(Charlotte Higgins’s article appeared in the Guardian, 6/5; Photo: ‘What would you have done?’ … Stephen Campbell Moore as John Reith in When Winston Went to War with the Wireless. Photograph: Manuel Harlan.)

In 1926, with the General Strike looming and the right warning of a Bolshevik revolution, the BBC found itself in a dreadful dilemma. Writer Jack Thorne on why he turned this into ‘a love letter to people in authority’

Jack Thorne is a furiously busy scriptwriter and, although he’s celebrated for bringing Harry Potter to the stage and His Dark Materials to the screen, he loves a chewy subject. In recent years, he’s tackled child abuse, the plight of care homes in the pandemic, and a Grenfell-like catastrophe that devastates a community. At the moment, his play The Motive and the Cue, about the famously rocky process of putting together John Gielgud’s production of Hamlet starring Richard Burton, is at the National Theatre in London.

He will soon have another play on in the city. When we meet, Thorne – tall, gangly, scrappily bearded, wearing a T-shirt with a printed design that instantly calls to mind the armoured bear in His Dark Materials – is on a break from watching a run-through of his newest work, When Winston Went to War With the Wireless. It stages an early crisis for the BBC that shaped its future and set the tone for the way it handles political pressure to this day.

Fight the government and imperil the corporation? Or accept that in a crisis, the BBC should sacrifice its independence?

The play takes place in spring 1926. The General Strike has been called. On the right, there’s a climate of, says Thorne, “absolute paranoia” that a Bolshevik revolution is on its way. Winston Churchill, then chancellor, sets up the British Gazette as the voice of the Conservative government. He also wants to grab the BBC, then a mere four years old, and bring it under full state control.

What was John Reith, the high-minded, complicated BBC director general, to do? Fight the government and imperil the young corporation? Or accept that, in a time of national crisis, the BBC should sacrifice its independence and impartiality on the altar of national stability? What played out, says Thorne, was “a defining moment” for the BBC. And it is wonderful material for a drama, with two remarkable characters – Reith (Stephen Campbell Moore) and Churchill (Adrian Scarborough) – at its heart.

Thorne himself has huge love and respect for the BBC. He is delighted that it was early to throw its weight, with Channel 4, behind The TV Access Project, which aims to transform working conditions for disabled people working in production (the subject of his 2021 MacTaggart lecture at the Edinburgh TV festival). He himself suffers from a long-term condition called cholinergic urticaria, an allergy to heat or movement that, though manageable now, was debilitating when he was younger.

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