War and Conflict: Radio Plays

By Kurt Vonnegut, dramatised by Dave Sheasby. R3, 20 Sep 09. With John Guerassio and Andrew Scott. Story based on Kurt Vonnedgut's witnessing the bombing of Dresden, told as a science-fiction parable. More information on "Science Fiction" page.

THE TANK MAN ....2006
By Julia Stoneham. The story of Ken Small, a hairdresser from Hull, who settled in Devon and became dedicated to the creation of a permanent memorial to the victims of Exercise Tiger, one of the worst fiascos of World War 2. My mother tells me that the events took place in the Slapton Sands area. With Shaun Prendergast, Bill Wallis, Stephanie Cole; produced by Viv Beeby.

Playing for Time - three days in May 1940....2005
by Robin Glendenning, R4 1430 29 Jan 05. A play about Churchill, who's been Prime Minister for a fortnight and is having to face up to the greatest defeat of the British Army at Dunkirk. He's challenged by the War Cabinet over the way he's conducting the war. If he loses the argument, he'll lose the premiership. Stars Robert Hardy as Churchill; cast includes Ronald Pickup,Jeremy Child, Geoffrey Whitehead, Bill Wallis. Director Jeremy Howe.

Not a drama...but worth including here: Are We As Offensive As We Might Be? (R4, 1145, 14 Nov 04) was a programme presented by Ian Hislop about the Wipers Times, a satirical magazine written against all the odds in the trenches in the First World War.

I found a reprinted, bound copy of this in a bookshop in Uppingham a little while back, and it's an amazing story - a party of English soldiers looking through the ruins of Ypres in 1916 (pronounced "Wipers" by the Tommies) found a printing press. One of the men was a printer, so they decided not to use it for scrap but to produce a humorous magazine.

The first edition, produced under heavy shelling, was an unexpected success with the troops. It mixes witty editorials, spoof adverts, fake readers' letters and replies, and it pokes fun at the higher-ups who were running the war with such ruthless incompetence. Captain Roberts, in the bleak days of 1917, says "Of course, it's quite likely that this war business may interfere with our plans". But the war never stopped the flow of humour; this remarkable magazine was printed until 1918.

In 2004, information flows more freely, and there is endless debate by the media and ordinary people about military decisions. The hidden incompetence of the First World War seems an age away.

later note by ND ... I read with some disquiet of the recent pardoning of 300 WW1 soldiers executed for desertion 80 years ago - an attempted re-write of history?

A Nice Little Trip to Spain, by Don Taylor (R4, 1415, 4 May 04) was directed by Don's widow, Ellen Dryden, and was his second posthumous play. It concerned a fictional incident in the Spanish Civil War. Uncle Jack, a young Cambridge graduate, died a heroic death, according to the family, when he went to Spain in the thirties. Some strange truths emerge when some bodies are taken out of a mass grave, sixty years later. Don's son Jonathan Dryden Taylor was in the cast, along with Jack Shepherd.

Jonathan Smith's return to favour was marked by THE LAST BARK OF THE BULLDOG (R4, 1430, 21 Jun 03). It was about the last few years of Churchill's career, and the crisis of June 1953 when he suffered a stroke during his last period in office as Prime Minister. Benjamin Whitrow was superb as Churchill, and he was ably supported by Sian Phillips as Lady Clementine, Michael Cochrane as Anthony Eden, Christian Rodska as Lord Moran, Robert Portal as Jock Colville and Emma Callender as Winston's attractive young nurse. The director was Bruce Young. (VRPCC newsletter, Sep. 2000) This play was nominated for the Sony Award, Best Radio Play of 2003. It was repeated on April 16 2004.

H.Cobb, dramatised by Mike Walker. A young lawyer defends three soldiers in a World War 1 court martial. Are they cowards or scapegoats?

Mark Dugain, dramatised by Mike Walker. A World War 1 casualty wakes up in the ward with a severe disfigurement. What will happen to him?

This was broadcast 20 years after the event, for political reasons ... Mrs. Thatcher banned it. See the Ian Curteis page.

The history of the Peloponnesian War is not an obvious candidate for radio dramatisation, but Tom Holland's Our Man in Athens (R4 1415 30 Jul 01) made it accessible to the ordinary listener. A veteran war reporter finds himself under siege in the studios of Radio Free Athens, under attack by Sparta. John Simpson, the BBC correspondent, played Thucydides, and the cast included Tim Piggott-Smith, Sean Barratt and Bill Wallis.

