A new film of the sitcom Dad’s Army film raises questions about whether finding comedy in conflict is in good taste. Nicholas Barber looks at the fine line between being respectful and being irreverent.

Aside from Adam Sandler films, few things in life are less funny than war. Mass slaughter and widespread destruction are no laughing matter – and yet, it seems, we can’t stop laughing at them. As a new Dad’s Army film marches into cinemas, it’s clear that warfare can invade even the most family-friendly of big and smallscreen comedies. And it’s been doing so for decades. Dad’s Army, which is set during World War Two, ran as a sitcom on BBC television between 1968 and 1977, while M*A*S*H, set during the Korean War, was on CBS from 1972 to 1983. 

Isn’t there something tasteless about this phenomenon? Should we really be amused by large-scale bloodshed? Graham McCann, the author of Dad’s Army: The Story of a Classic Television Show, argues that the combination of warfare and humour can be uniquely comforting. “What Dad’s Army says to viewers is that, for all the frightening and confusing and alienating aspects of war, there was also a sense of continuity and familiarity. It’s a very reassuring idea that people still had their foibles, and still lead ordinary lives, even during WW2.”

BBC executives were concerned that World War Two was too recent for anyone to see the funny side

In spite of being set in a tranquil seaside town, and revolving around ineffectual members of the Home Guard, rather than active combatants, Dad’s Army was still a risky proposition in 1968. When it was first mooted, BBC executives were concerned that the horrors of WW2 were still too fresh in viewers’ memories for anyone to see the funny side. But the programme’s writers, David Croft and Jimmy Perry, were adamant that, as former soldiers themselves, they could joke about the war without trivialising it. In doing so, they painted a picture of Britishness which was simultaneously mocking and flattering.

“The British are in love with the myth of the amateur who doesn’t try very hard to achieve something,” says Stephen Russell, who scripted a recent BBC drama about the making of Dad’s Army, We’re Doomed!. “So we love the idea that the ruthlessly efficient Germans were held at bay by a group of amateurs with tennis rackets and hockey sticks. It’s quite appealing, especially as we know the outcome of the war.”

It’s that outcome, of course, which makes any comedy set during WW2 palatable. Not only do audiences know that the Allies won, most of us agree that they were engaged in a justified struggle against one of history’s worst evils. However foolish the characters may be, we can laugh at their antics, safe in the knowledge that they are ultimately a triumphant force for good. That’s why WW2 is central to so many comedies, from Blake Edwards’ Operation Petticoat to Mike Nichols’ Catch-22 to Steven Spielberg’s 1941.

Tragedy plus time?

The morality of certain other wars is less cut and dried, which makes them a more complicated subject for comedy. For instance, when the writers of Blackadder, Richard Curtis and Ben Elton, chose to set its fourth series in the trenches of World War One, the sitcom’s producer, John Lloyd, took some persuading. “When you’re dealing with Elizabethan England [as Blackadder II did],” says Lloyd, “you can have people being tortured with red hot pokers and nobody seems to mind. It’s too far away and alien to affect anyone in terms of taste. But when Ben and Richard said they wanted to do the First World War, I thought, how the hell would that work? Ben’s uncle, the historian Sir Geoffrey Elton, wrote him a letter saying it was an absolutely disgraceful idea. He said, ‘I can’t believe a nephew of mine could even think of doing such a thing.’ But once the scripts started coming in, I got it. I thought, why not? If a drama can do it, why not a comedy?”

Elton’s uncle, says Lloyd, would write him a subsequent letter in which he thanked him for portraying WW1 sensitively.

Contemporary wars don’t lend themselves to comedy because they don’t involve conscription – Graham McCann

More recent wars are even trickier to turn into comedy, partly because – unlike WW1 and WW2 – they are being waged so far away from from Western audiences. “Another reason why contemporary wars don’t lend themselves to comedy,” says McCann, “is that they don’t involve conscription. We can relate to the characters in a WW2 comedy because any one of us could have been conscripted. But today’s soldiers have consciously elected to serve in the military, and any sitcom about them will be watched by people who have consciously elected not to serve in the military. It’s much harder for characters like that to get our sympathy.”

It’s not impossible, though. Bluestone 42, an acclaimed comedy drama, has just finished a three-series run on BBC3 in the UK, and it was set on the battlefields of Afghanistan. For its writers, Richard Hurst and James Cary, it was the soldiers’ precise duties which enabled viewers to cheer them on. 

“The whole thing crystallised for us,” says Hurst, “when we had the idea that they should be bomb disposal operatives, because that meant they were unequivocally doing something good. If they had been an infantry unit, and they were being told, ‘You’ve got to go out and kill some guys,’ that would have been difficult for the audience to get behind. But if you have a bomb coming out of the ground and no one is injured, that is clearly a good thing. And if it detonates, it’s clearly a bad thing. It’s binary. It’s so simple that you don’t have to explain it every week, which is handy, too.”

In this respect, Bluestone 42 sits firmly in the M*A*S*H tradition: that sitcom’s viewers may have had their doubts about the Korean War (which the programme was officially about) or the Vietnam War (which it was really about), but its characters were doctors and nurses who saved lives on an hourly basis. We knew that they were the good guys.

Humour from horror

Still, the chance of alienating viewers with war comedies does raise another question: why make them at all? Isn’t it walking through a minefield, so to speak, to try to get laughs from such a potentially upsetting topic? Wouldn’t it be easier to put the same characters in an office or a shop?

Perhaps, says John Lloyd. But a wartime setting brings depth and intensity to any comedy, even one as mild as Dad’s Army. “What gives Dad’s Army its comic power,” he says, “is that the country could be invaded by the Germans at any time. The characters are bumbling around, but what they’re doing is a matter of life and death.”

In a sitcom you’re looking for high stakes. What could be higher than ‘If you make a mistake you’re dead’? – James Cary

James Cary, the co-writer of Bluestone 42, agrees. “In a sitcom, or indeed any drama, you’re looking for high stakes. And what could be higher than ‘If you make a mistake you’re dead’? Or worse, ‘If you make a mistake, someone else is dead because of you’? You want the characters’ decisions and actions to matter, and war gives you that on a plate. On the other hand, war also gives the characters a lot of time to sit around and talk and make their own entertainment because they’re away from home. For a sitcom writer, it’s the best of both worlds.”

In some ways, a war comedy is the ultimate distillation of the archetypal British sitcom formula, says McCann. “[The comedy writer] Frank Muir said that all sitcoms are about relationships between people who are trapped. He said, ‘You’ve got to nail their shoes to the floor.’ And people in a war really are trapped. They can’t just walk out if they’re not getting on with each other.”

As trapped as they may have been, however, many war veterans talk fondly of the blackly comic banter that helped them cope with their experiences. Almost every scene in Bluestone 42, say Cary and Hurst, was drawn from anecdotes they heard from soldiers.

“When one character gets his leg blown off in the third series,” says Hurst, “the team sends him a big bag of jelly babies, but they’ve bitten one leg off every one of them. You would never do that as a civilian – it would be too cruel. But that story was told to us by a soldier, and he thought it was hilarious.”

If you would like to comment on this story or anything else you have seen on BBC Culture, head over to our Facebook page or message us on Twitter.