The main theme of the play is that corruption in the force is not confined to just one bad apple, but that it is widespread; indeed, the play claims that the number of corrupt police exceeds 95% of the entire force. As if to prove the point, two of the play’s most crooked characters end up actually in control of Operation Bad Apple – nice work if you can get it. After consultations between the Attorney-General and the Director of Public Prosecutions, both of whom feature in the play, it was decided to let it continue as planned. As the critic Charles Spencer remarked in the April 1982 issue of Plays and Players Magazine: “The opening… has brought a most welcome whiff of controversy back to the Royal Court. Merging from the underground station you can almost smell the smoke of battle wafting out of the theatre and over Sloane Square. It has been quite like old times… with the Attorney-General keeping an anxious beady eye on the production.”The lifting of restrictions on presentations of members of the Royal Family on stage enabled Crown Matrimonial (1972) by Royce Ryton, a serious dramatization of Edward VIII’s abdication crisis, to enjoy a long and successful run. In 1981, however, the same author collaborated with Ray Cooney on Her Royal Highness?, a play which jumped on the bandwagon of the Royal Wedding between Charles and Diana. John Barber referred to it in the Daily Telegraph of 22nd February 1982 as “that tasteless farce about the Prince and Princess of Wales. The Lord Chamberlain would never have licensed that – but it didn’t last long.” According to Ray Cooney’s website, “owing to subsequent events in the tragic life of the real Diana, this play is not available for performance at the present time.”
One renowned personage who has been subjected to perhaps more than his fair share of satire and abuse is Sir Winston Churchill. It’s not hard to see why. He became synonymous for everything strong, patriotic and magnanimous; for the “blood, toil, tears and sweat” which made Britain great. His victorious cigar was an obvious choice for the centrepiece of the logo which advertised Ken Lee’s musical Happy as a Sandbag (1975). His influence and renown was so strong that to question his greatness was – or maybe still is – also to bring Britain’s greatness into question; especially in those early years after censorship was withdrawn. In Joe Orton’s What the Butler Saw, the successful search for Churchill’s missing penis at the end of the play acts as a blessing for the themes of sexual liberation that Orton examined so thoroughly in the rest of the play. This discovery is made when all the apparently unresolvable events of the play are, somehow, resolved; just as Nick and Geraldine are twins and Prentice and his wife are lovers, the missing part of Winston Churchill has been literally staring us in the face all along.
Cast your mind back, if you can, to 1974. Britain in recession, the three-day week, power cuts, miners’ strikes, unstable governments, IRA bombings… it wasn’t the best of times. It was also the year that Howard Brenton wrote The Churchill Play, which opens with the surreal vision of Churchill, presumed dead, springing from his coffin, brandishing cigar and Union Jack. At first you might expect the embodiment of Churchill to represent a spirit of greatness, arriving like the cavalry to rescue Britain from the doldrums. However, as the play unfolds, you realise that Churchill shoulders the blame for everything wrong with the country. The play is set in a British Concentration Camp in 1984 – the Orwellian reference is by no means coincidental – where prisoners of conscience are sent. Their crime? To question the justice of the Con-Lab government which is, as Jonathan St. John (M.P., Chairman of the Sub-Committee of the Committee of Ways and Means) describes himself, “more Con than Lab. Very much more.” The camp is proudly referred to as the Churchill Camp; so the country has seen fit to pay tribute to its “great man” with an edifice that represents, symbolises and embodies fascism. You don’t need me to point out the irony that it was Churchill who successfully waged the 1939-45 war against the Nazis and their concentration camps. Gerald Morn, a representative of the last vestiges of socialism in Britain, calls the camp “the English Dachau”; to prove it, Colonel Ball, the military mastermind of the camp, and who appears to believe implicitly that “Winston Churchill saved this country from one thousand years of barbarism”, continues to implement this barbarism and taint Churchill’s reputation by naming it after him.
The internees of the camp look upon the production of the Churchill play (within a play) as a diversionary tactic, helping them to stage their planned escape, which shows that they see him in a different light from the Colonel and the politicians. They regard him as symbolising a possible salvation from fascism, rather than a justification for it. In the end, the security arrangements are tighter than they thought, and the prisoners’ rebellious spirit disintegrates as they realise that the strength of right-wing militancy sweeping the country. This new regime will not permit them any reintegration back into society. The probable result is that, after the curtain falls, they will either “be dumped”, or received Julia Redmond’s (a most suspicious PPS) white-box torture: “you are tied in a white room. The eye cannot focus. The white… an ionized paint… is infinite. Like the dark sky of a moonless night… in the end you become a white, three-D void… there are drugs. And surgery… You cut the brain… butchery… against the butchers.” Elsewhere in the play, when Churchill is not being used to represent this kind of savagery, he is ridiculed in an imaginary presentation of the 1945 Yalta Conference, where he met Stalin and Roosevelt to complete plans for the defeat of Germany and the foundation of the United Nations. Brenton has him taking a bath with Stalin, with the bath-water representing Europe, displaced in Archimedean fashion by their discussions. Churchill is the unifying thread which runs throughout the play, and a good example of the portrayal of a non-fictitious public figure on stage, with inventiveness and originality.
In my next post I’ll look at some more “real” people on stage and the use of national stereotypes.