'When Winston Went to War with the Wireless' review – a cautionary tale from history

Read our three-star review of When Winston Went to War with the Wireless, now in performances at the Donmar Warehouse through 29 July.

Marianka Swain
Marianka Swain

Tory in-fighting, rows over the BBC license fee and crippling strikes: history does tend to repeat itself, as Jack Thorne’s new play at the Donmar vividly illustrates. Set during the general strike of 1926, the major clash in When Winston Went to War with the Wireless is – as the title spells out – the one between the fledgling British Broadcasting Company and Winston Churchill, then chancellor of the exchequer.

The strike action means no newspapers, so it’s down to the BBC to report on what’s happening. Before this, the station wasn’t allowed to broadcast any news before 7pm lest they affect the papers’ circulation (one of many fascinating factoids to be found here). But the BBC has a challenger: Churchill’s own newspaper, The British Gazette, peddling the government’s strongly biased line.

Caught in the middle of all this is John Reith, managing director (and later director-general) of the BBC. Can he maintain the all-important neutrality of his institution, then just four years old? Or should he do as the government asks, in the hope of securing the BBC’s future – even if it means refusing to broadcast the Archbishop of Canterbury when he shows sympathy for the strike action?

Of course, such dilemmas still plague the BBC, which is regularly accused of swaying too far in one direction or the other. Thorne also makes it a battle for some objective “truth”, pre-figuring the concerns around social media, Fox News, Donald Trump’s “fake news”, or the rights of BBC employees like Gary Lineker.

Some of these parallels feels rather heavy-handed, though – it’s essentially a cautionary tale writ large – and, ironically, Thorne’s play is stridently partisan. Here, the government figures are cynical, deceitful elites who worsened the economic situation via their disastrous decision to return to the Gold Standard, and who cover up police brutality, all in the name of “patriotism”, while the poverty-driven strikers are desperate, virtuous or both.

While that may, in fact, be a fair interpretation of events, it makes for rather flat drama. Thorne also overeggs Reith’s own personal history; a subplot full of Edenic flashbacks follows his passionate affair with another man, contrasted with his strained conventional marriage. As the script then points out, not once but twice, while Reith is striving for the truth, he’s actually living a lie.

However, the performances largely keep you engaged, especially the central pair of Stephen Campbell Moore as the tortured, ascetic Reith and Adrian Scarborough as a swaggering Churchill – the latter already shaping his persona (ever-present cigar and whiskey glass) and in his element in what’s essentially a wartime government. Scarborough leaves a hint of ambiguity around whether Churchill really believed he was on a crusade to counter Communist plots, or was simply seizing the spotlight.

Campbell Moore’s Reith, meanwhile, is a mass of contradictions: opinionated and adament that radio is a democratic force (people of all classes get the same service from the BBC), yet still biddable and respectful of the government’s authority; self-effacing and insistent that this is nothing to do with personal ambition, yet believing that he has been singled out for a divine mission. That element of devout Christian faith is a particularly fascinating one, and sincerely handled by Campbell Moore.

Haydn Gwynne is unlikely but, it turns out, utterly inspired casting as the world-weary Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin, who shrewdly outmaneuvers the hot-headed Churchill. There’s excellent support, too, from Shubham Saraf, Kitty Archer and Laura Rogers as principled BBC staffers.

Katy Rudd’s beautifully crafted production utilises radio-style foley effects throughout (phenomenal sound design by Ben and Max Ringham). The back wall houses various props that the company uses to enhance the action – like the tap of Churchill’s walking stick – as well as sharing trade secrets. Apparently a trowel scraping a spade gives you the metallic ring of a sword fight, while snapping celery sticks equals broken bones.

We also get a lovely sense of the variety programming, from that era’s comedians and music to early editions of Woman’s Hour (“barbarism” is a startling subject choice). While I wasn’t entirely convinced by the argument that radio “lays us bare” – there are accomplished, media-trained performers who can lie on that medium as much as any other – there’s no doubting the magnificence of the BBC as an idea, and an ideal.

In its best moments, Thorne’s play certainly adheres to those Reithian aims: “inform, educate and entertain”. Overall, however, there is too much informing for a drama (and actually, with so much narration and audio work, it might be better suited to radio). But it’s still a potent love letter to the BBC, in all its messy glory.

When Winston Went to War with the Wireless is at the Donmar Warehouse through 29 July.

Photo credit: When Winston Went to War with the Wireless (Photo by Manuel Harlan)

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