The genius who made even the Germans laugh...
The flags flew at half mast over Walmington-on-Sea yesterday.
The staff of Café René were in mourning, and the Last Post sounded somewhere at a Royal Artillery concert party in the jungle. They’ve even pulled down the shutters at Grace Brothers as a mark of respect.
David Croft, who brought laughter to millions through decades of comedy scriptwriting, died yesterday at the age of 89.
He was the genius behind some of the best loved moments in Dad’s Army, ’Allo ’Allo, Are You Being Served? and It Ain’t Half Hot Mum – plus a string of hit films and TV series that spanned generations.
Some of them, he once boasted, even made the Germans laugh.
Last night friends and celebrities paid tribute to a man they called the grandfather of British comedy – and speculated that somewhere in the world, at any given time, someone would be watching TV and laughing at one of his jokes.
His partnership with Dad’s Army co-writer Jimmy Perry produced one of the country’s most successful scriptwriting duos and gave the nation a cast of its favourite and most enduring comedy characters, led by the Home Guard’s Captain Mainwaring.
Windsor Davies, moustachioed star of It Ain’t Half Hot Mum, admitted recently that his much-loved role as Battery Sergeant Major Williams ‘saved me from becoming a great actor’.
Later, in collaboration with Jeremy Lloyd, Croft created French café owner René Artois in ’Allo ’Allo, and department store veteran Mrs Slocombe in Are You Being Served?
What was the secret of so many successes, he was once asked? ‘I write ordinary, non-controversial comedy which gives families a good laugh,’ he said.
‘You don’t need to shock. You don’t need to be trendy. You just need funny lines and funny people to deliver them.’
He criticised modern comedies for being ‘obsessed with sex’ in a bid to attract younger audiences.
‘In my day you wrote a show and if it was funny, it found its audience,’ he said.
Croft, who died at his home in Portugal, was born into showbusiness. His parents were both actors and he appeared in a cinema advert as a child, before landing a small part in a 1939 film of Goodbye, Mr Chips.
But the war intervened and a cinema career was put on hold while he served in the Royal Artillery, graduating from Sandhurst and rising to the rank of Major.
It was this that gave him an insight into the military and the inspiration for Dad’s Army, set in the fictional resort of Walmington during World War Two.
It was probably his finest half-hour, running for 80 30-minute episodes for nine years from 1968 and still shown as repeats today. It earned a string of awards and accolades and became a benchmark for team comedy.
Croft wrote many of the scripts from his two-bedroom terrace house on Regent’s Park, London, face to face or pacing the drawing room with Perry. Phrases such as ‘Stupid boy!’ and ‘Don’t panic!’ became part of the nation’s vocabulary, repeated in character whenever appropriate.
His work on the holiday camp series Hi-De-Hi brought him an even wider audience – plus a son-in-law, and a spot of unwanted publicity.
Croft’s daughter Rebecca married Simon Cadell, who played the camp’s boss, but he died in 1996 at the age of 45.
Later Croft found himself all over the tabloids when blonde Yellowcoat actress Nikki Kelly revealed they had an affair.
Croft, a father of seven, weathered the storm and remained married to his wife Ann, formerly theatrical agent Ann Callender. He also survived open heart surgery, during which he ‘died’ on the operating table. ‘You have to see the funny side of it,’ he said.
‘When I came out of the operation I woke up to find someone hitting me. They were trying to get my circulation going, but it was a bit of a surprise at the time.’
Croft once admitted that had he not turned down so many offers to work in America, he would be far richer. But his comedy, although enjoyed around the world, was quintessentially English.
‘We send up our class structure, our pomposity and our incompetence,’ he said.
‘The truth is that we are a competent, artistic and clever bunch of people. It’s just that we love to laugh at ourselves.’
Yesterday actors who appeared in his creations paid tribute to ‘a quiet but thoughtful man’ and ‘paternal figure’ who guided them. Ruth Madoc, who played Yellowcoat Gladys Pugh in Hi-De-Hi!, said she would remember Croft with ‘great, great affection and great awe’.
She added: ‘There are so many people, alive and dead, and not just actors, who owed him a great deal for letting us be in his wonderful shows.’
Former head of comedy at the BBC, Jon Plowman said: ‘David was quite simply a genius who invented a whole genre of comedy that was all his own – mostly from his own experience…Yet he was also a great encourager of new comedy as well. The world is a less funny place for his going.’