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Perry in May 2011
Perry in May 2011

James Perry, OBE (20 September 1923 – 23 October 2016) was an English script writer and actor, best known for devising and co-writing the BBC sitcoms Dad's Army (1968–77), It Ain't Half Hot Mum (1974–81), Hi-De-Hi (1980–88) and You Rang, M'Lord? (1988–93), all with David Croft. Perry co-wrote the theme tune of Dad's Army, "Who Do You Think You Are Kidding, Mr. Hitler?" along with Derek Taverner, for which Perry received an Ivor Novello Award from the British Academy of Songwriters, Composers and Authors in 1971.[1][2]

Early life

Perry was born in Barnes, Surrey.[3] His father, Arthur, was an antiques dealer,[4] whose shop was in South Kensington, London. He was a founder of the British Antique Dealers' Association.[5] His son was educated at two independent schools, Colet Court and St Paul's School, which at the time were both based in Hammersmith in West London.[6]

The teenage Jimmy Perry partly served as the model for the mummy's boy character Private Pike in Dad's Army. He told the journalist Neil Clark, in an interview for The Daily Telegraph, that his own mother "didn't go so far as making me wear a scarf, but she came pretty near".[4] A regular visitor to the cinemas and the theatres in Hammersmith, his school report said: "We fear for his future". He left school aged 14. In an exchange with his father Perry commented, "I don’t need any qualifications. I’m going to be a famous film star or a great comedian", to which his father responded with the phrase "you stupid boy".[7]

After leaving school, he was sent to Clark’s college to learn shorthand, typing and bookkeeping.[7] He truanted, spending the whole of one summer reading Tarzan books on Barnes Common, rather than attending class.[5] He worked in his father's antique shop and the carpet department of Waring & Gillow, before trained as the maker of scientific instruments and working in a factory making naval telescopes.[8] With the outbreak of the Second World War, his family moved to Watford just outside London, his father taking over the shop of an uncle.[7] In Watford, he served in the Home Guard, which he joined in 1940,[9] and became involved in amateur dramatics.[10][11]

Delaying call up at the insistence of his mother, he joined the First (Mixed) Heavy Anti-Aircraft Regiment of the Royal Artillery at Oswestry in 1943, and the camp concert party. The following year, he was sent to Bombay in India, and then Burma, being promoted in rank from gunner to bombardier in the process. He was active in the concert party at the Deolali base of the Royal Artillery, and later in Combined Services Entertainment.[5] Demobbed and back in the UK, he trained as an actor at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art (RADA)on a serviceman's scholarship, where his contemporaries were Joan Collins, Lionel Jeffries and Robert Shaw.[12] He spent his vacations working as a Redcoat in Butlin's Holiday Camps.[5]

Initially working in repertory and West End musicals from 1950 after graduating from RADA,[5] during the period 1956-65, Perry was actor-manager at the Watford Palace Theatre, in collaboration with his wife, Gilda.[8][13][14][15][16] Ruth Llewellyn, later Ruth Madoc and best known for her role as Gladys Pugh in Hi-de-Hi, was one of the performers who appeared there during this time.[17] The company also included Glenda Jackson.[12]

After leaving Watford Palace Theatre in 1965, when Watford council took over the theatre, Perry joined Joan Littlewood's Theatre Workshop as an actor working at its base, the Theatre Royal Stratford East.[9] He remained with the company for two years.[18]

Comedy writer

Inspired after seeing a television showing of the Will Hay comedy Oh, Mr Porter! (1937), he decided to use Hay's comedy device of "the pompous man in charge, old man and young boy", for his own project. Meanwhile, Perry was also gaining work in television bit parts. He was sent by his agent, Ann Callender, to be cast in an episode of a sitcom starring Reg Varney entitled Beggar My Neighbour which was being produced by Callender's husband, David Croft.[8]

Perry showed Croft an outline for a sitcom derived from his experiences in the Home Guard, then entitled The Fighting Tigers, which resulted in the producer taking the idea to Michael Mills, then the BBC Head of Comedy.[17] With David Croft now involved with writing the scripts, as Perry had no writing experience at the time, the first series was commissioned under the new title of Dad's Army, which was suggested by Mills. Perry, credited with the original idea for Dad's Army, conceived the sitcom with the role of Walker in mind for himself, but Croft and Mills successfully dissuaded him.[8][19][20][7] As well as the character of Private Pike, modelled on himself, an elderly man he had known in the Home Guard had served with Lord Kitchener and became the basis for Corporal Jones.[17] Perry also composed the opening tune for Dad's Army, "Who Do You Think You Are Kidding, Mr Hitler?". It won the Ivor Novello Award for Best TV Signature Tune in 1971.[2]

