Oh What a Lovely War Somme losses

‘Oh! What a Lovely War’:  the ‘cricket’ scoreboard showing the number of dead and the ground gained

On Newsnight this week, Michael Morpurgo, the author of War Horse (the stage version was discussed here recently), spoke with Jeremy Paxman about how the First World War is remembered in British art and literature. Paxman asked him to respond to the case – put forward by David Reynolds recently in The Long Shadow (reviewed here), and, more assertively by  folk such as Michael Gove and historians such as Max Hastings – that our view of the First World War has been distorted by poetry and dramas such as Oh! What a Lovely War, Blackadder and his own War Horse.

Morpurgo dismissed Gove’s assertion that poetry and drama perpetuate left-wing myths about the war and denigrate notions of patriotism and honour. Instead he argued that they simply reflect the reality of ‘one of the most dreadful conflicts that humanity has ever been involved in’.  Each work in its different way is part of the process of Britain coming to terms with the terrible losses of the war.

Morpurgo spoke warmly about the final series of Blackadder, and the extraordinary courage’ of the writers Ben Elton and Richard Curtis who took beloved characters – ‘they came into people’s houses for years’ – and wiped them out’.

What did that mean?  That meant, in an extraordinary way, a huge loss.  And you thought – that’s the end of something.  … I thought it was a very significant moment, both in art and in television, and a very brave thing to do.

On the question of patriotism, Morpurgo reminded viewers of Edith Cavell’s ‘Patriotism is not enough’: patriotism, he said, has to be thoughtful.  Art – such as Benjamin Britten’s War Requiem that draws upon Wilfred Owen’s verses – can help express and test feelings and emotions about the war.  Marking the war’s centennial, he argued, should be done in a spirit of reconciliation and peace – not in any sense that ‘this was a victory’:

Yes, there was a victory, but at what cost?  The cost of the lives of these people – all across the war, whether they were Italians or Germans.  The Germans lost 2 million men, yet when you go and visit their cemeteries they are empty.  You know, these were sons, and these were fathers, and it seems to me to be very important that know, a hundred years later, we respect the fact that they went and fought for their country.  They weren’t all little kaisers, these people, they were sons and daughters, they were farmers, they were carpenters, just like we were.

That last remark reminded me of a passage from Erich Maria Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front:

‘Now just why would a French blacksmith or a French shoemaker want to attack us? No, it is merely the rulers. I had never seen a Frenchman before I came here, and it will be just the same with the majority of Frenchmen as regards us. They weren’t asked about it any more than we were.

The full interview with Morpurgo has been uploaded by the BBC to YouTube:

Like Michael Morpurgo, I came to the First World War in the sixties, through the war poets – and the musical Oh! What a Lovely War which opened at the Theatre Royal in Stratford, east London, in March 1963. The stage play was produced by The Theatre Workshop, led by radical director Joan Littlewood. However, it was  the film version of the stage show, released in 1969 and directed by Richard Attenborough that I saw. It features many leading British actors of the time, including Laurence Olivier, John Gielgud, Maggie Smith and John Mills.

Even though it toned down Joan Littlewood’s committed anti-war politics in favour of some sentimentality, the film nevertheless had a powerful impact on someone fresh from reading Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon and immersed in the political confrontations of the Vietnam anti-war movement.

Devised in the form of musical hall entertainment, Oh! What a Lovely War took a satirical look at the 1914-1918 conflict.  The play was staged as a seaside concert party with the cast performing in traditional white Pierrot outfits (though the film dispensed with that aspect). In a series of sketches that utilised popular songs of the period, the show focused on the experience of working class men serving in the trenches. The military top brass were portrayed as buffoons, convinced of their patriotic mission and stubbornly refusing to accept they might be wrong.

The play was based on The Donkeys by historian Alan Clark (which had cast the army’s leadership as incompetent), with some scenes adapted from The Good Soldier Švejk by Czech writer Jaroslav Hašek. The play outraged many by suggesting that the conflict had been futile – seen most dramatically in the ‘cricket’ scoreboard showing the number of dead compared to the ground gained (top).

Joan Littlewood outside Theatre Royal Stratford

Joan Littlewood outside Theatre Royal, Stratford

Joan Littlewood’s was an interesting life: born in Stockwell, south London, to a poor family, she was the daughter of a young Cockney servant girl, and was raised mostly by her grandparents. She trained as an actress at RADA but left after an unhappy start and moved to Manchester in 1934 where she met folk singer Jimmie Miller (who was later became better known as Ewan MacColl). After joining his troupe, Theatre Union, Littlewood and Miller married.

