THEATRE AT WAR: PRACTICE AND RESEARCH
These samples are from an education pack and programme notes for the National Theatre of Variety production, Theatre at War, performed on 3rd December 2005 at Blackpool. Dedicated to ENSA artistes of World War II, there were over one hundred performers on stage. The production received funds from the Big Lottery Fund, especially for an education conference and learning materials. These extracts were circulated to school students, used in a fully illustrated programme and discussed at a workshop led by Wyn Calvin and Mark Raffles, ENSA veterans who then performed in the show.
Theatre at War: Blackpool
The introduction of the blackout from early September 1939, and more importantly the start of the Blitz in London a year later, led to massive disruption of the entertainment industry in general and the theatre world in particular: overnight, theatres closed down, several of them never to reopen. The West End was thrown into chaos. Two theatres started up again when restrictions were eased in the middle of September 1939. One was the Windmill which offered a programme of humour, music, ‘legshows’ and immobile nudes: it boasted ‘We never close’, and it is sometimes claimed that it was the only theatre never to do so at this time. This is wrong: most provincial theatres, including the Blackpool Grand Theatre remained opened. Blackpool was a major war centre. The theatres thrived, with fourteen different shows every night, for most of the War. The audiences came not only from holidaymakers who kept coming to the resort as a morale-booster but from the influx of 4,000 relocated civil servants, the 38,000 evacuees, the huge growth in service personnel (45,000 airmen were billeted in the town), and 11,000 stationed here from America. These people poured into the theatres for their off-duty entertainment. The Americans, based at Warton – ‘overpaid, over-sexed and over here’ according to the contemporary phrase – were particularly prominent, and profligate with their money. The Blackpool entertainment industry prospered as never before or since: the ‘season’ went on for 52 weeks each year.
Theatre at War: the influence of ENSA
The Entertainments National Service Association (ENSA) was formed by Basil Dean in 1938-9 to provide entertainment for the British and Allied military personnel and war workers on the Home Front. ENSA presented some 2.6 million shows for the duration the Second World War. It was the largest theatrical management ever, producing everything from Stars in Battledress, the RAF Gang Shows, Military concert parties, to new plays and revivals of Shakespeare. A huge logistical operation was coordinated from London’s Drury Lane Theatre, sending artists to all fronts across the world, as well as to British hostels and factories. Basil Dean recalled:
In company with the butcher, the baker and the candlestick-maker, actors, singers and musicians went forth to the Second World War. Some wore His Majesty’s uniform; others marched under the banner of the Entertainments National Service Association (ENSA) to the cheers of the onlookers, with an occasional sneer by way of overtone. The entertainment army grew from the smallest beginnings until all non-combatant members of the theatrical, variety and musical professions became involved in its affairs in one way or another. And the demands for equipment were so great that the manufacturers of theatre and cinema equipment, the scenery and lighting contractors, costume and property makers and the like found themselves compelled to set on one side an ever-increasing proportion of their annual output to meet the requisitions of the Department of National Service Entertainment, the official title for the administrative machine built up round the ENSA idea.
Such a mobilization of entertainment had never before been seen, and never will be again; just as well that it should be so, for the demand grew beyond manageable proportions, so that mistakes were made, and quality sometimes fell short of expectation. [Any seeming mishap on stage tonight will pay homage to the ENSA colloquialism of ‘Every Night Something Awful’!]. In the nightmarish wars of the future the struggle for mass preservation will dominate the national effort, even though rationed entertainment – sound and vision – should be piped to the new troglodytes in their atom-proof shelters. Therefore, in the historical sense, ENSA’s record will remain unique.
On VE Day the following message from the ENSA President was posted at Drury Lane, and copies were dispatched to ENSA offices in Great Britain and to Headquarters in every military area overseas:
SPECIAL VICTORY DAY MESSAGE
From the Lord Tyrrell of Avon, PC, GCB, GCMG, KCVO
To All ENSA Artists and Technicians
I cannot let this great day of release from the anxieties of total war pass without sending greetings and congratulations to all ENSA artists and technicians who have worked so hard and so well to entertain the troops and factory workers everywhere. I feel that a special word of thanks is due to those who have been organising the ENSA work, both at Drury Lane and elsewhere, right from the beginning. Many of you do not come before the public eye, but your work and unflagging loyalty have been essential to the success of the organisation.
As President of ENSA and on behalf of the Provisional Council, I send to all advisory councils, regional committees and members of ENSA companies my warmest appreciation and thanks for the wonderful work that has been done in connection with the NAAFI service of entertainments to troops at home and overseas, and also to the millions of war-workers in various fields at home. Personally, and on behalf of ENSA, I wish you all continued good fortune both now and in the future.
TYRRELL OF AVON
THE ENSA RECORD
FIGURES OF THE CLIMAX
The output of entertainment reached its maximum during the winter of 1945. For the four weeks ended February 24, the figures of actual performances were:
Thus, 8,399 separate shows were being given each week; spread over two-thirds of the globe.
Of this total roughly 40 per cent was live entertainment.
The annual cost of the maximum output was estimated at £5,489,900. [Approx. £651 million today].
More than 80 per cent of the entire Entertainment Industry gave service to ENSA.
Today, live entertainment to Britain’s armed forces in Afghanistan, Bosnia, Cyprus, The Falklands, Iraq and Kosovo is provided by Combined Services Entertainment, part of Services Sound and Vision Corporation, See www.ssvc.com
Theatre at War: the influence of CEMA
There were two key theatre organisations in the Second World War. Tonight’s performance is dedicated not only to the artistes of ENSA, but also recalls the work of the Council for the Encouragement of Music and the Arts (CEMA).
