When Winston Went to War with the Wireless: a joyful celebration of the BBC – with a crucial question unasked

Stephen Campbell Moore as BBC founder John Reith and Adrian Scarborough as Churchill, in When Winston Went to War with the Wireless, at the Donmar Warehouse - Manuel Harlan
Stephen Campbell Moore as BBC founder John Reith and Adrian Scarborough as Churchill, in When Winston Went to War with the Wireless, at the Donmar Warehouse - Manuel Harlan

Jack Thorne’s new play takes us back to the future. It’s 1926, and government bungling has tattered the economy. Industrial action straitjackets the country as energy prices soar. And – for completion’s sake – an ursine, pugnacious politician is prowling about, causing trouble for his stick-in-the-mud PM. In his vision, the past doesn’t so much hold a mirror up to the present as plagiarise it.

When Winston Went to War with the Wireless opens with a sharp, spectral tableaux of coal miners toiling. Soon, those miners are downing tools and the Trades Union Congress has called a general strike, paralysing Britain. The fledgling BBC, founded only three years before by John Reith, finds itself on the horns of a dilemma – should it report the objective truth of the strike, police brutality and all? Or should it dance with the devil (well, Stanley Baldwin’s Tories) and be used as a government mouthpiece to help quell a putative Bolshevik revolution?

Stirring things further, chancellor Winston Churchill sees the chaos as his chance to unseat Baldwin from the “big chair”. Meanwhile, Baldwin wants to outflank his rival, making him the fall guy if Reith’s newly formed voice of the people fails to toe the line.

The play’s title teases that Thorne, who wrote The Motive and the Cue and Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, is interested in the mano-a-mano encounter between Reith and Churchill. In fact, it’s more a character study in how Reith, the son of a Presbyterian minister, tried to balance his professional ambition with his conscience and sympathy for the strikers. Is he willing to sell his soul for the BBC’s future? Stephen Campbell Moore captures this fragile hauteur well; his Reith is a pine tree blown in a storm, buffeted by memories of his gay lover and duty to his neglected wife.

Yet something feels under-powered about this central conflict. There’s a lot of shouting – and Adrian Scarborough’s Churchill doesn’t help things. He gets a few nice laughs, but Churchill here is a caricature. There’s also an awful lot of history to crunch through: characters lob gobbets about Gallipoli and the Gold Standard at each other like hand grenades.

Still, there’s considerable charm to the production. Laura Hopkins’s design is marvellous. Musicians and foley artists cluster the back of the stage: we see behind the curtain of radio magic, but it only increases the wonder. Director Katy Rudd summons the whirr of the early, improvised days of the BBC joyously – a busy merry-go-round of news, improving views and god-awful variety shows. Indeed, Haydn Gwynne steals the show as much-thwarted music hall diva and later a grouchily imperious Baldwin.

Thorne’s play is an unabashed celebration of the BBC and the haunted, brittle man who built it. Undoubtedly, the 1926 general strike was the making of the nascent corporation – but was it also its finest hour? It’s a question that doesn’t trouble When Winston... – but perhaps it should trouble us.


Until July 29; donmarwarehouse.com