'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
ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment
Babysitter Katie and Paul have terse words in the park
tvReview: The strength of the writing keeps viewers glued to their seats even when they are confronted with the hard-hitting scenes
News
i100
Arts and Entertainment
American singer, acclaimed actor of stage and screen, political activist and civil rights campaigner Paul Robeson (1898 - 1976), rehearses in relaxed mood at the piano.
filmSinger, actor, activist, athlete: Paul Robeson was a cultural giant. But prejudice and intolerance drove him to a miserable death. Now his story is to be told in film...
Sport
England’s opening goalscorer Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain battles with Scotland’s Charlie Mulgrew
FootballEngland must learn to keep possession and dictate games before they are exposed by the likes of Germany and Brazil
Life and Style
Make-up artists prepare contestants for last year’s Miss World, held in Budapest
fashion
Sport
Wigan Athletic’s back-of-the shirt sponsor Premier Range has pulled out due to Malky Mackay’s arrival
Football
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

Argyll Scott International: FP&A Manager Supply Chain

Benefits: Argyll Scott International: Argyll Scott is recruiting for a Permane...

Austen Lloyd: Commercial Property NQ+

£30000 - £50000 per annum + EXCELLENT: Austen Lloyd: COMMERCIAL PROPERTY SOLI...

Argyll Scott International: Retail Commercial Finance Analyst

Benefits: Argyll Scott International: Due to further expansion, a leading inte...

Langley James : Senior Technician; Promotion & Training Opp; Borough; upto £32k

£27000 - £32000 per annum + training: Langley James : Senior Technician; Promo...

Day In a Page

US immigration: President Obama ready to press ahead with long-promised plan to overhaul 'broken system' - but will it get past a Republican-controlled Congress?

Immigration: Obama's final frontier

The President is ready to press ahead with the long-promised plan to overhaul America's 'broken system' - but will it get past a Republican-controlled Congress?
Bill Cosby rape allegations explained: Why are these allegations coming out now? Why didn’t these women come forward earlier? And why has nobody taken legal action?

Bill Cosby rape allegations explained

Why are these allegations coming out now? Why has nobody taken legal action? And what happens next for the man once thought of as 'America's Dad'
Four years of excruciating seizures caused by the 1cm tapeworm found burrowing through a man's brain

You know that headache you’ve got?

Four years of excruciating seizures caused by the 1cm tapeworm found burrowing through a man's brain
Travelling to work by scooter is faster than walking and less sweaty than cycling, so why aren’t we all doing it?

Scoot commute

Travelling to work by scooter is faster than walking and less sweaty than cycling, so why aren’t we all doing it?
Paul Robeson: The story of how an American icon was driven to death to be told in film

The Paul Robeson story

How an American icon was driven to death to be told in film
10 best satellite navigation systems

Never get lost again: 10 best satellite navigation systems

Keep your vehicle going in the right direction with a clever device
Paul Scholes column: England must learn to keep possession and dictate games before they are exposed by the likes of Germany and Brazil

Paul Scholes column

England must learn to keep possession and dictate games before they are exposed by the likes of Germany and Brazil
Michael Dawson: I’ll thank Spurs after we win says defender as he prepares to return with Hull

Michael Dawson: I’ll thank Spurs after we win

Hull defender faces his struggling former club on Sunday ready to show what they are missing. But he says he will always be grateful to Tottenham
Frank Warren column: Dr Wu has big plans for the professionals yet he should stick to the amateur game

Frank Warren column

Dr Wu has big plans for the professionals yet he should stick to the amateur game
Synagogue attack: Fear unites both sides of Jerusalem as minister warns restoring quiet could take 'months'

Terror unites Jerusalem after synagogue attack

Rising violence and increased police patrols have left residents of all faiths looking over their shoulders
Medecins sans Frontieres: The Ebola crisis has them in the headlines, but their work goes far beyond West Africa

'How do you carry on? You have to...'

The Ebola crisis has Medecins sans Frontieres in the headlines, but their work goes far beyond West Africa
Isis extends its deadly reach with suicide bombing in Kurdish capital

Isis extends its deadly reach with suicide bombing in Kurdish capital

Residents in what was Iraq’s safest city fear an increase in jihadist attacks, reports Patrick Cockburn
Underwater photography competition winners 2014 - in pictures

'Mysterious and inviting' shot of diver wins photography competition

Stunning image of cenote in Mexico takes top prize
Sir John Major: Negative West End portrayals of politicians put people off voting

Sir John Major hits out at theatres

Negative West End portrayals of politicians put people off voting
Kicking Barbie's butt: How the growth of 3D printing enabled me to make an army of custom-made figurines

Kicking Barbie's butt

How the growth of 3D printing enabled toy-designer to make an army of custom-made figurines