Operation Mincemeat, a new musical created by the comedy group SpitLip, will be having its first West End run at the Fortune Theatre beginning on 29 March. The show is about the insane but true story of how a group of men were able to use a corpse to fool Hitler and help the Allies win World War II. Since its development runs at the New Diorama Theatre in 2019 and at teh Southwark Playhouse from 2020 to 2020, the show and SpitLip have gone on to win several accolades, including the 2023 Off West End award for Best Musical Production for Operation Mincemeat.
Recently, I had the opportunity to chat with SpitLip (Zoe Roberts, Felix Hagan, David Cumming, and Tash Hodgson) about Operation Mincemeat and its West End debut. We discussed the formation of the comedy group, the history behind Operation Mincemeat, and what it’s like to make a hilarious musical out of a wartime espionage event.
So how did you all first get involved in the world of comedy with SpitLip?
Tash: So me and Zoey and David all met at Warwick University, where we bonded – We used to stay up watching trilogies together, like comedy trilogies and things like that. We always liked watching like The League of Gentlemen. So we were very much bonded by our weird, British, dark, slightly twisted, sense of humor. And then me and Felix actually met quite randomly, but we’re in a band together, Felix Hagen & The Family. That’s all you need. And then we just started the comedy plays that me, Zoey, Dave, a couple of other guys and I were making together. More and more music was required! We were going down that inevitable road of trying to write a musical, despite all our best instincts, and so yeah, it’d
David: Just trying to be cool . . .
Tash: And now we’re not!
David: We just really enjoy making each other laugh. That’s our main thing in general conversation, so that bleeds into everything we do. So we can’t really take that many things too seriously!
What inspired you to create Operation Mincemeat?
Tash: We basically had succumbed to the inevitable that we wanted to write a musical together. Having done a bunch of really silly comedy horror, plays about werewolves and tentacles and aliens, we were like, “Let’s try and bring this down to a bit more of a sensible level.” We wanted to base it on a true story because we’d never written a musical before and we thought that would be a good, solid basis. We’d looked around for some for stories and stuff and we weren’t being very inspired. Then I was on holiday with my family and my brother, who was a vet at the time, was hearing me complain about the fact that none of us were being creatively inspired, and he just uplugged his headphones and was like, “I’m listening to a podcast that should be a musical.” And I was just like, “Shut up! What do you know about anything? You’re a vet, keep away from the creative stuff!” But unfortunately, it was a Stuff You Should Know podcast about Operation Mincemeat. And from the second I started listening to it, I was just like, “Oh, crap, he’s done it. He doesn’t just know about cows.”
Tash: And so I sent it to these guy and I was like, “I can’t believe I’m going to suggest that we make a musical about World War Two of all the most boring topics in the world!’
David: The worst idea in the world!
Tash: Awful! But this was so different to anything we’d ever come across. And to do with “The Big War” that everyone bangs on about all the time, it was just a weird, macabre spy caper that never should have been allowed to happen. It was just so fascinating that we were just like, “Let’s go for it!”
What kind of research did you do after hearing the podcast?
Zoe: We just read and listened to a bunch of stuff! All of the characters in this story . . . I call them characters, they were real humans. There’s stuff about them online! There’s articles about like, Sir Bernard Spilsbury, a guy who decided that he could smell the cause of death from a corpse – You read a sentence on that and you’re like, “Well, I’m going into the internet for seven days, see you in a week!” One of the lead characters, Ewen Montagu, who was one of the main guys who did the operation, actually wrote a book about it, The Man Who Never Was, which he released quite a few years after it happened. Reading that massively colored our depiction of the character of Montagu, but also the tone of the whole show, because the guy was just having the time of his life!
Tash: [Laughs] He was loving it!
Zoe: He’s just having the best possible time during this mad corpse-based spy operation and was so convinced that he was the biggest genius who ever lived – You just fall in love with this amazing, charismatic maniac through reading it. So that was a big influence on the vibe of the show as well.
