Winston is, of course, Winston Churchill, Chancellor of the Exchequer in the then Conservative government, a blustering steamroller of a man determined to defeat the strikers come what may and to bully the BBC into supporting the government’s side.
When Winston Went to War With the Wireless centres on the blistering and wordy confrontations between the two men, but under Katy Rudd’s lively, busy direction, it offers an all-encompassing, often very amusing, look at the quaint early days of the BBC and its output predominantly of light entertainment and comedy.
Full disclosure: I was a news and current affairs journalist at the BBC and I can attest that this play, although ostensibly rooted in one moment in time, portrays the perennial pressures on the corporation, if often by subtler means.
The title is misleading: the central character is not Churchill, though in Adrian Scarborough’s forceful and convincing interpretation he sucks up much of the oxygen in all his scenes. Thorne, however, appears more interested in Reith’s character, and therein lies both the strength and the weakness of the play.
Stephen Campbell Moore’s Reith is a tormented man with none of the gruff charisma historians associate with the BBC’s first DG. He stands up to Churchill, for example by refusing his outlandish request that the BBC should broadcast the sound of the printing presses producing his own organ of government propaganda, the British Gazette while striking printers prevent the publication of all newspapers.
But fully aware of the existential dangers to the BBC, Reith compromises and opts for self-censorship. No trades union leaders are allowed on the BBC, though Ernest Bevin puts in an appearance in the play. And Reith, a deeply religious man, succumbs to Churchill’s pressure not to broadcast a temporising speech by the Archbishop of Canterbury.
Thorne’s decision to move outside the central confrontation to dwell on the widely accepted rumour that Reith had had a homosexual love affair with the young Charlie Bowser diffuses the play’s focus.
It seems the playwright’s intention is to contrast the lies and compromises of Reith’s personal life with his insistence on truth in his professional life, but his insistence on Reith’s personal agony works like a diverting play within a play.
The whole ensemble act with gusto and commitment, none more so than Hayden Gwynne as Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin, though the reason for this gender-swapping casting remains elusive.
In the light of current controversies, this is, nevertheless, a topical and mostly entertaining play by the prolific Jack Thorne (The Motive and the Cue, Best Interests).
|Review: When Winston Went to War with the Wireless, Donmar
|Donmar Warehouse, 41 Earlham Street, Seven Dials, WC2H 9LX | MAP
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02 Jun 23 – 29 Jul 23, 19:30 Mats Thu & Sat at 14:30 Dur.: 2 hours 25 mins inc one interval
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