I’ll be moving house next week, so have been doing the final stages of an attic clear-out. Today I found something I never realised I’d kept, the programme of Oh What a Lovely War from Wyndhams Theatre, where I first saw it in 1963. It reminded me of a thrilling evening, and the first time, I suppose, that I gave real attention to the Great War.
For sixpence in those days you got not only a list of musical numbers and a cast list (Avis Bunnage, Fanny Carby, Victor Spinetti, Murray Melvin, Brian Murphy and other Joan Littlewood regulars – the first time I had seen them on stage), but some extras, too.
There are two pages of extracts from the Wipers Times:
(Click the picture to read them.)
And there are statements by the creative team.
(Click the image for a large-size version)
Charles Chilton was the one who started it by gathering the songs, for a radio programme originally. His motivation for examining the War is personal – his father was among the ‘35,942 officers and men of the Forces of the British Empire who fell in the Battle of Arras and who have no known graves.’.
Raymond Fletcher was the main historical adviser to the show. He was a journalist, and would later be a Labour M.P. Drawing parallels between the pre-1914 Balance of Power and the sixties Balance of Terror, he reminds readers that ‘a third, nuclear World War could kill as many in four hours as were killed in the whole of World War One.’ Further notes elsewhere in the programme drum home the anti-nuclear message.
How much notice should we take of the fact that after his death Raymond Fletcher was revealed to have been a spy working for the Soviets? Presumably spreading the pacifist message in Britain suited Russian purposes (and nothing else spread it quite as effectively as Oh What a Lovely War).
My own suspicion would be that his pacifism and his sympathy with the Communist bloc came from the same idealism.I’d say that he thought he was presenting a ‘true’ view of the War (The collective voice of Theatre Workshop, after all, declares that ‘Everything presented as fact is true’.) and the show is true, I suppose, in the way that a savage and unfair cartoon can still be true.
The early draft of the script in the Lord Chamberlain’s archive shows that sometimes the desire for truth was overcome by wishful thinking. At the end of that draft, Germans are giving up the War in disgust, while Haig is still futilely shouting: ‘Advance! Advance!’ The Germans are going off to start a Soldiers’ and Sailors’ cooperative, and invite the British to join. The political message for the sixties is clear – join a socialist alliance against the ruling classes. This ending was dropped from the show – maybe others pointed out that postwar Germany was far from a socialist paradise; maybe they even pointed out the key role that ex-soldiers played in Hitler’s Nazi movement.
The draft script also has Mrs Pankhurst making a pacifist speech. Wishful thinking again, as Mrs P. was ferocious in her support of the war effort. This was amended by the time the script was published, when the speech was given by an anonymous suffragette – maybe a follower of Sylvia’s – with no indication that most of the suffragette movement thought otherwise.
Other details reveal tendentiousness. A small example – in the show, some extracts from ‘The Wipers Times’ are read out by cockney soldiers – as though they had been written by privates, not officers. The play has a class agenda, and doesn’t want the facts to confuse it.
All of which is negative comment about the play, and I suppose that that is how my head feels about it these days. My heart, though, remembers the excitement of Joan Littlewood’s staging, the brilliant mixture of comedy and pathos, and the sheer ingenuity with which the story was told. In the theatre, these things matter much more than scrupulous historical fairness.