I've strong childhood memories of a Friday or Saturday evening spent in the Lyric theatre watching When the Wind Blows. With a single set, it was an ideal play for the open stage at the Lyric. And with only two main on-stage characters, there was a feeling of intimacy with the audience. You were spending time with two sixty somethings in their front room as the events unfolded.
Raymond Briggs is probably better known for The Snowman (I can hear Aled Jones singing as I type). But When the Wind Blows was developed as a graphic novel in 1982, made into a play in 1983, and then adapted into an animated film (that is still shown on Channel 4 every couple of years) in 1986. I'd picked up a copy of the play's script on Amazon, and brought it over to Gloucester this weekend.
War is brewing.
The story portrays the fears of an average retired couple living in a rural spot in the south east of England – growing older and watching a deteriorating political "International Situation", listening for information about news of a "Pre-Emptive Strike" from "The Powers that Be" on Radio 4.
Jim's a bit more tuned in than Hilda. He's been to the local library, picked up the civil defense leaflets, and is keen to work through the checklists. He's picked some of the lingo: “Building an Inner Core”, talking about the Americans with “their IBMs [sic and their Polar Submarines”.
Hilda's more concerned about the possible damage the shelter preparations will cause her pristine house - taking doors down to make the lean to shelter could tear the wallpaper. And she's not convined about the washing and toiletry arrangements.
Yet the advice available to Jim is rudimentary and – frankly – rubbish. The “govern-mental” leaflets contradict the county council advice. What's the point of collecting together food, tin openers and cutlery when the lists forget to mention plates. And keeping your doors closed is at odds with unscrewing them and using them to make a shelter.
Back in the 70s and 80s, global politics – at a superficial level anyway – were more straightforward. World War Two had easy to identify sides.
Jim: ... There wasthe three of them – Churchill, Roosevelt and Stalin – all good blokes, with old Hitler, Goering and Musso andall that mob on the other side ... you somehow knew where you were then. I don't even know who the people are these days.
Hilda:I expect it's all done by committees, dear.
Jim: Yes and Meetings. I expect they have loads and loads of Meetings and thus Arrive at Decisions. Commuters, too. They all use Commuters these days. It's all got very impersonal. Churchill with his cigar ... Old Stalin with his moustache ... You knew where you stood ...
The threat of the next world war came from the America and Russia, the US and USSR.
Two superpowers, battling it out with the support of smaller nations. It's reflected in the play as Hilda frequently refers to “the Gerries” when she means “the Ruskies”.
The imminent conflict is compared to the Second World War. Anderson and Morrison shelters replaced with doors propped up at 60 degree angles. Yet Jim knows there will be differences. it'll be faster. MAD – Mutual Assured Destruction means that when it's over, normal life will be over too. The bombing will be on a different scale.
Half way through comes the bomb.
Wrapped in old paper potato sacs for protection, it gets bright and warm, but Hilda and Jim Bloggs survive in their improvised refuge. The fallout's not visible, and they quickly forget/ignore the advice to stay down for 14 days – though the other leaflet said just 48 hours.
Throughout, Jim and Hilda put their trust in the state, to prepare them, as well as to defend and rescue them. While they bemoan the missing paper boy and milkman, and notice the disappearance of radio and TV stations, they hold out hope that "the Services" will come to help.
As the play draws to a close, the world first gets quieter. There are no longer twittering birds. The Spring trees no longer have rustling leaves – nor does there house have any paint on the outside. The tarmacked roads seem to have melted, and a emotional darkness descends on the Bloggs' world as well as a physical shadow. But the silence is replaced with the wind.
With sour milk and no more water, collecting and drinking the rain water seems safe enough. But radiation sickness is already taking its toll. Tiredness too. Diarrhoea, bleeding, spots. physical things too.
The final scenes are heart breaking as Jim and Hilda go into their shelter for one last time. He clutches his leaflets. She brings her handbag. The wind howls outside the house. They pray. Perhaps the last comfort remaining. And on their own, isolated and afraid, they pray and sleep and die.
As I read I wondered how my parents would react? (Briggs modeled Jim and Hilda Bloggs on his parents.) How I would react? We rely (or at least enjoy) external communications so much. In the Martini world we live in, we expect to be able to talk to (or at least twitter) family and friends any where and at any time. In preparing citizens for life, do governments even have the information to adequately advise and prepare? And would many die alone, suddenly bereft of the community(s) they normally inhabit?
And how the world has shifted from the one Briggs noted in the 80s. As 9/11 showed, international threats no longer come from superpower nations. They come from groups spread across the globe, people united by belief and political creed, but not necessarily by geography. Sounds like something Clay Shirky may have something to say about.
Really glad I tracked down the play (and not just the graphic novel or the film). Brought back lots of memories. And reminded me of the value of theatre, even for implanting ideas into the heads of children who'll only start to process what they hear and see in later life!