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Last Updated: Sunday, 5 March 2006, 02:21 GMT
Why MI5 monitored singer Ewan MacColl
By Dominic Casciani
BBC News at the National Archives

Picture by Jim Maginn/Peggyseeger.com
Folk singer, activist...
International award-winning folk singer, militant rambler and agit-prop playwright, he certainly was. But did Ewan MacColl, the father of the late singer Kirsty MacColl pose a threat to the nation?

MI5, the security service, clearly thought so, as secret files reveal spies kept tabs on the entertainer during the 1930s and 40s.

The files reveal that MI5 and the police monitored his theatre work, BBC performances and general political activity.

When he deserted the Army in the middle of World War II, they launched a fruitless search for the working-class folk hero - but strangely they never took action when he re-launched his career following VE Day.

Ewan MacColl was born James Miller, in Salford, Manchester, and changed his name after WWII. In his teenage years he became heavily involved in socialist organisations and working-class movements.

... and a man with his picture in an MI5 file
The singer, who died in 1989, remains best known for penning The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face, most famously sung by Roberta Flack, for which he won a Grammy in the 1970s.

But very much earlier in his career, the actor, playwright and songwriter used his talents to promote his political beliefs and quickly became a working-class folk hero around the Manchester area.

Two of his early successes were Dirty Old Town, about industrial Salford, and the Manchester Rambler, a song which celebrated the 1932 mass trespass on Kinder Scout, a move which eventually contributed to the opening of private land to the public.

And it was around this time that MI5 began keeping a watch.

'Exceptional ability'

According to files released to the National Archives, MI5 began inquiring closely into his activities, gathering reports of his stage shows and asking police in Manchester to regularly report back.

Joan Littlewood: First wife considered subversive
One report returned to the spymasters in London remarked that while MacColl had "exceptional ability as a singer and musical organiser", he was very clearly "a communist with very extreme views" who needed "special attention".

In the run-up to war, MacColl, along with his first wife Joan Littlewood, was contributing to BBC radio programmes while also drawing crowds to political plays at venues across north-west England.

Despite no evidence at all that he was in the pay of Moscow, MI5 began leaning on the BBC.

While the BBC reassured security services that there was "no opportunity" for communist propaganda in broadcasts, one brave programme controller dryly remarked that any attempt to blacklist the singer would probably end up in the Manchester Guardian.

Stage play

MacColl's biggest clash with the authorities came over a highly controversial play he staged in 1940 along with Littlewood.

The colonel kicks the major and the major has a go,
He kicks the poor old captain who then kicks the nco,
And as the kicks get harder the poor private you can see,
Gets kicked to ruddy hell to save democracy

Written shortly before desertion from the Army
The play, Last Edition, was supposedly a "living newspaper", describing the events of the past decade through the eyes of a socialist.

According to the records, the then Chief Constable of Hyde personally telegrammed Major-General Vernon Kell, the founding director-general of MI5, to alert him to this "thinly veiled communist propaganda". MacColl appeared to be calling for violent revolution.

Major-General Kell was clearly not best pleased. His deputy quickly telegrammed local councils in the North West and urged them to refuse performance licences.

This put in train a series of events which led to MacColl and Littlewood being fined and bound over - effectively banning their theatre work.


When the singer enlisted in the Army in 1940, the files show that MI5 asked his superiors to keep him under special observation "in order to see whether he is trying to carry on propaganda".

One report described his general and military conduct as "good", that his manner to officers was correct and at times almost "ingratiating".

Most importantly he appeared not to be spouting propaganda, beyond reading out reports from the Daily Worker. In fact, MI5 learned, MacColl was enjoying entertaining his fellow troops in the concert party.

MacColl had penned Browned Off, a satirical song which depicted the miserable life of a soldier biding time for war.

But the authorities missed the significance: Within weeks MacColl had deserted.

Why he went remains a mystery - MacColl was clearly a romantic with a strong political conviction, but biographers have also suggested that he was simply scared stiff of fighting.

Despite concerted efforts by the police to track him down, he was not seen again until after the war. But why he was never charged remains a mystery not covered in the files.


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