When Winston Went to the War with the Wireless, Donmar Warehouse, stage review: ‘Entertaining viewing’

Adrian Scarborough and Stephen Campbell Moore star. Photograph: Manuel Harlan

It is 1926 and Britain is in the throes of the General Strike.

The newly-established British Broadcasting Company is suddenly cast into the spotlight as a unique source of information.

But can John Reith, its Director General, assert the fledgling radio station’s independence from government?

Sam Thorne’s new play, currently running at the Donmar Warehouse, is a trenchant critique of state efforts to control the media. It also offers a sobering analysis of the choices we all face between pragmatism and principle.

Directed by Katy Rudd, Winston Went to War with the Wireless probes at tension at the heart of the state broadcaster that is as relevant today as it was a century ago.

The BBC has always been a public institution, yet as a news outlet it is duty bound to hold the powers-that-be to account.

Media organisations have throughout their history has an ambivalent connection to the state, typically relying on public subsidies and support, but also seeking to retain objectivity and critical reach.

Treading this fine line represents both a professional challenge and a personal cost, as Reith discovered in 1926.

The novice state broadcaster was feeling its way in a nascent medium and had yet to firm up its relationship to political power.

The government of the day, led by Stanley Baldwin and her henchman Winston Churchill in the treasury, tried to see how far they could go in asserting control over the Beeb’s editorial line.

The strike was a time of sudden significance for Reith and his colleagues, as newspaper presses lay idle while their operators manned the picket lines.

Churchill took the opportunity to launch a blatantly pro-government title of his own – the British Gazette – and the BBC stood out as virtually the only potential counterweight to the Conservative party narrative.

But how far could Reid push his independence? And what was he prepared to do to protect his organisation from the threat of even more overt government control?

Adrian Scarborough gives us a charming portrayal of Churchill – bullying yet also astute.

Stephen Campbell Moore as Reith does an admirable job of depicting the DG’s contradictions and personal moral dilemmas.

Thorne’s play may not offer any easy solutions to the quandaries it dissects, but it nevertheless makes for entertaining viewing.

Winston Went to War with the Wireless runs until 29 July at Donmar Warehouse, 41 Earlham Street, WC2H 9LX.


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