Charles Montagu Slater was born in Millom, Cumberland, on 23rd September 1902 to a working class family. He won a scholarship to Magdalen College, Oxford. Following his graduation, began a career as a reporter for the Liverpool Post; in one spectacular journalistic duty crossing the Atlantic aboard the R.101 airship.
He was active in local politics and joined the Communist Party in about 1927. His political commitment is reflected in his literary work, which was particularly productive during the 1930s. He became editor of 'Left Review', which he helped create in 1934, and he wrote theatre criticism as well as plays, poems, short stories and film scripts. During this period, he often used the pseudonym of ` Ajax’.
Slater wrote introductions to editions of plays about an infamous murder case of the early 19th century and connections with the famous Sweeney Todd, the murderous barber, in 1928 and 1933.
He worked with composer Benjamin Britten in the 1930s, when the composer wrote some incidental music for three of his plays. This included `Easter 1916’, a play covering the 1913 lock-out and the 1916 Rising, staged by the Unity Theatre in 1935. This was published by Lawrence and Wishart in 1936.
In 1935, he wrote an uncredited script for `Coal Face’, a short documentary film, and the following year his rather more political short pamphlet, `Stay down miner’, was published.
The left wing Unity Theatre produced a highly successful play based on the strike “Busmen” which chronicled the struggle for speed up and pay cuts to the defeat in 1937, was written by Herbert Hodge a London taxi driver and Montagu Slater, with Alan Bush providing the music.
He also wrote the plays `David’ and `Touch and Go’.
A versatile writer who penned reviews, articles and edited theatre journals, Slater was also involved in staging large pageants, including one in 1938 at Wembley Stadium. For this, he wrote a scenario with André van Gyseghem for composer Alan Bush’s ‘Pageant of Co-operation.’
Slater’s war work is as yet undiscovered but it is likely to include a good deal of uncredited scripting of Ministry of Information films. Certainly, his career as a film screenwriter, especially of short films, can be dated to his 1946 `Instruments of the Orchestra’. More scripts would follow.
Of his six novels perhaps `Once a Jolly Swagman’ (1946), with its heroes of the dirt-track, was the most popular.
In 1946, with Arnold Rattenbury (see separate entry) Slater launched a magazine, `Theatre Today, which was soon selling 20,000 copies a month.
By now a major literary figure, he wrote the libretto for Benjamin Britten’s `Peter Grimes’. The story of a misunderstood outsider, desperately trying to achieve an ambition of married happiness by catching enough fish to support a family, tragedy comes after two accidents involving the young boys he takes to assist him. These lead to him being hounded by the village and a final, tragic act. But it is Slater’s libretto that makes the piece soar. Anthony Burgess, writing in The Listener in 1964, stated: “The excellence of Peter Grimes has a great deal to do with Montagu Slater’s libretto, the only libretto I know that can be read in its own right as a dramatic poem.”
He also wrote the libretti for `Yerma’, composed by Denis Aplvor.
In 1947, his book `Who rides a tiger?’ appeared.
Slater was one of a team of celebrated Communist intellectuals who came together to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the publication of the Communist Manifesto in 1948. A meeting and pageant was organised at the Royal Albert Hall on 30th March 1948.
Music and arrangements by various composers including Rutland Boughton, Christian Darnton, Inglis Gundry, Phillip Cardew, Malcolm Arnold, Aubrey Bowman, and Bernard Stevens. The Birmingham Clarion Singers and The London Communist Choir were accompanied by a military-style band, conducted by Alan Bush. Supporting instrumentation included a piccolo, 3 clarinets, a bassoon, 2 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, a Timpani, percussion,a harp, 2 violins, 3 cellos and double-bass! Alan Bush arranged music for the Finale comprising The Red Flag and The Internationale. The whole thing was scripted by Montagu Slater.
`Englishmen with Swords”, a narrative of 1647-1649 written by Slater with material taken from the contemporary journal of Gilbert Mabbot, came out in 1949. He was also the editor of a book of various pieces by Edgar Alan Poe in 1949, for which he wrote an introduction, and the co-editor of an anthology of poems in 1952.
In 1951, he had published what he called “a traditional acting version” of `Round the World in Eighty Days’. an adaptaion of the novel by Jules Verne, which was edited and published with an introduction by Montagu Slater. A traditional edited acting version of Thomas Robertson’s `Caste, also with an introduction came from Slater’s pen the same year.
His `Cure of Minds’ was published in 1952, as was `The Inhabitants’, a novel about a wealthy woman who becomes obsessed with the lives of working people.
In film, Slater was the scriptwriter for Man of Africa (1953), about the Bakiga tribe migration through Uganda. This semi-documentary, directed by Cyril Frankel, was made with an all-African cast but was never released to cinemas. But films made from his scripts were more widely released, including `Out of True’ (1951), a "fictional account of a nervous breakdown which conforms to the pattern of much of the mental illness occurring today", and `The Brave Don't Cry’ (1952), a story about a true mining accident. He scripted the 1952 `Ocean Terminal’ short documentary short and another short in 1955, `Capital Visit’, a travelogue.
Slater was script-writer for `Devil on Horseback’ (1954), which – since it starred real life husband and wife team, Googie Withers and John McCallum – was fairly well-known. The story is of a boy who dreams of nothing but becoming a jockey. Through sheer determination, he gets a job as a stable boy. Eventually he gets to ride a horse in a race. They win the race, but his determination to win at all costs alienates him from his dearest friends.
Interestingly, Slater’s work as a film scriptwriter – unlike others caught up in the fall-out from McCarthyism in Hollywood – – had not ostensibly suffered by the mid-1950s.
Slater gained some fame for a 1955 book on the trial of Kenyatta. Scripting for `A Walk in the Wilderness’, presented by Douglas Fairbanks, Jnr, followed in 1956.
Contrary to some reports, based on Slater’s personal links to those who supported the `New Reasoner’ trend in the Communist Party, Slater supported the British Communist Party majority line in characterising the events in Hungary of 1956 as a counter-revolution and he was most certainly still a member of the Party on his death in London on 19th December 1956 at the age of only 54.
A posthumous publication of his `Maria Marten or the Murder in the Red Barn’, a famous early 19th century murder, whch he had written about early in his career, appeared in 1957.
His personal papers, now archived in the Lawrence Collection at the University of Nottingham, are full of poems and songs, prose works – many intended for broadcast or filming – film and television scripts, and reviews.