David Croft 

13 January 2014 tbs.pm/2336

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At one point or 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 most people in Britain no matter how old they are have seen one of his pieces of work, that man being David Croft.

He was born David John Andrew Sharland in Sandbanks, Dorset on 7 September, 1922, into a family steeped in show business. His mother, Anne Croft, was an established stage actress and his father, Reginald Sharland, was already famous as one of Hollywood’s early radio actors. But Croft’s actual career started at age seven, appearing in a cinema commercial of the late 1920s. 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 the Second World War, 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. Afterwards he undertook officer training at Sandhurst Military Academy before being posted to India just as the war in Europe was ending. Assigned to the Essex Regiment, he rose the rank of Major during his time in the Army.

When his military service ended, Croft went back to his first love, entertainment, becoming first an actor and singer, though this was to lead to his career in writing as well. His start came though meeting Freddie Carpenter, who at that time produced many pantomimes for Howard and Wyndham across Britain. From this, Croft wrote scripts for their pantomimes. But in his friendship with lifelong friend, 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 him 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 Ned’s Shed and Mary Goes to Market, but his heart was in entertainment and he was charged with producing the variety format The One O’Clock Show, inviting the best of local talent to appear to perform their act in front of the cameras and also 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 he produced his first ever sitcom, Under New Management, the story of a derelict pub in the North of England. This is the earliest recorded example of Croft producing a sitcom for television. Come the mid-sixties, he moved to the BBC and shows like Beggar My Neighbour, Further Up Pompeii plus Hugh and I were given to him to produce. 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.

Whilse producing Hugh and I, he met Jimmy Perry. Perry himself was tired of having just small parts in sitcoms, so 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. 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 antics of the Warmington-On-Sea Home Guard kept viewers amused and made bigger stars out of Arthur Lowe as Captain Mainwaring and John Le Measuier as Sergeant Wilson; and 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.

It was a mark of Croft that he used jobbing actors in small parts in shows and then, when casting for his next project, they would get a leading role. For example Wendy Richard appeared in Dad’s Army, which led her to getting the part of Ms Brahms in Are You Being Served?. One customer making a fleeting appearance during the episode ‘The Apartment’ in 1979 was later to become Spike Hollins in Hi-de-Hi. 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 jobbing actor looking for something different. Lloyd and Croft wrote a one-off sitcom for the Comedy Playhouse season called Are You Being Served?, although any series was shelved – until tragedy intervened. With the Munich Olympics interrupted because of the infamous 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 morale 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 news coming out of Munich.

Time and 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. 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 the antics were silly, but the writing was magnificent. As Melvyn Hayes recalled “He’d laugh on all the runthroughs, right up to the day of transmission…” Proving the jokes were good, but when it came to make them right, Croft was always serious.

The way David Croft rode the nostalgic angle is an interesting one. At the end of the 1970s there was a big 1950s revival and by the time the early 80s had come around, Perry and Croft had the right sitcom written and made look at life in a 1950s holiday camp. In Hi-de-Hi, Perry’s experiences as a redcoat at Butlin’s provided material for the show. All the sitcoms co-written and produced by Croft had a piece of one of the writers experience written in, 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 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. This was pretty much like Croft himself, a shy man who would observe other people and how they went about their business, mentally noting anything which could used in the writing.

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 into his later years. 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 Dictaphone to allow him to hear 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. For all his work came 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, and earning a lifetime achievement award at the 2003 British Comedy Awards, with a young bit-part actor who had appeared in some of his shows, now turned host of the awards, Jonathan Ross, to see him pick it up.

The legacy of David Croft lives on through the repeats of his shows, the DVDs and 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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