Saturday 29 November 2014

EXCLUSIVE - Len Deighton on the true story of the production of Oh! What a Lovely War

Invite to the original premiere
In a coup for the Deighton Dossier, Len Deighton has written a personal and detailed account of his production of the award-winning UK film Oh! What a Lovely War. In this century anniversary of the start of the First World War a lot of focus has been placed on this film with its portrayal, through the music hall style of the original play, of the realities of war for many on the front.

Len has indicated to me that in response to some 'extravagant fictions' that have grown up around the film since its release, he would like to set the record straight and explain the reasons why he chose to make the film and tell the story of the men and the war.


(c) Pluriform 2014

Producing 'Oh What A Lovely War' - how it happened

by Len Deighton

"The radio play

When Charles Chilton created 'The Long Long Trail,’ his musical play for BBC radio, he used only the words that were spoken or written by the participants of World War One. The programme was entertaining but it was an important record too. In a typically British light-hearted way, it brought the facts, figures and first-hand opinions of the war to a wide audience.

The stage production

On 19 March 1963, Joan Littlewood and her Theatre Workshop opened their production. Joan had transformed the radio programme into a musical entertainment for the stage. Her Theatre Royal was a lovely old music hall and Joan's instinct told her to adapt a line from one of the songs - 'Oh, its a lovely war' - to make her more exclamatory title ‘Oh What A Lovely War'. Joan's production adopted the variety theatre format, and even used the illuminated numbers at each side of the stage to distinguish each act. The Theatre Royal was small and the audience was mostly local people, but the heavy irony of Joan's new title attracted wide attention. Theatre critics, always curious about Joan's startling and unpredictable talent, came to Stratford in London to see what it was all about. Kenneth Tynan, the theatre critic of The Observer, gave the show a rave review. I read his verdict a day or two later, in Portugal. The production was obviously an important historical record and I made plans to go to London and see it. I went to London, saw the show and bought the LP recording of the songs and music.

The screenplay

After seeing Joan's Theatre Workshop production at Stratford East the show remained in my mind, and I had played the songs over and over again. I bought a published copy of the stage play to see if I could make it into a screenplay. Harry Saltzman warned me that other admirers of the show had bought movie options previously, but failed to get deals; but I persevered. My determination was driven more by the wish to make a permanent record of the show than by a wish to become a film producer...."

Read the rest of this story on the newly upgraded Deighton Dossier website.


  1. “Sometimes I look back and wonder what OWALW would have been like with the Beatles as the Smith family and the film directed by Gene Kelly.
    In the early days of shooting OWALW, Attenborough asked me to put his name on the call sheets as a producer. I should never have done this. Attenborough said it was merely to give him more authority with the crew. He was a man of infinite charm and I didn't want to argue about it. But it was really a first step before coming to me asking for a producer's credit, which he did as the shooting ended. He explained that it would boost his new career.
    Duffy and Attenborough were not the only ones who wanted credit for work they had not done. I even had people asking me for credit for the screen play: 'I hear you are removing your name from the credits and a screenplay credit would help me.
    Some well-meaning people told me that getting credit for other people's work was common in show business, but I cannot see that that makes it any less distasteful
    Ray was always a good and loyal friend; he told me that I should not give way to the absurd claims of Duffy and Attenborough, but I didn't heed his advice. When, some years later, a DVD of the film was made I was invited to contribute an interview. I agreed, but person or persons unknown contrived that no interview by me was on it”
    Very interesting reading . Not surprising at all how people like Attenborough built their CVs. Wonder whether he ever acknowledged his break into directorship was due to Deighton . Also wonder whether he was as generous in films he produced/directed giving credits to aspiring persons who also wanted to build their new careers in films , remembering how generous Deighton was to him.
    Speaking of “getting “ credit for other people ‘s work, the two starkest examples are: 1) the Nobel Committee awarded the 1923 Nobel Prize Physiology or Medicine for the discovery of Insulin to Banting and Macleod, leaving out Best who with Banting was the co-discoverer of Insulin ( 2) In awarding the 2008 Nobel Prize in Chemistry, for the green fluorescent protein(GFP) discovery, the Nobel Prize Committee really ignored the one researcher who cloned the gene for the protein , Douglas Prasher (
    But then in the world of new technologies today, getting credit for other people’s work has become the norm. There are so many examples in the world of computer technology!
    As for OWALW with Beatles and Gene Kelly, no need to even guess - it would have been a huge success with a few Oscars thrown in. Deighton would have won an Oscar for “best original screen play”, Oscar Beatles for “ best original score” and Oscar for Gene Kelly for “ best director.
    Oh, what a world!

  2. This is a fascinating story. I'm glad Len took the time to set the record straight on his part in the film.

  3. A rather good article from the Telegraph mainly about the radio production and the theatre production.

    Worth it to read the bio on Charles Chilton

  4. Excellent Guardian article.

    OWALW gets a mention.

  5. I've just got the DVD and watched the movie again. I was very interested to listen to the various comments from cast, crew and Richard Attenborough. The DVD is very much packaged as a Richard Attenborough production. In the interview section Attenborough does manage to say 'Len Deighton' a couple of times and 'Len' once. (Attenborough says John Mills invited him to do the film). And no mention of Len's huge role of conceiving, writing and producing. Len as been almost redacted, as they say these days, from the the DVD version.

    However, I'm amused to note, those Ray Hawkey titles say Len Deighton as loud and clear as any text.