Recently the Prime Minister spoke of his hopes that events to mark the 100th anniversary of the start of the First World War would be a “commemoration that, like the Diamond Jubilee celebrations, says something about who we are as a people”. And Jeremy Paxman, author of a new WW1 history book, was not the first critic to express concern that the anniversary events were in danger of becoming a “celebration of war”.
All issues we discuss in tonight’s Night Waves. It’s a landmark special to mark the 50th anniversary of the groundbreaking theatrical production of Oh What A Lovely War! — the satire with songs that JoanLittlewood created with her Theatre Workshop at the Theatre Royal Stratford East. Our programme was recorded on the stage itself, with an audience that included some with great memories of seeing the original show and how it had transformed their view of war and history.
Original cast member and Theatre Royal Archivist Murray Melvin recalls watching Field Marshall Haig’s family lawyers in the audience on many nights, taking notes and looking for the tiniest aberration from the script as an excuse to shut down the production. (All Haig’s lines were things he’d actually said). And a night when the show toured in Paris, where De Gaulle’s recent return to power created an atmosphere of real tension as to whether they would be booed off stage.
Theatre critic Michael Billington was in the audience watching that first production as a young man and reminds us of the enthralling theatricality of the staging.
We hear archive from the late BBC producer Charles Chilton, who died only this year. His research into war graves and the mostly forgotten subversive trench songs of British soldiers was the basis of the show. Chilton’s father had been killed in the War when Chilton was only a few months old. When Chilton got a job as a messenger boy at the BBC in 1932, he found himself working with a number of severely disfigured war veterans, who’d been given back room jobs and was struck by the hidden and disappearing story of his father’s generation. Years later when he went to the Arras war cemetery in France to look for his father’s grave, Chilton discovered that his father was one of 30 thousand “officers and men” without one; their bodies never recovered, and their names carved on a memorial instead.
Historian David Kynaston places the production in its time: The new power of the satire boom challenging the political and military establishment. Just months after the Cuban Missile Crisis, the nuclear disarmament movement was also strong, but the horrors of the Vietnam War were yet to come.
Oh What A Lovely War! was part of the angry rejection of the “heroic” version of the First World War written in the 1920s. New histories were consulted as part of the writing of the script.
The framing of the show within a Pierrot music hall setting, was to be deliberately alienating. Its use of a “news screen” to project real photographs of soldiers in the trenches was groundbreaking at the time. Interestingly on its transfer to the West End, the show was altered to end with a reprise of songs, that one critic felt let the audience feed on the very nostalgia, the production was challenging.
Class has always been at the heart of the play’s political anger. Joan Littlewood famously refused to let Richard Eyre stage it at the National Theatre in London (she allegedly thought it too elitist an institution). But Fiona Laird achieved success with her acclaimed touring NT production, set in a circus tent. Our guest, the Royal Shakespeare Company’s Erica Whyman, discusses how she came to direct it in 2010 for Northern Stage. She offers great insights on the historical resonance of staging it post-Iraq and Afghanistan, in the economically struggling North East, which still provides such a high proportion of army recruits.
OWALW played a significant role in the emergence of modern oral history writing. Audience members started to come up and share stories of their lost men. But could the modern success of the Tommy’s story in popular fiction be in danger of diverting attention from the politics of the war game? Some critics say the play looks very heavy handed with its focus on the arms dealing-profiteers. But it was an issue much reported on in Iraq and Afghanistan too. And the battle over the reputations of the First World War’s architects and generals continues to this day.
The Night Waves landmark, produced by Zahid Warley, on Oh What A Lovely War! is on BBC Radio 3 at 10pm on Wednesday October 16th and i-player after.
The Theatre Royal’s new production of Oh What A Lovely War! opens in February 2014.
Thankyou to Felix Mussell and the staff at Theatre Royal Stratford East for their permission to reproduce photographs from the original production.