Peter Nichols and Peter Whelan: Playwrights on parade

Terrible tea and endless drill can't make great theatre, can it? Daniel Rosenthal talks to the dramatists Peter Nichols and Peter Whelan about their experiences of National Service
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For British men who turned 18 between 1945 and 1960, National Service was an obligatory rite of passage. For subsequent generations, curious to know what it was like to spend your first two years as an adult on domestic or international duties with Army, Royal Navy or Air Force, the most vivid accounts have been supplied by the conscripts who became playwrights.

The first National Service drama was Arnold Wesker's Chips with Everything, staged at the Royal Court in 1962, a decade after he stopped responding to RAF orders. Next in line was John McGrath, whose grim Army stint in Germany in 1954-55 inspired Events While Guarding the Bofors Gun, produced in London in 1965. On television, Dennis Potter used his experience as a clerk in Army Intelligence as the background for Lay Down Your Arms (1970) and Lipstick on Your Collar (1993), and Jack Rosenthal's term in the Navy inspired Bye Bye Baby (1992).

This winter, audiences can compare and contrast two fine examples of this sub-genre. Privates on Parade, by sometime RAF clerk Peter Nichols, has been revived at the Donmar Warehouse, and the RSC is preparing to stage A Russian in the Woods, by Peter Whelan, who served as a sergeant instructor in the Army Education Corps.

Nichols's exuberant musical comedy, premiered by the RSC in 1977 and filmed in 1982, draws on his tour of Singapore with Combined Services Entertainment (CSE) in 1947-48, where he performed alongside Kenneth Williams and Stanley Baxter. A Russian in the Woods, a more reflective work first seen in Stratford last year, is set in the devastated, divided Berlin of 1950, where the 19-year-old Whelan taught general knowledge, dictation and map-reading to hard-bitten squaddies. I asked both writers about their days in uniform, and their motives for using National Service to serve theatre.


Daniel Rosenthal: Wesker's Chips With Everything is based on his memories of basic training. What was yours like?

Peter Nichols: It was at some terrible camp in East Anglia, very soon after VJ Day. I hated it. I was a bit of a sissy really.

Peter Whelan: I quite enjoyed basic training. I've never been so fit and I liked the humour of the sergeants. They were theatrical and they knew it, although they could be hard with you at times. As a grammar school boy I was delighted to beat everyone in my platoon, including all the public schoolboys, when we got to target-shooting.

PN: I was exactly the opposite. I was short-sighted. I not only got naught in target practice, but the bloke next to me got 10 out of five.

DR: The "innocents abroad" status of conscripts serving overseas is inherently dramatic, and in both Privates on Parade and A Russian in the Woods your alter egos are naïve and undergo a sexual and political awakening. What were you like at 18?

PW: I was a virgin. And like Pat, the character based on me in A Russian, I knew nothing about homosexuality until I came across it in the Army. Politically, I had a great feeling for Russian literature and for the Russians, who had suddenly become our enemies. I was really angry because the Army had just changed the silhouette of the infantryman on our targets: his helmet had been German, now it was Russian.

PN: My innocence went on and on. I was a virgin until I was 25 – don't ask me why, because I had plenty of opportunities. Homosexuality was rampant in CSE – I'd never heard anything like the language the gay men used, and which is used in Privates. None of us knew anything about the local politics or culture of Singapore when we arrived, and nobody told us anything – there wasn't even an official booklet giving basic information. I was a Tory until I was in CSE, where I was tutored by chaps who were more intelligent than I was. They got me to read Bernard Shaw and HG Wells and I became a sort of fin-de-siècle idealist, a stance that I don't think I've ever abandoned. But now I'm a disillusioned utopian.

DR: At the time, were you conscious that National Service could provide material for a play?

PW: Not at all. I'd written three scenes in imitation of Christopher Fry, and one in imitation of Shakespeare, but at that age I wanted to become an architect or a town planner. There was a corporal I knew who was writing a novel and using absolutely every aspect of our life in barracks. Everybody was in his book, including me - it embarrassed me, yet he'd got the right idea about using your experiences in fiction.

PN: I wanted to be a playwright, but I didn't think of National Service as anything to write about. When I was off-duty, I'd use the orderly room typewriter to write plays in imitation of Rattigan and Coward, about people in stockbrokers' villas in Surrey – even though, coming from the Edwardian terraces of north Bristol, I'd never even seen a pair of French windows.

It wasn't until John Osborne and Look Back in Anger that our generation was put on to the idea that your own life was an approved area for plays. Chips with Everything was another play that said 'We can write about ourselves'. It's hard to believe now, but you had to adjust your whole mindset to that idea.

DR: You both waited decades before dramatising your National Service. Were Privates and A Russian your first attempts at doing so?

PW: I did try writing an angry young man's piece in the 1960s, a contemporary play blaming the generation that had won the war for allowing it to happen in the first place. My problem was that, having decided to be a writer, I spent an awful lot of time not being one. I worked in advertising and didn't get going as a writer until the mid-1970s. It wasn't until I went back to Berlin in the 1990s that I realised what I'd seen and heard there in 1950 – the devastation and the suffering – had affected me more deeply than I first thought. That made me want to write the play.

PN: I started to write a National Service play with Charles Wood in the late Sixties, because he was such an expert on the Army and had written so well about it. He taught me more about playwriting than anyone else, but we were so different in style and approach that we had to give up. My CSE experiences were always in my mind and I finally found a way of dramatising them by myself. The result was Privates.

DR: In his memoirs, Arnold Wesker admits to "a dark, heretical suspicion that conscription kept crime and violence to acceptable levels". Do you think its reintroduction would benefit society?

PN: When you look around at the chaos today it's very tempting to think 'put them all in the Army, that'll sort them out'. But you've got to start dealing with people much earlier than that.

PW: I agree. In any case, I've never been as drunk as I was while in the Army, and Berlin was the only place I've ever been involved in violence, breaking up fights between soldiers in dance halls, and being pursued out of a café by 25 German lads. National Service was the most undisciplined time of my life.

'Privates on Parade' is at the Donmar Warehouse, London WC2, to 2 Mar (020-7369 1732); 'A Russian in the Woods' previews at the Pit, London EC1, from 28 Feb and opens 8 Mar (020-7638 8891)