The series did though have doubters within the BBC who feared mocking the Home Guard would not be well received. Perry recalled in 1997 that the BBC "did audience research on it before it went out. They showed the first episode to audiences for three whole days, and 99 per cent of people loathed it. They said, 'That bald-headed old man [Captain Mainwaring] doesn't even know his lines'."[21] Despite the doubts, the first episode was screened on 31 July 1968, with Perry making a cameo appearance as the entertainer Charlie Cheeseman in the sixth episode, "Shooting Pains".[22] At its peak, the show had ratings of 18 million. It ran for nine years, from 1968 to 1977, and led to two film versions (released in 1971 and 2016), a stage show and a radio version.[9]

In an interview with Neil Clark, Perry said: "It amazes me. I think it’s because it's the thing that all British people savour: we were on our own at that time and we didn't turn away. Dad’s Army reminds us of our finest hour."[4]

Perry and Croft continued their collaboration with It Ain't Half Hot Mum (1974–81), which Perry's Times obituarist termed "humour of the broadest kind".[9] Inspired by his wartime experience in the Royal Artillery Concert Party, "it was David’s and my favourite", Perry told Clark who regrets that it "appears to have fallen victim to political correctness".[4] It is not repeated on the terrestrial channels, but was shown on UK Gold.[23][24] Perry defended the series, acknowledging the language was homophobic,[24] but maintaining "those were the attitudes people had during the war".[21]

For Hi-de-Hi! (1980–88), Perry used his time working as a Butlin's Redcoat as an inspiration.[25]

You Rang, M'Lord? (1988–93) was his last collaboration with David Croft. Perry's grandfather had worked as a butler, and he heard many anecdotes about life "below stairs".[7] In 1994, he worked on a sitcom about the early years of the BBC in the 1920s, 2LO Calling, which was broadcast on radio for four episodes. "That’s the one I was most proud, but the BBC said it was a bit old-fashioned", Perry said in 2014.[12]

Shortly after Dad's Army began, Perry wrote The Gnomes of Dulwich (1969), which starred Hugh Lloyd and Terry Scott, but it lasted for only one series of six episodes. Lollipop Loves Mr Mole (1971–72), shortened to Lollipop for its second series, also featured Hugh Lloyd, and was Perry's only domestic sitcom. Both were written without a collaborator.[8] Perry admitted in 2014 that he was not especially taken with the Terry and June type of sitcom.[26] According to John Oliver, writing for the BFI Screenonline website, two of Perry's later series without David Croft, Room Service for Thames Television in 1979, and High Street Blues (1989), co-written with its producer, Robin Carr, "remain contenders for the title of worst British sitcom".[27][28][7]

At the end of the 1970s, Perry became involved as presenter in a BBC series called Turns, dedicated to music hall acts of the 1930s and 1940s as featured in films of the era.[29]

Perry's career as a scriptwriter effectively ended in the 1990s. "I don't think my type of writing is watched any more," he told James Rampton, writing for The Independent in 1997. "There's a certain hardness and ruthlessness about today's humour. There's not a lot of love. The world's a tougher place now, and my type of writing is just too gentle."[21] He did though admire Absolutely Fabulous, Men Behaving Badly and One Foot in the Grave.[21] Perry's autobiography, A Stupid Boy, was published in 2002.[5]

Personal life, honours and death

In 1953, he married actress Gilda Neeltje (born July 1933),[30] younger sister of actress Diane Holland. He and his wife had one son, Jimmy, who predeceased his parents. He died at age 19 in 1977 in a motorcycle accident.[2]

Perry was appointed an Officer of the Order of the British Empire (OBE) in the 1978 Birthday Honours, in the same list as David Croft (David John Andrew Sharland).[31] In 1982 he was initiated into the Grand Order of Water Rats fraternity.[32]

Perry died on 23 October 2016 in London after a short illness, aged 93. He was survived by his wife Gilda (from whom he was separated) and his long-term partner, costume designer Mary Husband.[2][26]

On 27 October British politician Valerie Vaz paid tribute to Perry in the House of Commons and was joined, with references to Perry's best known comedy lines, by a number of other Members of Parliament.[33][34]

BBC Two repeated two episodes from Series 9 of Dad's Army and also one episode of Hi-de-Hi in Perry's honour. The series continues to be shown regularly on Saturday nights on BBC Two, regularly gaining two million viewers.


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