‘Oh What a Lovely War’
I grew up with war: my father fought in WW2 and my granddad (with whom we lived for a while in my childhood) fought in WW1. I still have my first history book, slipped beneath my pillow by my dad when he returned late from Lossiemouth. ‘A Picture History For Boys and Girls’ has additions from a youthful me, drawn in pencil and described with a fountain-pen: there is a smiling soldier advancing through No Man’s Land; a tank smashing through barbed wire; a dog fight between two bi-planes; explosions all around the title ‘WEST FRONT’.
How did I know all this at the age of seven?
Dad only talked about his Chindit war after the pub; this early foray into the depiction of WW1 happened at least eight years before the BBC Great War series and ITV’s All Our Yesterdays. I don’t remember grampy talking about it (even though we all knew that his hair had ‘turned white overnight’ in France), nor even when gran used to poke the fire and watch the sparks fly up the chimney, saying that the glowing spots of soot were like soldiers: ‘Old soldiers never die, they only fade away.’ Mum would say that, ‘Big soldiers don’t cry’ when you grazed your knee, but that’s about it, I reckon.
Did I listen in and eavesdrop conversations between my father and his father? Did the gathering of the men in our house after a Sunday session at the Wheatsheaf lead to the recollection of memories that were usually suppressed? Did I hear it all without realizing because it was all so normal? Did it all happen unconsciously and osmotically?
I really don’t know – but I do know that I grew up with a love for history and with a typically 1950s-60s WW2 Battle of Britain/Dunkirk war film consciousness. My generation’s interest in WW1 came later, however, despite the BBC Great War series. It came, for me, almost as a delayed reaction to the discovery of the War Poets and the ‘Lions led by Donkeys’ zeitgeist; but it was particularly influenced by ‘Oh What a Lovely War’ – but a good few years after its launch in 1963 (I had football and the Beatles to think about).
It must have been the eventual showing of the film version on TV that led to my eventually buying the vinyl LP (still upstairs), the DVD (back room) and the CD (back room). A decade later, I bought CDs of the original songs from the Imperial War Museum; then saw a performance at the Cotswold Theatre in Stroud, but how disappointed I am today, to find that the revival of the show at Stratford has sold out and I cannot gain a seat anywhere, anytime.
So let’s look at Michael Billington’s review of the 1963 show instead, in the Guardian, February 17th, 2014, as a substitute. He says that what made the show original was that ‘it viewed the first world war from the perspective of the common soldier’; it was also original in that ‘it counterpointed’ period songs ‘with grim battle statistics that appeared in a running newsreel tape above the stage.’ Michael Billington goes on to say that Michael Gove’s recent assertion that the production was ‘unpatriotic…because it adopted a critical stance is to offer an insultingly narrow definition of love of country.’
What was also original was the collaborative approach to the production; its genesis was also collaborative: ‘The idea…was sparked by a BBC radio programme of first world war songs put together by presenter Charles Chilton, who lost his father to the conflict at the age of six’; by chance, Gerry Raffles heard this 1962 Armistice Day Home Programme production and Joan Littlewood ‘saw its theatrical potential, devised a rough scenario, and a script was commissioned.’ Murray Melvin remembered how Littlewood declared the script to be rubbish ‘and we never looked at it again.’ Instead, the actors were given an eclectic reading list, including Barbara Tuchman, General Haig, Siegried Sassooon, Robert Graves, Alan Clark, and so on.
What can be so unpatriotic about such a collectivist and scholarly approach, I wonder?