'Radical' Ewan MacColl was tracked by MI5 for decades

Ewan MacColl, the celebrated folk musician and father of singer Kirsty, was tracked by the security services for more than 20 years on the grounds he was a dangerous radical.

Top-secret files released today, which date back to 1932, reveal that Special Branch even kept watch on the Manchester home that he shared with his first wife Joan Littlewood, the celebrated theatre director and actress.

The plays and concerts staged by the high-profile couple, who were both ardent members of the Communist Party, were also closely monitored in a bid to establish that the pair were spreading extremist propaganda.

The MI5 documents, now made public by the National Archives, also reveal that the BBC banned the MacColls from taking part in broadcasts because of their Communist connections.

A hero for the common man, Ewan MacColl - real name James Henry Miller - influenced generations of dramatists and performers with his protest ballads and subversive plays.

His parents were accomplished story-tellers and socialists, and he is credited with being the inspiration for groups such as the Pogues and for the singer Billy Bragg. Although he was born in Salford in Manchester, he often claimed Auchterarder in Scotland as his birthplace in an attempt to romanticise his roots.

At 14 he left school and did office work to fund his true calling as a singer and actor, penning such memorable songs as "The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face". In the 1950s, he also pioneered a revolutionary series of musical documentaries for BBC radio which came to be known as radio-ballads, a combination of recorded speech, sound effects, new songs and folk instrumentation, which featured members of the public as well as singers and instrumentalists.

His daughter Kirsty continued the family's musical tradition with a run of hits such as "There's a Guy Works Down the Chip Shop Swears He's Elvis" and her duet with the Pogues, "Fairytale of New York". Her untimely death in 2000 at the age of 41 was regarded as a huge loss to music.

The first time that Ewan MacColl came to the attention of the security services was in 1932, after the chief constable of Salford tipped them off that the singer was a Communist Party member,

The MI5 papers reveal that he and Joan Littlewood, whose most notable work was the First World War satire Oh! What a Lovely War, were regarded as dangerous radicals, along with their circle of theatrical friends, bent on converting people to the Communist cause through their drama company, Theatre Union.

Now celebrated for its groundbreaking work, Theatre Union was viewed at the time by the security services as a vehicle for spreading revolutionary propaganda. In the file is a letter from an irate father who blames the MacColls and their associates for corrupting his son, a "fine specimen of English boyhood with good morals".

It reads: "I would ask you to get on the 'phone to Manchester at once, have the Millers (MacColls) dismissed from the BBC, intern them, and stop this horrible play being performed."

Ewan MacColl's Communist sympathies meant that he was placed on a special observation list when he enlisted in the army in 1940. Despite his background, he was regarded as a model soldier by his superiors. This is illustrated by the good conduct report written by his commanding officer and dated 16 December 1948, just two days before MacColl went absent without leave.

The memo from HM Forces also includes the lyrics to a new song he wrote to entertain his comrades in the barrack room. Called "Browned Off", it includes the line: "One day they made a ruddy soldier out of me and told me I have got to save democracy", which, said his commanding officer, "did not at the time appear to be subversive, though in the light of his previous history may well have been so intended".

The MI5 documents also serve as an unintentional testament to his talent, describing him as having "exceptional ability as a singer and musical organiser".

MORE FROM THE ARCHIVES

Extremists target cabinet

Jewish terrorists planned to assassinate cabinet ministers in Clement Attlee's government, in London, warned British security services. They said the extremist Stern Gang was sending members to Britain to carry out the killings. Ernest Bevin, the Foreign Secretary, was named as one target, as were other officials.

Superspy never caught

The German superspy Wilhelm Morz, believed to be the only Gestapo officer to operate in Britain during the Second World War and escape capture, sparked a major man-hunt in 1940 after he was spotted on London's Regent Street. The notorious ladies' man was known as "one of the cleverest secret agents the Gestapo has".

Fascist aristocrat not jailed

George V's fascist goddaughter was not arrested in wartime Britain because imprisoning too many aristocrats might give the public the "wrong idea". Despite being a "most fanatical admirer of Hitler", Dowager Viscountess Dorothy Downe, was considered "a rather stupid old woman".

Begin's plastic surgery

British spies believed future Israeli premier Menachem Begin used cosmetic surgery to conceal his identity as a terrorist. Begin, who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1978 after negotiating the Camp David Accords with Egypt, went under the knife in the late 1940s, MI5 was told. At the time he headed the Irgun militant organisation, violently opposed to the British Mandate in Palestine.

Prostitute passed secrets

MI5 agents monitored a German doing secret work for the British government in wartime after it emerged he was engaged to a loose-tongued prostitute. Ernst or Ernest Adam left Germany after being persecutedand worked for the Political Warfare Executive, disseminating propaganda. The agents discovered his fiancée, Margaret Foster, had been passing on details of his secret work to her American-born mother, also a prostitute.

