Peace camp to stage: Greenham Common is venue for cold war play

Production on airbase at heart of 1980s nuclear protest will reconstruct women’s camp

For the thousands of idealistic women fighting to stop nuclear war in the 1980s, it was a symbol of evil. So the news that the control tower at the former US airbase at Greenham Common has been awarded a Heritage Lottery Fund grant for refurbishment would not seem likely to gladden their hearts. But it turns out to be good news for them and for the people of nearby Newbury in Berkshire: in September, a theatrical spotlight will be trained on this emblem of the cold war as never before.

The Grade II-listed tower, which once presided over some of the most controversial military activity of the cold war era, is to play a starring role in an extraordinary piece of large-scale immersive theatre.

Greenham Common – home to the women’s peace camp protesters in the 1980s fighting to stop the siting of cruise missiles at the airbase – is to become the stage for a new work written by the acclaimed young playwright Beth Flintoff and to be performed by a professional cast at three locations, including the tower.

The show, The Greenham Cold War Experience, aims to recreate life on the airbase during its most contentious period, portraying both the campaigners, in a reconstructed section of the peace camp, and the American military residents and British officers who were stationed at the base. Flintoff’s play will incorporate scenes inside the control tower and in the site’s more sinister decontamination suite, as well as a guided military-history walk across the common itself.

“This is part of a long process of bringing creative work to this place of conflict and changing the way the town feels about it,” said Rosemary Richards of Fete Day, the company commissioned to produce the event. “The actors and their audience will be among the first to enter the control tower the day after it has been opened to the public on 7 September.”

Research conducted by the Greenham Trust among those in the area at the time, Richards said, has revealed there was “not as much difference between the aims of both sides as you might have thought”. Both the military and the inhabitants of the women’s camp felt they were peacekeepers. “The aims were not so different, so that is the conundrum we have to solve in terms of presenting a show,” she said.

The airbase’s control tower is Grade II-listed and being restored with National Lottery funds.
The airbase’s control tower is Grade II-listed and being restored with National Lottery funds. Photograph: David Hartley/REX/Shutterstock

Richards was asked to create the immersive work by the trust. “This year we are creating a theatrical show, but last year we organised a community participation event called Greenham: 100 Years of War and Peace. It was more of a mini-festival, marking the moment the common came back to public use, and we held several debates.”

These discussions revealed embedded resentments in the area. “We found, and it was not difficult to find, a fair amount of angst and anger in the community. We wanted to give some space for the animosity that is still in the local community about the peace camp,” said Richards.

And certainly not everyone’s memories of the camps are fond. Chris Austin, a parish councillor in Newbury, has long been opposed to celebrating this part of the town’s history. “The Greenham women’s protest achieved very little. It antagonised a lot of residents who had to put up with the nuisance of the encampments,” he said.

The last operational RAF commander on the common, Andrew Brookes, has also underlined how much the demonstrators cost the public. “I had a £750,000 annual budget for fence repairs. Ironically, when the last missiles came to be flown out, some women tried to lie down on the runway to prevent the airlifter from taking off. Just being there had become their life,” he said.

The airbase was closed in 1992 and in 1997 Greenham Common was designated as public parkland. The control tower itself is owned by Greenham’s parish council, which leases it to a not-for-profit company. The immersive play will be performed twice a day over 10 days in September and the walk across the common will be led by Colonel Mike Relph, a military archaeologist. Two audiences of 30 people will start on each side of the common and will then swap to the different sites by making a 25-minute walk over the common.

“There will also be a question-and-answer session with Colonel Relph and either a local historian or an ex-Greenham woman,” said Richards, who emphasises that the project is part of the trust’s wider plan to support the arts for the local community.

“We have decided to use the decontamination suite, although it is not part of the main cold war story. It started out as a bit of a sideline, but now, since the attack in Salisbury, it suddenly seems a lot more relevant – although the truth is, I think, it was always more of a reassurance for the troops rather than an efficient response to a potential chemical attack.”

Protesters in the women’s camps, who included the actress Julie Christie and the future BBC newsreader Fiona Bruce, credit their actions as having helped to bring down the iron curtain. Soviet president Mikhail Gorbachev mentioned the Greenham women when he said the European peace movement had partly prompted his decision in 1986 to meet the US president, Ronald Reagan.

The £89,000 lottery fund grant for the control tower will be used to train volunteers and set up future exhibitions at the site, creating both a visitor attraction and a community facility, according to Jonathan Sayers, a spokesman for Greenham Control Tower Ltd and a member of the not-for-profit company’s board of directors.

“A special programme of exciting regular events will be an important feature of the tower, as well as offering a series of great opportunities for volunteers to share in these and the phases of development to come,” he said.

The new museum space and cafe will open from 8-16 September, running across the two Heritage Open Weekends for 2018.


Vanessa Thorpe Arts and Media Correspondent

The GuardianTramp

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