Playwright Peter Arnott first came across a CD of German propaganda jazz 20 years ago while writing book reviews for his local newspaper.

He said the tale of Charly and his Orchestra – a Nazi propaganda swing band – was one of the most incredible tales he had ever heard and inspired him to pen his new play, Propaganda Swing.

“At the back of this German propaganda book was a CD of jazz and swing, which included Charly and his Orchestra. I couldn’t believe it. There were popular songs like Makin’ Whoopee, but with anti-Semitic lyrics,” he explains.

“I remember thinking this was one of the most incredible stories I had ever heard.”

Propaganda Swing is the Belgrade Theatre’s latest home-produced drama and picks up where the musical Cabaret ends.

Peter explores how some of the greatest German jazz musicians of the day entered into a Faustian pact with the Fascists.

The Glaswegian writer explains: “Propaganda Swing is a mix of two things – the story of a young American journalist in love with a German singer and the real story of Charly and his Orchestra.

“I’m enthused by finding a tiny story inside the bigger story – and you can’t get bigger than the Second World War.

“The play takes place in the early days of the Second World War when Lord Haw Haw was broadcasting from Germany to Britain and centres on a real-life Nazi jazz band who broadcast re-worked versions of popular jazz standards complete with viciously anti-Semitic lyrics.

“The Nazis loathed jazz and yet they knew how to harness its power as a form of light entertainment. It was that paradox that struck me as incredible and I knew that within that paradox lay the origins of a fascinating human drama.”

Propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels gave permission to bring Berlin’s best jazz musicians into the music propaganda programme and in 1940 Charly and his Orchestra was born – led by Nazi SS officer and singer Karl Schwedler, “Charly”.

Chris Andrew Mellon as Otto Stenzl in Propaganda Swing
Chris Andrew Mellon as Otto Stenzl in Propaganda Swing
 

The band was even allowed to travel to neutral and occupied countries to collect jazz and dance music.

“Very often audiences are given a dumbed-down version of real events, especially on TV. I believe that if you present stuff that was actually said, the truth is always much more surprising and astounding than anything made up,” says Peter.

“It’s based on real people. These were all working musicians. Charly was a Nazi SS officer and he loved jazz, but the rest were quite ordinary musicians. My favourite character is band leader Otto Stenzl, who was something of a stand-up comedian.

“We kind of forget most of the people caught up in the war are just like you and me. It’s a universal story. We all make compromises. The musicians have their own lives and ambitions and then get offered to do what they love. It looks like a fantastic deal. Here’s the music the Nazis are forbidding to be played and they are paid on government salaries to play it – all they have to do is change the words.

“These are the kind of moral trappings people find themselves in during war.

“They were ordered to play this music on radio programmes broadcast to Britain. It’s really good jazz.”

As an official “Reichsministerium” band, the group made more than 90 recordings between March 1941 and February 1943.

But as Peter explains the story does have a happy ending – of sorts.

“Charly and his Orchestra’s Lili Marleen, sung by Lale Anderson, was the single biggest hit of the war. The Nazis banned it as they thought it was a sentimental ballad but the German soldiers loved it, the Brits loved it and even the North African troops loved it.

“When the Brits found a whole pile of recordings by Charly and His Orchestra it went on to became a huge hit and the band recorded it in 14 languages. After the war the real Lale Anderson became a big star in Germany. So, in a strange way, the music did win.

“The theatre seems genuinely excited about it. It’s gone through a few drafts.”

Directed by Hamish Glen, Propaganda Swing is a co-production between Coventry’s Belgrade Theatre and Nottingham Playhouse, which previously collaborated on Charlie Peace: His Amazing Life and Astounding Legend in 2013.

It features eight actor-musicians performing some of the greatest jazz music from the 1930s Berlin jazz scene.

Calum Coates as Lord Haw Haw in Propaganda Swing.
Calum Coates as Lord Haw Haw in Propaganda Swing.
 

Chris Andrew Mellon returns to the Belgrade in the role of Otto Stenzl after his critically-acclaimed appearance in the Belgrade’s 2014 Spanish Golden Age Season. He will be joined by Clara Darcy, as Anita, who was previously touring in the Brassed Off 2014 UK tour and the Belgrade’s We Love You City in 2010.

Peter has been friends with Hamish Glen, the Belgrade’s artistic director, for 30 years.

“I’ve known Hamish since 1984. The first thing we did together was in 1986, a youth theatre show on the back of a truck, which included a young Ewen Bremner,” says Peter.

“When Hamish was at Dundee Rep we did two or three shows, including a version of Jekyll and Hyde and Mr. Puntila and His Man Matti.”

One of Scotland’s most cherished playwrights, the 51-year-old began his career at the Traverse Theatre in Edinburgh with his play White Rose in 1985.

He has written more than 40 professionally produced plays including Muir and Losing Alec, the award-winning The Breathing House, A Little Rain, (7:84) and Cyprus. Adaptations include Neil Gunn’s The Silver Darlings.

In 2013 he won a Fringe First in Edinburgh with Why Do You Stand There in the Rain? and his Janis Joplin: Full Tilt debuted at Oran Mor in November 2013. This year it is being revived at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe.

“I have written 50 minutes of monologue and song. Angie Darcy is a great Janis,” he says.

Peter is also under commission to the National Theatre of Scotland, Mull Theatre and Perth Theatre, as well as to BBC Radio.

He says: “Scotland has a very separate theatre scene and it’s been funded separately since 1948.

“A lot of exciting stuff happens in Scotland which people in England never get to hear about – everything is so London centric.”

Ironically Propaganda Swing opens in the same week as The Scottish Independence Referendum.

Peter adds: “I am a yes voter. I’m going to have to go home to vote.”

* Propaganda Swing premieres at the Belgrade Theatre’s main stage on September 13 and runs for two weeks until September 27 transferring to Nottingham Playhouse from October 2 to 18. Tickets start at £9. Ring 024 7655 3055 or go to www.belgrade.co.uk