Dad’s Army actor Frank Williams: “The British nation survives on humour”

With all the doom and panic around, to celebrate 50 years of Dad's Army we spoke to Frank Williams who played Walmington-on-Sea's tetchy vicar Timothy Farthing, and at 87 is the oldest surviving member of the cast

Dad’s Army first aired on television 50 years ago this week. The comedy set amongst the Home Guard regiment of Walmington-on-Sea has never been off our screens and feels as familiar a piece of furniture in our homes. Frank Williams is still active in the entertainment business so we caught up with him to talk about the show’s enduring appeal and how the role influenced his own spiritual life…

The Big Issue: Why does every new generation discover Dad’s Army for themselves?

Frank Williams: It appeals right across the age range. When we have our Dad’s Army Appreciation Society weekends we get great grandparents, their great grandchildren and everyone in between. David Croft and Jimmy Perry, who wrote it, were always very clever; they set everything in the past so it doesn’t date.

How old were you when you started?

About 38, I think. Apart from Ian Lavender I was the youngest member of the cast.

One of the babies.

More or less, yes. It was a remarkable cast of veteran actor and we all got on so well together.

Were the characters similar to what the actors were like in real life?

As the series progressed, Jimmy and David started to put some of the foibles of the actors into the characters. I don’t know what that says about me, incidentally, but there we are. I’ve never thought the vicar was a terribly nice man, I don’t think he was a very good advertisement for the church. Very tetchy and irritable, which I hope I’m not.

You later became a member of the General Synod. Did playing a vicar increase your commitment to the church?

That was after I had done Dad’s Army. I’ve always been involved in the church and I was a member from 1985 to 2000. By that time I had been promoted as a character because I played a bishop in Jimmy and David’s other great sitcom, You Rang, M’Lord?

Was Dad’s Army revolutionary because it was able to laugh at one of the darkest periods of British history?

I think the British nation really relies and survives on humour. And people did have a sense of humour. I was a small boy during the war, eight years old when it began. We helped out by putting people up. There were two women who had been bombed out of their house and I remember one of them went back to look at what remained. She came back and said to her sister, ‘Oh you know those crushed velvet curtains in the drawing room? Well, they’re really crushed now.’ That sense of humour was fairly typical. Obviously, there were great tragedies in the war, but if you could find things to laugh at it was helpful.

Frank Williams played tetchy vicar Timothy farthing and at 87 is the oldest surviving cast member

Frank Williams’ top three Dad’s Army moments

“The line that everybody always remembers, of course, is Don’t tell ’em Pike! but I wasn’t in that particular episode.

The Royal Train is a great favourite of mine because we had a lot of fun filming that. I believe it was also the Queen Mother’s favourite because it mentioned her husband, George VI.

All Is Safely Gathered In was also enormous fun. At the end, all the platoon are a bit the worse for drink and a fight breaks out during the harvest thanksgiving service. The wonderful, indomitable organist –who was a real organist – playing the harmonium, while all mayhem is breaking loose around her. That’s one of my favourite moments.

Image: Getty