Oh What A Lovely War – from stage to screen

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Known as the ‘Mother of Modern Theatre’, influential director Joan Littlewood enjoys an unparalleled reputation for developing the Theatre Workshop where she trained a generation of British actors including Richard Harris, Barbara Windsor, Harry H Corbett, Yootha Joyce, Brian Murphy and Nigel Hawthorne.
Alongside hit shows such as the British premiere of Brecht’s Mother Courage and Her Children, Shelagh Delaney’s A Taste of Honey and Brendan Behan’s The Hostage and The Quare Fellow, as well as Lionel Bart’s musical Fings Ain’t Wot They used T’Be, Oh What a Lovely War is one of Littlewood’s most influential productions.

The title is derived from the music hall song Oh! It’s a Lovely War, which is one of the major numbers in the production. In 1962, future film producer Charles Chilton created a radio musical of World War I songs called The Long Long Trail (1962), named for the popular music hall song, There’s a Long, Long Trail a Winding. The piece used facts and statistics, juxtaposed with songs of the time, as an ironic critique of the reality of the war.  

Oh What A Lovely War evolved as a devised stage production through the work of Joan Littlewood and the members of the original cast at the Theatre Royal Stratford East in 1963 as a production by her Theatre Workshop. The play was based on The Donkeys by historian Alan Clark, with some scenes adapted from The Good Soldier Švejk by Czech humourist Jaroslav Haöek. The play was an ensemble production with no stars as such, but featured members of the company, such as Brian Murphy, Victor Spinetti and Glynn Edwards playing multiple roles.

The play opened at the Theatre Royal on 19 March 1963, and the production transferred intact to Wyndham’s Theatre in June the same year. A satire on World War I (and by extension against war in general), it was a surprise hit and was adapted by the BBC for radio more than once. The stage show is traditionally performed in Pierrot costumes, and features such World War I-era songs as Pack Up Your Troubles and Keep the Home Fires Burning. Harsh images of war and shocking statistics are projected onto the backdrop, providing a stark contrast with the comedy of the action taking place before it.  

The Theatre Workshop Company began as a touring company in the North of England in 1945. Joan Littlewood pioneered an ensemble approach, with her folk singer songwriter husband Ewan MacColl, seeking to involve cast and audience in drama as a living event.

Previously, Littlewood had worked with MacColl in developing radio plays for the BBC that had taken script and cast from local workers. They had met and married in 1934, while working with the Theatre of Action. Both MI5 and the Special Branch maintained a watch on the couple, as Communists; this had precluded Littlewood working for the BBC as a children’s programme presenter and had also caused some of MacColl’s work to be banned from broadcast.  

In the late 1930s they formed another troupe – the Theatre Union, which dissolved in 1940 before many of its members reunited at the end of WW2 in 1945 and formed Theatre Workshop.  

In 1969, Richard Attenborough transformed it into a film with a star-studded cast including Dirk Bogarde, John Gielgud, John Mills, Kenneth More, Laurence Olivier, Jack Hawkins, Corin Redgrave, Michael Redgrave, Vanessa Redgrave, Ralph Richardson, Maggie Smith, Ian Holm, Malcolm McFee, Jean-Pierre Cassel, Nanette Newman, Edward Fox, Susannah York, John Clements, Phyllis Calvert and Maurice Roëves.

The film transferred the mise-en-scene completely into the cinematic domain, with elaborate sequences shot in Brighton and on the South Downs, interspersed with motifs from the stage production. These included the ‘cricket’ scoreboards showing the number of dead, but Attenborough did not use the Pierrot costumes.

Nonetheless, the final sequence, ending in a crane shot of hundreds of war graves, each individually hammered into the South Downs chalk for the shot, is regarded as one of the film’s most poignant and memorable moments.