The birth of Oh! What a Lovely War

By Vincent Dowd
BBC World Service

Scene from film of Oh! What a Lovely War

The popular view of World War I underwent a big revision in the 1960s, with at least part of the change following the success of the stage show Oh! What a Lovely War. It started as a BBC radio script and ended up as a multi-million-dollar movie, but why did it strike such a chord?

Today Stratford in east London is home to the Olympic stadium and the place is buzzing.

In the 1960s what drew many people there was the radical Theatre Workshop, based at the old Theatre Royal. It was run by the redoubtable Joan Littlewood and its biggest hit ever was the 1963 musical satire Oh! What a Lovely War.

The show uses popular songs of World War I to depict the lives of soldiers on the Western Front and what was happening at home. It ruthlessly mocks the era's politicians and generals.

Its origins lie in a radio programme of 1961 called The Long, Long Trail. Former BBC producer Charles Chilton, now 94, recalls the moment of personal revelation which started it all.

"I never knew my father - he died fighting in France near the end of the 1914-18 war. Eventually I went there hoping to find a grave and I discovered there wasn't one. He's one of the 35,000 names on the memorial at Arras to British soldiers with no known grave."

The experience drove Chilton to think more about the dreadful conflict that had made so many people simply disappear off the face of the Earth. Soon he had conceived a radio programme.

Taking around 40 WWI songs, he stitched them together with narration.

"A couple were familiar, such as Tipperary, but by the 60s most were pretty much forgotten. Then I came across a book called Tommy's Tunes, published in 1917.

"A lot of the numbers I used were based on popular songs of the period, but with the words changed to give a satirical edge."

So the slightly twee song Hush, Here Comes the Dream Man was parodied in the trenches as Hush, Here Comes a Whizz-Bang.

In 1962 Charles wrote a second version of the programme, this time presented by the entertainer Bud Flanagan. This was heard by Gerry Raffles, Littlewood's partner, who thought he spotted a stage show in it.

The actor Victor Spinetti well remembers the first day of rehearsals.

"Joan played us the BBC programme and I said 'Oh I hate those songs - it's forelock-tugging to music!' All that British class-bound rubbish. But Joan said 'Oh wonderful darling, you can play the Master of Ceremonies!'"

Political bite

Chilton had been commissioned to flesh out his original script under the new title.

"Even in rehearsal Joan wasn't convinced the show would work - it was Gerry who was keen. But when she saw the reviews she changed her mind and my name disappeared from the credits.

"But I had a good agent and he got my name back. Joan was so impressed she took him on as her agent."

Littlewood gave the show a new political bite, as befitted a nation growing tired of deference. The family of Field Marshal Douglas Haig wanted to stop the show reaching the West End, claiming the portrayal of him was a crude caricature.

But Spinetti recalls a useful royal visit when the play was still in Stratford. "One evening Princess Margaret came with Lord Cobbold, who as Lord Chamberlain was also the theatre censor.

"Afterwards Princess Margaret came backstage and said 'Well Miss Littlewood those things should have been said many years ago - don't you agree, Lord Cobbold?' He gave a thin smile and said 'Oh yes ma'am'. And Joan knew that was our permission to go into the West End."

Image caption,
The stage version was considered controversial

In 1964 the show transferred to Broadway, although it didn't run long. Five years later it became Richard Attenborough's first movie as director. Few people who've seen it forget the final helicopter shot of thousands of white crosses on the Sussex Downs, representing the countless war dead.

But by the end of the 60s it was less daring to criticise the way the war had been conducted.

In 1964 the BBC had broadcast the 26-part TV series The Great War. It featured rare archive film and survivors talking candidly about what happened to them.

Several history books of the decade set out to prove the folly of the military high commands. Typical was The Donkeys by the future MP Alan Clark, constantly used as a reference by Littlewood.

And there was a reassessment of the WWI poets. Wilfred Owen, full of doubts about the war, gradually replaced the more jingoistic Rupert Brooke as the era's dominant voice.

As the decade progressed Oh! What a Lovely War also tapped into growing disquiet about the war in Vietnam. The show helped foster a new anti-war orthodoxy, openly sceptical of promises and assurances made by those in power.