'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.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
  • Get to the point
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

Cancer Research UK: Corporate Partnerships Volunteer Events Coordinator – London

Voluntary: Cancer Research UK: We’re looking for someone to support our award ...

Ashdown Group: Head of IT - Hertfordshire - £90,000

£70000 - £90000 per annum + bonus + car allowance + benefits: Ashdown Group: H...

Ashdown Group: Application Support Analyst - SQL Server, T-SQL

£28000 - £32000 per annum + Excellent benefits: Ashdown Group: Application Sup...

Ashdown Group: Systems Analyst / Data Analyst (SQL Server, T-SQL, data)

£28000 - £32000 per annum + Excellent benefits: Ashdown Group: Systems Analyst...

Day In a Page

Major medical journal Lancet under attack for 'extremist hate propaganda' over its coverage of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict

Lancet accused of 'anti-Israel hate propaganda' over coverage of Gaza conflict

Threat to free speech as publishers of renowned medical journal are accused of inciting hatred and violence
General Election 2015: Tories and Lib Dems throw their star names west to grab votes

All noisy on the Lib Dems' western front

The party has deployed its big guns in Cornwall to save its seats there. Simon Usborne heads to the heart of the battle
How Etsy became a crafty little earner: The online market has been floated for £1.2bn, but can craft and capitalism coexist?

How Etsy became a crafty little earner

The online market has been floated for £1.2bn, but can craft and capitalism coexist?
Guy Ritchie is the latest filmmaker to tackle King Arthur - one of our most versatile heroes

King Arthur is inspiring Guy Ritchie

Raluca Radulescu explains why his many permutations - from folk hero to chick-lit hunk - never cease to fascinate
Apple Watch: Will it live up to expectations for the man or woman on the street?

Apple Watch: Will it live up to expectations?

The Apple Watch has apparently sold millions even before its launch tomorrow
Don't fear the artichoke: it's a good cook's staple, with more choice than you'd think

Don't fear the artichoke

Artichokes are scary - they've got spikes and hairy bits, and British cooks tend to give them a wide berth. But they're an essential and delicious part of Italian cuisine
11 best men's socks

11 best men's socks

Make a statement with your accessories, starting from the bottom up
Paul Scholes column: Eden Hazard would be my Player of the Year – but I wonder if he has that appetite for goals of Messi or Ronaldo

Paul Scholes column

Hazard would be my Player of the Year – but I wonder if he has that appetite for goals of Messi or Ronaldo
Frank Warren: Tyson Fury will be closely watching Wladimir Klitschko... when he wins it'll be time to do a deal

Frank Warren's Ringside

Tyson Fury will be closely watching Wladimir Klitschko... when he wins it'll be time to do a deal
London Marathon 2015: Kenya's brothers in arms Wilson Kipsang and Dennis Kimetto ready to take on world

Kenya's brothers in arms take on world

Last year Wilson Kipsang had his marathon record taken off him by training partner and friend Dennis Kimetto. They talk about facing off in the London Marathon
Natalie Bennett interview: I've lost track of the last time I saw my Dad but it's not because I refuse to fly

Natalie Bennett interview: I've lost track of the last time I saw my Dad

Green leader prefers to stay clear of her 'painful' family memories but is more open about 'utterly unreasonable' personal attacks
Syria conflict: Khorasan return with a fresh influx of fighters awaiting the order to start 'shooting the birds'

Khorasan is back in Syria

America said these al-Qaeda militants were bombed out of the country last year - but Kim Sengupta hears a different story
General Election 2015: Is William Cash the man to woo Warwickshire North for Ukip?

On the campaign trail with Ukip

Is William Cash the man to woo Warwickshire North?
Four rival Robin Hood movies get Hollywood go-head - and Friar Tuck will become a superhero

Expect a rush on men's tights

Studios line up four Robin Hoods productions
Peter Kay's Car Share: BBC show is the comedian's first TV sitcom in a decade

In the driving seat: Peter Kay

Car Share is the comedian's first TV sitcom in a decade. The programme's co-creator Paul Coleman reveals the challenges of getting the show on the road