Goodness me, how the very mention of Joan Littlewood’s 1963 ‘theatrical entertainment’, as she termed it, or the 1969 film version directed by Richard Attenborough, can get a certain kind of historian of the Great War agitated. The normal response is an impassioned damning of the piece for foregrounding a very particular view of the war, using a very limited range of sources cleverly manipulated to support a 1960s centre-left vision which has been taken as authoritative history by many people ever since. As a so-called ‘revisionist’ historian of the Great War, I do indeed agree with much of the analysis, but where I might depart from it is in my admiration for Oh What a Lovely War as a way of looking at the war and in my fascination for the way people react to it. I think Oh What a Lovely War is brilliant. The way it uses songs and dialogue to provoke audience reaction is, to my mind, amazingly powerful and I have never failed to be moved by it. And in looking at the way people react to it, we begin to discover something about the way we all interpret history.
For those unfamiliar with it, Oh What a Lovely War grew out of a BBC radio programme called The Long, Long Trail. Produced by Charles Chilton, whose father had been killed in the conflict while he was still an infant, it used songs from the conflict, mainly those somehow conjured up the soldiers themselves, to create an impression of life on the Western Front during the Great War. As a radio programme it owed much to the ‘Scrapbook’ series of the 1930s in which kaleidoscope postcards of a year or theme were created and included a number on the Great War itself (if anyone is interested, do let me know and I can put together something on them). This initial format was taken up by the left-wing theatrical impresario, Joan Littlewood, who expanded it in conjunction with her innovative team of young actors at the Theatre Royal, Stratford East, where it was premiered in March 1963. A bitterly satirical and ironic production, Oh What a Lovely War very firmly implied that the conflict was caused by the stupidity and cupidity of the European upper class, that the British ruling elite had exploited the working class and through bungling mismanagement had slaughtered men in the hundreds of thousands for no apparent benefit to anybody bar their own profit margins. The political polemic was maintained by avoiding terms such as ‘musical’ or ‘musical theatre’ in favour of ‘a musical entertainment’ which implied something more cabaret-like and thus connected it with the radicalism of German artists of the 1920s and 1930s such as Berthold Brecht.
With the fiftieth anniversary cycle of the Great War looming on the horizon, the production caught the imagination of the public and it was a huge success which resulted in a transfer to the West End and subsequently a run on Broadway. Unpacking what audiences made of it all here becomes important and returns me to my point about fulminating against the production because of its morality. Knowing what any audience takes away from anything they engage with or consume is an extremely difficult task. ‘Reception study’ is the term used by researchers in fields such as literary, film and theatrical studies to try to understand audience reaction. Put in Larsen cartoon terms it is the difference between what you say to your cat and what your cat decides to hear. When this element of audience reaction is thrown into the mix, Oh What a Lovely War becomes even more fascinating.
Just over ten years ago I had the very good fortune to meet George Sewell, the actor who played Field Marshal Sir Douglas Haig in the original stage production. He very generously gave up his time to talk to me about his experiences and it proved a very rich encounter. A particularly strong memory was his sense of the reciprocity between stage and audience throughout and just how many veterans had attended. George recalled that every night the veterans would start to sing and how many of them wanted to come back stage or scribbled off a note of appreciation. But for the veterans, the morality of the piece seemed largely irrelevant almost to the point where they hadn’t even noticed it. What was most important for them was the sheer sense of nostalgia the performance conjured up, how it gave them the chance to indulge in their old singalongs and the affirming belief that they hadn’t been entirely forgotten after all; a very important consideration given the huge shadow the Second World War was still casting over British life in the early 1960s. Approached from this angle, Oh What a Lovely War becomes a wonderful insight into the attitudes of ex-servicemen and their ability to recall their experiences in ways that seem, to us at least, remarkably free from trauma or bitterness.
Dedication to Joan Littlewood in A.J.P Taylor's 'The First World War: An Illustrated History'. George Sewell's personal copy signed by Joan Littlewood ('Chuck' was George Sewell's nickname). Courtesy of Liz Sewell.
Moving on to the political message of Oh What a Lovely War, the situation becomes equally complex for it is infused with material from three main texts, Alan Clark’s, The Donkeys, A.J.P. Taylor’s, The First World War: an Illustrated History and Leon Wolff’s, In Flanders Fields. Of course, Taylor was well on his way to becoming the prototype television historian as he enjoyed provoking controversy through his broad-brush interpretations of modern European history. For Taylor, one of the morals of this history was that arms races were invariably destabilizing and dangerous which led him to advocate the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament. Given Littlewood’s political views, Taylor’s inclusion as a source seems to support the left-wing bias very nicely. However, we are then forced to deal with Alan Clark and that certainly upsets a neat vision of Oh What a Lovely War as an unalloyed leftish assault on British history leaving a trail of misunderstandings in its wake. Clark, like Taylor, was a man forging a reputation for himself; only his was one of a slowly emerging strand within British Conservative party thinking that was to come to the fore in the 1970s under Margaret Thatcher. In this version, British institutions and attitudes were given as much of a hammering as they were from the left and often with the same overall intention of breaking stagnation and reinvigorating British economic, social and cultural life, but with an entirely different vision of the end effect on British society. For Clark, ‘the donkeys’ who had overseen the British military effort in the Great War needed to be exposed as part of a wider re-evaluation of British life. The very core of Oh What a Lovely War was therefore highly radical and highly contemporary, but by no means was it very simplistic.
'Oh What A Lovely War' Company's copy of 'The Donkeys' by Alan Clark. Courtesy of Liz Sewell.
Finally, what about the way it has been used since, and this perhaps reveals a problem with an age of increasingly diverse methods of communication and the impact this has had on understandings of time and history. I think the real problem with Oh What a Lovely War is nothing to do with its actual message – in whatever way that was actually understood by its audiences – but by the qualities it has been invested with. Like Blackadder Goes Forth and War Horse, many appear to have forgotten that they are interpretations of actual events conceived long afterwards taking it instead to be a relic of the Great War: original documents of some kind. Oh What a Lovely War for many people is therefore not an absolutely fascinating insight into the way the conflict was seen on the verge of its fiftieth anniversary cycle, but as if it was the pure, unanimous voice of the trenches given new life and amplification. And here is where multi-faceted research into the Great War, which takes into account contemporary understandings and knowledge, can be so fascinating. For, rather than dismissing Oh What a Lovely War and the alleged faith many people have in it and similar interpretations, we can avoid such simplistic dichotomies. This can be done by encouraging people to both continue appreciating Oh What a Lovely War whilst at the same time questioning where their understandings of the war come from, how they have pieced its course and meaning together and how all interpretations of the past are inextricably linked with contemporary preoccupations.
I can remember clearly my first real exposure to Oh What a Lovely War when I saw the film version broadcast by Channel 4 during Christmas 1984 and being amazed by its surrealism and power. At exactly the same time I was reading John Terraine’s The Smoke and the Fire, which had been one of my Christmas presents that year. As a leading proponent of the revisionist school, Terraine’s book encapsulated his thinking and included many questioning points about Oh What a Lovely War. It was then, during that Christmas marking the seventieth anniversary of the famous truce, that I began to realize that the Great War was as fascinating and complex as the sentiments expressed in those wonderful soldiers’ songs. It was indeed the start of a ‘long, long trail’.