Captain Mainwaring's private battles: How Arthur Lowe was so similar to his irascible Dad's Army character that he made filming a fractious ordeal
22:31 GMT, 27 April 2012
Fame and fortune came late for actor Arthur Lowe, the ruddy-faced, pompous Captain Mainwaring of Dad’s Army.
Fifteen years after first treading the boards in repertory theatres, he finally came to national attention as draper Leonard Swindley in Coronation Street in 1960.
And then in 1968, aged 52, he took on the role in the much-loved wartime sitcom for which he’ll always been remembered.
Lowe as Captain Mainwaring (centre) with John Le Mesurier as Sergeant Wilson (right) and Clive Dunn as Corporal Jones (left)
The sublime series written by Jimmy Perry and David Croft featured the exploits of Walmington-on-Sea’s bumbling Home Guard. Now Arthur’s days on the show, in which he forged one of sitcom’s greatest partnerships with John Le Mesurier as laidback Sergeant Wilson, are revisited in a new BBC Radio 4 drama, Dear Arthur, Love John.
Written by playwright Roy Smiles, it stars Anton Lesser as John and Robert Daws as Arthur, and explores the fractious relationship between Lowe and the cast. Away from the spotlight, Arthur, who was paid 210 per episode for the first series, was not dissimilar to Mainwaring.
‘He could be pompous and was always dapperly dressed. He carried a briefcase to work, which was incredibly tidy, and a pair of nail clippers in his pocket,’ says his son, Stephen, 59, who now lives in New Zealand. The intriguing drama suggests Arthur, unlike John, resented the attention they received. Writer Jimmy Perry backs this up by recalling an incident in 1971, when the Dad’s Army team was asked to switch on Blackpool illuminations.
Arthur with wife Joan and son Stephen in the early 60s
‘British Rail gave us a first-class carriage. We were halfway through lunch when the train pulled in to Crewe station,’ recalls Perry. ‘In minutes, dozens of faces were pressed against the windows. They pointed at us with cries of, “It’s them. There he is!” Arthur tapped on the window, saying, “Go away, can’t you see we’re having lunch” The train moved off to cries of “Miserable old sod!”’
Another challenge producer David Croft faced was getting Arthur to learn the lines. As the new drama reveals, he wanted to keep his work life separate and was unwilling to take scripts home. This exasperated other cast members, especially Le Mesurier, who phoned Croft asking, ‘Can’t you get him to learn the bloody thing’
So Croft started sending two copies of the script to Arthur with a note stating, ‘Here’s one you can read in the rehearsal room, and another to put under your pillow in the hope something filters through during the night!’ Arthur wasn’t amused.
He also wasn’t amused if scripts were risqu. Jimmy Perry recalls when Arthur refused to have a bomb put in his uniform. He mumbled, “I’m not having a bomb down my trousers – and certainly not John Laurie [as Private Frazer] pull it out.”’ Jimmy and David Croft had to rewrite the scene, with doddery Corporal Jones, played by Clive Dunn, ending up with the bomb.
He could be pompous and was always
dapperly dressed. He carried a briefcase to work, which was incredibly
tidy, and a pair of nail clippers in his pocket…
David Croft described the Dad’s Army cast as irascible, and petty squabbles often surfaced. Arthur’s reaction to Dunn receiving the OBE is revealed in the Radio 4 drama, and today Stephen Lowe admits his father was a little jealous. ‘He did a lot of charity and community work and never accepted a fee; he probably didn’t get enough official recognition. I’m sure he made a few pithy comments about Clive’s OBE.’
Arthur could also be snobby about his profession, and the show has him delivering the delicious put-down, ‘He’s variety you know, not one of us,’ about Dunn. ‘That’s definitely an Arthurism which was applied to Clive,’ says Stephen.
Arthur went on to star in hundreds of plays and more than 50 films. However, his son Stephen believes he could have achieved much more but for a tendency to decline work if a part couldn’t be found for his wife, Joan. She made four appearances in Dad’s Army, twice as Private Godfrey’s sister, Dolly.
‘My mother’s performances were not in the same class,’ admits Stephen. ‘I think she pushed Arthur to get a part for her and that compromised him. He couldn’t follow the career he wanted and make her happy. In the end, he chose Joan.’
Arthur died in 1982 after suffering a stroke in the dressing room of Birmingham’s Alexandra Theatre, where he was appearing in the mystery play, Home At Seven. Appearing with him as his loyal wife, on and off stage, was Joan. Despite being heartbroken, she stayed on tour and was in Belfast when his funeral took place in Sutton Coldfield. Both Arthur – who left 205,983 in his will – and Joan believed in the adage, ‘The show must go on.’
Dear Arthur, Love John, Monday 7 May, 2.15pm, Radio 4.