Vote for Them – blog by Neil Grant

Vote for Them 1989

(Photos from Bob Jacobs and Bev Dartnall, no reproduction without permission.)

I co-authored Vote for Them, with David Edgar, although it took from 1981 to 1988 to bring it into production. The plays were conceived following a reading of an article by E.P.Thompson in the New Statesman in which he spoke of the radical political views that characterised much of the armed forces during the 2nd World War, which culminated the dramatic 1945 election of a Labour government.  For Thompson this was a set of memories and accounts that had been marginalised in favour of the more dramatic military events so often represented in triumphalist post war films and literature.  The “Cairo Forces Parliament” was one such event, which embodied that radical political sprit, although sometimes subsequently misrepresented and distorted as some kind of proto-soviet.  However it was distinguished by the worldwide publicity which it came to attract including its reporting in Time magazine and the Nazi press, its debate in the real House of Commons, coverage in the pages of Hansard and in numerous pamphlets, magazines and newspapers of the period.

I researched the many stories around the Music for All Parliament, as the Cairo Parliament was properly called, because of its location in the Music for All (MFA) forces club in central Cairo.  During 1943/44, with the land war in North Africa over, the forces based in and around Cairo sought out distractions including political debate, otherwise prohibited by Kings Regulations.  The idea of a mock parliament for members of the forces was supported by the MFA organisers and enthusiastically embraced by those politically interested service people, especially from the army and RAF. It’s important to note that this idea of a mock parliament was nothing new, being common in the 1930s and 40s and previously adopted in the services, allowing “citizens in uniform” to “play at politics” without actually breaching Kings Regulations.

In 1981 David Edgar secured a commission from the BBC to write a 2 part play based on the Cairo events and on that basis we undertook much more extensive research.  Mike Wearing was the key mover for the BBC with David Rose endorsing the commission shortly before his departure to Channel 4. We tracked down and interviewed surviving participants, obtained access to contemporary diaries and documents and developed a much fuller sense of the day-to-day context in which the parliament developed.

In 1982 David’s script was accepted, but then costed as being too expensive for the then available budget. That seemed to be that.  Then in early 1988 David received a call asking whether we would be interested in having the plays re-commissioned as a three part drama, to be produced at Pebble Mill using studio space which had become available following the cancellation of another project. Ironically, it was the Carol Parks, the producer, who had remained loyal to the project despite having to do the original prohibitive costings that had frustrated production in 1982.   And that’s when Vote for Them took off.

The title came from a Daily Mirror campaign, immediately prior to the 1945 election, in which the deliberately ambiguous slogan was developed.  It asked readers to both vote on behalf of those service people under 21 and unable to vote, or indeed still involved in fighting in the far East, and also to vote for a society in which returning forces would come home to a better future.  The slogan had a powerful and enduring resonance, yet avoided explicitly endorsing any political party, though it was universally understood as clear call to vote Labour! In the context of a mock parliament the Vote for Them title was, for us, both obvious and irresistible.

The events of the MFA Parliament, which met only 5 times, attracted such notoriety because of its wider interpretation and representation as a straw poll on the wartime government. This followed the holding of a mock election among the 200 or so who attended the 2-hour meeting and the posting of the results in the Egyptian Gazette by an army press office sergeant who had contacts in the paper.   The mock election result gave Labour a large majority and was seized on by the Nazi press as evidence of bolshevism among the troops and a pointer to post war events.  This and other coverage seems to have been key in the decision to close the Parliament in April 1944, though not before a packed house of over 700 had voted in favour of a decision to nationalise the Bank of England.  That led to the “Chancellor of the Exchequer”, Aircraftsman Leo Abse being detained and posted away from Cairo and later to England amidst much publicity.  The late Leo Abse subsequently became a real MP, and was an enthusiastic supporter of our attempt to tell the story, albeit in a dramatic form in which events or characters were necessarily compressed and conflated.

The production itself was, for me, a completely original and unique experience. The timescales involved were very tight as studio time was already booked, so that the casting, rehearsal and script editing were conducted at a rapid pace.  The rehearsals were in London and although the plays were shot largely at Pebble Mill, there were numerous external locations in the UK as well as the Cairo based shooting. For example, I recall the cinema in Tenbury Wells doubling as a Cairo location; the TA Centre in Brandwood, Kings Heath, providing location for a military gymnasium in Egypt; and the station at Bewdley providing a homecoming venue on Election Day 1945. .

The plays cast a number of now TV familiar faces such as Billy Hartman, Emmerdale, and Steve McFadden, Eastenders.  Steve played a cycling enthusiast in Cairo and, as part of his impressive preparation, he chose to travel to Sheffield to meet the real person who had inspired the character, arriving at his address on a bike! That went down well.

The dominant memory for me though is the sight of large numbers of supporting actors being managed in the Pebble Mill studio, dressed in contemporary uniforms with Janice Rider anxiously attempting to ensure that some inadvertent anachronism wouldn’t creep in among the recently delivered uniforms: such as a soldier with some aspect of dress or badge not available until later in the War.  And people did write in to point out such details, while another correspondent insisted, forcefully, that the entire story was fiction!

But the most extraordinary letter I received after the plays’ broadcast in 1989 was from the son of a former South African officer.  He was puzzled that we hadn’t contacted his father before representing him on screen. It transpired that there was actually a real life counterpart to our invented Lieutenant Rubin, speaker of the MFA Parliament, and that the real Lieutenant Rubin had been the speaker of a mock parliament among Union Defence Force troops in Egypt.  As we found out, on many occasions, the truths we came across. and often had to omit, were stranger than anything we fictionalised.

Neil Grant

Night shoot in Dorset sand Quarry