Producing Oh! What a Lovely War - how it happened

by Len Deighton

(c) Pluriform 2014

[Writing exclusively for this website, Len provides a comprehensive insight into the production of this award-winning film]

"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.

The stage show - many years previously - exploited the variety theatre: one act after another. I knew that no movie production company would accept such a structure: they would demand a story. Rejecting the vaudeville and the Pierrot costumes, I considered a circus, a pantomime, a magic show and other ideas but finally decided to represent the war by means of a seaside pier, its entrance garlanded with World War One signs and flashing lights.The pier's sideshows would be used to introduce changes of scene. General Haig would be selling tickets for the pier and his ticket office would grow and grow and become more luxurious. Safe and comfortable, well-dressed civilians on the pier would look down (and the camera pan down without cutting) to see the soldiers in the mud (i.e. the beach). I visited several seaside resorts but Brighton was by far the best and by using its two piers I would be able to build sets on one, while shooting on the other. 

I scribbled my annotations into a published edition of the stage script; I still have it. I amalgamated individuals to create the Smith family and followed their fortunes through the war. I retained almost everything that was in Joan's show but some acts would not fit in. I thought the Christmas truce, as the Tommies fraternised with the Germans in no-man's land, was an important historic incident and I had some eyewitness accounts of it so that I could keep to the discipline of using only words that were spoken at the time.

What of the deaths? I didn't want blood and guts, or sentimentality; the shocking power of the show was in the way the soldiers knew their fate but put on a relentless show of fun and laughter. The deaths would come from a cheerful and avuncular photographer; each death marked by the red poppy. The photographer would hold the film together. I spotted Joe Melia in a play at the Aldwych Theatre and went backstage to sign him immediately. Joe was a fine actor and his contribution was a vital asset. 

Most importantly, I wanted to show how the war began. So I devoted a great deal of time to researching the words of the politicians so that some responsibility could be assessed. I wrote this as a prologue. It was my carefully considered attempt to answer the question: 'How did all this horror start?'

The other major screenplay decision was creating a cinematic and dramatic finale. My father had served in the trenches and been gassed and severely wounded. The Machine Gun Corps suffered very heavy casualties. I truly loved my hard-working parents. My father, like so many of the men who had served in the trenches alongside him, was uncomplaining in a way I much admired.  So many men were disabled; so many died; so many mothers, wives and children grieved. And in 1939 it began all over again. As a teenage civilian, I had in 1946 visited Paris where I got into conversation with a group of British soldiers on a brief leave there. They comprised a burial party appointed to dis-inter war dead from the battlefield and rebury the bodies. What they told me, and what I saw at that time, remained in my mind. When I wanted a final scene that would show the cost of the war, a seemingly endless expanse of war graves came immediately to mind. As the last of the Smith family wanders across a smoke-filled no-man's land, he passes a group of civilians signing the Armistice and finds a family picnic waiting. It is a happy moment: the war never took place, it was just a bad dream. But as the camera pulls back it reveals endless fields of crosses on war graves.

It was only when my screenplay more or less finished that it occurred to me that, unless I owned screen rights, all this work would be useless. So in the summer of 1966 I went to Joan Littlewood and negotiated an option on the film rights. She kindly gave me dinner at her home in Blackheath. I was alone with her and her partner Gerry Raffles and the three of us negotiated the terms on the spot. They were tough but fair bargainers and insisted that the option period should be no more than six months. This lit a fire under me; I had to move quickly; I had to find financial backing or lose my deposit. The money was entirely my own and their screen rights option was assigned to me. Joan explained in some detail how she converted Charles Chilton's radio musical 'The Long Long Trail' into her stage production 'Oh What A Lovely War'. On the stage with her (and the cast of her Theatre Workshop) as she planned the stage movements, entrances and exits, she had the highly-regarded historian A. J. P. Taylor. She suggested that I asked him out to advise me too. This was a wonderful suggestion. Taylor made sure that I stuck to historical accuracy, just as Charles Chilton and Joan Littlewood had done. I appreciated his vast knowledge and he became a close friend. I went on walking holidays with him and his family, and he encouraged me to write my military history books.  

Entirely by chance, John Findlay, a senior executive of the world-famous William Morris Agency, was present when I joined a German actress friend, Eva Rienzi for after-lunch coffee at The Dorchester Hotel (she starred in the film of Funeral in Berlin.) Joan's stage show had such an impressive reputation that, having listened to my ideas, and even before reading my screenplay, John Findlay suggested that William Morris represent me (personally) and try for a movie deal. Within days he had given my screenplay to Bud Ornstein at Paramount Pictures.

