Oh What a Lovely War: an interview with Murray Melvin

Oh What a Lovely War changed the landscape of British theatre and had a major impact on perceptions of the First World War. Here actor Murray Melvin discusses his memories of the original Theatre Workshop production and describes Joan Littlewood’s radically experimental working methods.

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Murray Melvin discusses Oh What a Lovely War

We were horror-struck, because we had been brought up with history as per the book, and that history came from the top down, and it was glory and it was sacrifice and it was heroism and the bravery. What was never told was the real story of those that actually fought it. And that was our brief, that history, not from the shiny boots down but for the men in the mud up.

How was the play originally conceived?

Charles Chilton was a BBC producer, into music, and he’d lost his father in the First World War, It was in 1958, he was on holiday, Arras, the battlefield, and he looked for his father’s grave. 

‘when I [at] last discovered my father’s official memorial, it was to find that he had no known grave. [...] What could have possibly happened to a man that rendered his burial impossible? What horror could have taken place that rendered the burial of 35,942 men impossible, and all in one relatively small area?’

And so out of that experience, he formulated a programme of the First World War songs. That was broadcast, and Gerry Raffles, who was the general manager here, and also Joan’s partner, heard that radio programme and thought, that could be a good stage show.

Clowns playing soldiers

I’m often asked why we were all as clowns, seaside clowns. Well, when you read Joan’s book, she had been taken as a young girl to the seaside and she’d seen the pierrots on the beach, and she’d comments how she loved that, dressed all in that shiny satin. She didn’t like death on stage, and she had a horror of khaki and uniforms. We realised that we were actors playing clowns playing soldiers, so that the horror was thrice removed. I mean, our rifles were wooden because pierrots wouldn’t have had real rifles. We used walking sticks.

Joan didn’t like sentimentality on stage. The songs are a counterpoint to the horror. When the horror got too much, she’d then get them to burst into the song. And although the songs were traditional, the soldiers made up their own words, and it was those that we used.


We rehearsed those scenes but we never knew until almost, oh, the last few days that there was going to be this thing called a tickertape. We certainly didn’t know that there were going to be slides.

You see, the tickertape was almost the antithesis of what we were doing as performers.

There are lots of songs, there are lots of jokes, it’s all done jokingly, and it brings the audience in and then the punch comes at the end of the first act, and then from then on there’s horror. And then that tickertape would go across saying, ‘Yes, it was the first battle and 500,000 men died’. So the tickertape reflected the truism that wasn’t being brought over in the history or what was happening in front of them on stage.

Discussing war time experiences

Nobody ever spoke about it. It wasn’t done. And again we considered that it was this terrible thing about bravery and that men didn’t cry, and that men didn’t object and that you were a hero and they died heroes. Nobody talked about men screaming for their mothers, going over the top, which of course we read about from the papers that were kept secret. But they did, screamed for their mothers. And a woman came into Joan. And she said, ‘I’ve tried to get my old man to come and talk to you, because he was, he was there.’ And Joan said, ‘Oh darling, could you get…?’ She said, ‘No, he won’t come. He won’t come. He won’t talk about it.’

The Somme

And that’s what they all were, cannon fodder. Haig, lining that – the Somme, 1,000 men in one single line, in full pack, with the order they did not run, they did not try and hide. They just marched toward the enemy, and the Germans were waiting for them and they just machine gunned them all done. When they got to the barbed wire, the British barbed wire, they just machine gunned them down, and they all fell dead or wounded on the barbed wire. And the next day he ordered another 1,000 to do exactly the same, and they were mowed down.

And they marched forward and those still not dead on that barbed wire screamed at them to go back, “Go back.” But no, they had been ordered.... Three days, 3,000 men [sighs].

Arms manufacturers

Well, the arms scene, which opens act two, where we’re all being armour manufacturers, you know, and there’s that lovely phrase where the gamekeeper says to one of them, ‘I hear it’ll be over by Christmas, sir.’ And one of them says, ‘Oh, I hope not.’ Because they were making millions. They’re still making millions. The armaments, we live on armaments.

Research and Improvement

it was always the same with Joan, somebody wrote a script but then the company worked on it. And so there was an enormous amount of homework by everybody, and Joan would pick on the first attack on the Somme, Arras, gas, a different subject, and you’d all go away that night and you’d all read up, and then the next morning you’d all gather and from all your homework and study you came out with what you considered the salient points of whatever. And then out of that she would improvise.

Swapping roles

One of the unique workings of the Theatre Workshop, and Joan’s way of working, was that in rehearsal you all played each other’s roles. Now lots of actors would object to that, somebody else playing your role, but for an actor it was very good because another person with a different thought hit on a different reason or, and so you took that as your own and used it. You very often, in a love scene, the man played the woman and the woman played the man. Very interesting how that change of gender brought up different attitudes. She did that a lot.

Like a Mozart symphony

Now Joan loved two or three conversations going on at once. She always used to say, “We all listen to two or three conversations going on at once. You never get that on stage. Somebody talks and everybody else listens. It doesn’t happen in real life.” And so she loved it when she had three conversations going on, but then you had to work it on different levels, almost like a Mozart symphony, and so that the pertinent line came out and the audience heard it while there’s a lot of other conversations going on, but you could still hear.

Took hours. And then people used to say, ‘Oh of course, at Theatre Workshop you make it up as you go along, don’t you?’ [Laughs] Sometimes, but not always. Yes, that took an awful lot–, a great deal of work, but worth it because you did get all those conversations and all that information came across all in one block.

Comedy influences

There was a great influence from Brecht, but then Joan always would say, “We stole from the best.” Now more than Mr Brecht, Herr Brecht, you had the Marx Brothers. You see, we were always playing the Marx Brothers. We were always playing Charlie Chaplin. You would always play music hall. You’d do it in double time, like silent films. If you got sort of bogged down with detail or something, she’d suddenly say, “Come on, get on the piano and let’s do something…” And you’d go, diddle-dum, diddle-dum, and you’d do it all in that double time, which took the pressure off you as an actor but then brought out the salient point of what the scene was about, and then you’d go back with a different perspective.

Low budgets

Because there was no money, imagination had to come into play. You had to think of another way around. Hadn’t got the money to spend on some ginormous set. And all the better for it those sets were. Now you very often see no set at all. Well, that was Lovely War. There was no set. It was an empty stage. It had two balcons either side of the stage and that was it. And further back there was a gantry with the tickertape on, otherwise it was a bare–, you created everything. But that was Joan’s way of working. Came into a crowded room and the crowded room was empty. You had to make it crowded.

It had a major impact on the direction of theatre in this country.

How do young people today respond to the play?

they’re brought up with horror on their television screens. We see people burning. We see people being shot, you know. Will it dull the senses? Will they accept that? But of course it’s strange, it’s the show itself. Somehow that tickertape, those numbers, always got through to people, and especially when it said, ‘Gains, five yards,’ or, ‘Gains, nil.’ And when you just had the tickertape saying 20,000 men had died, for what? Nothing.

So it got through. That pleased me enormously, that the younger generation were still being moved. I came up here and said, ‘Well done Joan. [laughs]. Still getting the message across’.

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