Bawdsey play explores how Suffolk kept Cold War Britain safe
The story of Bawdsey Manor during the Cold War is the story behind a new play by Suzanne Hawkes. Arts Editor Andrew Clarke spoke to her about East Anglia on the front lines.
The RAF’s radar research and development facility at Bawdsey Manor has long dominated contemporary Suffolk history. Situated at the mouth of the River Deben, it complex array of transmitter pylons and early-warning technology was a familiar sight set against Suffolk’s big skies.
The development of radar famously played a huge role in the winning of the Second World War but it really came into its own in the post-war years when Soviet posturing and the rise of the Eastern Bloc gave rise to the era of The Cold War.
Felixstowe-based playwright Suzanne Hawkes has penned a new play Unseen Enemy: Radar and the Cold War, which is a thematic sequel to her 2010 play First in the Field which charted the work carried out at Bawdsey and Orfordness to make radar a viable early warning system.
In Unseen Enemy, World War Two is over, but a new deadlier threat is looming, nuclear war. Suzanne Hawkes says that her research revealed how radar put East Anglia on the front lines in the dark days between The Berlin Airlift and The Cuban Missile Crisis.
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Suzanne’s speciality as a playwright is researching real people and real events, often with a local theme, and bringing them alive for a modern audience.
Tell me how this new play came about?
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SH: It was about five years ago now they commissioned me to write the first radar play which was about Watson, Watt and Wilkins which took us up to the Second World War. I think that with the re-opening of the transmitter block that it would be nice to have a sequel.
I then suggested that perhaps we should look into the Cold War period and it became more about looking at radar in The Cold War period and the role of East Anglia in the Cold War. Researching it, I was astounded by how much the original pioneers faded from view and how much East Anglia and our county, in particular, were on the front line.
So, growing up, we were in quite a vulnerable part of the world?
“When you consider the sheer number of RAF and American airbases in this part of the world, East Anglia was key a position in the tactical battle to defend Europe. What is more disconcerting is that the government knew full well that if World War III started East Anglia would be obliterated. That was the price they were willing to pay in order to have a deterrent.
So, how does the play tie together the various historical elements in order to create a narrative?
“Part of the play is about investigative journalist Chapman Pincher coming to Suffolk to try and find out about the testing facility at Orfordness which he never did get anywhere near.
We have him trying to find out what the boffins are up to and the other part of the play follows this local family who are living through the time. We see how the airbases, the secrecy and the era of the Cold war affects them.
We have a mother whose son wants to go into the RAF and be a radar operator, she doesn’t want him to go because she lost her husband flying in the Battle of Britain. You have got her brother-in-law who wants to go into civil defence because he’s really fired up about protect and survive and the daughter of the publican just wants to be a Teddy Girl and doesn’t want to be concerned with the war-like nature of the world.
The two worlds come to together when she starts going out with a guy from the Bentwaters base and so you get a glimpse of life at both RAF and USAF bases as well as civilian life at the time and how the airbases were part of East Anglian life for so many years.
Woodbridge and Bentwaters are clearly a big part of the story but Bawdsey also continued to play a major role ?
“Woodbridge and Bentwaters were twin bases but had different responsibilities. My story takes place from 1949 until 1962 – from The Berlin Airlift to the Cuban Missile Crisis. I learnt that very early in the process the Americans decided that they weren’t going to work with us anymore. They weren’t going to share any information about their nuclear weapons even though they still wanted them based here. That meant that we had to develop our own. Meanwhile, Bawdsey was scanning the skies looking out for Russian spy-planes.
Why did you decide to end of the play in 1962?
“Clearly, the Cold War goes up to the fall of the Berlin Wall but I felt that just to keep things manageable I decided that the play would stop at the Cuban Missile Crisis because I felt that was a real turning point. It was such a near miss that America and Russia started talking to one another. The hot line was installed and the Cold War went from military muscle, shows of force to the world of espionage, the murky world of James Bond and George Smiley.
The play works on two levels you have the politicians telling us what’s going on in the world. I have Churchill as a narrator, along with Truman and Stalin, because even though he was out of office he was an man who was not afraid to voice his opinions during this period and obviously knew a lot of what was going on and then inbetween we have scenes of our local family in a pub delivering a series of snapshots as the years go by. Then, for added atmosphere, we screen some government information films from the era.
I end the play on a startling incident which leaves the way open for a possible third installment but it doesn’t leave the audience hanging for a conclusion.”
Unseen Enemy: Radar and the Cold War, by Suzanne Hawkes, is on tour at Landguard Fort, Orford Village Hall, Bawdsey Transmitter Block, Waldringfield Village Hall and Bentwaters Old Jet until July 25. Tickets can be booked at www.ticketsource.co.uk/black-white-productions