Bud Ornstein was much-admired in the film world. He was a relative of Mary Pickford, the silent-screen star. He was Paramount Picture's driving force behind a list of memorable films and, to my delight, a pilot and aviation enthusiast. Bud's approval of me and my screenplay was enough for William Morris to make a deal with Paramount with me as the sole producer. I had by that time had a budget assessment made by an approved professional so money was agreed. (Some years later, I was to work with Bud on a James Bond film that brought Sean Connery back into the role he created.)

I leased impressive offices overlooking Hyde Park Corner at 142 Piccadilly. The site is now that of a luxury hotel. My 'landlord' was Wylton Dickson a close friend. I engaged office staff to man the phones and also took there my video tape recorder. I instructed the receptionist in using it, so that actors applying for the smaller roles could be put on tape. I was able to study the filmed interviews each evening. This may have been the first time that such video casting was done in England. John Findlay left William Morris and came to work for me full-time as a special adviser. His lifetime of experience in the offices where the big decisions were made proved a great asset to me. 

The crew

I had already produced one film and now asked the Production Manager, Mack Davidson, to be my Associate Producer for Oh! What a Lovely War. In the war he had flown photo-recce Spitfires. He was experienced and unflappable. I depended upon him for making my ideas happen. If there was one person who produced the film, it was Mack. Apart from myself he was the only other person with a producer's authority and he always miraculously fixed all the unforeseen problems. On the last day of shooting, Mack had a heart attack and died. It was completely unexpected and I was devastated. So was his devoted family. The end of the shooting was a very sad time for me. I miss his friendship still today. 

I had decided that, for many of the less important roles it is better to teach a dancer to act than to teach an actor to move gracefully. I wanted the body movements of the cast to be a part of their roles so I signed as many dancers as possible even in non-dancing roles. I was lucky in securing Eleanor Fazan to not only choreograph the dance sequences but also to extend her influence to the whole film.

I engaged the highly regarded Tony Mendleson as the costume designer and I appointed May Routh, who had been a fellow student at St Martins School of Art, to be his assistant. In effect, I arranged that she should be responsible for the (male and female) uniforms while Tony would design all the civilian clothes and supervise everything his department did. Tony was a delightful man and a top professional and he was happy to have someone else do the uniforms for him, so this pairing worked well. The 1914-1918 war lasted long enough for civilian clothes and uniforms to change through the years, and I wanted this change to follow the chronology of the film. (May was eventually to become a very successful costume director in Hollywood.)

The director

As word about my screenplay and my deal with Paramount went around, I heard from half a dozen directors who wanted the job. I had a message from Gene Kelly saying he would like to direct it. No one admired the work and talent of Gene Kelly more than I did but I felt that Oh What A Lovely War (OWALW) was a British story and must have a British director. For my previous film - Only When I Larf - I had used Basil Dearden, a dedicated professional who had directed many fine films; but he had never directed an all-location film before and I found him hesitant, although not opposed, to using new ideas: overhead lighting that permitted 360 degree camera pans and indoor location scenes lit by daylight without coloured gels, for instance. 

OWALW was designed as an all-location and largely outdoor shoot. It was unconventional in theme and method; the poppy man was a fantasy element and there were several others. An experienced director was not what I wanted. From my short list I chose Attenborough because he was very keen and seemed to have learned my screenplay by heart. He said his acting days were over and he needed a new career. Although he had never directed a film, he had seen it from the other side of the camera. From my point of view his receptive mind and determination was an advantage. But, before giving Attenborough the director's job on OWALW I told him that I would want him to stick exactly to my script, word for word and scene for scene, and that I would have a story-board artist proposing each days camera set-ups. The story board artist was Pat Tilley, an old friend of mine and a very successful illustrator and writer. Attenborough welcomed these conditions. He was a dedicated and hard-working professional and kept to his promise. 

The people at Paramount, notably Bud Ornstein, expressed doubts about my signing Attenborough. They kept reminding me that he had never directed a film before. Charlie Bluhdorn, the top man there, also worried about having an inexperienced director tackling an expensive musical film (and the fact that I had produced only one film added to the doubts). But I persuaded them to my choice by reminding them that the screenplay was tight and complete: no re-writes, re-thinks or unwritten ending. (At this time many films were written and rewritten as shooting progressed.) I told them too that I would be using a story-board artist and I promised that if things went badly in the early stages, we could switch directors and put in some very conventional director of whom they totally approved.

