The Show To End All Wars


20130912Simon Russell Beale takes a 50th anniversary look at Oh! What a Lovely War, the iconic production from Joan Littlewood's Theatre Workshop, asking whether it tells us more about the 1960s than about 1914.

Opening on 19th March 1963, almost fifty years after the outbreak of the First World War, that war to end all wars, it fuelled an early-1960s anti-war sentiment at a time of heightened cold war tension.

An instant hit with audiences, it was not well received by critics - the Guardian noting it was as unfair as any powerful cartoon.

The show could be said to be the offspring of two parents. The young Conservative politician Alan Clark had just written a book called The Donkeys, popularising the thesis that the ordinary troops, the lions of the First World War, had been let down by the incompetence of their generals, the donkeys. Clark claimed he had been plagiarised by Littlewood. The other parent was radio producer Charles Chilton, responsible for a 1961 BBC drama/documentary called The Long Long Trail which recounted a similar tale but used popular songs of the period. This programme has an exclusive interview with Charles Chilton, who died last year at the age of 96 and whose own father was killed at Arras. Chilton tells how he was hired and then fired by Littlewood.

We get an illuminating insider's view of how Joan Littlewood worked from Murray Melvin, an actor in the original production and now archivist of the Theatre Royal, Stratford East which is planning a revival of the show. Historians Derek Paget and Dan Todman consider whether it can have the same impact for today's audiences.

Producer: Merilyn Harris

A Testbed production for BBC Radio 4.