Loving Captain Mainwaring – why it matters
The flags are surely at half-mast in Walmington-on-Sea, the quintessentially-English south-coast town of Dad’s Army. Farewell to its co-creator David Croft, who has just died.
Dad’s Army remains one of UK TV’s all-time comedy greats. Croft and writing partner Jimmy Perry created a number of other comedy series, mainly very successfully. Yet none has matched the ongoing popularity of this bunch of mainly-aging would-be amateur soldiers. It’s still a series that anyone from 4 to 94 can enjoy and appreciate. Why?
Well there’s the acting, of course. Almost all the actors had come up through music hall comedy or traveling theater, where timing was everything.
But a major factor is surely that the characters are believable and lovable, despite their faults. We all know people just like this in our communities. Croft and Perry obviously loved them too. The only exceptions (and least successful characters) are the vicar and his side-kick the warden. It is of course almost a given that vicars and religious people be painted somewhat negatively in the media. Even in serious fiction: think Mr Collins and Rev Casaubon (Pride and Prejudice and Middlemarch).
But the Walmington-on-Sea vicar is a cold, humorless, creepy and bad-tempered individual, and his side-kick little better, with no obvious redeeming features at all. A missed opportunity perhaps for the writers, who could have portrayed them as flawed characters we could still love and laugh with, rather than at.
Writer and poet Philip Larkin listed the criteria by which he judged literature for the Booker Prize. In brief, he asked, “Was it believable, and did I care?”
In other words, did the writer make us love the characters or care what happened to them? And surely, a writer can only do this if she cares for them too. Whether we are writing fiction or recounting a real-life story, our readers will only identify with our characters if we write them with love and communicate that care to our readers.
Don Miller’s secret
But what if we are not writing stories?
Christian writer Don Miller shares what has been a life-changing revelation for him: “the best writing advice I ever received.” And it is simply this: Love your reader.
If we love our style, our vocabulary, our wit, our knowledge, our ability to impress our readers, we are nothing (1 Cor. 13). It’s not about us. I sometimes play a game with my youngest granddaughter when watching TV. “Who does he love most?” I ask in reference to, say, a narcissistic competitor on X Factor; or a story character such as Gaston in Beauty and the Beast. And she sees right through them, and replies, “His own self.”
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