The Winslow Boy
By Terence Rattigan
The Old Vic, SE1
Is Right Ever Really Done? - Rattigan's Tangled Web
It was generally thought to be very strange that a notoriously insincere farceur could so readily turn his hand to matters of fairly serious theatrical moment ..." The playwright quoted in Terence Rattigan by Michael Darlow and Gillian Hodson.
TLT and her shiny metal aide de camp went to an early Old Vic preview of Rattigan's evergreen 1946 The Winslow Boy, the five-shilling-stolen-postal-order drama. However, at the time we desisted from writing a review of a rather plodding production with the best performances coming from Henry Goodman as pa (Arthur) Winslow, Deborah Findlay as ma (Grace) Winslow and Nick Hendrix as the alleged culprit's brother, Dickie.
What is seemed to miss was the febrile pace of the early years of the twentieth century with Britain on the cusp of introducing universal social insurance, changing subjects to citizens. Also the atmosphere of 1946, with Churchill and the Conservatives defeated, ushering in a new government and a welfare state dependent on American loans.
So this is a rather different review and, hopefully, a thoughtful piece, giving some context to a fine play. Bear with us as we start the engine, build up speed and rev into action! :)
Just to nudge you along the highway, the original old age pension, introduced in the significant year of 1908, paid tellingly mostly to elderly single women, via local post offices was, guess what - five shillings.
The Winslow Boy was inspired by a true-life 1908 post office scandal, which went global, of 14-year-old Royal Naval cadet George Archer-Shee, renamed in the play Ronnie Winslow (acted by Charlie Rowe this time at the Old Vic). Rattigan moved to 1912, after the resolution of the real case in 1911, which was also the year of the first National Insurance Act and Rattigan's birth.
It seems the authorities at the Royal Naval College, Osborne pretended that cadets' parents did not exist but allowed postal orders to be sent direct to cadets rather than to the College and then paid out.
Despite one cadet alleging theft against George Archer-Shee (or whatever else was going on amongst the male cadets), the case did not involve the police and police courts. It was left as an internal affair with the verdict of the internal enquiry protected by Crown immunity.
Perhaps it's worth noting that the character of barrister Sir Robert Morton was based on Sir Edward Carson who represented the Marquess of Queensbury, cross-examining Oscar Wilde at the notorious "somdomite" libel trial.
In The Winslow Boy, with the help of journalists competing for a human interest story and women readers, the silk Sir Robert Morton (Peter Sullivan, played at the 1946 première by Emlyn Williams, writer of Accolade) proves adept at disguising that Ronnie and family de facto citizens under social insurance, not subjects under the Crown.
Instead he promotes the role of the Crown, petition of right, the play-acting of civil courts with their legal advertisements and presents and Her Majesty's Parliament, already rendered obsolete before the Crown Proceedings 1947 legislation, catching citizens in its Kafkaesque Crown and court web from a bygone age of subjects.
In this context, "Let Right Be Done!", far from a sincere plea for civil liberty, becomes a much more slyly ambiguous expression of deceptive right-wing politics, glib soundbite, "costs" for legal theatricals and the manipulation of a vulnerable family and a gullible newspaper-reading public.
Anyway, in our view, the character of barrister Sir Robert is a Janus-faced chancer of a politician, putting the family unnecessarily through the emotional and, more importantly, financial wringer (pocketing fees and helping legal chums pocket the court costs), manipulating public opinion with contract law rendered a sham by the introduction of social insurance.
In fact, he fulfils the bitter words about him early in the play, voiced by Ronnie's rather Left-wing suffragette sister Catherine (Naomi Frederick), herself a single woman who, by the end of the play, may well be destined for a spinster old-age-five-shilling pension, directly as a result of her family pursuing the case. Unless she, as one of an elite few and token female presence, joins with a "charming hat" the archaic Parliamentary club, as hinted in the play, and either is left in ignorance of or does not let on about the pretence.
This may seem pedantic and over-complicated beside a simpler, more appealing melodramatic court room triumph and almost-love story Rattigan dedicated, "in the hope that he may live to see a world in which this tale will point no moral", to future Tory MP Paul Channon, son of his friend, American-born Henry "Chips" Channon.
