Theatre Review - When Winston Went to War with the Wireless

Jack Thorne’s play about the origins of the BBC couldn’t be more timely. When Winston Went to War with the Wireless dramatises the row that broke out between the Conservative government and the BBC during the general strike of 1926.

The printers joined the strike and, in the absence of newspapers, Churchill published The British Gazette which opposed the workers’ action. The BBC was the only place to find non-partisan news and the strikers had limited opportunities to get their message out.

John Reith (Stephen Campbell Moore) was head of the four-year-old British Broadcasting Company when wily prime minister Stanley Baldwin (Haydn Gwynne) sent his bullish chancellor Winston Churchill (Adrian Scarborough) to negotiate. They wanted to squash the BBC’s intention to broadcast a speech by the Archbishop of Canterbury sympathetic to the workers.

Determined to control the airwaves, Churchill held Reith to ransom by informing him that the service’s bid to become a corporation would be seriously compromised if he didn’t pull the archbishop’s speech. The BBC was caught between submitting to government demands and fulfilling its duty to keep the public informed.

Thorne gives us glimpses of Reith’s personal life – riven by his religious beliefs, his passion for a younger man, (Charlie Newberry) and his loveless marriage with Muriel (Mariam Haque). Muriel, we discover, is the woman Charlie had set his sights on.

While the contemporary resonances are clear, Thorne’s play is also a tribute to radio and its commitment to “inform, educate and entertain”. We are given sound bites from various programmes and light entertainment of the time as well as several lessons in sound effects. Who knew that the snapping of celery sounds like breaking bones?

Katy Rudd’s thoughtful production is artfully staged with radio mics descending from the rafters as, upstage, a sound team reveal how they create their magic.

To July 29

Originally pubished by Westminster Extra