BBC Radio 4, 24-31 May 2009
Set in the last years of the First World War, Mugsborough 1917
follows on from the socialist classic The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists in depicting an entire community. This
was a great sprawling mass of a play, in which plot took second place to the portrayal of a world clinging on to Edwardian
values yet simultaneously accommodating itself to profound socio-economic change. Amongst the community of painters Crass
(Arthur Smith) retained his de facto authority as head of the troupe, but his role of decision-maker was gradually
assumed by the far younger Bert (Des O'Malley), a war veteran returning from the Western Front minus one leg, but possessing
latent qualities of leadership. In this small group - conceived by author Andrew Lynch as a microcosm of English society -
hierarchy counted for nothing: meritocracy assumed far greater significance. Consequently the middle-aged Hunter (Paul Whitehouse)
was forced out of his job as works supervisor; hitherto he had enjoyed limitless authority over his fellow-workers, but now
he had to acknowledge that he was a time-server, an object of derision rather than respect.
Mugsborough 1917 made great efforts to depict the political situation of
the time. While the majority of the people clung to old-style conservatism, a belief in Empire and preserving the class system,
idealists like Freddie (Jody Latham) and Barringtpn (Tom Goodman Hill) preached socialism and redistribution of wealth. Although
heavily defeated in the council elections by Sweater (Rupert Degas), whose 'ideology' consisted of sustaining exploitation
(this notion helped to make Britain great, so why change it?) Mugsborough 1917 adumbrated a time nearly three decades
later at the end of the Second World War when the Labour Party under Clement Attlee won an overwhelming victory and it really
did seem as if the country would experience social revolution. To contemporary listeners Freddie and Barrington's idealism
appeared both attractive yet passť, particularly in a context when it seems that politicians put self-interest first
as they squander government funds on feathering their own nests.
Andrew Lynch focused on the personal lives of this community. To a large extent the
women considered it their duty to support their husbands, but Ruth (Shirley Henderson) proved an exception. Rather than maintain
a facade - which had existed for several years - of treating Nora (Raquel Cassidy) as her niece, Ruth wanted to tell the truth,
that Nora was her illegitimate daughter whom she had given away at birth. Ruth's husband Easton (Johnny Vegas), pleased with
her not to; but Lynch kept us in perpetual suspense. Such cliff-hangers are customarily the stuff of soap opera, but in Mugsborough
1917 this seemed to sum up the spirit of the times, as the women tried to find their voices for the first time.
The drama also explored the community's ambivalent attitudes to the War. Most people
followed the official line - that Britain was fighting the Hun in the interests of the Empire. However this complacency was
challenged by Bert's presence - a living example of the sheer pointlessness of the conflict. No one wanted to stand up and
voice their opposition directly, for fear of being branded a conchie and risking imprisonment. This is precisely what happens
to Freddie. Lynch did not take sides on this issue; rather he tried to show how the war produced fragmentation within a hitherto
tightly-knit community, both at the social and ideological levels.
Imaginatively written, sharply directed by Dirk Maggs with an all-star cast of actor/comedians
(Vegas, Smith, Whitehouse and Bill Bailey), Mugsborough 1917 proved once and for all that politically committed drama
has not yet been expunged from the BBC airwaves, even if it is often difficult to find.