English and Drama blog

06 January 2014

‘The most influential radio programme ever’? Charles Chilton, P J Harvey, and soldiers' songs

Fifty years after its first production—and marking the centenary of the outbreak of the First World War—Oh, What a Lovely War! returns to its original home at the Theatre Royal Stratford East in February.

Described by critic Michael Billington as ‘one of the seminal events of modern British theatre’, this ‘musical entertainment’ drew on soldiers’ songs to expose both the ‘absurdity’ and the ‘vulgarity’ of war (the former every bit as important to Theatre Workshop’s presentation as the latter).

The musical was inspired by Charles Chilton's ‘The Long, Long Trail’, first broadcast on the BBC Home Service in 1961, and which told the story of the War through bleakly ironic (and yet strangely uplifting?) soldiers' songs. Chilton had collected the songs from a book called Tommy’s Tunes (the first edition of which is in the Library) and from former soldiers he met in pubs around St Pancras.

Chilton died a year ago in January 2013, and on Saturday the BBC broadcast a tribute to 'The Long, Long Trail' described by one contributor as ‘the most influential radio programme ever’.

The original recordings of 'The Long, Long Trail' were not retained by the BBC, but Chilton kindly donated a copy to the British Library; we also hold original recordings and sound effects from the original production of Oh, What a Lovely War!, equally generously donated by Theatre Workshop's Murray Melvin (talking here as part of the Theatre Archive Project).

By coincidence, before Christmas we hosted a reception to share news of the forthcoming launch of our Europeana Collections 1914-18 project, which will make hundreds of thousands of newly-digitised materials—from the UK and our partners in eight European countries—relating to stories and events of the war available online for free. (See more at last month's blog). One of our readers that night was the singer, musician and artist P J Harvey, who chose to read the lyrics of soldiers’ songs (as well as her own lyrics from the album Let England Shake, and a new poem).


Her choice to read three soldiers' songs—all of which featured in 'The Long, Long Trail'—was a stunning one. Stripped of the accompanying music, the cold absurdity of their lyrics was laid bare. It may be a weakness or a strength, but one of the singularities of Oh, What a Lovely War! is the hummability of its tunes about death and destruction; indeed many of the early audiences for this anti-War production were former soldiers who apparently enjoyed reliving memories of comradely cheer. But when you listen to the lyrics—really listen—they are jaw-dropping in their calm horror.

The biggest revelation among the lyrics that Polly read was the song 'We're here because': originally sheltered behind the tune of 'Auld Lang Syne', that night the lyrics opened up a Beckettian no-man's land of senseless repetition. 'Here because we're here because we're here because we're here': on it went, that tortuous, clinically neat, anti-logic.

We're pleased to include the video of Polly's reading below; our Europeana project launches at the end of the month.

Polly Harvey at the British Library from Europeana Collections on Vimeo.


P J Harvey reads:

Lyrics from soldiers’ song ‘I Want to Go Home (I Don’t Want to Die)’

Lyrics from soldiers’ song ‘When This Bloody War Is Over’

Lyrics from soldiers’ song ‘We’re Here Because…’

Lyrics from ‘The Words that Maketh Murder’ by P J Harvey, from the album Let England Shake

‘The Guest Room’, a poem by P J Harvey

The Charles Chilton audio collection, including tapes of 'The Long, Long Trail' can be found on the Sound and Moving Image catalogue under reference C1186

Murray Melvin's  audio collection, including tapes of the original production of Oh, What a Lovely War! and sound effects can be found on the Sound and Moving Image catalogue under reference C1502

The first edition of Tommy's Tunes can be found on the British Library catalogue under reference 011604.g.16


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