Arthur Lowe’s high point
Famous for his portrayal of blustering platoon leader Capt Mainwaring in the ever-popular Dad’s Army, Arthur Lowe’s sudden fame saw him release an album of military themed ditties.
Bless ’em All,
World Record Club ST 1008,
Even today in this multi-channel online age, soap operas retain the power to create sudden and instant stars out of jobbing actors, making their faces instantly recognisable to millions. Soap viewers can take to their hearts a villainous rogue, an underachieving odd-job man, a frustrated spinster or even just a plain old bumbling shopkeeper.
In 1960 when Coronation Street launched, Arthur Lowe was one of the first TV soap stars in the UK to achieve that level of instant stardom. His character Leonard Swindley, sometime lay preacher and bumbling draper, still remains the only character to have been popular enough to be granted a spin-off series from the great soap. And what is even more remarkable is that the spin-off series Pardon The Expression! was in turn successful enough to have a spin-off all of its very own, Turn Out The Lights.
When Arthur joined Coronation Street back in 1960 he, along with many other of the cast, thought it would be a short-lived regional drama, probably without much appeal beyond its Manchester heartland. Born in Hayfield, Derbyshire, in 1915 Lowe had enjoyed a successful but not spectacular acting career up until that moment. Acting only really entered his life during the war when he took the decision to mount a series of concert parties, motivated not by dreams of stardom but simply by relieving boredom with the regimented dullness of life in an army camp. A note on a NAAFI wall and some eager volunteers later and Arthur Lowe was away.
Mainly a theatre actor up until Coronation Street came calling, Arthur gradually built a reputation as a solid and accomplished character actor. In 1960 the Henry Livings play Stop It Whoever You Are, played to Arthur’s strengths in portraying pompous officials, and brought him to the attention of Granada who recruited him to their new soap, initially only on a six month contract. The nature of the six month contract suited Arthur as it allowed him to continue his theatre career for half of the year throughout his five year stint on the soap.
Arthur’s son, Stephen Lowe, states in his book Dad’s Memory that from the moment that Arthur took on the role of Leonard Swindley, everything changed. From then on, his father was not just a faintly familiar half-recognised face, he was a star, instantly recognisable to millions. Where before people may have glanced at him briefly in the street as they passed, now they stopped and very deliberately stared.
Pardon The Expression! spun-off in 1965 and ran for two series, introducing co-star Betty Driver to the world of Corrie into the process. Social-climbing, officious and out of his depth, Swindley was great preparation for what was to come in Dad’s Army. In 1967, Turn Out The Lights saw Swindley for some reason become a paranormal detective. As one does. That may have been it for Arthur Lowe and his brush with fame but for Dad’s Army, which came along a year later in 1968.
Dad’s Army would of course elevate Arthur Lowe to even more stellar heights of fame. From 1968 at the grand old age of 53, until his death he would never be short of work again. Admittedly it was not the high quality theatre work that he had originally set his sights on, but with TV series galore, as well as voice over and film work, he would never want for employment.
If you are going to wait for so long before becoming a bona fide star, then it is advisable to make the most of it. And what better way to cement your fame for all eternity than recording an album? There must have been something of a race on between the aged cast of Dad’s Army to be the first to commit their vocal talents to vinyl. Arthur Lowe and John Laurie wasted little time, both releasing albums in 1969. John Le Mesurier, in typically laid back fashion, waited until 1976. Clive Dunn of course trumped them all with his 1970 release Permission To Sing Sir, which was repackaged and released again the following year after the phenomenal success of the single Grandad.
Military music enjoyed quite a vogue in the post-war years. The same nostalgia for regimental camaraderie that ensured the success of the TV series, gave rise to a mini-industry for military music, providing a healthy income for the brass bands of various forces and regiments. Some twenty years on from the Second World War, servicemen and women of a certain age could be relied on to be avid purchasers of military music and watchers of Dad’s Army. So no wonder then that Arthur decided his first album would have distinctly militaristic air.
The album kicks off, inevitably perhaps, with Who Do You Think You’re Kidding Mr Hitler?, the Dad’s Army theme tune sung on screen by veteran comedian Bud Flanagan. That the song sounds like a genuine WW2 period piece is a great compliment to lyricist and Dad’s Army creator Jimmy Perry. Lowe gives the song a bit of welly that Bud Flanagan’s version lacks and it certainly kicks off the album with some force and gusto. Lowe nods affectionately to Bud and his Crazy Gang partner Chesney Allen elsewhere with some gentle lugubrious crooning on side two’s Run, Rabbit, Run! and Underneath the Arches.
Arthur also croons his way through Ted Heath’s That Lovely Weekend and the 1930s jazz standard I’ll Be Seeing You, both wistful songs full of longing and nostalgia which were popularised by troops journeying overseas. The title track Bless ’em All kicks off side two with a tuneful waltz, the far more bawdy words (it wasn’t ‘bless all the corporals and their blinking sons’ in the original) being glossed over by the ever upright and correct Arthur Lowe.
But it’s not all matinee idol style crooning. Occasionally Arthur is allowed to attempt something a bit more upbeat, whether it is marching purposefully in time to Herman Darewski’s The Army, The Navy and The Air Force or one of the various medleys of army favourites that pepper the album.
The two stand-out tracks, for simply being that little bit odd, are Lowe’s skip and a romp through the annoyingly catchy Mairzy Doats and Dozy Doats and his interpretation of the German First World War classic Lili Marlene. More often sung by women, notably Marlene Dietrich, Arthur does quite a good job of his version. It is up-tempo and inexplicably cheerful despite its mournful lyrics and sentiment. His marching chorus singers help out on juicing up the track and even though it ends on a haunting hum, it’s a fine uplifting version of a song that normally brings a tear to the eye.
Perhaps somewhat stunned and overawed by Clive Dunn’s domination of the pop charts, as were most of the UK at the time, all of Arthur Lowe’s subsequent vinyl releases centred around the adventures of the Mr Men and what jolly fun they were too. But did they ever surpass his efforts on Lili Marlene? Perhaps the moving tale of Mr Greedy and his battle with eating disorders, but on the whole, no. Stand to attention then, here’s Arthur waiting underneath the lantern by the barrack gate:
More Dad’s Army military manoeuvres.