Part of the life of Siegfried Sassoon was examined in Between the Lines, by Neil Brand (R4, 1415, 8 Nov 01). In 1924, Sassoon was suffering from depression and mourning for friends lost in World War I, and unable to write poetry. A wealthy friend bought him a car, and he immediately went on an 800 mile trip to see writer friends including Thomas Hardy and T.E.Lawrence. As his spirits lifted he realised that could write things other than poetry, and his fortunes improved. Sassoon was played by James Fleet and George Baker took the part of Hardy

By M. Parker...the fate of animals, especially horses, in WW1.

Blood for Britain, by Michael McMillan (R4, 1415, 8 Oct 01) revealed the difficulties in World War II of getting enough blood to treat bomb casualties in the UK. Charles Drew was a blood pioneer who had worked out that blood plasma has a much longer shelf life than whole blood and could therefore be imported from America. He was surrounded by bureaucrats more interested in red tape than saving lives; one official actually said that it would be an admission that the war was going badly for the Allies if plasma was obtained from the States. This was in a situation where thousands of people were literally bleeding to death after, for example, the flattening of Coventry, because of a lack of bottled blood. Nevertheless, he showed great perseverence in overcoming scientific and other obstacles and eventually received official recognition. He improved the administration, labelling, storage and use of samples, and enabled tens of thousands of lives to be saved. His skin colour didn't help; being black, he was actively discriminated against, and there were numerous people at that time who insisted they would "rather die than receive plasma from negroes".

By Dave Sheasby. WW1 story. R4, 11 Nov 98.

(R4, 4 parts: 1430, 1730, 1950, 2330, 4 Sep) was the story of a bomber crew, based on Len Deighton's novel about an air raid on Saturday 18 February 1943. It was broadcast in real time, and followed the fortunes of Sam Lambert and his men as they carried out a night attack on Krefeld. The play included interviews with pilots and others who were involved at the time. My father recalls counting six hundred bombers in the sky simultaneously in 1943 above Kirby Muxloe in Leicestershire, and thinking what feat of engineering it was to get so many planes airborne at the same time. Tom Baker narrated this stunning 4-hour production, and the cast included Samuel West, Jack Shepherd, and Frank Windsor as Air Marshall Harris: "If I have to, I will flatten the whole of Germany". The dramatisation was by Joe Dunlop.

    During the war, the men of Bomber Command, all volunteers, were unanimously regarded as heroes. The public appreciated that these extraordinary young men were daring to fly into the enemy’s heavily-defended territory and strike back at Germany for its unprovoked attacks on Warsaw, Rotterdam and other undefended civilian centres across Europe.

    The RAF Bomber Command Memorial, in London, recently commissioned, will commemorate the 55,000 bomber airmen who were killed. They died in blazing, crashing aircraft whilst fighting against the enemies of our free world.

    After the bombing of Bremen on 17-18 Jan 1942, the Nazi newspapers denounced the raiders as ‘terror fliers’. As they did so, sixteen Nazi bureaucrats met on 20 January in a villa at Wannsee outside Berlin to co-ordinate the extermination of the entire Jewish population of Europe.

    From 1942 until the end of the war, Hitler and the Wehrmacht High Command were to learn how serious Air Marshal Harris and his American counterparts were in bringing death and destruction to the Third Reich as part of destroyinging an evil regime which could not be brought to heel by anything but total defeat.

    Those who wish to know more about this period in our history should visit the Bomber Command website.

Lack of Moral Fibre, an excellent comedy by John Antrobus (R4, 20 Feb, 1500) concerns a retired Wing-Commander running a hotel on the moors in Cornwall in 1970. He dislikes visitors, and refuses entry to nearly everyone. Then a stranger comes, bearing a strange resemblance to a man he knew during the war, and the radio starts playing programmes from the forties...Richard Briers stars as the Wing-Commander and Brian Murphy as his friend Dennis.

Devonia, by Andy Rashleigh (R4, 1415, beginning 2 June) was a series of three excellent plays about the life and times of a paddle steamer and its crew, set in the teens, twenties and thirties. We followed the fortunes of a group of loutish upper-class students celebrating their degrees; a mysterious group of Germans being ferried across the Channel during the war, and a works outing in 1911. Crew member Harry was played by John Duttine and Mercy by Sophie Thompson; Cherry Cookson directed.

Play about Wilfred Owen, WW1. No other details at time of writing.

Action of the tiger....1998
by Peter Roberts - true WW1 story of our best fighter pilot.

by Neville Shute. WW2 story.

Flight to Arras....1998
WW2 bomber pilot play.

RUSTY BUGLES ....c1998
By S Locke-Elliott. Members of the Australian army in WW2 guarding some army stores in the Australian outback whilst their fitter colleagues take part in the conflict. This is a very good Aussie play, broadcast on ABC, about 70m. With Joy Hollier,John Derham, Shane Porteous, Peter Adams, Danny Adcock, John Ewatt, Ben Gabriel, Michael Crosby. Producer John Crosby. ABC National.

