By Jeremy Miles
Serving as a teenage ARP warden in wartime Poole undoubtedly helped launch sit-com king David Croft’s TV career.
For though the celebrated writer and producer says he was nothing like the bullish Bill Pertwee character in Dad’s Army, he maintains that his formative years in Dorset filtered through to almost everything he wrote.
“I was so polite,” recalls the now 87-year-old Croft. “I’d timidly knock on people’s doors and ask them terribly respectfully if they’d awfully mind making sure their curtains were properly drawn.”
So, one part Chief Air Raid Warden Hodges and three parts Private Pike then? Whatever the formula, Croft’s input as a creator of classic comedy is extraordinary.
Together with writing partner Jimmy Perry, he penned, among others, such classics as Dad's Army, It Ain't Half Hot Mum, Are You Being Served and 'Allo 'Allo - for many the mainstays of TV comedy between the late 1960s and the 1980s.
Though they were written decades ago almost all of the Croft and Perry shows from that era - now seen as the golden age of television comedy – are still repeated and generation after generation of new viewers absolutely love them.
David Croft is clearly delighted. Yet in typically self-deprecating way he says he feels he’s simply been a lucky man. “I’m very fortunate,” he tells me. “I just happened to be in the right place at the right time.”
It is true that in many ways he’s lived a charmed life. He was even born in an auspicious location. Though when the baby Croft arrived in 1922, his parents home - Sandbanks in Poole - was far from the millionaire’s paradise it is today.
The modest bungalow in which he spent his formative years was just a few doors away from Poole’s prestigious Royal Motor Yacht Club, an institution that would become legendary, not least for its famous Commodore, Colonel Walter Bersey - a man so obsessed with class, position and protocol that stories of his bigotry are still told today.
It is even claimed that when a drowning man was rescued and brought to the club jetty, he famously tried to prevent the barely conscious victim from being taken into the club house because he wasn’t a member. This of course is exactly the kind of incident that would provide rich pickings for David Croft’s comedy.
He recalls his early life as being full of simple pleasures though his memories of the Sanbanks bungalow - named Sharcroft after his father, the actor Reginald Sharland and mother, music hall singer Annie Croft - are scant.
His parents separated and later divorced. The little house was sold when Croft was still a young child and he was packed off to prep school in Swanage.
“It’ strange when you see what Sandbanks has become today,” he says.
"We never thought of it as being particularly special. It was just an ordinary middle class area. Heaven knows what our house would be worth now. I think my father sold it for about £600 in 1936."
Location alone would push the house - later renamed Laguna - into the £1 million plus bracket, but it’s an academic question. Croft is fairly certain that the bungalow disappeared a long time ago. “I did go to see if I could find it a couple of years back but with no luck. I may be wrong, maybe I looked in the wrong place but I’m pretty sure it’s been demolished.”
Though he now lives in Suffolk, David Croft still returns to Dorset regularly and says he still regards it as his spiritual home.
“My mother kept a flat on Sandbanks for many years, right out on the isthmus with the sea on one side and the harbour on the other. I have very happy memories and still visit quite often. There’s something about it that always feels like home to me.”
He also has happy memories of his time at Durlston Court School. He was offered a place, he says, because the headmaster had served alongside his father during the 1914-18 war. “I believe they shared a tent”, says Croft. “that sort of determined where I was going.” It’s an intriguing entry qualification but again the kind of thing that might well find its way into a future comedy.
“I had a very good time at school though I do remember it being a rather cold,” he recalls. “There were sporting events and we used to go for long walks through the Dorset countryside every Sunday. I remember beautiful scenery and marvelous butterflies.” Crucially there were also stage shows which the young David loved.
At 13 he left Durlston to complete his education at Rugby. Four years later though war was declared and he was back in Dorset and volunteering as a teenage ARP Warden in Upper Parkstone where his grandmother lived.
Within a few months he was old enough to enlist and served as a young officer in the Dorset Regiment and the Royal Artillery in North Africa, India and Malaya.
Army service would prove the making of David Croft, equipping him with enough material to feed a dozen best-selling comedy shows.
Ironically the war also spelt the end of his father’s theatrical career. Reginald Sharland had gone to America to make his fortune and for a while he enjoyed huge success with the wartime radio show The Honourable Archie. Audiences particularly liked his Japanese manservant....until Pearl Harbour. "It came off overnight," says Croft ruefully.
In contrast Croft's own career thrived. After he left the Army he worked producing entertainment for the new Holiday Camps being established by Billy Butlin.
Everywhere was rich with material and Croft was soaking it up. By the time he ran into co-writer Jimmy Perry - a man with remarkably similar experiences - they could hardly fail.
He talks warmly of the 60s and 70s when TV offered him so many opportunities.
“Of course we didn’t realise at the time but it really was a golden era and I wrote about a third of it!"
Indeed today Dad’s Army and Allo Allo receive regular television re-runs and both have been turned into successful touring stage plays.
Croft says he’s thrilled by their on-going success. "What's really gratifying is that generation after generation of new viewers absolutely love them."
Actress Vicki Michelle who starred in both the original TV series of Allo Allo and the recent stage production knows another reason why David Croft’s work is so enduring.
“I remember when I first auditioned for the show back in the 80s. I couldn’t stop laughing.
“David Croft and Jeremy Lloyd, are brilliant writers. You laugh out loud every few seconds. They just know how to structure it.
“ Their work appeals to successive generations partly because it’s still screened on television but also because they’re real family shows. You get nine year olds who watch them with their nans. You don’t get much like that on telly these days.”
*A new version of the Dad’s Army stage production starring Leslie Grantham as Private Walker is due to start touring this Spring (2010).