O What a Lovely War; a Tribute to Joan Littlewood (free, click on the link). It’s hard to imagine a character such as Joan running a theatre these days. An upfront member of the Communist Party, and committed to promoting new left wing theatre, she was a feisty character, just watching her taking on (Dame!) Barbara Windsor in the film is hilarious! Joan believed theatre should be like a public service, accessible to all, and reflect the lives of working class people. In this short film she talks about setting up Theatre Workshop in Stratford in London, where, ironically, she could only keep the theatre going by taking her plays to the West End and a middle class audience. One of her most famous productions was the 1963 anti-war play, O What a Lovely War, and in this film the original cast talk about their relationship with Joan, and her particular way of producing a play. Many of the actors went on to become famous in television and film. Bit of a shame, though, that none of them carried on Joan’s dreams about radical theatre. On 18 May another documentary about Joan is being shown at the WCML, “In the Company of Joan” by Wendy Richards.
your mark on history! On the 12th May 1937, the newly founded social research organisation, Mass Observation, famously requested day diaries written by the public from across Britain. This date was chosen to capture the public’s mood on the day of the Coronation of George VI: an event thought to be worthy of study by the organisation following the public’s and press’s reaction to the so-called ‘Abdication Crisis’ the previous year. How things have changed! This year, on Thursday 12th May 2016, the Mass Observation Archive is repeating this call for people from across the country to submit an account of their day to the Archive. It would be great if as many activists from trade unions and anti-cuts groups could submit an account of their day so as to ensure that our radical history is not excluded from history archives.
a night of classic British documentary films on Monday, 16 May 2016, from 18:30 to 21:00 at the International Anthony Burgess Foundation in Manchester . Included is one of my favourite films, Night Mail, made in 1936 by the GPO Film Unit. We follow the nightly journey of the postal steam train which travelled from London to Glasgow to a backdrop of poetry by W.H. Auden and music by Benjamin Britten. For once we get to see the workers (all male, apart from the women serving in the canteen) doing their jobs and whose accents are very different to the clipped, very English tones of the voiceover. The second film is The Way to the Sea (9 minutes), again featuring a train journey on the London to Portsmouth route with another collaboration between Auden and Britten. And to celebrate its 80th anniversary of both films they are going to be screened on 16mm film with a talk by Dr. Scott Anthony who has written the BFI Modern Classics book on Night Mail.
Here is a trailer
Zinky Boys Soviet Voices from a Forgotten War by Svetlana Alexievich. I found out about this book after reading an article in the Guardian about Svetlana. It was published in 1992 and I was amazed to find a battered copy in my local library! War is a subject that Svetlana has written about in several books, including one about the role of Soviet women soldiers in the Second World War, and Zinky Boys which is a more controversial subject, particularly in the 1990s when she wrote it. In those days there was still (just) a Soviet Union and it had been taking part in a war in Afghanistan (sounds familiar) for 10 years from 1979-89. Svetlana’s style of writing is to make her interviewees the main focus of her books, telling their stories which makes it one of the very powerful books about the realities of war. As Svetlana says; “I perceive the world through the medium of human voices. They never cease to hypnotise, deafen and bewitch me at one and the same time.”
What struck me reading the book is people’s dedication to the Soviet Union so they were unquestioning about the war, but censorship by the government ensured that the soldiers and their families did not understand why their country was involved, a war that had a million Soviet troops and thousands of civilian conscripts taking part. And just like Vietnam, many of the soldiers were young men aged 18-20 years who were killed, injured and then ignored if they returned home. The interviews with the young men and their mothers are heartbreaking. One thing stands out about the interviews generally (and Svetlana’s text) is the number of references to poets and writers. I do not think that interviewing British soldiers or writers you would find the same cultural references. Another unusual aspect of the war is that many women went voluntarily as everything from nurses and doctors to prostitutes. For some people going to Afghanistan meant that they could buy western goods that were not available at home and could be sold for vast prices once they returned. Sums up how war is, totally bonkers! You can find out more about Svetlana on her blog see. Buy her books at