Tash: Had a good chat with a submariner as well.
David: Oh, yes!
Tash: We wanted to get some historical accuracy because there’s a couple of scenes that are in a submarine so we had a really interesting Zoom call with a submariner to make sure that we got the terminology, like the ranking and who would say what, because there’s so much nonsense in it [the show] that we felt like it needs like a backbone of, “We do sort of know what we’re talking about.”
Zoe: The first draft going, “Up, bubbles!”
Tash: Really interesting. Press the sea button, let’s go!
David: We contacted the Imperial War Museum and got interviews from some of the actual submariners on the submarine themselves. These interviews were conducted a lot later, but are first-hand accounts, which is really cool.
Tash: What’s nice about the submariner sources is that you can really hear like the wonder of, even years later, not be able to believe that they were just routinely doing their job and they opened up this canister and there was a dead man inside. It’s amazing to hear that even years and years later, it’s just unbelievable that that happened to them.
Did you use any of the quotes from your research in the show? Or is it all written by you and only inspired by the quotes?
Felix: Well, the most notable version of that is the letter song, “Dear Bill”, in which the refrain of the song is a literal quotation from the letter that they used in the actual mission. A lot of it, aside from that, was our interpretation of real events filtered through the comedic sausage machine.
Tash: What’s nice about the only really direct quote being from this letter song is that the emotional heart of the piece is this letter that’s written to the fake officer from his fake fiancée, because they made it all up. But when we read the real life letter, yeah, the refrain that we immediately couldn’t believe existed was the words, “Why did we meet in the middle of a war? What a silly thing for anyone to do.” I think it’s safe to say that it’s by far the most loved line in the show, and we didn’t even write it! [Laughs] We’re very bitter about it.
David: At the end of the show, we also quote the engraving on the headstone of the monument to Glyndwyr Michael, the homeless man whose body they used. So that’s a nice touch of quoting what they say about him, which is, “For Glyndwyr Michael, who served as Major William Martin, The Man Who Never Was,” which is also a reference to Montagu’s book, and then later film of the same name.
For those unfamiliar with Operation Mincemeat, how would you describe it to them in a few sentences?
Zoe: I’d say it’s the insane, true story of a small bunch of idiots who managed to achieve the impossible by using a dead body to hoodwink the Nazis and help turn the tide of World War Two – plus songs!
Tash: [Laughs] And dances!
What has it been like seeing the show grow as it’s developed?
David: Really amazing, terrifying, and humbling. In a sense, it feels like the first show that we’ve made. It’s our first show that SpitLip have made as a four, but it’s certainly not the first show that separately we’ve made in our careers. But it feels like the first time anything we’ve worked on has snowballed into becoming something much larger than just the four of us. T he fan base really love the show and are really dedicated to it and actually care a lot about what we’re putting out, which feels really lovely. It feels more like we’re custodians of this experience that people go to now, which is an interesting and different way of seeing your work. It’s also hilarious to think about how much stuff we’ve thrown away because we’re like, “Well, we got it wrong last time! Let’s get it right, let’s get it right.” So it’s an ongoing process.
Tash: I think because it’s a true story, people feel much more connected to it. I think we do as well! Like the fact that you can come and see this show and our pretty insane depictions of all the people that were part of it, and then you can go and read about them and learn that everything we’ve put in there kind of comes from truth, comes from grains of truth, or are genuine, actual events that happened. It’s that classic thing of truth being stranger than fiction. We’ve actually had to remove so much crazy stuff that really happened just to keep the story on an even keel! We’re just incredibly grateful to everyone who saw us begin within The New Diorama when it was just 80 seats and I’d stuck with us and helped us change it, giving us feedback and being in that live room with us. It’s really due to those people who have come on the journey with us that we feel like we’re here. So thanks guys! Thanks for helping us with our show!