With me, Charlie and Bud were taking even more of a chance; for in the film world producers are a fixture and can't easily be fired or replaced. But when I brought Only When I Larf in on budget and on time, they were somewhat reassured. 'But this is a musical, Len!’, they told me a hundred times.

The music

When I bought the screen rights from Joan these rights didn't include permissions to use the music, much of which was still controlled by executors who were reluctant to allow their music to be used in conjunction with parody lyrics. I had two experienced lawyers who devoted all their working hours to obtaining the needed agreements. It was a complicated business with seemingly endless exchanges of letters and phone calls. They worked hard and, as I watched our shooting schedule moving forwards, there were several worrying days and nights.

Finally there was only one song permission outstanding: 'They Didn't Believe Me,’ a 1914 hit. The lyrics, by Herbert Reynolds were in the public domain but the music was still copyrighted. Right from the first draft of my screenplay I had visualised this haunting melody with its parody lyrics - 'We'll Never Tell Them' - as my powerful finale; the lost soldier, the picnic and the ever-widening screen revealing the vast landscape of crosses. Now it began to look as if I would not have permission for the music - or not have it in time. Keeping this impending crisis as something between the lawyers, Mack and myself, I spent anxious days, and sleepless nights, as we manufactured thousands of polystyrene crosses and watched the filming date coming closer. Permission was eventually granted by the Kern Estate and we both breathed easily once more. 

The cast

In Paris I had become friends with a Canadian prospector who had found uranium. With his new wealth, he made generous contributions to Bertrand Russell's charities. He told Russell that I was an expert in the legal small print of publishing contracts. With this in mind, Russell's secretary phoned me and asked me to visit 'Bertie' at Plas Penrhyn his home in Wales. My wife and I were happy to oblige this world-famed mathematician and philosopher. During our stay there he asked me what were the contractual obligations arising from an old letter he'd written to a publisher, and its present day bearing on the autobiography he was writing. I told him that, since the letter had no mention of payment, it was not valid. Just to double-check, I arranged for my accountant friend Anton Felton to visit Lord Russell. (This proved a fruitful meeting; Felton became Russell's legal executor and, working with Ray Hawkey, supervised publication of the Russell archives.)  

At the end of my days with 'Bertie' he told me that the Beatles (with whom he had had meetings) wanted to make an anti-war film and would like me to write and produce it. This came as something of a bombshell as I was deeply involved with OWALW. But I was delighted to talk with Paul McCartney and, back in our home in the Elephant and Castle district of south London, my wife and I cooked an extensive Indian curry dinner for him and we enjoyed an entertaining evening. We talked into the small hours of morning but to our mutual regret the Beatles ideas wouldn't fit into OWALW and they didn't want to wait for me to finish it. 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.

I didn't want well-known faces as members of the Smith family; I felt it would undermine the truth of the words spoken. But I did want well-known faces in the prologue sequence. By casting an array of Britain's greatest stars of stage and theatre I was reasonably sure that no one at Paramount would scrap the sequence or cut it. Furthermore, it would give the film's publicity an almost unprecedented promise. I engaged Miriam Brickman as casting director. Miriam was not only instinctive; she spent her weekends travelling the country looking at small drama companies to find new talent. I admired her dedication very much. She immediately understood why I wanted film stars in order to protect my prologue from the cutting shears, and, largely due to the widespread goodwill that Joan's stage production had created, we had no trouble getting them. As far as I know, no one declined and it became a remarkable gathering of stage and film stars of that period. But my determination to keep a tight hold on the budget meant that I negotiated personally with the agents of these big stars. I did not enjoy that experience; the talent agents were more touchy than their clients, and sometimes more venal too, but eventually I got the services of everyone I needed and at a fee within my budget.

The producer

Once filming starts the director is working all day and every day and has to use whatever is supplied to him. As I see it, the task of the producer is to ensure that the sets, the vitally important set-dressing, the actors, the make-up and costumes are faultless by the time the camera is ready to turn. I thought it was important that all the actors - and the extras too - looked physically right for the 1914-18 period. I checked the costumes and made sure the uniforms, arms and equipment were right for all stages of the war. I had a qualified nurse to keep an eye on the bandages and wound-dressings. I approved all the locations with my hard-working location manager well before they were to be used. 

I felt that a musical film must have great attention paid to the overall visual feeling. The art department is responsible for a great chunk of budget expenditure so I watched how the money was spent on construction and adaption. I rented a real railway train instead of a couple of bursts of steam; a superb replica airplane instead of engines noises and the Band of the Irish Guards marching along Brighton Prom instead of noises off. I wanted each scene to be visually in harmony with the words and music. I stipulated that the colour sketches that Don Ashton submitted had attached to them small pieces of the material used in the major costumes.  I did this more to ensure that Tony Mendleson and Don Ashton discussed each of the sets and set-ups; (on some movie productions the two departments have little spoken contact, let alone coordination). 

