Jimmy Perry: Calls Halt on Army of Comedy Scripts
Jimmy Perry was best known as an influential TV comedy writer of the 60’, 70’s and 80’s. His writing partnership with David Croft (1922-2011) formed the backbone of so much of BBC sitcom in that period. The two wrote together Dad’s Army (1968–1977), It Ain’t Half Hot Mum (1974–1981), Hi-De-Hi (1980–1988) and You Rang M’Lord? (1988–1993).
His best work was regarded as ‘Dads Army’ a classic sit-com that is still played on the BBC today, gaining a younger audience of admirers as the work is timeless. This was part of the secret of Perry & Crofts comedy in that nearly all their sitcoms were set in the historical past. This gave them far more artistic license to exaggerate and write in comedy stunts than a comedy set in modern times.
They say the art of writing is ‘write what you know’. In Perry’s case this was certainly true. At 16 he joined the Home Guard (Dads Army) and later was called up to serve full-time with the Royal Artillery out in Burma (‘It ain’t half hot mum’). When he was demobbed he returned looking for a break in showbusiness, being trained at RADA as an actor and spending his summers working as a Redcoat at Butlin’s Holiday camps (Hi De Hi!). it was here he met and worked with the Ted Bovis character in ‘Hi Di Hi’. To Perry he represented all the bottom of the bill comedians he had known. When he worked outside the holiday camp, he couldn’t get arrested but inside the camp he was King. The holiday makers loved him. Lapping up the old routines he bathed in their applause. An Archie Rice of his day. Jimmy Perry told the story to Roy Hudd in his book ‘Music Hall Variety & Showbiz Anecdotes’ –
The character Ted Bovis was drawn from my experiences of working with a camp comic at Butlin’s in Filey in 1951. I was his feed and it was right at the start of my career. I was in my twenties, very brash and thought I knew it all. The comic would have been in his fifties, tired and worn out with a life time of failure, but he was safe performing in the holiday camp. The fly blown old routines we did were greeted with laughter and applause every night. Towards the end of the season we were asked to appear in a charity show at Scarborough. My partner was over the moon. ‘This is our big chance, Jim’ he said. ‘We’ll knock ‘em cold’. And in my innocence, I was swept away by all his enthusiasm.
The show was a midnight matinee and all the stars who were appearing in the summer shows in Scarborough and Bridlington were on the bill. The theatre was packed. The major and the local dignitaries were in the front row and every one was in evening dress, as was the custom for a civic function some fifty years ago. We were on about half way through the first half. The show started well. We stood in the wings, listening to the laughter and applause. Then the orchestra played our music and on we went. Our first gag got a polite titter and then the rot set in. We were dying but we ploughed on. Suddenly my partner turned up stage, and I can see his tired old face today. He was wearing heavy make-up and his eyes had the look of a hunted animal. ‘I’ve lost ‘em, they’re not laughing,’ he whispered. ‘They don’t think I’m funny anymore.’
Somehow we got through the rest of the act and came off. The comic slumped down on a chair and the other artistes who were standing in the wings drew away from us as if they were lepers. I looked down at the crumpled figure in his loud check suit and thought, ‘You, stupid old fool, you may have had it but I am going places.’ How cruel the young can be! We got back to the dressing room and the comic started to wipe off his make-up. Then it dawned on my youthful arrogance that the glamorous profession I had come into had another side. ‘Don’t worry, old man’ I said. ‘They love you in the holiday camp’. Suddenly his whole mood changed. ‘You’re right Jim,’ he said, they do love me in the camp, don’t they?’.
The creating of ‘Dad’s Army’ was celebrated last Christmas by a BBC drama ‘We’re doomed’ The Dad’s Army story (2015), which chronicled its development throughout the BBC organisation, and the beginnings of the Croft & Perry writing partnership. Actor Paul Ritter playing the part of Jimmy Perry. What came out of this play was how Jimmy P ‘the Actor’, wanted to play the character ‘Walker’ in the series, pushing and pushing for the role. However, David Croft made him see sense and convinced him his future lay in writing and not performing. Something Perry thanked him for years later.
Jimmy composed the signature tunes to all the sitcoms. The best known of these, the theme tune for Dad’s Army, “Who Do You Think You Are Kidding, Mr Hitler?”, which won the Ivor Novello Award in 1971 for Best TV Signature Tune. Bud Flanagan (Flanagan & Allen) recorded the song who was one of Perry’s comic heroes. Days later after recording the theme Bud died, a sad Jimmy was grateful he had a memory and his voice continually on the series.
Perry was awarded the OBE in 1978. In became an after dinner speaker on his work, which stands as an historical monument to BBC comedy. He died at the age of 93.
Matthew Willetts MA is the Director of Comicus who has over 35 years experience in television, film, theatre, and comedy club/cabaret entertainment, working as a performer, screenwriter, producer and agent. He lectured at Southampton Solent University in Comedy, Screenwriting, Television, Theatre & Radio. Matthew can sometimes be seen and heard on TV & Radio and often quoted in the national press and media publications. As well as speaking regularly at festivals and industry conferences, he has been a judge at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival and the Montreux Television Festival.