'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
ebooksAn introduction to the ground rules of British democracy
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES
Independent Dating
and  

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

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Travel Customer Service and Experience Manager

£14000 - £17000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: The fastest growing travel comp...

Recruitment Genius: Cleaner / Caretaker / Storeman

£15500 - £17680 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A position has become available...

Recruitment Genius: Head of Sales - SaaS B2B

£60000 - £120000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This conference call startup i...

Recruitment Genius: Web Developer

£25000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This digital and print design a...

Day In a Page

Blairites be warned, this could be the moment Labour turns into Syriza

Andrew Grice: Inside Westminster

Blairites be warned, this could be the moment Labour turns into Syriza
HMS Victory: The mystery of Britain's worst naval disaster is finally solved - 271 years later

The mystery of Britain's worst naval disaster is finally solved - 271 years later

Exclusive: David Keys reveals the research that finally explains why HMS Victory went down with the loss of 1,100 lives
Survivors of the Nagasaki atomic bomb attack: Japan must not abandon its post-war pacifism

'I saw people so injured you couldn't tell if they were dead or alive'

Nagasaki survivors on why Japan must not abandon its post-war pacifism
Jon Stewart: The voice of Democrats who felt Obama had failed to deliver on his 'Yes We Can' slogan, and the voter he tried hardest to keep onside

The voter Obama tried hardest to keep onside

Outgoing The Daily Show host, Jon Stewart, became the voice of Democrats who felt the President had failed to deliver on his ‘Yes We Can’ slogan. Tim Walker charts the ups and downs of their 10-year relationship on screen
RuPaul interview: The drag star on being inspired by Bowie, never fitting in, and saying the first thing that comes into your head

RuPaul interview

The drag star on being inspired by Bowie, never fitting in, and saying the first thing that comes into your head
Secrets of comedy couples: What's it like when both you and your partner are stand-ups?

Secrets of comedy couples

What's it like when both you and your partner are stand-ups?
Satya Nadella: As Windows 10 is launched can he return Microsoft to its former glory?

Satya Nadella: The man to clean up for Windows?

While Microsoft's founders spend their billions, the once-invincible tech company's new boss is trying to save it
The best swimwear for men: From trunks to shorts, make a splash this summer

The best swimwear for men

From trunks to shorts, make a splash this summer
Mark Hix recipes: Our chef tries his hand at a spot of summer foraging

Mark Hix goes summer foraging

 A dinner party doesn't have to mean a trip to the supermarket
Ashes 2015: With an audacious flourish, home hero Ian Bell ends all debate

With an audacious flourish, the home hero ends all debate

Ian Bell advances to Trent Bridge next week almost as undroppable as Alastair Cook and Joe Root, a cornerstone of England's new thinking, says Kevin Garside
Aaron Ramsey interview: Wales midfielder determined to be centre of attention for Arsenal this season

Aaron Ramsey interview

Wales midfielder determined to be centre of attention for Arsenal this season
Community Shield: Arsene Wenger needs to strike first blow in rivalry with Jose Mourinho

Community Shield gives Wenger chance to strike first blow in rivalry with Mourinho

As long as the Arsenal manager's run of games without a win over his Chelsea counterpart continues it will continue to dominate the narrative around the two men
The unlikely rise of AFC Bournemouth - and what it says about English life

Unlikely rise of AFC Bournemouth

Bournemouth’s elevation to football’s top tier is one of the most improbable of recent times. But it’s illustrative of deeper and wider changes in English life
A Very British Coup, part two: New novel in pipeline as Jeremy Corbyn's rise inspires sequel

A Very British Coup, part two

New novel in pipeline as Jeremy Corbyn's rise inspires sequel
Philae lander data show comets could have brought 'building blocks of life' to Earth

Philae lander data show comets could have brought 'building blocks of life' to Earth

Icy dust layer holds organic compounds similar to those found in living organisms