Sunday, 25 November 2012

David Croft – The Man who made Britain laugh...

At one put and another, it is fair to say that most people have come across a certain type of person in their lives, whether that be during their own leisure time, the workplace or just generally. Whoever they are, the first thought anyone has is “Aren't they a right little...” usually accompanied with a sitcom character. Its the power and effect of one man who reigned supreme over the world of situation comedy for so long, that no matter most people in Britain no matter how old they are have seen one of his pieces of work, that man being David Croft.

Born David John Andrew Sharland in Sandbanks, Dorset on the 7th of September, 1922. He was born into a family steeped in show business, his mother Anne Croft was an established stage actress and his father Reginald Sharland, already famous for having a career as one of Hollywood's early radio actors. But his Croft's actual career started when seven appearing in a cinema commercial of the late 1920's. Though by the end of the next decade, the aspiring young actor appeared in an uncredited role in the 1939 film version of Goodbye, Mr Chips as Perkins.

His own school days were spent at St John's Wood Preparatory School and later at Rugby School in Warwickshire, but come 1942 and with the second World War happening, he enlisted in the Royal Artillery, serving in the North African campaign and also in India and Singapore. It was during his time in North Africa that Croft contracted rheumatic fever and was sent home to convalesce back in Britain. Afterwards he undertook officer training at Sandhurst Military Academy, before being posted to India just as the war in Europe was just ending itself. Assigned to the Essex Regiment, he rose the rank eventually becoming a Major during his time in the Army.

When his military service ended, Croft went back to his first love of entertainment becoming first an actor and singer, thought this was to lead to his career in writing as well. His start came though himself meeting, Freddie Carpenter who at that time produced many pantomimes for Howard and Wyndham across Britain at that time. From this, it resulted with Croft writing scripts for their pantos. But in his friendship with lifelong friend, the composer and conductor Cyril Ornadel, he met theatre producer Fiona Bentley who had just purchased the right to some of Beatrix Potter's stories and was looking to adapt and musicalise them. The task was given to himself to write the scripts and lyrics for a series of these stories to be released on records to be narrated by the Hollywood actress Vivien Leigh and starring with Croft, actors and actresses of the calibre of Graham Stark and Cicely Courtneidge.

Afterwards his career took a move into television when he joined the fledgling Tyne Tees Television to direct shows for them including early madman Ned's Shed and Mary Goes to Market, but his heart lie in entertainment and he was charged with producing the variety show The One O’clock Show, inviting the best of local talent to appear to perform their act in front of the cameras and also inviting the best of the entertainment industry to come up to to Newcastle to appear as well. But it was during his time at Tyne Tees where he produced his first ever sitcom Under New Management, it was the story about a derelict pub in the North of England. This being the earliest recorded example of Croft producing a sitcom for television. Come the mid-sixties, he moved to the BBC and using his experience of producing Under New Management, shows like Beggar My Neighbour, Further Up Pompeii plus Hugh and I were given to him to produce. But this put him into the BBC Light Entertainment department with Bill Cotton Jnr, who he was to have a fruitful working relationship for most of his writing and producing career.

At that time whilst producing Hugh and I, he met Jimmy Perry. Perry himself was tired of having just small parts in sitcoms, so he decided to write a pilot for a series initially called The Fighting Tigers about the British Home Guard. When Croft saw the script, he consulted with his agent wife Ann and said to her “I've got a script from Jimmy Perry here and I think its got something about it..” and she agreed as well. From that Croft said he liked it to Perry and that they should write it together, thus Dad's Army was born. First broadcast in 1968, the initial title sequence was to have film footage of the war over Bud Flannigan's tune of 'Who do you think you're kidding Mr Hitler?'. But when Bill Cotton Jnr. saw it, he thought it was a bit too much and so the footage was dropped for the now familiar map and arrows title sequence. The craft that both of them put into the series, made the show much bigger then the war itself. The antics of the Warmington-On-Sea Home Guard kept viewers amused and made bigger stars out of Arthur Lowe as Captain Mainwaring, John Le Measuieras Sergeant Wilson , Clive Dunn, Arnold Ridley, John Laurie, James Beck, Ian Lavender. All of them not top line stars until Dad's Army changed their lives forever.

