In the autumn of 1948, the Unity Theatre in north London – noted for its topical skits and sketches with a political bite – changed the words of one of its numbers to make mention of one of its own cast. ‘My man from MI5’ was the title of the song – revised to run: ‘It’s entirely down to him / He’s saved us from the peril / Of Unity’s Red Beryl’. Here is the story of ‘Red Beryl’, or at least a first draft of that history, told by Andrew Whitehead:
In 1948, Beryl Lund was, at the same time, an actor, a communist … and a civil servant working on sensitive defence contracts. And this just as the Labour government of the day was moving against communists in the civil service. Playing in a revue mocking this purge of communists cost Beryl her job.
“Everyone knew me as ‘Red Beryl’ in the office”, she told me recently. She still has cuttings about the controversy that accompanied the suspension from her ministry job, and still smarts at the injustice.
I chanced across her story when pursuing recollections of the novelist Alexander Baron. Muriel Dobkin was a friend of Beryl and, like her, a keen volunteer in the late 1940s at the left-wing Unity Theatre. Muriel had also worked closely at Unity with Baron (Alec Bernstein), and mentioned that a plot line in one his novels about communists being purged from government jobs probably arose from the case of her friend.
I looked up the name Beryl Lund on Google – and came across this wonderful portrait shot (posted here with Beryl’s permission) from October 1948. It was being offered on eBay by a seller in Mexico who had bought up a news agency archive. There’s another photo of Beryl Lund on the Getty Images site – taken at the same time, and again offering an image of a vivacious young woman.
The news agency write up on the back of the photo is not the full story, Beryl insists – she was suspended from the ministry and eventually moved to another government job, and not simply dismissed – but it indicates why her disciplining certainly was an enticing news story.
The Unity Theatre was established in the 1930s, and enjoyed considerable popularity in the late 1940s. It attracted a remarkable range of talent –Michael Gambon, Warren Mitchell, Lionel Bart, Alfie Bass, Bill Owen, Peter Ustinov and many others, while Ted Willis and Alec Baron produced Unity’s influential journal New Theatre. Unity had premises at the northern end of Somers Town – now demolished, though a plaque marks the spot – and continued as a theatre company until 1975. (The Unity Theatre in Liverpool is still going – the Cardiff theatre has been renamed as the Everyman Theatre but continues in the same tradition).
The Unity Theatre attracted the energies and involvement of a range of radical enthusiastic youngsters – most volunteers. It was innovative and unstuffy. “It was a very optimistic time”, Muriel Dobkin recalls. “I can remember really well the feeling of optimism, that that horrible darkness had gone. … Unity was my life. Of course, it was huge fun. I made lots of friends – and we’ve all remained friends ever since.”
Muriel showed me a photograph of a Unity Theatre outing to Box Hill in 1948 which captures something of the energy and informality of those involved. (If you can help with naming any of those in the photo, then here’s the site to go to).
While Unity Theatre had no formal connection to the Communist Party, many of those involved were party members. I asked Beryl Lund on the phone whether she was in the party. She said she would give me the same answer now as she gave then: it’s a private affair and no one has to declare their political affiliation. Without a pause, she continued: “I was a member of the Communist Party and proud of it.”
Alongside agitprop and political dramas, the Unity Theatre established a reputation for political revue – much in the ‘That Was the Week That Was’ mould, but well over a decade earlier. Its most successful revue was ‘What’s Left?’, which ran to well over a hundred performances in the summer and autumn of 1948. The production reflected disillusion with Clement Attlee’s post-war Labour government and concern about perceived ’red baiting’ and the development of what would become known as the Cold War.
‘What’s Left?’ even won the attention of The Times (7th August 1948). ‘The title is a humorous acknowledgement of the slight confusion that prevails at present in politics of the left. And not the least entertainment offered by this entertaining revue is to behold how the friends of yesteryear have now become the Aunt Sallies. Except for one sketch, … Mr Winston Churchill has been shelved for Mr Attlee and the Cabinet.’
The notice also listed Miss Beryl Lund among those performers who were, in the most tortuous of compliments, ‘not the least of [the production’s] assets’.
The drive against communists in sensitive civil service posts had begun a few months earlier. In March 1948, Clement Attlee announced that the government had decided ‘to ensure that no one who is known to be a member of the Communist Party, or to be associated with it in such a way as to raise legitimate doubts about his or her reliability, is employed in connection with work, the nature of which is vital to the security of the state’ [quoted in Branson, p.160].
Among the first to be purged, the following month, was Ann George, a communist and civil service trade unionist who was private secretary to the minister of education. In the first eighteen months of the policy about forty civil servants were either dismissed or transferred, or resigned because of the action being taken against them. Beryl Lund was perhaps unlucky to be caught up in the affair. She had a junior clerical post in the ministry of supply, but the work was certainly sensitive. “It was secret work -“, she recalls, “contracts department, buying parts for radar”.
By her own recollection, she was accused of mixing with communists, and suspended from her job. The Daily Worker, which had been campaigning against the purge with limited support from the trade union movement, published a prominent article headlined: ‘MI5 closes in on Miss Lund: Ministry Purges Unity Theatre Actress’.
For those arguing against Attlee’s anti-communist policy, the disciplinary action against a young, attractive and apparently entirely unthreatening civil servant was a propaganda gift. The papers and news agencies made the most of it. Muriel even recalls a cartoon appearing in one of London’s evening papers.
The producers of ‘What’s Left?’, with a sharp eye on the topical, devised the new lyrics about the man from MI5 who ‘saved us from the peril / Of Unity’s red Beryl’ [Chambers, p.305].
The consequences for Beryl Lund herself were less amusing. Although she hadn’t been dismissed from the civil service, she says no other ministry would have her, and after being suspended for several months she ended up with a dead-end job at the Science Museum. She eventually resigned, and she and Muriel – with a bit of help from Alec Baron – made their way to Italy. Beryl sang for a while in a night club while Muriel worked for a film producer. They both returned to London a few years later with Italian husbands –anti-fascist partisans, friends, who had been studying in Rome as part of a scheme for those whose education had been disrupted by the war.
Beryl’s fate, and the purge of which she was part, may well have been in Alexander Baron’s mind when he wrote the novel Rosie Hogarth – which was published in 1951 by which time Baron, once an influential communist, had broken decisively with the party. The title character, an undercover communist, declares: ‘”Many of our people work for the Government. Scientists. Senior Civil Servants. If they’re found out they lose their jobs. They have to remain undercover members. They can’t belong to Party branches, where we know that police agents are active. We can’t even bring them together in groups of their own. It would only need one spy or informer among them and they’d all be identified.”’ [Baron, 2010 edition, p.349]
Beryl Lund, of course, was never undercover – indeed she took to the stage to proclaim her politics. She is still a member of Actors’ Equity.
Alexander Baron – Rosie Hogarth, first published 1951, Nottingham: Five Leaves, 2010
Noreen Branson – History of the Communist Party of Great Britain, 1941-1951, London: Lawrence and Wishart, 1997
Colin Chambers – The Story of Unity Theatre, London: Lawrence and Wishart, 1989
The Unity Theatre Trust continues the work and tradition of the Unity Theatre. The Trust sells a DVD about the history of the Unity Theatre which includes extracts from an interview with Beryl Lund.