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On Theatre

BBC embattled in Donmar’s latest

A new production delves into the tense relationship between the BBC and Stanley Baldwin’s government.

Illustration of Anne Mcelvoy's face

A time of spiralling industrial unrest, concerns about Russian influence on democratic politics, rows about the government’s influence on the media and threats to the future of the BBC. The power plays of 1926 look like a more pronounced version of today’s tensions — and the rival claims of government, public service broadcasters, trade unions and the Archbishop of Canterbury — to embody progress and stability.

When Winston Went to War With The Wireless at the Donmar Warehouse is the prolific Jack Thorne’s intelligent excavation of the stand-off between Stanley Baldwin’s government and the nascent broadcaster in a year of crisis. Winston Churchill, the bull in the Cabinet china shop as Chancellor of the Exchequer, squares up to the visionary but fragile leadership of the BBC’s John Reith as the battle to control the information flow intensifies and the print unions’ walkout denies Conservative-supporting newspapers their channel to public opinion.

The galère of characters who find their interests colliding is a gift to a director (here Katy Rudd) and the Donmar has assembled an A grade cast. The doughty purveyor of grumpiness, Adrian Scarborough, is a gruff and resentful Churchill outgunned in political savvy by Haydn Gwynne as Stanley Baldwin. Yes, you did read that right. Gwynne is a remarkably versatile actress with a nice line in playing “posh” as Camilla in the TV’s The Windsors, but also a voice to sustain musical roles from Billy Elliot to Brecht-Weill.

today’s political masters are out to strip down the BBC for ignoble reasons

With the aid of prosthetics and wigs and a natural contralto, she’s transformed here into the epicene, calculating Tory leader, deploying Churchill as a cat’s paw to intimidate the broadcaster (and keep the union-supporting Archbishop of Canterbury off the airwaves).

Stephen Campbell Moore is a fine, nervy and overwrought John Reith, negotiating the path between securing the establishment of the corporation and the government’s expectation that a national broadcaster take its orders from Whitehall in the name of national stability and raison d’etat. Echoes of the Iraq war wranglings abound, along with some broad hints that today’s political masters are out to strip down the BBC for ignoble reasons.

Historically it feels pretty accurate — Reith refuses to let Labour’s leader, Ramsay MacDonald, broadcast on the strike and, at the threatening insistence of Churchill, resisted an appeal for the Archbishop of Canterbury to call on the government to return to negotiation until the unions (with the exception of the miners) had caved in to economic pressure and the growing threat of civil strife.

The bitterness would last for decades. My maternal grandfather was a pit deputy (manager), who never forgave the Baldwin government for “starving the pitmen back to work”. The script is sketchy on Reith’s own beliefs, which were probably as driven by bureaucratic convenience and view of the BBC as an extension of his own value system as by a pursuit of truth at any price. In Thorne’s version, the tendency to equivocate politically reflects another side of his nature and sexual ambivalence.

Reith certainly had a fixation with a young man, Charlie Bowser (Luke Newberry), in the heady era after the war and in a bizarre attempt at resolution, married Muriel (Mariam Haque) who had been Bowser’s intended fiancée.

An attempt at catharsis goes a bit awry in this telling: there’s quite enough going on between the BBC and the government without foisting onto it an imagined showdown in Reith’s sexless marriage. And if you want to be ideologically picky, there are too many pat comparisons of the pressures on the Corporation (as it would formally become) in late 1926 and the funding-round tussles of 2023.

a national broadcaster will always skirt a difficult relationship with government when the stakes rise and divisions crack the patina of unity

Clearly, Thorne identifies, along with the vast majority of influential theatre writers, with the view that the BBC is not only vastly important as a British cultural asset (which it is) but, in some way, unimpeachable and above the fray. The more subtle lesson of a stand-off a century ago is that a national broadcaster will always skirt a difficult relationship with government when the stakes rise and divisions crack the patina of unity.

All of this could have led to an overly “talky” play, were it not for the craft of Ben and Max Ringham, the duo of brothers who have transformed theatre sound design over the last decade and who deserve a bow of their own for bringing the sound-world of the 1920s to life. Laura Hopkins’s artfully deconstructed set, with its gleaming microphones and the Hopperesque mood of broadcast studios after dark, brings us the strange magic of radio and some deft cameos along the way.

Gwynne shape-shifts from the aloof stiffness of Baldwin to sing “Abide with Me”, a torch singer rallying a country in chaos and there’s also a succession of entertainingly dreadful variety acts, from gormless cockney comics to spoon-players, who fill the airwaves between Reith’s homilies and the heavily edited news bulletins.

Caught between the bootboy pressure of Churchill, the wiles of Baldwin, and an Archbishop insistent on bringing God into the political arena, Reith duly makes his accommodations and excuses. And one way or another a century afterwards the BBC survives — and limps on.

This article is taken from the July 2023 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.

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