But it was a mark of Croft that he used jobbing actors in other parts in other of his shows and then when it came around casting for his next project, they would get a leading role for example Wendy Richard appeared in Dad's Army, which lead her to getting the part of Ms Brahms in Are You Being Served and one customer making a brief and fleeting appearance during the episode The Apartment in the 1979 series of the show was later to become Spike Hollins in Hi-de-Hi, Jeffrey Holland of course. But his memory of actors and actresses in other shows was legendary and allowing them to come into the spotlight to play major parts. As Jeffrey Holland and Paul Shane said in a BBC 2011 tribute to the man “He ruled with a rod of iron, but with a smile on his face..” “Like a smiling viper..”

Whist Croft was still producing Dad's Army, he joined forced with Jeremy Lloyd, another actor was jobbing and looking for something different. So himself and Croft wrote a one off sitcom for the Comedy Playhouse season called Are You Being Served, with the show itself being shelved until tragedy intervened. With the Munich Olympics cancelled postponed because of the Israeli hostage crisis, the BBC had time to fill and the decision was taken to play Are You Being Served to both fill time where the Olympics would have been and also as a moral booster after such tragic events. With a captive audience, the filler programme garnered viewers who enjoyed the light relief of Grace Bros. over the heavy new coming out of Munich.

Time again Croft had the magic touch over sitcoms, co-creating It Ain't Half Hot Mum, Hi-de-Hi, You Rang M'Lord, 'Allo 'Allo and Oh, Doctor Beeching. But his knowledge of comedy was second to none as every time he picked the right person for the role in sitcoms, he managed to bring Gordon Kaye and Vicki Michelle from Come Back Mrs Noah starring Molly Sugden and Ian Lavender into 'Allo 'Allo. The second of the wartime sitcoms, but this time from the other side of the channel seeing what life was life was like in occupied France at that time. Just like Dad's Army it proved that there was no difference between either of the channel and the antics were just as silly, but the writing was still magnificent as Melvyn Hayes recalled “He'd laugh on all the run throughs, right upto the day of transmission..” Proving the jokes were good but when it came to make them right, Croft was always serious about that.

The way that David Croft rode the nostalgic angle is an interesting one, at the end of the 1970's there was a big 1950's revival and by the time the early 80's had come around Perry and Croft had the right sitcom written and made look at life in a 1950's holiday camp.
In Hi-de-Hi, Perry's experiences as a redcoat at Butlin's provided material for the show, but like all the rest of the sitcoms co-written and produced by Croft, there was always a piece of one of the writers experiences in there such as the experience of working in a department store or the experiences of the British Army abroad. With a common theme of class structure, not always would the top man be a person who was privileged, Mainwaring being the Captain and Wilson being the Sergeant, reversing roles allowing the class structure to be played out, not in a socio-political way but with the day to day working of people from different classes and seeing how they would interact with each other. But this was pretty much like Croft himself, a shy man who would observe other people and how they went about their business, mentally noting down anything which could used in the writing.

Even in 2007, Croft had created a pilot for Wendy Richard and Les Dennis called Here Comes The Queen. Proving that Croft still had an eye for a good sitcom even in his later years, but he was a man always looking to revisit ideas or make new ones. His style of scripting was unique, writing head to head with his co-creators to allow them to bounce ideas off each other, but also recording the scripts onto dictaphones to allow him to here the right intonations of the words being put to paper. Very much in the style of a self rehearsal, this method came from his time as an actor rehearsing with other actors their lines. For all his work came the honours which were richly deserved such as winning the Writer's Guild award for Best Comedy Script three years running between 1969 and 1971 for Dad's Army, earning a lifetime achievement award at the 2003 British Comedy Awards with young bit part actor who had appeared in some of his shows turned host of the awards Jonathan Ross was there to see him pick up the award.

The legacy of David Croft lives on through the repeats of his shows, the DVD's and also other projects as well. Everyone can at least claim they have seen a bit of his work if they liked it or not, but truly David Croft will be remembered in Television. Light Entertainment and Comedy circles as the man who made Britain laugh...


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