After a spell away from Theatre Royal Stratford East at the turn of the 1960s, which included (amongst other things) a spot of Fun Palace conception & the making of the film ‘Sparrows Can’t Sing’, Joan Littlewood’s return production at the theatre was to be a piece of work for which the ripple effect may well be incalculable: ‘Oh What A Lovely War’.
Souvenir Programme for Oh What A Lovely War
The idea for the production was apparently sparked by a Charles Chilton radio broadcast & whilst Chilton was involved – the show was really researched, devised & improvised for hours by Joan & her company of “Think Clowns” as evidenced by her own note in the souvenir programme (above):
“Oh What A Lovely War was mounted by a company of men and women with varied training and experience, working towards an agreed objective, and in the process a composite mind was developed” – Joan Littlewood
Left to Right: Avis Bunnage, John Gower & Victor Spinetti
Costume Creator Una Collins from the Souvenir Programme
Designer John Bury. From the ‘Oh What A Lovely War’ souvenir programme
John Bury (Known as ‘Camel’ to his friends) found his way into Theatre Workshop during their days at Ormesby Hall (1946). He soon became a key player in the company & Joan even entrusted him with producing work during the 1950s on a couple of occasions when she was too busy or away doing other things.
A souvenir programme photograph of Left to Right: Larry Dann, John Gower, Murray Melvin, Brian Murphy & Colin Kemball
Brian Murphy (Quoted from the documentary ‘In the Company of Joan’)
“There was a wonderful, lovely director. John McGrath, who’d directed things like Z-Cars off the television. He came into the dressing rooms after the first night and his face, he was pale, and he looked as if he’d been involved in a car accident, cos he was just sort of…stunned”
When you talk to Theatre Workshop actors who were part of that group or audience members who saw this play, they’ll tell you it left its audiences absolutely stunned. Nobody had seen or experienced anything like it before – the audience would be laughing along with the actors one moment & then suddenly sobering facts would appear behind the players, shocking the audience to silence with stark facts & real photographs of soldiers in the trenches.
Avis Bunnage in the souvenir programme.
The incredible Avis Bunnage stood stock still to sing to the crowds:
“And on Saturday I’m willing
If you’ll only take the shilling
To make a man of any one of you”
That striking moment in the play was all about enticing men into the draft.
Joan Littlewood wanted this show to highlight the ‘war game’ (as she dubbed it) & to examine the fact that war exploits the working classes & the purpose of war is capitalist profiteering – at any expense.
Mike Bradwell (Founder of Hull Truck Theatre Company & who trained at the bastard branch of the Littlewood legacy, East 15 Acting School in the 1960s – working backstage in Joan’s Theatre at night for a few bob) told me that he’s convinced ‘Oh What A Lovely War’ increased the membership of CND & oddly enough the peace activist Bertrand Russell who was actually at the opening night of the show, later wrote a letter to the company, revealing how much the play had moved & impacted on him. He spoke of how he’d been at the after show party and found himself unable to speak; his letter said: “I could only speak of mundane things” adding that he felt everybody should see ‘Oh What A Lovely War’ because this production had managed to capture the true horror & carnage of WWI. Bertrand Russell was heavily involved in the setting up of CND
Victor Spinetti & Brian Murphy from the souvenir programme
Brian Murphy said:
“One minute we’d be ‘camping about’ on stage & the next the audience were presented with these sobering facts”
In recent times, the Conservative government minister Michael Gove said of the play:
“That show denigrates the patriotism, humour & courage demonstrated by british soldiers in the first World War”
I’d argue that Mr Gove has wilfully missed the point & perhaps he’d be best to take his point up with the families of the war dead who went to the effort of sending in mementos of their loved ones to the company because this show had so honoured their lost lives.
Brian Murphy said that when the company toured ‘Oh What A Lovely War’ to France & Germany, people would ask Joan “if they could do her show” her response was:
“Don’t do my bloody war – do your own – you were there”
She felt that the Germans and French should create their own work sharing their unique stories & perspectives on ‘the war to end all wars’
A soldier in the trenches WWI
There were EIGHTEEN MILLION military & civilian deaths in WWI.
Since WWI there hasn’t been a day without war
A line from the review in ‘The Scotsman’ sums up the dramatic impact of ‘Oh What A Lovely War’, they said:
“This is the show with ten million heroes”
For more information on ‘Oh What A Lovely War’ I recommend the following:
I urge you to see the brilliant & informative ‘Lessons from Joan’ by Walter McIntosh & the moving & illuminating ‘Miss Littlewood’ by Sam Kenyon
Also, if you go to the British Library online they have a superb archive available for all to view:
And here’s a link to a brilliant Joan Bakewell piece about the impact of this production on society at large:
There are also some fantastic books which delve into Theatre Workshop’s practices. Especially those written by Professor Robert Leach & Professor Nadine Holdsworth
The documentary ‘In The Company of Joan’ has a section dedicated to ‘Oh What A Lovely War’ (Available now)
The upcoming documentary ‘Maverick’ has a section on ‘Oh What A Lovely War’ (Available Autumn 2018)