The son and grandson of comics, Clive Dunn was to find fame himself in comedy in the unlikely guise of a doddering veteran of the Sudan and the Great War turned butcher who patriotically polished off his campaign medals in advanced age and joined the Home Guard.
The darkest days of the Second World War produced one of the classic television comedies in David Croft and Jimmy Perry’s Dad’s Army, which made Dunn a household name as the bayonet-wielding Lance Corporal Jones and gave him two catchphrases – “Don’t panic!” and “They don’t like it up ’em!” – that have endured beyond the programme’s 80 episodes, feature film, radio series and stage show. His performance seemed all the funnier given Jones was meant to be 70. Dunn was only 48 when he first played him.
He was born into a showbusiness family – his grandfather was the music hall comedian Frank Lynne; his father the comedian, singer and sometime theatrical agent Bobby Dunn; and his mother, Connie Clive, “the queen of the seaside concert party” – in London’s Covent Garden on January 9, 1920, and trained at the Italia Conti Academy of Theatre Arts.
His first acting job was as an extra in the Will Hays hit comedy films Boys Will Be Boys (1935) and Good Morning Boys (1937). In between, he made his stage debut in 1936 as a dancing frog and flying dragon in the Holborn Empire’s Christmas show, Where the Rainbow Ends. The following year he toured with a production of Peter Pan with Anna Neagle somewhat out of place in the title role, and later spent time in rep at Abergavenny.
After a brief spell in stage management, when war broke out he joined the Volunteer Ambulance Service before being conscripted in 1940. Posted to Greece, he was captured and imprisoned in a succession of prisoner of war camps before being transported to a labour camp in Austria where he spent four years. On leaving the army in 1947, he returned to acting, gaining experience in regional repertory and summer shows and at the Players’ Theatre, London.
The Vera Lynn revue vehicle Funny Thing This Wireless, compered by Frank Muir, gave him his break into television in 1950 and brought him to the attention of drama producers, who capitalised on a sketch he had long been developing featuring “doddery old codgers”.
In 1951 he appeared in Bucket and Spades, the first children’s variety show on television, and in adaptations of Five Children and It and, with future Dad’s Army colleague John Le Mesurier, in The Railway Children. He quickly became a regular face on the small screen in both comedy and drama, securing his first series in 1954 as Mr Grimble in the family drama Happy Holidays, guested in 12 episodes of The Tony Hancock Show (1956-57), and played Benn Gunn in Treasure Island alongside the Long John Silver of Bernard Miles (1957).
He shot to wider attention as the ancient and put-upon Old Johnson in 64 episodes of the long-running demob comedy Bootsie and Snudge (1960-63). A steady stream of television appearances followed, including Michael Bentine’s It’s a Square World (1960-64), Sam Kydd’s Orlando (1967) and The World of Beachcomber (1968) alongside Spike Milligan.
Television immortality arrived in 1968 with the first series of Dad’s Army and the role of the somewhat befuddled septuagenarian Jack Jones. The character seemed to set the seal on a future career that included a retired engine driver in the short-lived My Old Man (1974-75) and the aged community hall caretaker Charlie Quick in four series of Grandad, a show he devised (1979-84).
Dunn had scored a No 1 hit record success in 1970 when his song (co-written with former Lou Reed collaborator Herbie Flowers), also called Grandad, stayed in the charts for 27 weeks. He released nine other singles during the decade, although none repeated the success of the twice re-released Grandad. A national revue tour featuring the character followed, culminating with a regular slot in a variety show at the London Palladium.
Appointed an OBE in 1975, he took his cabaret show on tour to New Zealand, returning to the UK and to the Palladium, where he played for nine months in second billing to Tommy Cooper. His later stage appearances included Don’t Shoot, We’re English, The Bed Sitting Room and as the drunken jailer Frosch in Die Fledermaus for English National Opera.
He made his last film appearance in the 1980 Peter Sellars comedy The Fiendish Plot of Fu Manchu, and took his leave of television playing Verges in a 1984 BBC version of Much Ado About Nothing. He published his autobiography, Permission to Speak, in 1986 and a collection of “favourite funny stories”, Permission to Laugh, in 1996.
He died in Portugal (where he had retired to in 1984) on November 7, following complications from an operation, and is survived by his second wife and two daughters. He was 92.
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