MI5 placed the couple under surveillance early in 1939, with Littlewood described in the files as ‘highly intellectual and a keen communist’. Their home in Hyde, Cheshire was regularly watched – ‘A number of young men who have the appearance of communist Jews are known to visit Oak Cottage. It is thought they come from Manchester’, MI5 was warned in April 1939. In 1940, Lancashire’s chief constable told MI5 that Last Edition, a play performed by Theatre Union, amounted to ‘thinly-veiled communist propaganda’ because it portrayed workers’ struggles in Britain, Spain and the empire.

In 1941, the BBC banned Littlewood from broadcasting, lifting the ban was lifted two years later when Littlewood ended  her association with the Communist party, though MI5 kept her under surveillance until the 1950s. In 1945, Littlewood, her husband, and other Theatre Union members formed Theatre Workshop which toured the country for the next 8 years before taking up residence at the Theatre Royal in Stratford in 1953. The works for which Littlewood is now best remembered are Shelagh Delaney’s A Taste of Honey (1958), which gained great critical acclaim, and Oh! What a Lovely War! 

Oh What a Lovely War Somme closing
Oh What a Lovely War Somme final 1
Oh What a Lovely War Somme final 2

Shots from the final sequence of the film version of ‘Oh! What a Lovely War’

What I remember most vividly from the film version of Oh! What a Lovely War is the final sequence in which a dead soldier rises from the trenches and follows a red cord from the battlefields of the Western Front, past the statesmen signing the peace treaty at Versailles and then out onto the South Downs where the bereaved women of the Smith family walk on a hillside covered in the white crosses of soldier’s graves.  The film finally ends with a crane shot in which the camera pulls back to reveal countless more graves.

That final sequence must have had a big influence, too, on Ben Elton and Richard Curtis when they were writing the final episode of  Blackadder in 1989. While Oh! What a Lovely War had been angry (especially in the original stage version) the last season of Blackadder had focussed on the absurdity of war.  But when it came to the poignant final scene,  comedy was replaced by tragedy as Blackadder and his men were ordered over the top to their inevitable deaths.  The final shot of a series that had run throughout the 1980s was a view of no man’s land that dissolved into a field of poppies. It was as powerful a statement as the scoreboard in Oh! What a Lovely War, or the film version’s hillside of crosses.

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5 thoughts on “Michael Morpurgo, Blackadder and Oh! What a Lovely War

  1. I saw OWALW when it was first produced at Stratford. It remain the most powerful and mind-blowing experience I have ever witnessed in the theatre. The film adaptation was very good but couldn’t match the humour, pathos and intense energy and anger of the theatre production. I wonder whether it is even possible for today’s young people to be as involved as our generation. My grandfather and great uncle’s fought and some were injured in the war. There seemed to be much more anger and anti-war feeling at that time. Kubrick’s “Paths of Glory”, and Losey’s “King and Country” come to mind. You could often see “All Quite on the Western Front” at the cinema.
    I think that many artists were influenced by the play – Ralph McTell’s “Maginot Waltz” comes to mind: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1NeF0kPcYLI
    I’ve got more time and respect for the work of artists like Littlewood, Morpurgo, Losey, Kubrick, Paul Nash, and Erich Maria Remarque, rather than members of the establishment like Gove and Paxman every time.

    1. Thanks, Yossi – I would have loved to have seen the Stratford production. I tried to get tickets when it was revived there earlier this year, but they sold out fast. You’re right – there doesn’t seem to be the same angry, emotional response to these issues now. But then, I think that was one of the things that made the sixties a distinctive time.

  2. My wife, Lisa, and I were lucky enough to see the original OWALW at Stratford and last month we took our ‘children’ (now middle aged!) to see the revival. Good to see that picture of Joan sitting on the rubble. What ever would she think about the ‘new’ Stratford East?

    Thanks, too, for this piece on the Mike Morpurgo interview. Yes, he said it all. I used to know Mike back in the 1960s, long before he became famous as a writer, and a couple of years ago he kindly agreed to write a foreword to the book version of my great aunt Edie’s WW1 diaries. Sister Edith Appleton served as a nurse in Northern France throughout the war and wrote an amazing daily journal which I made into a website in 2008: http://www.edithappleton.org.uk. The Imperial War Museum and Simon & Schuster published this as A Nurse at the Front in 2012.

    We are now doing presentations about Edie. See http://www.edithappleton.org.uk/Talks/confirmed_dates.asp. The next one is at the Ivor Gurney Society’s Spring Weekend on 3 May. By the way, it was your earlier piece about Ivor Gurney which brought me to your website. So, thanks for that, too!

    1. Thanks for your response, Dick. I’ll certainly look into your great aunt’s book – it looks really interesting. I hope others passing by here will follow your links for further information. Thanks, again, for reading!

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