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Grim reminder

20 September 2013


AS 2014 approaches, we need to gear ourselves up for four years of grim centenaries for the Great War. The Show to End All Wars (Radio 4, Thursday) thus provided an overture of sorts - since it is 50 years since Joan Littlewood's show Oh! What a Lovely War hit the Stratford East stage with its engaging and disturbing mix of nostalgia and satire, vaudeville and bitterness. One commentator on this show likened its effect on British theatre to Look Back in Anger; surely more so now, considering the number of revivals that the work has enjoyed since.

Oh! What a Lovely War was the product of a workshop style of dramatic creation, in which actors developed scripts that were then supplanted by improvisation. And yet, as we discovered here, the show drew much more of its inspiration and material from sources other than Littlewood was prepared to admit. The format of songs and reminiscences was derived from a docudrama from 1961, The Long Long Trail, directed by Charles Chilton.

The other main source for the musical is more surprising: an account of the war by the young Tory MP Alan Clark, The Donkeys. It perpetuated the view of a lion-hearted soldiery betrayed by the incompetence of their asinine leadership. Yet, in this curious instance, the views of the young Tory Turk and the wizened leftie converged; for in this legend of the Great War they both saw the damage that a moribund establishment could do to the spirit of a nation. The synergy was only momentary, however; for so extensive was the quoting from Clarke's book that the author started court proceedings against Theatre Workshop for copyright infringement.

Part of the power of Oh! What a Lovely War comes from the stream of statistics that undermine the bravado of the songs. There is nothing like a cool stat. to prick a bubble of rhetoric, which is why I still maintain that More or Less (Radio 4, Fridays) does more for political and scientific analysis than any other documentary show around. It is not that Tim Harford and his team put inordinate faith in lies, damned lies, and statistics; but that they handle them with the care and attention that they deserve.

I might quote from any number of programmes to demonstrate my admiration; but last Friday will do. With the help of a psychologist, Jean Twenge, the team looked at fertility statistics for women aged over 35. Twenge, as a wannabe older mother, decided to look into the oft quoted claim that the success rate for women in this age range was 66 per cent (over the course of a year); and it transpires, quite staggeringly, that this statistic derives from a study based on birth figures from 18th-century France.

More or Less has a phrase for stats such as these: "zombie statistics" - figures that will never die, however often they are slain by more accurate data; in this case, a recent study from the United States, which puts the figure at 82 per cent, and thus much closer to the figure for under-35s, which is 86 per cent.

Another myth busted last week was that Africa has a drink- ing problem - as reported recently in Time magazine. Get the podcast if you don't believe me. They drink a lot less alcohol than we do.

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