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Liverpool Police Dismissed 1950’s Special Branch Paranoia over Merseyside Club

Theatre researcher Professor Tony Howard at the University of Warwick has discovered an interesting exchange between police officers in Liverpool’s CID and Special Branch in London which shows how a Liverpool police officer used common sense and cheeky humour to deflate some paranoid concerns Special Branch held about a Liverpool theatre club.

The research follows the National Archive’s opening and release in the last week of MI5 and Home Office documents showing that Sam Wanamaker the actor, director and founder of Shakespeare’s Globe, had been watched throughout the 1950s.

Sam Wanamaker came to the U.K. in 1951 to make a film with Edward Dmytryk, one of the Hollywood Ten.  The FBI alleged that he and his wife Charlotte had both been Communist Party members from 1944-47.  The newly released files on the actor, based on phone taps, intercepted letters and informants, claim that  he had many contacts with subversive organisations and the question of whether the Wanamakers should be allowed to stay in Britain was raised frequently.

On 15 October 1957 Special Branch reported that “..during the course of normal enquiries, information has come to hand regarding the formation of a NEW SHAKESPEARE THEATRE CLUB to function at Fraser Street, Liverpool” -  “There is little doubt that this Theatre and Club is intended to be used as a vehicle for disseminating extreme left wing political propaganda under the guise of culture”.

The Liverpool club’s  first plays included two allegories of McCarthyism, Robert Anderson’s Tea and Sympathy and Arthur Miller’s A View from the Bridge – both banned by the Lord Chamberlain.

“The prime mover in the scheme”, Special Branch said, “would seem to be Sam WANAMAKER, who is well known as an actor and producer, and is also a communist’” It advised that the New Shakespeare was drawing in a wide audience through a programme of concerts and events including children’s shows and films. Wanamaker had announced an international film festival: “It will be noted that of eight films listed, only one is British.”

 On 26th November1957 the Director General of MI5 wrote directly to the Chief Constable of Liverpool: “We understand that SAM WANAMAKER has recently opened a theatre in Liverpool.” “As he is one of those “Un-American Americans”...we should be glad to know if either he or his wife comes to your attention in any way.”

However the Liverpool Police’s reaction was driven by common sense rather than Cold War paranoia and MI5 were sent a long and slightly cheeky report by Liverpool CID Constable Wynn (17th December 1957).

The report told the story of the theatre building, recently a failed club called The Pigalle, and noted that the  membership secretary ‘is a staunch Conservative’.

Constable Wynn  also noted on the claimed  “Un-American” motives for not returning to the US that: “…he is reported to have replied that he found the costs of theatrical productions so much cheaper in the United Kingdom”.  The report concluded by noting that the new theatre was ‘successful” and he cheekily appended a brochure for the New Shakespeare Theatre Club to the report, “together with application forms”.

For further information please contact:

Peter Dunn, Press and Media Relations Manager, Communications Office,
University House University of Warwick, Coventry CV4 8UW
024 76 523708  or 07767 655860 email:
Twitter  @PeterJDunn

PR97 PJD                   
8th September 2009