Russian spy never tried

A wartime London ambulance driver confessed to being an agent for the Russians, but was never tried in court for spying, instead being sent to jail for forging petrol coupons. Oliver Green confessed to have begun spying for the Russians in 1939.

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
Arts and Entertainment
Robert De Niro, Martin Scorsese and DiCaprio, at an awards show in 2010
filmsDe Niro, DiCaprio and Pitt to star
News
i100
News
In this photo illustration a school student eats a hamburger as part of his lunch which was brought from a fast food shop near his school, on October 5, 2005 in London, England. The British government has announced plans to remove junk food from school lunches. From September 2006, food that is high in fat, sugar or salt will be banned from meals and removed from vending machines in schools across England. The move comes in response to a campaign by celebrity TV chef Jamie Oliver to improve school meals.
science
Sport
England captain Wayne Rooney during training
FOOTBALLNew captain vows side will deliver against Norway for small crowd
Life and Style
Red or dead: An actor portrays Hungarian countess Elizabeth Báthory, rumoured to have bathed in blood to keep youthful
health
News
peopleJustin Bieber charged with assault and dangerous driving after crashing quad bike into a minivan
News
peopleHis band Survivor was due to resume touring this month
News
people'It can last and it's terrifying'
Arts and Entertainment
tv
Life and Style
fashionModel of the moment shoots for first time with catwalk veteran
Sport
Radamel Falcao poses with his United shirt
FOOTBALLRadamel Falcao's journey from teenage debutant in Colombia to Manchester United's star signing
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Front-Office Developer (C#, .NET, Java,Artificial Intelligence)

£30000 - £45000 per annum + benefits+bonus+package: Harrington Starr: Front-Of...

C++ Quant Developer

£700 per day: Harrington Starr: Quantitative Developer C++, Python, STL, R, PD...

Java/Calypso Developer

£700 per day: Harrington Starr: Java/Calypso Developer Java, Calypso, J2EE, J...

SQL Developer

£500 per day: Harrington Starr: SQL Developer SQL, C#, Stored Procedures, MDX...

Day In a Page

Chief inspector of GPs: ‘Most doctors don’t really know what bad practice can be like for patients’

Steve Field: ‘Most doctors don’t really know what bad practice can be like for patients’

The man charged with inspecting doctors explains why he may not be welcome in every surgery
Stolen youth: Younger blood can reverse many of the effects of ageing

Stolen youth

Younger blood can reverse many of the effects of ageing
Bob Willoughby: Hollywood's first behind the scenes photographer

Bob Willoughby: The reel deal

He was the photographer who brought documentary photojournalism to Hollywood, changing the way film stars would be portrayed for ever
Hollywood heavyweights produce world's most expensive corporate video - for Macau casino

Hollywood heavyweights produce world's most expensive corporate video - for Macau casino

Scorsese in the director's chair with De Niro, DiCaprio and Pitt to star
Angelina Jolie's wedding dress: made by Versace, designed by her children

Made by Versace, designed by her children

Angelina Jolie's wedding dressed revealed
Anyone for pulled chicken?

Pulling chicks

Pulled pork has gone from being a US barbecue secret to a regular on supermarket shelves. Now KFC is trying to tempt us with a chicken version
9 best steam generator irons

9 best steam generator irons

To get through your ironing as swiftly as possible, invest in one of these efficient gadgets
England v Norway: Wayne Rooney admits England must ‘put on a show’ to regain faith

Rooney admits England must ‘put on a show’ to regain faith

New captain vows side will deliver for small Wembley crowd
‘We knew he was something special:’ Radamel Falcao's journey from teenage debutant to Manchester United's star signing

‘We knew he was something special’

Radamel Falcao's journey from teenage debutant to Manchester United's star signing
'I’ll tell you what I would not serve - lamb and potatoes': US ambassador hits out at stodgy British food served at diplomatic dinners

'I’ll tell you what I would not serve - lamb and potatoes'

US ambassador hits out at stodgy British food
Radio Times female powerlist: A 'revolution' in TV gender roles

A 'revolution' in TV gender roles

Inside the Radio Times female powerlist
Endgame: James Frey's literary treasure hunt

James Frey's literary treasure hunt

Riddling trilogy could net you $3m
Fitbit: Because the tingle feels so good

Fitbit: Because the tingle feels so good

What David Sedaris learnt about the world from his fitness tracker
Saudis risk new Muslim division with proposal to move Mohamed’s tomb

Saudis risk new Muslim division with proposal to move Mohamed’s tomb

Second-holiest site in Islam attracts millions of pilgrims each year
Alexander Fury: The designer names to look for at fashion week this season

The big names to look for this fashion week

This week, designers begin to show their spring 2015 collections in New York