I think I’d be sorely disappointed if Joan Littlewood DIDN’T have an MI5 file!
How could it be anything but a ‘badge of honour’ to a radical theatre-maker such as she?
Joan Littlewood – Radical Artist
It’s fairly easy to see why Joan Littlewood, Ewan MacColl & eventually Theatre Workshop got ‘right up the hooter’ of the British establishment.
For a kick off, during the 1930s, they created agit-prop performances around Salford & Manchester, sharing short pieces with the workers outside factories, mines & other places, encouraging them to fight for their rights.
The Red Megaphones in action
Joan & Ewan also had Communist Party links in the 1930s & company carpenter David Marshall had gone off to join the fight against Franco’s fascists during the Spanish Civil War.
(On right of photo holding banner)
Theatre Workshop held a number of events & benefits in aid of the people of Spain throughout the late 1930s. This would have been of interest to the secret services too.
The company’s post-war work included Uranium 235, an anti nuclear play by Ewan MacColl, which was toured nationally & internationally at the height of the Cold War – they toured about in the back of a clapped out furniture van where they had regular debates, initiated by Ewan, concerning the issues of their day. They’d share opinions on hot topics such as the nuclear bomb or the Berlin Airlift, as well as the political situation in this country.
Uranium 235 was toured during the 1940s & 1950s
In the 1950s, the company worked with the magnificent Brendan Behan, who’d previously been jailed as a result of his earlier involvement with the IRA. The MI5 mole must have gone into overdrive at this point!
Brendan used his experiences in prison to write ‘The Quare Fellow’ a piece of work which tackled a very grim topic (facing the noose) with immense humour & humanity.
Original flyer for ‘The Quare Fellow’
It had been a gamble to put on Brendan’s play in the first place but it paid off, as the production was a huge success. Taking risks ran through the core of Joan Littlewood’s work like words run through candy rock – she wanted to tell real people’s stories whatever the cost. It’s highly likely, at that time, she’d have been seen by MI5 as an active dissident.
Joan Littlewood had the secret services at “Hello”!
Her personal file was sixty-five pages long, Ewan MacColl – who, during the mid 1950s, left the company for the political folk music scene – had a larger personal file, Theatre Workshop had an ever-growing file which has been described as “very substantial indeed”! It all peaked during their work on ‘Oh What A Lovely War’ in 1963.
We now know, that aside from an intense interest in the content of Theatre Workshop productions, MI5 also looked into the places that the group visited. For example, throughout the 1940s & 1950s, the company had strong artistic ties with Moscow. Company members from that time, laugh off concerns surrounding their travels into ‘enemy territory’! Frances Cuka said that when the company took a production of Macbeth to Moscow in the mid 1950s (the production which brought Richard Harris to Theatre Workshop) one particular ensemble member made use of every single toilet in the Moscow Arts Theatre in order that they might sit where Stanislavsky had once sat!
Such dangerous bastards!
Theatre Workshop’s ‘Macbeth’ which was set in WWI
(See Joan’s ‘Producer’s Note‘ on the programme insert above)
Maggie Bury Walker said about a previous trip to the Eastern Block:
“We were the first theatre company to go behind the Iron Curtain”
Let’s face it, the establishment were never fans of those who questioned them, or who challenged their actions, so Joan Littlewood was always going to appear on their radar. Although MI5 considered Theatre Workshop to be a “Communist controlled Theatre Company” I’d question their wording! As I’d very much like to have seen any communist attempt to control Joan!
My favourite MI5 quote of them all though, regarding Joan, comes from the utterly brilliant (if bloody pricey) book ‘British Writers & MI5 Surveillance’. In the book, amongst many other things, it reveals during production of Brecht’s ‘Mother Courage & Her Children’ (in which Brecht insisted Joan play the part of Mother Courage, or Theatre Workshop couldn’t do the play) a ’source’ informed MI5:
“An East German communist has been sent over to this country to ’supervise’ Theatre Workshop’s production of Mother Courage. This man’s name is Carl Weber. He is, at present, staying in Hampstead with one Oscar Loewenstein who is described as the left-wing impresario who backed the current Orson Welles show. It appears that Weber’s ‘supervision’ of the Theatre Workshop production has not been welcomed by the company He’s much too German, much too dogmatic & even much too communist for them. Having upset the whole company, he has now been forbidden in the theatre & is writing the management pained & angry letters”
Carl Weber was not a Stasi operator! He was Brecht’s assistant at the Berliner Ensemble! The above quoted ‘snitch’ is implying, with their choice of language, that Carl Weber was some sort of agent for the East German State & not an assistant director who drew the short straw!
The madness of MI5, when it comes to the doings of Joan Littlewood doesn’t end there; Shelagh Delaney, who was just a teenager when she sent her play ‘A Taste of Honey’ to Theatre Workshop, got popped into the MI5 files as well – she was referred to as a “communist sympathiser”. At some point, it all becomes a bit ridiculous!
The ‘problem’ was, of course, that Theatre Workshop made theatre for the people, creating work that entertained but also caused its audience to question decisions that were being made about them & their lives. It is that which got them watched in my opinion. Especially during the paranoia of the Cold War & in light of the fact that they were prepared to tour communist countries. Scary!
It all seems like a bit of a sorry joke until you begin to understand how these surveillances led to the company being refused money by the arts authorities which in turn led to their perpetual struggle to survive.
A drawing from the programme for ‘Mrs Wilson’s Diary’
Luckily, MI5 was no match for Joan Maud Littlewood, she was a woman who made the words ‘director’ ‘producer’ & ‘dissident’ seem utterly inadequate! So, I declare that all of the most interesting people have got an MI5 file. Speaking of interesting people, let’s give the last word to the Foremother of Modern Theatre herself:
“We have to trust our colleagues as one trapeze artist does another, this trust can only be evolved by the technique of collaboration and in an atmosphere of difficulties shared and surmounted together” – Joan Littlewood
**During our interview for the upcoming documentary ‘Movement Pioneer’, Jean Newlove told me she’d now been informed about her own MI5 notes. She laughed as she revealed that she was “extremely disappointed” to learn that she had a very thin file and had been described as “Not a threat”!
In that spirit, if MI5 ever has a gander at this blog, I’d be absolutely delighted to get my own ‘badge of honour’ from you! Oh go on chaps! I’m even willing to use every loo in the Moscow Arts Theatre. What a dangerous bastard eh?!
In any case, I’d get to sit in prestigious company, if only in an M15 file!
***Aside from the book British Writers & MI5 Surveillance, ideas for this blog have also been taken from interviews with members of Theatre Workshop (full interviews can be seen in the documentary films IN THE COMPANY OF JOAN & MAVERICK) and research into the company. In addition, archive materials kindly shared with me by director Mike Bradwell (founder of Hull Truck Theatre) have been shared throughout these blogs.