should be accompanied by lessons from the Authorised Version. At St Aldhem’s, the big church Bible is chained to the lectern, which suggests that it is an early edition. Even Walker, the spiv, recognises that the Authorised Version is a masterpiece. When Mainwaring wants a Bible to take the oath on, Walker says that he can get him one, and that “It’s the Authorised Version — no rubbish!”
Fraser, the tight-fisted Scotsman, is also familiar with the Authorised Version of the Apocrypha, as shown by his refusal to copy an obscene word scrawled on the Vicar’s spare harmonium. Quoting from Ecclesiasticus 13.1, he pronounces that “He that toucheth pitch shall be defiled.”
The Prayer Book has long been lauded for the fact that almost every word in it can be paralleled with a biblical passage, and scripture is often referred to in Dad’s Army. Mainwaring says that he has been like a voice “crying in the wilderness” as he attempts to gain the War Office’s attention.
Jones, when under the influence of tonic wine and trying to re-thread a flagstaff, mangles scripture with his reference to “the camel of an eye”.
In “The Showing Up of Corporal Jones”, Mainwaring questions the Vicar’s patriotism on discovering that his wireless is tuned to German radio. He is also concerned by his seditious sermon on the parting of the waves, which he thought unhelpful, given that Hitler was poised on the other side of the English Channel.
The Vicar, however, is thoroughly patriotic, and clearly takes seriously the Prayer Book call to pray for both King and State. In “A Soldier’s Farewell”, Mainwaring punishes the platoon for failing to stand for the National Anthem at the cinema, by making them listen to it while standing to attention in the hall. The Vicar naturally rises to his feet in his adjoining office, the moment he hears the strains of it.
We discover in “Battle of the Giants” that the Vicar was an army chaplain, since he was entitled to wear the Mons Star, and Victory and Service medals from the First World War. As a padre, he would have been familiar with using the Army Prayer Book, which offered truncated versions of Prayer Book services for parade services.
THE Walmington-on-Sea platoon go to church to worship in numerous episodes. Sometimes, they are not keen: even the gentle Godfrey complains that the Vicar’s sermons go on too long. In reality, the relationship between the Church and the Home Guard, as illustrated by the discussions of the Archbishops’ War Committee, was not always harmonious.
As Edward Carpenter writes in Archbishop Fisher: His life and times (Canterbury Press), “These excellent ‘part-timers’, immortalised in the television series Dad’s Army, did not always find obedience to directions from higher authorities easy, and were not beyond paying off scores against an unpopular vicar. One subject relating to their training which remained a bone of contention was the use of Sunday morning for this purpose.”
The relationship between the parish church and the Home Guard certainly has its ups and downs in Dad’s Army; but occasional worship and the words of the Prayer Book are a given in their world. Wilson parodies the evening collect when he explains that the verger is painting the office ceiling so that he can “lighten their darkness with whitewash”. Even the ungodly Walker has picked up how to chant the versicles and responses as he mockingly intones “Let us pray” at Warden Hodges, who is kneeling to demonstrate a smoke test.
There are no overt references to holy communion, but we do know that the altar has candlesticks on it, which suggests that the sacrament is celebrated with a degree of seemly, but not extreme, ceremonial. In the 1971 film Dad’s Army, we also glimpse the “decent bason”, which the communion service mandates for the collection of “alms for the poor”, when Mainwaring and his men, disguised as members of the choir of St Aldhelm’s, use it to smuggle in his revolver to overcome the Germans who are holding the townsfolk hostage.
Church bells also feature. The Prayer Book mandates that a bell should be rung to let people know that morning and evening prayer is to be said; in the film, all the church bells are confiscated for the war effort, with one exception. The Vicar is most put out at losing the bells, since he is a campanologist and editor of Ring-a-Ding Monthly.
If the Vicar could not go ringing any more, he was at least left with the church’s troop of Sea Scouts, with the verger serving as their skipper. The Vicar “just lives” for the Scout pantomime, and goes to summer camp with the boys. It seems reasonable to suppose that both the Vicar and the verger would have ensured that their troop all had copies of The Church Scout’s Prayer Book, first published in 1913, but with new impressions in November 1939 and March 1941.
IS THERE anything deeper that we can discern from what was meant to be a lighthearted and entertaining series? Yes, is the answer. In “The Test”, Mainwaring complains at the poor turnout at church parade. He reminds the men how, during the Dunkirk evacuation crisis, the King called for a national day of prayer. The subsequent evacuation of Dunkirk, facilitated by the miraculous mill-pond calmness of the English Channel, Hitler’s inexplicable halting of the German advance, and the unexpected bad weather, which grounded the German Air Force, all played their vital part in the successful retreat to England.
As Mainwaring puts it, that day of prayer “worked damned well”. He was not alone in believing this; as a later commentator, William Shawcross, put it, the nation had prayed “for a miracle to rescue the British troops encircled near Dunkirk. That prayer was granted” (Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother, Macmillan). Some say that it was all a coincidence, but I find that coincidences generally stop happening if I stop praying.
We might also dwell on the attitude of Mainwaring and his men. Sometimes, Mainwaring is imperious and not very kind, and he can certainly come out with some ridiculous comments. But, when it comes down to it, he, his men, the Vicar, the verger, and the Warden all know that they are fighting for the preservation of England and the Christian civilisation within it. In “Knights of Madness”, the platoon plan a dramatic pageant in which St George slays the Nazi dragon, which illustrates beautifully their desire to see good triumph over evil.
In an early episode, Winston Churchill comes to visit, and the platoon provide a guard of honour. Churchill was not a regular churchgoer, but he had a strong view on the importance of Christian civilisation, and that the war was a struggle for its preservation.
One only has to think of his “finest hour” speech on 18 June 1940: “I expect that the battle of Britain is about to begin. Upon this depends the survival of Christian civilisation.” The principles of the Sermon on the Mount were what he believed in, and that meant that the whole panoply of Christian England, from the Prayer Book to the Authorised Version, was important.
The Christian contribution to civilisation remains just as important today, and it is worth striving for every bit as hard as the Walmington-on-Sea platoon once did.
The Revd Dr Michael Brydon is the Rector of Catsfield and Crowhurst.
A longer version of this article first appeared in The Prayer Book Today, the magazine of the Prayer Book Society. The magazine is available online, or email firstname.lastname@example.org for a printed copy.