BBC Radio 4, 23 May 2011
An autobiographical play, based on the early life of playwright Wally
K. Daly, whose personal archives are now lodged at the University of Teeside. He grew up in wartime Middlesbrough in a predominantly
Catholic street right next to some Protestant streets; this led to some ritual name-calling between the children of both religions,
as well as sporadic outbreaks of violence. However Daly remembered growing up in a loving household where he was the centre
of attention throughout his early years; his father (David Seddon) was confined to a prison-camp abroad, leaving Mam (Monica
Dolan) to cope with the responsibility of looking after the family while holding down a full-time job in a local factory.
She let the young Wally (Jamie Dickinson) sleep in her bed while his sister Kathleen (Jodie Day) slept on her own. The young
Wally enjoyed this life, giving him the freedom to roam the streets during daytime, while offering a womb-like sense
of security at night. Occasionally the peace of life would be rudely interrupted by an air-raid, when his family would squeeze
themselves into a shelter with the other locals to spend an uncomfortable night listening to the tumult around them.
When Wally's father returned, life dramatically changed: young Wally found it difficult
to relate to this strange man who now occupied Mam's bed. Forced to sleep with Kathleen, Wally had to get to know her, a task
he found difficult as she seemed so much older than him. His father's life in civvy street was no easier; he could not adapt
to a new world and spent most of his time in the pub, walking home late at night whistling in such a piercing tone that many
of the neighbours were kept awake (hence the "whistling Wally" of the play's title). Eventually Wally snr., was diagnosed
with terminal cancer; as he lay dying in hospital, he told his son for the first and only time how much he loved him,
while at the same time swearing his son to secrecy for fear of being considered "soppy" by his male friends. Wartime Teeside
was a very traditional area, in which gender roles were clearly delineated. Young Wally dimly understood his father's emotional
turmoil, but could likewise not acknowledge his feelings of grief; like his father, he had an innate fear of being thought
"soppy." The play ended elegiacially, with Old Wally whistling in the background as the credits were announced; this was the
only real memory that Young Wally had of his father, who passed away nearly sixty years ago.
Martin Jenkins' production vividly evoked the spirit of the period, a time of fear
and wonderment for the children who grew up at that time, while their parents never knew from day to day whether they
would live or die. The play evoked a lost world of companionship and mutual concern that helped Old Wally through the trauma
of illness and reconciled him to the inevitability of death. There were none of those false expressions of concern ("I am
here for you"): Old Wally's family considered it their duty to rally round and provide an emotional safety net for one another.
Whistling Wally's Son might have ended in melancholy fashion, but it made
listeners aware of those kind of communal qualities which now seem to have been lost in a world dedicated to 'progress.'