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.