“The Day War Broke Out…”
My Dad of course remembered “The Day War Broke Out” quite well. I used to hear about the occasion on a regular basis and, to this day, I flatter myself I can sustain a passable Neville Chamberlain impression. So every year on this day, I find myself imagining myself as a boy of nearly eleven listening to the family wireless on a strangely sunny day that felt more like summer than autumn.
But even more than Neville Chamberlain, I remember Robb Wilton – a Lancashire comedian who flourished in the 30s and 40s and who specialised in monologues. Less transgressive than Frank Randle and less cinematic than Will Hay and far less famous than George Formby, Robb Wilton was a great favorite with my Dad. One Christmas, he discovered that Robb Wilton’s greatest lugubrious monologues were available as a twin cassette pack. So he bought about thirty of these packs and gave them to everybody he knew.
(My Dad was like that. It never occurred to him that others did not like what he liked or indeed that others liked what he did not. To buy presents, therefore, all you [or rather he] needed to do was spot something that tickled your [or rather his] fancy and buy it in bulk.)
Robb Wilton’s “The Day War Broke Out” monologue is a clear source for Dad’s Army, written and performed during the war rather than years after it. It does not reflect the spirit of 1939 when (my Dad told me), most people “expected to die”, but rather a spirit of habituation to war four years later in 1943. It illustrates a kind of accelerated history that allowed people to feel nostalgia for a constructed sense of naivety that had supposedly existed way back in the days of Neville Chamberlain. Robb Wilton’s persona was indolence personified. He also performed a monologue involving a fire chief on the end of the phone slowly trying to get directions from a woman whose house is ablaze.
Whatever else Robb Wilton was, he was calm. His slow moving reluctance to engage in necessary war work of any kind was intended as an antidote to panic of any kind. He may have inspired Dad’s Army with his War Broke Out monologue with its description of six pals from the pub holding back the Nazi hoards, but Clive Dunn’s character is clearly not part of the platoon.
Robb Wilton’s success was down to peculiar form of comedy that the late Victoria Wood would appreciate – the kind of comedy that is prone to employ zeugma. When the world is ablaze – look for the small and the intimate and the ridiculous. Compare mighty with miniscule things in the same turn of phrase. Don’t let the onset of global war let you forget whose round it is at any given moment.
At moments of greatest historical significance, it is hierarchies of significance which desperately need to be subverted. It’s a survival mechanism.
So I always remember my Dad on this date, when I think about remembering Neville Chamberlain – which is also probably the only day of the year when I remember to remember about Robb Wilton. And when I’m done remembering all of that, I get around to remembering the fate of Europe.