Dale Johnson: The Real Dad’s Army - a re-enactment and history group
- Credit: Archant
The Home Guard was Britain’s last line of defence against a German invasion. As part of a re-enactment group, Dale Johnson is determined to keep that fighting spirit alive, as Jeremy Miles discovers. Photos: Hattie Miles
Meeting Dale Johnson can be an alarming business. I’ve only been at his Dorset home for 15 minutes and I’m staring down the barrel of an ancient rifle. Within minutes he’s attached a bayonet and is snarling at me to put my hands up. “Hände hoch! Hände hoch! You evil Hun!” he screams.
It’s all a demonstration of course. For 76-year-old Dale, who I forgot to mention is wearing 1937 issue British battledress, is a leading member of The Real Dad’s Army - a re-enactment and history group - who travel the country giving talks on the Home Guard. They also entertain as Dad’s Army lookalikes paying tribute to the famous TV programme.
With the new Dad’s Army film on general release, Dale is in his element showing me his extraordinary collection of Home Guard equipment and memorabilia. He leads me to an impressive shed beside his Ferndown home. There’s a 1933 Austin 7 van, complete with Home Guard livery, parked outside and a large sign that suggests that we are about to enter some kind of portal to the fictional Walmington-on-Sea - home to Captain George Mainwaring’s platoon of hapless volunteers.
Dale plays the role of lugubrious undertaker Private James Frazer, a fact that he underlines by suddenly delivering a snappy salute, developing a broad Scots accent and, in a voice laden with gloom and foreboding, warning: “We’re doomed, doomed, all doomed I tell you.” The impression is spot-on and Dale chuckles happily before morphing into his other role - that of Lieutenant DH Johnson, the platoon commander who teaches the real history of the intrepid exploits of the Home Guard defence force during the Second World War.
He shows me a fascinating selection of decommissioned guns, ammunition and other weaponry. There are gas masks, items of uniform, badges, maps, pamphlets, scrap-books and photographs. Around the wall a series posters warn about butterfly bombs, dangerous rumours and the importance of keeping your head in a crisis. Meanwhile he has a number of wooden name-boards that can change the apparent home of his trusty Austin from Captain Mainwaring’s 23rd Sussex Platoon to Dorset Home Guard.
The vehicle, first registered some 83 years ago, still has its original licence plate AME 534 and the same 747cc engine that it left the factory with.
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It now also bears the legend ‘AUTOGOPHASTA’ on its wing - a reference to the nickname of a First World War tank. Sadly this makes no apparent difference to its cruising speed which steadfastly remains at 35-40mph.
Dale, a former furniture retailer and one-time sheep farmer, says he was invited to join The Real Dad’s Army some nine years ago. He knew the group through a life-long interest in military vehicles and a long-standing friendship with its founder Richard Hunt who plays Sergeant Wilson. “I thought I’d be standing at the back making up the numbers but they decided I looked like Private Frazer so the next thing I knew I was rolling my Rs and telling everyone they were doomed.”
Dale - who in the dying days of National Service served with the Royal Artillery - describes the still endlessly repeated 1970s TV series as “a magical blend of brilliant scriptwriting and brilliant casting.” Yet he admits he didn’t warm to it immediately. “When it first came on TV I wouldn’t watch it. I suppose, because both my grandfathers had served in the Great War and my father’s father was a chief air-raid warden during World War II, I felt they might be making fun of something that was very serious. Once I got into it though I realised how affectionate it was. What a great observation of the British spirit.”
Talking a week or so before the release of the new Dad’s Army film, I point out that, despite what his chums might think, Dale doesn’t look much like John Laurie at all. However he certainly looks more like him than Bill Paterson who plays Private Frazer in the film.
Dale agrees. “The problem is that when you have something that is absolutely iconic - 80 episodes that everyone loves - trying to copy it is very difficult. “We are sort of lookalikes but what you actually have to do is capture the spirit of the characters.”
He’s certainly looking forward seeing the new Dad’s Army film which, in addition to the aforementioned Bill Paterson, stars Toby Jones as Mainwaring, Bill Nighy as Wilson, Tom Courtenay as Jones, Michael Gambon as Godfrey, Daniel Mays as Walker and Blake Harrison as ‘stupid boy’ Pike. Ian Lavender who played Pike in the original sit-com also turns up in a cameo role as a Brigadier. The film barely strays from the basic template established by the BBC but it does introduces some female characters with Felicity Montagu as Mainwaring’s wife Elizabeth - frequently mentioned but never seen in the TV show - and Catherine Zeta-Jones as a seductive journalist. “I know there have been mixed reviews but I hope it’s a thumping success,” says Dale. “It’s paying homage to a great TV comedy and some very brave men. There were undoubtedly some chaotic moments in the Home Guard and in that respect the TV show is only half joking but what they did was seriously impressive.”
Like the much-loved platoon created by David Croft and Jimmy Perry back in the late 1960s, Home Guard units that protected towns and villages across the country were made up of ordinary men too old, too young or otherwise unable to enlist. Armed with old guns, broom-handles and an indomitable spirit they were determined to do their bit for King and country.
Wearing his military historian’s hat Dale tells me he is convinced that, had the Nazis invaded, the Home Guard would have helped hold the line.
He speaks of a major exercise staged at Sandhurst which concluded that a wartime invasion of the south coast would have seen the Germans get to within 15 or 20 miles of London before having to admit defeat.
“As far as the Home Guard was concerned it would have been last man, last round. The enemy would have gained a foothold but they’d have run out of ammunition, fuel and food. They would have had to capitulate.”
And if they hadn’t? Dale nodded to his gun and trusty bayonet. In the immortal words of Corporal Jones. “They don’t like it up ‘em!”
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