David: Following from what Tash said, early on, when we first showed very early rustlings of the show, we got in written feedback when we were doing scratch notes, people in all caps being like, “You cannot lie about history like this! This is a disgrace! How dare you be so rude to our veterans?” And we were like, “This is all completely true. Sorry, sir, we didn’t mean to upset you!” They were so angry that we’d dare pretend that they’d gotten a night-blind racecar driver to drive them through the night and crashed like five times on the way up to Edinburgh, which is what happened. But he was just like [imitating angry man], “Don’t be so ridiculous! The British would never do this!” Well, actually, it turns out, the British love doing ridiculous things.
So you had backlash to the show at first?
David: I think they just thought we were being too flippant about history, when actually the joy of this story is this isn’t that World War Two you’re taught – This is so much more madcap, crazy, on a knife edge and shouldn’t have been done by any sensible group of people, but crazy circumstances need crazy ideas!
Tash: It’s probably better now, but when we were taught World War Two as kids, it was very much like, “And then the good British did all the right things and they won the war and the world thanks them for it!” That is not an untrue depiction of the war, but it is much more complicated and nuanced. The British were complicit in some terrible things at all angles and all levels and continue to be! The posh toffs of Eton continue to rule this country, for better or for worse. Having a story that, to us, encapsulated that but in a really fun adventure versus feeling like a lesson. It was important for us to kind of go, “There are much more interesting shades of this big story that we were not told about as kids.”
So had any of you heard of Operation Mincemeat before you started working on the show?
Felix: [Shakes head]
Tash: But it feels like a story that a lot of people really do know really well.
David: I think the generation before us might remember the film. It was shown on TV on afternoons and Sundays and people are like, “Oh, yeah, that thing that happened!” But I think it has lost some of its immediacy of relevance and then our generation have now refound it in our ridiculous retelling.
Tash: But it’s been it’s been really nice to have people with different degrees of involvement in both Operation Mincemeat and then the wider MI5 and Ministry of Defense, whose grandparents were involved, or whose parents were involved or who work there now come and see the show. It’s been really delightful to talk to them, just to do with whether things have changed, what was was right about it, and how ridiculous it really is. The overwhelming sentiment seems to be this is accurately crazy for the secrets of Whitehall and what’s really going on in MI5.
David: It’s terrifying!
[Laughs] What do you hope audiences take away from Operation Mincemeat?
David: A programme!
Zoe: Joy! Joy and a programme. For us, it’s always about entertainment and joy. It feels like the world is increasingly just a really, really horrible place – Times are tough. Being in a room with 70 people or 700 people who were all laughing together and having a shared experience is what makes it really special for us. But it’s not just about the comedy! It’s also about them being able to connect with this story of a small group of people who really care about each other, care about what they’re doing, and are doing something difficult and important during tough times because that also feels like something that people can relate to at the moment as well.
Tash: I think also, we’re a small team, the cast is small . . . We set out on this mad journey of being like “Could we write a musical and see how far it could go?” Looking at the what’s on the West End stages right now, it’s so much money! The casts are huge and there are amazing amd incredible spectacles and we do something different to that but still create that same level of spectacle and joy. It would be great for us if people came to see the show and went, “Maybe you don’t need an enormous huge budget. You don’t need a cast of 20 to 30 people. Small groups of people can change things, can shift things and make people feel differently and feel like they want to innovate and push the boundaries.” That’s what we loved about the story – It’s this small group of people doing crazy things. Hopefully, people will take this world with them when they watch us do it too.
And finally, how would each of you describe the show in one word?
Felix: All the words I’m saying are ironic joke ones! Groundbreaking, award-winning, multi-award-winning . . . .
Zoe: Oh my god . . .
Felix: Oh, it’s great, isn’t it?
Zoe: Great, we got to great.
Tash: We got there together, guys.
Thank you to David, Felix, Tash, and Zoe for the fun interview and to Victoria Wedderburn and Jasmine Ruparelia of Avalon for arranging the interview!
Operation Mincemeat runs at the Fortune Theatre from 29 March to 8 July. Tickets can be purchased here.