I am often asked how and why my interest in World War One began. The first long playing record I bought was the Joan Littlewood production of Oh What A Lovely War in 1964. Yesterday in the car I listened to the whole of it. It starred two actors who are hardly known these days but huge talents: Victor Spinetti and Avis Bunnage. It roughly divided into 4 parts: the build up to war, recruitment, the war itself, the legacy. When as a ten year old I first listened to it, I was moved by the patriotic songs like When Belgium Put The Kibosh On The Kaiser and failed to appreciate the anti-war sentiments of some of the other songs. The true horrors of the War are best conveyed in Gassed Last Night and Here Comes A Whizzbang.
Joan Littlewood and her then partner Gerry Raffles were the producers at their Theatre Workshop in the East End. She also produced Lionel Bart’s Fings Ain’t What They Used To Be. She very much believed in a theatre in the East End with working class roots but she spent her later years with the Baron Philippe de Rothschild, hardly a symbol of the Labour movement. Oddly enough as I know the soundtrack so well I only actually saw the musical once, a fine production Regents Park Open Air Theatre. As in the original production, there was a screen featuring such interesting statistics as 13,000 conscripts signing up with no forwarding address, and that was in East Ham alone, or the amount of losses sustained against the amount of ground gained. World War One had a gallows humor reflected both in the production and the Wipers (Ypres) Gazette itself an inspiration for an Ian Hislop play featured this year in the Chichester Festival Programme this year.
The musical was made and performed in 1964 the same year as Zulu. Again this film too had subtle anti-war nuances, particularly the final scene with Lieutenant Broomhead (Michael Caine) and Chard (Stanley Baker) where the whole nature of war was questioned.
Another prevalent theme of that time was the questioning of patriotism as the British Empire began to decline. The final sound tracks were Keep The Homes Fire Burning a patriotic song and When They Ask Me in which the whole cast sing that they will never say how dangerous it was. This was a feature of World War One, namely the reluctance to talk about it afterwards. Thus this musical ensures its legacy, albeit a tarnished one.