Magazine article The Spectator

Truth from the Trenches

Magazine article The Spectator

Truth from the Trenches

Article excerpt

One of the more bizarre sights of last year must have been at a matinee in the West End. A major in the Royal Green Jackets turned up to see the hit production of Journey's End, the first world war play set in the trenches. He did so with a crocodile of 50 riflemen in tow. Recruited from the inner cities and hard as nails, most of them had never seen a play before. A handful thought it was like Blackadder Goes Forth only without the jokes. The vast majority adored it; according to the major it had been 'the best thing they had done in the army'. The play's content - soldiering, fear and comradeship on the Western Front - remains unparalleled; it's part of the military's heritage. Half the army have been along to see it, including generals galore. As far as the show's director is aware, Geoff Hoon hasn't bothered. Why is one not surprised?

The production - it ends on 19 February - has been seen by all sorts, from clergymen to squaddies to legions of school kids. Even a few addicts who saw it first in 1929 have turned up. One 90-year-old woman I met remembered as a teenager falling hopelessly in love with Colin Clive (the debonair leading man) and leaving the theatre in floods of tears. The show was a major public event back then. Churchill - then chancellor of the exchequer - went more than once and had its author, R.C. Sherriff, to lunch at No. 11 where he grilled him with highly pertinent questions which the stammering playwright did his best to answer.

But what of 'Bob' Sherriff? There is no biography, and very few books mention him at all except in passing. His neglect can only be explained by his lack of pacifism and the usual snobbery against theatre and film, the two fields in which he toiled. He not only wrote one of the greatest stage hits of the 20th century but he became the most successful Hollywood scriptwriter Britain has yet produced. He churned out many classics, including The Invisible Man, Lady Hamilton, Goodbye, Mr Chips and The Dambusters. The last, incidentally, remains one of the few black and white films routinely censored on TV. (God forbid that we should be allowed to hear Wing-Commander Guy Gibson calling his black labrador 'Nigger'!)

Sherriff s name as war writer, however, has been eclipsed by the more in-yer-face war poets. He remains deeply untrendy because he didn't die and he didn't whinge. There's a funny fog of suburban anonymity about him. He was born in 1896 and spent his pre-war career cycling around Surrey, pipe between his teeth, inspecting insurance claims for Sun Alliance. A keen oarsman, his one great ambition in life was to be a rowing coach at a minor public school. He was almost absurdly self-effacing and - unlike Sassoon et al. -having served on the Front, he never protested about the war when it was over. His loving, sensitive letters home suggest a deep sadness at the inhumanity of it all, but there isn't a single utterance of his in print (at least not that I have come across) that overtly condemns the generals or the conduct of the war. He wasn't that sort.

Indeed it is astonishing that Journey's End is still on the school syllabus since it ticks none of the required boxes. There are no women in the play, no ethnic or sexual minorities, no anti-imperialism, no 'lions led by donkeys' attitude - just a strong public-school ethos and decent chaps doing their duty, drinking and eating while waiting for a German offensive, and death. …

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