How Jennie Lee helped Aneurin Bevan shape political change

By Paul Heaney
BBC News

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Baroness Lee work "made a real difference to influence people's lives", the play's author says

The author of a new play about NHS founder Aneurin Bevan and his wife Jennie Lee says he hopes it will show politicians can be a force for good.

Meredydd Barker said he was "delighted" to be asked by Theatr Na nOg to write the Nye and Jennie script after reading her autobiography My Life With Nye.

The play touches on their relationship and how it led to joint achievements for the pair.

Baroness Lee later became a minister and helped start the Open University.

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The play's author said Anuerin Bevan's achievements had overshadowed his wife's

Born and educated in Scotland, Baroness Lee of Asheridge trained as a teacher before becoming an Independent Labour Party MP in 1929 - a rarity for a woman at the time.

She later met Ebbw Vale MP Aneurin Bevan while in London and the couple married in 1934.

After his death in 1960 she continued her political career - becoming Harold Wilson's minister for the arts in 1964, and later helping to establish the Open University.

Now, the story of her relationships, beliefs and differences of opinion with her husband are to be told on stage by her character reminiscing about her long personal and political life.

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Baroness Lee was known for her fierce spirit
Image source, Natalie Crockett
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Meredydd Barker said Baroness Lee had a big influence on Aneurin Bevan's political career

During rehearsals at Abertillery's Metropole Theatre, playwright Mr Barker explained how the couple were considered "socialist royalty" for "quite some time" in the 1940s and 50s.

"It's been forgotten because anyone who's in the shadow of Nye Bevan is going to be completely crowded out, to be honest," he said.

"I think the way she influenced him - and many contemporaries thought it was a bad influence - was that she stops him being so agreeable or making compromises that would normally be made.

"For somebody who's famous for seeing through the NHS - which took a lot of strength - Nye was very good at making political compromises and Jennie wasn't.

"So when he came across as being difficult... it was usually Jennie who had persuaded him to be that way, in whichever subject matter it might be."

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Gareth John Bale and Louise Collins have been learning about the characters during rehearsals

"It does take a lot of strength of character and certain aspects of your character have got to come across as abrasive and difficult, but she was also a kind, loving woman who was a tremendous example for everyone around her," he said.

"Not only to women but to men as well - this is what it takes to be a politician who makes a difference to people's lives for the better."

The biggest challenge, he said, was deciding what aspects of two remarkable lives to leave out - especially as many of the political names from the era may no longer be household names today.

He added he hoped people would "make their own mind up" about the couple, but also recognise politics "can be a force for the good and should be a force for the good".

"This is a story of two politicians who weren't out for themselves - they did very well for themselves in life.

"But even though Nye died such a long time ago he has a massive influence on anyone who walks into a hospital today.

"Anyone who does a correspondence course at home with the Open University has Jennie Lee to thank… that's how you influence people's lives and make a difference - you don't think about yourself."

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Louise Collins said the play shines a light on Baroness Lee's work that many people may not know

Louise Collins, who plays Baroness Lee admits, she did not not know much about her prior to researching the part before her audition.

"She had such a fiery spirit - she really believed that they could make a difference - and they did," she said.

"He's the one who's been crowned as Wales' greatest hero, and people have eradicated her from history.

"It does feel like this play draws their spirits back to life."

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Gareth John Bale said today's politicians could learn a view things from the couple

Mr Bevan is played by Gareth John Bale, who has previously appeared in the BBC Series The Indian Doctor and starred as the lead in stage show Grav, about the late rugby legend Ray Gravell.

"I think the main thing is to show him and Jennie as people and their relationship - yes we have the Spanish Civil War, the Second World War and the way he took on Churchill… but what's really lovely is that this is a play about two human beings," he said.

"They bickered and argued… but had a real love for each other too. I enjoyed doing the research and finding out what their relationship was like.

"She's almost been forgotten… in her first speech in parliament she went after Churchill and gave him both barrels, she took no prisoners.

"The humour that was there too - they used to wind people up a little bit and knew what they were doing - it's great to do that and see them, not just as politicians.

"We need people like Nye and Jennie in politics now - they'd certainly stir things up."

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Nye and Jennie runs at the Metropole Theatre in Abertillery, Blaenau Gwent, from 15 November

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