When Julie Burchill was a teenager in Bristol, she used to sleep beneath a map of the London Underground. To her, it was a magical document, glistening with the promise of a more glamorous life. I, too, spent my teenage years in the West Country and the equivalent, for me, was Private Walker in Dad's Army. This ducker-and-diver, a forerunner of Arthur Daley, embodied everything I thought was cool about life in the big smoke.
I now realize that Walker was a slightly odd role model for a teenage boy to have. After all, he was basically a crook. Black marketeers, or "spivs", as they were commonly known, were ruthless predators who profited from the illegal supply of rationed commodities, such as petrol, whisky and silk stockings. Walker's catchphrase, insofar as he had one, was: "'Old on a minute--I said they were difficult to get, not impossible." Men like Joe Walker were to wartime London what Harry Lime was to postwar Vienna.
Yet I found him irresistible. This may partly be because he was played with such winsome charm by James Beck. When Beck died--suddenly and unexpectedly--at the age of 44, the cast of Dad's Army were in the middle of filming their sixth series. The show's creators, Jimmy Perry and David Croft, had to do what Ridley Scott did when Oliver Reed died during the making of Gladiator, though without the benefit of digital technology. If you look closely at the final episode of the sixth series you'll notice that Walker isn't in the platoon's line up at the beginning of the programme. Dad's Army was never the same again.
Even if Walker had been played by a different actor, though, I suspect I still would have fallen in love with him. His principal role in the series was to prick the pomposity of Captain Mainwaring. Whenever the puffed-up little martinet delivered a lecture to his troops about the importance of self-sacrifice during wartime, Walker would always turn up with a little something that Mainwaring had ordered earlier: "Ah. Yes. Er, that will be all, thank you, Walker."
He was creative, too--smarter than the rest of the platoon. Whenever they got into a spot of difficulty he was the one to come up with a solution, an idea that was always greeted the same way by the inept Captain: "Well done, Walker. I was wondering how long it would take someone to spot that."
To me, Walker's quicksilver wit was the perfect antidote to the people of South Devon whom, in my London-centric view, I thought of as slow-minded simpletons. He may have been beneath Captain Mainwaring in the wartime food chain, but he had an independence of spirit that made him a bigger man. The rules that Mainwaring lived by didn't apply to him. He was the archetypal streetwise Londoner: a jack of all trades, a wide boy, a Mr Fixit. What he lacked in team spirit, he made up for in entrepreneurial zeal. If Hitler ever did succeed in invading the British Isles, it was the Walkers of this world who'd end up giving him the biggest headache, not the Mainwarings.
Thankfully, my parents got bored of the West Country and, when I was 16, they moved to London. I was sent to an inner-city comprehensive and, to my delight, it was full of little Walkers, trading cigarettes and porn mags behind the bicycle sheds. The friends I made at that school are still my best friends today--and they haven't lost their Walker-ish tendencies. If I ever need a ticket to all-London derby I know who to ask and if I ever find myself in a foxhole I know who I want beside me.