When Winston went to War with the Wireless, Donmar Warehouse, 2023
Photo: Manuel Harlan
  • Theatre, Drama
  • Recommended


When Winston went to War with the Wireless

3 out of 5 stars

Jack Thorne’s Churchill versus the BBC drama is fascinating but never really knows what it wants to be

Andrzej Lukowski

Time Out says

Jack Thorne has to be one of the most versatile writers out there, a dab hand at everything from wild fantasy (‘His Dark Materials’, ‘Harry Potter and the Cursed Child’, ‘Let the Right One In’) to gritty realism (‘Help’, ‘The End of History’).

He’s no Jack of all trades, in other words. But he’s not infallible, and this historical drama never quite manages to live up to its intriguing concept.

The year is 1926 and the General Strike is on, with every union in the country striking in solidarity with the nation’s 1.2 million coal miners, who are having wage reductions forced upon them. That includes the print unions: all papers in the country have ceased publication, leaving a huge information gap to be filled – and exploited. 

Led by Stephen Campbell Moore’s intense John Reith, the nascent BBC had not previously been allowed to carry news broadcasts on its wireless service prior to 7pm, for fear of stepping on the print unions’ turf. However, they receive special dispensation to report throughout the day during the strike, on the proviso that a government minister (Ravin J Ganatra’s affable JCC Davidson) signs off the bulletins.

Meanwhile, boozy, eccentric, baggage-laden Chancellor of the Exchequer Winston Churchill (Adrian Scarborough) has an alternative plan - the British Gazette, a state newspaper edited by… Winston Churchill.

It’s a fascinating window into now little-remembered events, and Katy Rudd’s zippy production feels the most at ease while depicting the dawn of the BBC: a ragtag group of eccentrics who genuinely had no idea how to run a broadcaster - because literally nobody anywhere had ever done it before - balancing ethical dilemmas about news coverage with hokey light entertainment shows. 

Unfortunately there are so many interesting things to talk about that Thorne seems to get distracted and never talks about any of them for long enough. 

The General Strike itself is a juicy subject, but here it’s essentially reduced to a few tantalising vignettes. 

Thorne really goes hard on exploring Reith’s tortured sexuality, and the stunningly messy love triangle between him, his former male lover Charlie (Luke Newberry) and Reith's wife Muriel (Mariam Haque), who Charlie had wanted to marry. But even if the endlessly watchable Campbell Moore is undoubtedly the main character, it’s not really a play about Reith, but rather the historical events he was caught up in – the raking over of his love life feels like it probably belongs in a different drama. 

Likewise, the ethical compromises Reith makes to appease the government are fascinating, but feel like they’d have worked better in a show more explicitly about the Beeb.

And then there’s the Chancellor. Perhaps future generations will have the same problem with Boris Johnson, but Scarborough’s Churchill is such a strange and unsympathetic figure that it’s difficult to see him as the foil to Campbell Moore’s Reith that he’s built up to be. Ruthlessly effective during the strike but also selfish, manipulative and mocked by those around him for a series of catastrophic errors ranging from the Gallipoli offensive to the disastrous return to the gold standard, this is certainly no hagiographic portrait. But there’s no real depth or humanity there: we needed more time with him.

And of course there are plenty of juicy echoes with our current politics, as strikes disrupt the country, the BBC and government remain uneasy with each other, and a Churchill tribute act dominates our politics. But I’m not sure that makes this play illuminating per se, it simply points out how little things have changed.

Basically are the ideas for four or five good plays here, and Thorne probably shouldn’t have tried to write them all at the same time – ultimately ‘When Winston Went to War with the Wireless’ is an entertaining but flawed exercise in cakeism.


£10-£55. Runs 2hr 25min
You may also like
You may also like
London for less