Robert Gorelangton

Truth from the trenches

Robert Gore-Langton on R.C. Sherriff, the deeply untrendy author of Journey’s End, whose run finishes next month

Text settings

Robert Gore-Langton on R.C. Sherriff, the deeply untrendy author of Journey’s End, whose run finishes next month

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. It is presumably tolerated by right-on English teachers partly because it is so well constructed, but also because the play’s elegiac tone is easily roped into some vague all-purpose anti-war statement. This would have been news to Sherriff, who remained very proud of his regiment and who, like the vast majority of veterans, never believed that the war was completely meaningless.

Sherriff had reason to be bitter but he wasn’t. He suffered the humiliation of being rejected for a commission because he had not attended one of the army’s approved list of public schools. (His school, Kingston Grammar, also produced Edward Gibbon and somewhat later Michael Frayn.) He joined the East Surreys, fought in the Ypres sector, made it to captain and was invalided out with several dozen shrapnel wounds. It took him ten years to digest his frontline experience into a drama, which came out alongside those other classics Goodbye to All That and All Quiet on the Western Front. The play was not intended to raise consciousness about the war but to raise cash for Kingston Rowing Club’s empty coffers. The members wanted an entertainment to put on and were doubtless hoping for the sequel to Charley’s Aunt. They were appalled when their oarsman-cum-amateur dramatist handed in a gloomy, mud-spattered tale of shredded nerves and alcoholism set in the troglodyte world of a dugout on the Western Front. They said thanks but no thanks.

It took an idealistic producer to spot the play’s compelling authenticity — an authenticity that even extended to the costumes. For the Fringe try-out the author lent the unknown young lead, Laurence Olivier, his army tunic and revolver. Thanks to the gushing of an eagle-eyed critic, the play received a West End production. Families across England got a graphic insight into an experience that most survivors had kept quiet about for want of words to describe it. It was a huge hit and Sherriff woke up famous.

The play stands today as a breath of fresh air compared with that Sixties romp Oh, What a Lovely War!, which borrowed its sour mood from Alan Clark’s book Donkeys (Clark told me — he may have been drunk at the time — that he sued Joan Littlewood for plagiarism and that they settled out of court for 50 guineas). Journey’s End influenced nothing much. But Oh, What a Lovely War! and its TV descendant Blackadder are these days how schoolchildren regard the Great War. It’s all statistics, poppies and satire. Recent books like Birdsong, the Pat Barker trilogy and the rather wet tank play To the Green Fields Beyond all buy into the same view of war as an act of mass butchery conducted by criminally thick widow-making generals. But for those of us who aren’t historians and suspect there’s a wider truth about the Great War, Journey’s End seems all the richer for being so unpolemical. It simply renders the trench experience as the author lived it.

Sherriff could never quite believe in the success of his writing career and was embarrassed at the exposure it brought him. He returned from Hollywood — the master craftsman in excelsis — to live out his retirement in his beloved Esher (with his mum) where he died in obscurity in 1975, leaving his mansion to the local authorities for use as an arts centre. The house was promptly demolished and the land sold off for development. Esher’s great warrior writer is now long forgotten. It feels all wrong.