Birdsong (R4 1402 beginning 27 October) was the unprepossessing title of a 3-part serial on Monday afternoons, written by Sebastian Faulkes and dramatised by Nick Stafford. Set in 1914, it begins with a failed romance; the man, depressed, leaves for the Army and ends up in the trenches. What made this serial so electrifying was the quality of the dramatisation. The nature of trench warfare, mines and countermines, shellshock and the battle at Beaumont Hamel was graphically covered.

My own grandfather, Fred Tomlinson, was a Lewis gunner at Ypres - he mentioned eating black bread taken from dead Germans but would not speak of other experiences. He was hit by shrapnel and sent back to a Military Hospital in England wrapped in straw. In the words of Captain Wraysford, the lead character : "A boy without legs where the men took tea from a cooker.............they stepped over him...........I feel guilty because I have survived. No child or future generation will ever know what this was like. When it is over, we will go quietly among the living and we will not tell them".

By Alex Jones. WW1 story; no more details at time of writing.

The lengths to which a WW1 war widow is driven to earn a crust... sombre and a bit creepy.

By John Fletcher. 11.11.91...war play, produced and directed by Nigel Bryant, BBC Pebble Mill. Monday play slot; music by Barrington Pheloung. An apt choice for 11th Nov; a group of soldiers return from Flanders mud and realise there's no longer a welcome for them in England, despite what the politicians say. So they enlist again, to fight in Russia in a struggle they don't understand. Their experiences are no better than they were in the trenches.

The Navigator's Log....1989
One of several plays by Haworth about fighter and bomber crews of the Second World War. This play looks at events from the navigator's point of view, as they drop bombs on German cities in defence of their country. An excellent, thoughtful play drawing no conclusions but telling it as it was. Those who criticise "Bomber" Harris without having experienced the threat of imminent invasion should listen to it.

Something very odd happens on the battlefield.....

The lonely margins....1988
-by Ted Allbeury. WW2 & afterwards- thriller.

By John Wilson. The Third Battle of Ypres; a young conscript decides he's had enough and walks away. He's caught, tried and shot.... see Jim's review .

WW1 story.

By Douglas Livingstone. Aftermath of the second world war: there are different ways of looking back...

by Jaroslav Hasek. 6 x 30min. A faithful dramatisation of Hasek's scathing comments on war and the officer class, using the translation by Cecil Parrott. Hasek was called up in 1915, deserted to the Russians at the battle of Chorupan, later fighting in the Czech legion and eventually joining the Bolsheviks. This story is his comic masterpiece, which was condemned by the military authorities as detrimental to discipline. Not surprising; figures in authority don't like subordinates thinking for themselves. Richard Griffiths plays the brainless Svejk.

The incarceration of Albert Speer, Hitler's architect, in Spandau prison. By Jonathan Smith.

By Nicholas Monserrat. WW2 story based in submarines. Excellent drama. 2hrs.

by Jack Gerson. WW2 story.

WW2-related mystery by A. Price, dramatised by Nick McCarty. A missing art collection, and a pilot who was killed in a flying accident at the end of the war. Directed in Glasgow by Hamish Wilson. With John Stride, Paula Wilcox, Mark Coleman, Peter de Sousa, Michael McKenzie, Alan Manson, Sandy Neilson, Neil Peckham, Raymond Ross, Lawrence Ruddick, Ian Sexon, Pat Williams.

By Jennifer Johnson. Adapted by Denys Hawthorne. A World War 1 story. 90m.

OTHER PATHS TO GLORY....1979 27 Jan 79; SNT. Adapted by Alison Plowden from the novel by Anthony Price. Fascinating 90-minute story set in the present day (1979) but based in the battlefields of Flanders. A regiment of first world war recuits know as "The Poachers" captured a Prussian stronghold near Bouillaire Wood in mysterious circumstances in 1916. A researcher, sixty years later, finds that those with knowledge of the regiment are meeting with fatal accidents faster than he can get to them...will he get to the truth? Stars Martin Jarvis; directed by Harry Catlin.

By Martin Jenkins. WW2 fighter ace mystery. 90m.

Satirical anti-war play by Noel Coward. Powerful, but depressing.

by Max Marque. WW2 fighter pilot story.

Set three hundred years ago; by Peter Barnes. A high-ranking official is accosted on the road by three brigands. Stars Bob Peck. Rpt. by ABC, c 1998. 45m.

FOR ELISE....1961
By Kenneth Bird. A play rooted in the Second World War, but taking place many years later. An atrocity takes place in a concentration camp, and a survivor looks for a way of evening the score.

Classic WW1 drama. Another production of this outstanding play went out in late 2004 on radio 3. With Richard Burton.

Nigel Deacon / Diversity website

Asterisked plays known to exist in VRPCC collections

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