Friday, 7 March 2014

THE REAL WALMINGTON-ON-SEA: THETFORD, NORFOLK



We often hear people say that they don't make comedy like they used to, and it is hard to disagree with that sentiment faced with the eternally hilarious Dad's Army, a hugely successful TV sitcom which was broadcast over a period of 9 years from 1968 to 1977.  The series followed the often disastrous adventures of a mostly geriatric Home Guard platoon during World War II in the fictional seaside town of Walmington-On-Sea, and it was known for its catchphrases, such as Corporal Jones' "They don't like it up 'em".  What many may not realise is that, while there were some coastal scenes, the main outside action around the town was filmed in the distinctly inland town of Thetford in Norfolk. 

While Thetford may seem a strange choice of location given its distance from the Norfolk coast, there is no denying that this part of Britain played a key role during the War.  For example, seven miles north of Thetford is an area which came to be known as STANTA (Stanford Training Area).  Several villages had to be evacuated so that the land could be given over to the training activities.  The makers of Dad's Army used this part of Norfolk for many of the scenes, including the sequence at the end of each episode with the platoon advancing across the countryside in camouflage. Meanwhile, back in Thetford, several of the town's major buildings were used in the filming.  The very first scene of the first episode, 'Man of the Hour', was filmed in what is now the restaurant of The Bell Hotel, now a part of the Old English Inns chain.  The Palace Cinema, opened in 1913, was used in 'The Big Parade' and 'A Soldier's Farewell'.  The cinema was also used by the crew to view the rushes of the filming each week.  Like many such cinemas the Palace, which ceased to operate as a cinema in 1985, was turned into a Bingo Hall.  In the episode titled 'Time On My Hands', a German pilot is seen dangling from a clock tower.  The tower in question was that of Thetford's Guildhall, which was used as Walmington-On-Sea's Town Hall in the series.  The typically East Anglian row of flint cottages called Nether Row featured in four of the episodes: 'Man Hunt', 'The Armoured Might of Corporal Jones', 'The Big Parade' and 'Time On My Hands'.  

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Guildhall clock tower.  Photo by Stephen MacKay, via Wikimedia Commons

Fans of the series wanting to seek out the locations used in Thetford will not be disappointed, as in 2004 the town instigated a walking tour taking in the Dad's Army sites.  Added to which there is a museum dedicated to the series in the Guildhall.  Sadly, most of the cast of the series are now dead, but Captain Mainwaring (played by Arthur Lowe) lives on in the form of a statue unveiled in Thetford in 2010 which depicts the bumptious uniformed Mainwaring sitting on a bench with his baton across his knees.  However, there is more to this market town than Dad's Army.  The town has a long history dating back to the Iron Age, and in 1979 a hoard of Romano-British metalwork was found, which came to be known as the 'Thetford treasure', although to see the hoard you will need to go to the British Museum, where they are currently on display.  Sites of interest in the town include the Ancient House Museum of Thetford Life and the ruined Thetford Priory, run by English Heritage.  For some wide open spaces and greenery, head to Thetford Forest to the north-west of the town, a mixture of trees and heathland with walking and cycling trails and play areas for children.
  

File:Mainwaring Statue.jpg
Photo by PentneySam, via Wikimedia Commons

Map of the area.

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