'Radical' Ewan MacColl was tracked by MI5 for decades

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The Independent Online

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".

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