Slow Boat to Leningrad by David Pownall

Contact Us

BBC Radio 4, 22 August 2009
The laissez-faire view of diplomacy adopted by the British government in the years leading up to the outbreak of World War II has become an infamous episode in the country's history. Fearful of becoming embroiled in a conflict potentially much worse than World War I (the 'war to end all wars'), Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain raised scarcely a murmur of protest as Adolf Hitler moved into the Sudetenland and eventually invaded Poland. The 1938 Munich Agreement, Chamberlain believed, would guarantee "peace in our time."
David Pownall's Slow Boat to Leningrad showed how this policy also indirectly led to the Nazi-Soviet Pact of 1939, which was only dissolved when Hitler invaded Russia two years later. It showed how Chamberlain's delegation, led by the well-meaning but toothless diplomat Bennett (Ian Masters), hoped to negotiate some kind of non-involvement treaty with Stalin (Michael Jayston). Incensed that the British seemed unwilling to send their political leader - and hence ensure parity - Stalin instructed his subordinate Molotov (Jonathan Tafler) to institute a series of time-wasting strategies to ensure that the British would not receive an audience with the Russian premier. Meanwhile Stalin opened negotiations with Ribbentrop (Nicholas Boulton), who spoke directly on Hitler's behalf.
The action of this black comedy unfolded with painful predictability. The British were easily outmanoeuvred by the Germans, who promised Stalin anything he wished - in terms of territory - so long as he signed a treaty. Despite his reputation as a dictator, Stalin initially seemed willing to negotiate with the British, if they had not commited such a diplomatic blunder by sending a mere lackey as head of their delegation. Chamberlain himself revealed an ostrich-like mentality, as he wilfully blinded himself to what was happening around him while refusing to listen to Winston Churchill's warnings. In Pownall's view, the British actually seemed to want war, even while desperately trying to prevent it; if they had treated Stalin with more respect, he might have given them his support and thereby thwarted Hitler's ambitions. Or perhaps not; as the end of the play showed, Hitler had scant long-term regard for the terms set down in any treaties. Perhaps no one could be trusted in this political power-game. The director was Martin Jenkins.