When producing Only When I Larf, I soon found that the best way to learn how movies are made is to be the producer and sign the checks. I established a routine. My contractual position with Paramount stipulated that I was the only person authorised to sign checks. So once a week I sat down with my unit accountant, fountain pen poised, as he put each check before me and told me exactly what I was paying for. I needed explanations, for many of the checks - even those for individuals in the crew - were made out to limited companies.

This ceremony was instructive in many ways. I was able to watch every penny spent, before it was spent! It was no secret that unit accountants report back to the cashiers of the production company any irregular use of the budget (in case producers buy themselves a yacht or private jet, as has happened more than once). On the other hand, these ongoing accounts can be an assurance, and when my film needed a little extra money to pay for my line-up of big stars, Paramount nodded it through without argument.

The credits

Brian Duffy had been a talented student in the fashion department at St Martins School of Art at the time I was there. I went on to the Royal College of Art and didn't see him again until I was somewhat shocked to come across him working in a cafe in Dover Street. He was looking for another job and I knew that Adrian Flowers, a commercial photographer (I had been a photographer with him in the RAF), was looking for an assistant. Although Duffy knew nothing about photography I persuaded Adrian that Duffy's knowledge of fashion would be useful to him. Duffy proved an apt assistant and pupil too. Eventually he went off to work for himself and became a well-known fashion photographer. I remained in touch with him.

When Duffy heard that I was writing a screenplay of OWALW and intended to make a movie of it, he was very enthusiastic. He craved to be a movie director and offered to help me in any way he could. When I formed a production company he said he could work for me on the production. I named him as a partner but he had no financial involvement. 

The first film I produced was directed by Basil Dearden and on the first day - filming in New York City - Duffy had a sudden verbal clash with him. Duffy refused to have anything to do with him or come near the filming. When I signed Attenborough to act in that film - Only When I Larf - Duffy had an even more bitter argument with him. As a result, Duffy refused to come anywhere near either of the film productions and went back to work at his photography business. Duffy was an immensely creative talent and I was sorry about the quarrels but the movie-making is expensive and time-consuming so I pressed on with the production work, assisted by the indefatigable Mack Davidson. I didn't hear anything from Duffy until I was sitting in the cutting room watching OWALW being prepared for release (Attenborough took no interest in the editing) and Duffy sent a message wanting a producers credit. 

Richard Attenborough was my employee as an actor and then as a director. I had negotiated his contract with his agent as I had for the actors. 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.'

I was angry and appalled that people should ask credit for things they had not done, or even come near to doing. 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. It was in a fit of anger that I told Ray Hawkey to put Brian Duffy's name on the titles along with the name of Richard Attenborough and remove my name completely. Ray Hawkey was a close friend from our days at the RCA and the titles he prepared were superb. 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.  

For me, OWALW was not just another film, or a step in my career, it was my small token of love to my father, my respect for the men who had served with him and a tribute to those who didn't come back. The words of such men had been eclipsed by those of ambitious politicians and self-justifying generals. The parody lyrics of OWALW provided a rare glimpse of the thoughts of the men who were sent to do the fighting. They shared the words of their songs to say the things they would never say to those at home;

And when they ask us, and they'll certainly going to ask us,
The reason why we didn't win the Croix de Guerre,
Oh, we'll never tell them, oh, we'll never tell them
There was a front, but damned if we knew where.

Who could not  admire these men who fought in the trenches, obeyed orders they knew were stupid, and were self-effacing in their sacrifice. As the song says, they would rather pretend that they had a cushy billet than talk about their troubles. 

I saw the movie as being about soldiers with mud up to their waist remaining humourous and stoic. Arguing over credits seemed like a disservice to everything the movie was trying to portray. Although no sacrifice was made, the people who actually did the work on the movie were like these troops. The others who sought credit and recognition for work they hadn't done were the antithesis of what I admired about my father and his brothers in arms.

I didn't want to argue about movie credits. I pushed the ambitious fantasies of the contenders out of my mind. I was already drafting out the shape of my next book Bomber, and this demanded a long research trip to Germany with my wife. I wanted to move on.

The final irony of the scramble for screen credits was that each and every one of those who wanted them had to come to me. I was the only one with the power to decide who got which credits, because I was the one and only producer!"

All content (c) Rob Mallows 2010-2016 (unless otherwise stated)