Oh, What a Lovely War!

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Oh, What a Lovely War!
Oh What A Lovely War London Cast Recording.jpg
Original London Cast Recording
Book Joan Littlewood and Theatre Workshop
BasisThe Long Long Trail by Charles Chilton, The Donkeys by Alan Clark
Productions1963 Stratford
1963 West End
1964 Broadway
2002 West End revival
2010 UK Tour
2014 Stratford revival Birmingham Theatre School- 2014

Oh, What a Lovely War! is an epic musical developed by Joan Littlewood and her ensemble at the Theatre Workshop in 1963. [1] It is a satire on World War I, and by extension on war in general. The title is derived from the "somewhat satirical" [2] music hall song "Oh! It's a Lovely War!", which is one of the major numbers in the production.



The idea for the production started on Armistice Day 1962 when Gerry Raffles heard the repeat of the second version [3] of Charles Chilton's radio musical for the BBC Home Service, called The Long Long Trail [4] [5] [6] about World War I. Written and produced by Chilton in memory of his father [7] whose name was inscribed on the memorial at Arras, the piece was a radio documentary that used facts and statistics, juxtaposed with reminiscences and versions of songs of the time, as an ironic critique of the reality of the war. [8] The songs were found in a book published in 1917 called Tommy's Tunes [7] [9] which had new lyrics written in the trenches to well-known songs of the era, many from hymns or from West End shows. Bud Flanagan provided the voice of the "ordinary soldier". The title came from the popular music hall song "There's a Long Long Trail A-Winding" published in 1913, [10] mentioned in the introduction of Tommy's Tunes. [11]

Raffles proposed the idea of using it as the basis of a production to his partner, Joan Littlewood, but she detested the idea, hating World War I, military uniforms, and everything they stood for. [7] Gerry though, brought Chilton along to the theatre and they played through the songs. Eventually Littlewood considered it might work, but refused any military uniforms, deciding on pierrot costumes from Commedia dell'arte very early on as a "soft, fluffy entertainment mode" [7] providing an ironic contrast to the tin hats which they also wore. Littlewood said, in 1995, that "Nobody died on my stage, they died in the film – that they ruined". She wanted audiences to leave the theatre laughing at the "vulgarity of war". [12] The idea was to portray how groups of people could lose their sense of individuality by conforming to those of a higher authority, which Littlewood despised.

The Theatre Workshop developed productions through improvisation and initially the cast would learn the original script but then have that taken away and have to retell the story in their own words for performance. Each member of the Theatre Workshop was tasked with learning about a particular topic, such as Ypres or gas. As the production developed, it also used scenes from The Donkeys by military historian (and future Conservative politician) Alan Clark, initially without acknowledgement: Clark took Littlewood to court to get credited. [7]

Some scenes in the production, notably one on the first time the trenches were gassed, were worked on for many days only for Littlewood to conclude they were too horrific for an audience, [7] and delete them. This was another reason why uniforms were not worn in the production.


The musical premiered at the Theatre Royal Stratford East on 19 March 1963 to rave audience reaction. Kenneth Tynan's review in The Observer was titled "Littlewood returns in triumph". [13]

The official censor did not grant permission for a transfer to the West End until Princess Margaret attended a performance and commented to the Lord Chamberlain, Lord Cobbold, that "What you've said here tonight should have been said long ago, don't you agree, Lord Cobbold?"; at this point the transfer was more or less assured despite the objections of the family of Field Marshal Haig. It was an ensemble production featuring members of the theatre's regular company, which included Brian Murphy, Victor Spinetti and Glynn Edwards, all of whom played several roles. The sets were designed by John Bury. The production subsequently transferred to Wyndham's Theatre in June of the same year. [8] The production was a surprise hit, and the musical was adapted by the BBC for radio several times.

