When Winston Went to War with the Wireless

Jack Thorne
Donmar Warehouse
Donmar Warehouse

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Adrian Scarborough as Winston Churchill and Stephen Campbell Moore as John Reith Credit: Manuel Harlan
Adrian Scarborough as Winston Churchill Credit: Manuel Harlan
Stephen Campbell Moore as John Reith Credit: Manuel Harlan
Adrian Scarborough as Winston Churchill and Kevin McMonagle as Ernest Bevin Credit: Manuel Harlan
Adrian Scarborough as Winston Churchill and Stephen Campbell Moore as John Reith Credit: Manuel Harlan
Adrian Scarborough as Winston Churchill Credit: Manuel Harlan

This fascinating depiction of the government attempt to control the information media during the General Strike in 1926 may feature Winston Churchill in its title but it is John Reith, managing director to the British Broadcasting Company and future Director General of the British Broadcasting Corporation, who is as much in the spotlight as the future Prime Minister.

The play starts with a striking prologue; through the black gauze that surrounds the stage, a spotlight glints on the sweating bare torso of a miner as he hacks away at the seam with a pickaxe before gradually revealing a team of technicians providing all the sound effects. This is a play about what today’s BBC calls Sounds, radio with its power to “inform, educate and entertain” as Reith himself put it, and a reminder that the General Strike was sparked by support for the miners.

With the presses halted and no transport for distribution, British newspapers are non-existent, the only news on the radio and Reith isn’t prepared to become the government’s mouthpiece, so Churchill starts the government’s own paper, The British Gazette.

At first, Reith relays information from government sources, but when BBC staff, especially his PA Isabel (Kitty Archer) and technical chief Peter Eckersley (Shubham Saraf), urge impartial balance, he insists on get accurate reports from the other side of the contention. That puts him on collision course with Churchill, who expected compliance and has his own ploys for compliance.

After broadcasting a speech from Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin putting the government in a good light, Reith plans to air one from the Archbishop of Canterbury (Ravin J Ganatra) asking for compromise. Churchill’s relations with Baldwin didn’t make him too pleased with the first and he wanted to prevent the second being broadcast, ominously reminding Reith that the legislation making the British Broadcasting Company a public corporation could be halted and broadcasting opened up to commercial companies (which he eventually did when ITV came into existence under his administration).

Will Reith hold his moral ground and risk the loss of the monopoly public service he hoped to head in order to support the head the Church of which he is a devout member?

The fact that we know the outcome may lessen the drama, but this is a critical moment in our history and it is still engrossing. Adrian Scarborough is arrogantly confident; at a meeting with strikers, he asks for a light, remarking, “you workers always have matches,” but at home with Clemmie (Laura Rogers), he can confess he has had failings. It is a performance that embodies Churchill’s spirit, embracing his characteristics without becoming caricature.

Stephen Campbell Moore presents a high-minded Reith, convinced of his mission but also arrogant. Jack Thorne gives him the amazing ability to improvise news bulletins; is this really the way that they did things? Facially scared by a war wound, Reith also has scars on his psyche: his betrayal of Charlie Bowser (a lively Luke Newberry), a young man who loved him, and his flawed marriage to Muriel (Mariam Haque). This personal story seems an intriguing diversion from the political, but one that it makes you want to know more about.

Haydn Gwynne’s Stanley Baldwin in a brilliant piece of gender-blind casting. She makes a man whom I thought had no charisma really interesting. Kevin McMonagle makes a relatively brief appearance as Ernest Bevin, but the workers are noticeably absent. PA Isabel, who frequently acts as a commentator / chorus to feed information, sets the tone with her RP voice, though the snippets we get from programmes include comics and singers (doubled, like the foley artists, by the existing cast) who sound much more like the “People” whom Reith feels he should serve equally.

Katy Rudd drives her production at a fast pace, played out mainly in a BBC studio which can quickly become the corridors of power, Reith’s office, his home or Churchill’s Lord Chancellor’s apartment at 11 Downing Street. The making of sound effects is a constant reminder that this is about broadcasting and gives an extra dramatic edge. The staging is greatly aided by Howard Hudson’s lighting and Laura Hopkins's setting with its background of props, multiple microphones and (a lovely touch) loudspeakers that are gothically ecclesiastical.

En masse, those microphones become very modern, a reminder that once again the BBC seems in a precarious position. Do we still want an unbiased public service broadcaster or will Churchill’s commercialisation triumph?

Reviewer: Howard Loxton

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