However, that loses the sheer Morton-like cunning artfulness, drive and political nous implicit in the writing's sly subtext in the year of armed forces returning hoping for a brave new world and Churchill's speech on an iron curtain descending in Europe.
In 1908 (or 1912) Britain losing its Empire had more ready cash in the all-too-tempting state pension pot at local post offices and the accumulated small savings of citizens, than in failing commercial banks. Citizens' small savings came from wages paid daily or weekly in money, cash - unlike the debts of tottering credit-driven banks, solely with commercial clients, at the mercy of Britain's fading imperial power, US loans and market crashes. Surely, not so distant from current day news images of Cypriots demonstrating with the placards "Hands off our Provident Funds"?
Interesting also to discover that true-life Archer-Shee father did not work for "Westminster Bank" as in the play (nonetheless, a real bank now part of Royal Bank of Scotland) but as an agent in Bristol of The Bank of England.
Meanwhile, The Winslow Boy's real (half) brother, Major Martin Archer-Shee, was a Conservative MP in the Palace of Westminster.
With the Bank of England acting at the time as the Receiver for insolvencies and the real Royal Naval College, Osborne, closing down eventually in the 1920s, it gives added pith to father Arthur Winslow's telephone call to the College after his son's "sacking". He questions the General Post Office (GPO) telephone operator: "Replace the receiver?". It may again be worth noting 1912 was the year when most of the private telephone companies in the UK were nationalised.
If you're still unconvinced, remember the refusal of the headmaster in Rattigan's next play, The Browning Version, of 1948 to pay out of the public school pension pot for the "Himmler of the Lower Fifth", Crocker-Harris the Classics Master.*
In TLT's opinion, much of The Winslow Boy's genius comes from the knitting together and bridging of many 20th-century themes alongside the stolen postal order story, even possibly up to atomic bomb corporation DuPont Chemicals, transformed with acid wit into "Madame Dupont", French dressmaker to the Winslow femmes.
And the play also reflects accurately the sorry clash of modern corporate state with archaic insolvent institutions, in real life still conning citizens with national insurance numbers that they were the middle-class version of Oliver-Twist-orphan/cadet workhouse subjects with no rights.
Surely no coincidence that maid Violet (Wendy Nottingham in the current production), brought up in an orphanage, evolves through the play into a modern woman? She becomes more and more assured in dealing with both media and tradesmen. Like the small savings of Post Office account holders and the state pension funds of elderly women, she assumes an increasingly important role.
For TLT, this remains a beautifully-crafted, mid-20th century play shaped by its characters, a true story and the increasingly desperate strategies of post-war Tory politicians to veer public opinion their way. There are some good performances but energy and vitality are sapped in this unfocussed production.
See the Financial Times, WhatsonStage and The Observer critics to back up this view. The Telegraph, The Guardian, The Independent and the London Evening Standard critics reserve the right to differ, while blogger Head of Legal seems to play off both sides: Just about an amber light from this reviewer.
By the way, the real-life naval cadet pawn in all this, George Archer-Shee, was killed aged 19, after enlisting as a first lieutenant in the army on his return from a Wall Street job, in the First World War. So, legal farce turned to tragedy and he never lived to collect his five-shilling-old-age-pension (seven shillings and six old pence for couples if he had married) - unlike his lawyer ...
* Furthermore, the story of George Archer-Shee and the postal order was first mooted as a propaganda movie advertising English democracy. Even so, it was inspired by an American piece on the case by critic Alexander Woolcott, brought to Rattigan, the grandson of a high-ranking colonial judge and MP, by actor couple Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne. Filmmakers rejected it as too "dull" for a movie, Rattigan stuck by it and the rest is history.
30th March 2013 UPDATE: "Crown Post Office Workers Strike Over Franchise Plans' BBC http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-wales-21974862
25th April 2013 JUST ANOTHER NOTE The beauty of the internet is that when events (as in the apocryphal quote of Macmillan) come along, TLT can add them for posterity or, at least, one hopes, the British Library archive. So, without wanting to diminish the tragic impact of conflict on families, the irony of this story about two First World War soldiers finally laid to rest turning out to be insurance company employees proved irresistible ...