The musical premiered in the United States on Broadway at the Broadhurst Theatre on 30 September 1964 and closed on 16 January 1965 after 125 performances. It was seen there by actor and former subaltern Basil Rathbone, who wrote to Charles Chilton that "we were duped, it was a disgusting war".[ citation needed ] Directed by Littlewood, the cast featured Spinetti and Murphy, plus Barbara Windsor. It received four Tony Award nominations: for Best Musical, Best Direction, Best Featured Actress, and Best Featured Actor, winning Best Featured Actor. Spinetti also won the Theatre World Award.


The original production was performed with the cast in pierrot costumes and metal helmets due to Littlewood's abhorrence of the colour khaki [7] and anti-war feelings. Behind them projected slides (operated by projectionist Tom Carr) showed images from the war and a moving display (what Littlewood called her "electronic newspaper" from having seen one in East Berlin on a railway bridge [7] ) across the full stage width with statistics, such as "Sept 25 . . . Loos . . . British loss 8,236 men in 3 hours . . . German loss nil" and "Average life of a machine gunner under attack on the Western Front: 4 minutes".

Separating the performers from the actual events in this way would stop the audience collapsing in tears, [7] and the production features such World War I-era songs as "It's a Long Way to Tipperary", "Pack up Your Troubles" and "Keep the Home Fires Burning". Harsh images of war and shocking statistics are projected onto the backdrop, providing a contrast with the comedy of the action taking place before it. The audience were also invited to join in with singing the songs.

The first act was designed to draw the audience in with the sentimentality of the songs, and the first explosion does not take place until the end of Act 1 during Goodbye...ee. Act 2 then brings the horror of war to the production.

Title song

The song "Oh! It's a Lovely War" was written by J. P. Long and Maurice Scott in 1917 and was part of the repertoire of music hall star and male impersonator Ella Shields. [14] The lyrics of the first verse and the chorus are as follows:

Up to your waist in water,
Up to your eyes in slush –
Using the kind of language,
That makes the sergeant blush;
Who wouldn't join the army?
That's what we all inquire,
Don't we pity the poor civilians sitting beside the fire.

Oh! Oh! Oh! it's a lovely war,
Who wouldn't be a soldier eh?
Oh! It's a shame to take the pay.
As soon as reveille is gone
We feel just as heavy as lead,
But we never get up till the sergeant brings
Our breakfast up to bed
Oh! Oh! Oh! it's a lovely war,
What do we want with eggs and ham
When we've got plum and apple jam?
Form fours! Right turn!
How shall we spend the money we earn?
Oh! Oh! Oh! it's a lovely war.

Musical numbers

Sequence and casting based on the 1964 Broadway production

Song performances

Two renditions of the song, one from 1918, can be heard at firstworldwar.com. Almost all of the songs featured in the musical also appear on the CD41 album series Oh! It's A Lovely War (four volumes). [16]

Adaptation and in culture

Richard Attenborough's film adaptation was released in 1969, also as a musical, and won numerous awards. It was Attenborough's debut as a film director.

Several Australian World War I movies and miniseries (e.g. The Lighthorsemen and Gallipoli ) have used these songs to give a stronger sense of period to them. The 1985 series Anzacs used "Oh, it's a lovely war" as one of the numbers while the credits rolled, had "I wore a tunic" performed as part of an entertainment piece while the characters were on easy duties, used "Keep the home fires burning" as another credit number, and featured "The Bells of Hell" sung by Tony Bonner and Andrew Clarke.

Awards and nominations

Original Broadway production

1965 Tony Award Best Musical Nominated
Best Performance by a Featured Actor in a Musical Victor Spinetti Won
Best Performance by a Featured Actress in a Musical Barbara Windsor Nominated
Best Direction of a Musical Joan Littlewood Nominated

2002 London revival

2003 Laurence Olivier Award Best Musical Revival Nominated

2010 UK tour

2010 TMA Awards Best Performance in a Musical: EnsembleNominated

2014 Stratford revival

2014 Laurence Olivier Award Outstanding Achievement in an Affiliate Theatre Nominated

See also

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  10. There's a long, long trail a winding 1913, by Stoddart King (1889-1933) and Alonzo Elliot (1891-1964)
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