Sea Change by John Fletcher

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Drama on 3 on Radio 3

BBC Radio 3, 29 January 2012
Based on real events, John Fletcher's play told the story of the political battle in the years leading up to the outbreak of the Second World War, when the government was sharply divided into the appeasers' and the anti-appeasers' camps. The appeasers were led by Neville Chamberlain (John Rowe), and his adviser Joseph Ball (Kim Wall); against them were ranged a motley crew of people from all political walks of life, including the MP Harold Nicolson (Charles Edwards), and Foreign Office bureaucrat Rex Leeper (Richard Dillane). Through a combination of astute political manoeuvring and press manipulation (Chamberlain regularly invited the newspaper proprietors to Number 10), the appeasers saw off their opponents, but were eventually defeated by circumstances beyond their control, as Hitler tore up all agreements and proceeded with his plans to colonize the whole of Europe.
However Sea Change did not really focus on politics, but rather on the battle for supremacy waged between Ball and Nicolson. In Kim Wall's performance, Ball came across as a ruthless schemer; there was literally nothing he would not do to achieve his ends - for example, blackmailing young BBC producer Guy Burgess (Carl Prekopp) to become a secret courier conveying messages between London and Berlin. In a series of asides directed to listeners, Ball defended his actions; although he admitted to playing dirty tricks, he was happy to work for someone so noble-minded as Chamberlain. On the other hand the play suggested that Ball's ruthlessness masked his true nature; like Burgess, he was a homosexual, but never admitted it to anyone, even himself.
Charles Edwards' Nicolson was a courageous person in several ways; he openly acknowledged his sexuality (despite being married), and spoke out regularly against Chamberlain's administration, despite regular attempts - for example, by the BBC - to silence him. His persistence paid off, as he helped to form a united front against the government, aided by newly-elected MP and former journalist Vernon Bartlett (Adam Billington). The play ended with Nicolson giving a climactic speech in which he quite literally banged the heads of bickering politicians together and forced them into a coalition under Winston Churchill's premiership.
Sea Change proved that there was nothing new in British politics. Ball came across as much more ruthless than latter-day spin doctors such as Peter Mandelson or Campbell; like Hitler, he had a pathological hatred of Jews, whom he blamed for causing unnecessary panic about the possibility of war. Although professing loyalty to Chamberlain, it was governed by self-interest: the job gave Ball carte blanche to do as he wished. However he had no real status of his own: in one significant scene he could not reply to Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother (Adjoa Andoh)'s question: "What do you do?" Following Chamberlain's death from throat cancer, Ball burned all his papers to protect his one-time employer; and by doing so reduced his political career to ashes.
Marc Beeby's production gave a fascinating insight into a little-known aspect of British history, proving beyond doubt that Chamberlain was a fundamentally weak person, relying too much on a corrupt adviser. Perhaps he should have stuck to his favourite leisure pursuit - bird-watching.