A few months after the outbreak of the War, CEMA was founded by the Pilgrim Trust. This Trust had been founded in 1930, with £2 million (£330 million) from an American admirer of Britain’s First World War achievements. The Pilgrim Trust encouraged a pound for pound amount of Treasury aid to CEMA. The government grant of £50,000 (£7.6 million today) was the first significant government intervention in the arts, and in 1942 CEMA became wholly financed by the Treasury. Nobody could have foreseen the advances which this organisation would make during the wartime years. Today, Arts Council England (after several name changes but formerly the Arts Council of Great Britain) is its successor. CEMA and the Arts Council became, for most of their history, the answer to critics who believed that the policy of State-aided theatre is neither practical nor beneficial. In fact, the reverse was proved; the three CEMA departments of music, art and drama hurdled innumerable barriers, and in 1944, they had completed four years of presenting the finest performances and exhibitions.
When CEMA was established the immediate problem was the provision of music and drama to meet the conditions of blackout, concentration of workers in new centres and the collapse of existing sources of theatre and music. During the winter of 1940-41 the name CEMA began to be known in all parts of the country. The period of air raids intensified the need for its work and by 1942 it was securely placed in the affections of audiences. This was a period of consolidation as well as expansion: the cessation of raids found CEMA in the position for the first time of being able to think in terms of the future. Whilst the underwriting of existing theatrical companies helped them continue normal work, gradually a more interesting development took place – the creation of a system of plays (as well as concerts and art exhibitions) to be given at Royal Ordnance Hostels in ‘isolated’ regions. For some time these ‘ROH’ tours were one of the most successful CEMA ventures. For these performances, hostel workers were part of an enormous untapped source of audience and the Council’s work in this area was possibly the most important single facet of its achievement.
CEMA collaborated enthusiastically in formal funding agreements that were the precursor of ‘core revenue funding’ today. It enabled The Sadler’s Wells Ballet to make visits to the Blackpool Grand Theatre, such as that with Margot Fonteyn, Frederick Ashton and Robert Helpmann in 1940. The longest collaboration was with the Old Vic. From the early days of the war, when the company relocated to Burnley, to the opening of the Old Vic’s Liverpool headquarters at the Playhouse, culminating in the 1944-45 season at London’s New Theatre, the association of CEMA and the Old Vic blazed a trail of theatrical endeavour. CEMA assisted tours of the Old Vic to the Blackpool Grand Theatre, such as Jean Forbes-Robertson in The Merchant of Venice (1942) and Flora Robson in Guilty, adapted from Therèse Raquin (1944). Exemption from entertainment tax was granted by the Board of Customs: CEMA companies were, like the Grand Theatre today, all non-profit making; all reserves accumulated being used in ways which were to the advantage of theatre and the public alike. The pioneer production in the hostel experiment was the Old Vic’s staging of Laurence Houseman’s Jacob’s Ladder in 1942. Its success encouraged a regular circuit and many companies continued the task of bringing theatre to the people; such as Walter Hudd, Stanford Holme, Norman Marshall, Ashley Dukes’ Mercury Players, Basil C. Langton’s Travelling Repertory Theatre, the Pilgrim Players, the Market Theatre and André van Gyseghem’s Company.
The response of factory workers to productions of plays by Bernard Shaw, Oliver Goldsmith, William Shakespeare, Somerset Maugham, Henrik Ibsen, Tomas Dekker, Anton Chekov and others was amazing. Playing to workers, many of whom had previously experienced no contact with the arts, the actors enjoyed a new stimulant and were delighted with the spontaneous comments and appreciation of their new audiences. Likewise, the ABCA Play Unit (part of the Army Bureau of Current Affairs) sought to alleviate boredom amongst the troops, by dramatising ideas and subjects discussed in Army Education, commissioned from playwrights such as J.B. Priestley and performed in ‘found spaces’ such as Nissan huts, gun sites and factory canteens. The steady increase of the size of audiences at the hostels was an indication that the presentation of theatre to the masses constituted an obvious task for CEMA after the war. The results might be said to be the envy of today’s Arts Council ‘audience development’ programmes: many thousands of workers had their first taste of ‘good’ theatre during the Second World War years. Furthermore, the decentralisation of the ‘serious’ theatre, for so long concentrated in the West End, was also fostered by CEMA through directly managing the Theatre Royal at Bristol, where they ran the Bristol Old Vic Company.
But for CEMA and the Second World War, the Arts Council would not have been formed. In The Arts in Wartime, a 1944 report, CEMA declared its policy: ‘The defined purpose of the Council for the Encouragement of Music and the Arts is to maintain the highest possible standard in the arts. The Council is prepared to enlist in this policy the co-operation of theatre companies who have before them the same ideal of service to the community; which are anxious to spread the knowledge and appreciation of all that is best in the theatre, and thus to bring into being permanent, educated audiences all over the country. It is a special aim of the Council to encourage the dispersal of the arts to centres which, mainly for reasons connected with the war, are cut off from enjoying them’. If only such a plain-speaking, enthusiastic theatre policy could be the maxim of today’s funding bodies!
This production starred The New Squadronaires, Tony Jo, Barrie Rutter, Mark Raffles, Mo Moreland, Neville St Claire, The Cup Cakes, The Home Front Girls, Wyn Calvin, Jim Casey and Eli Woods, Beryl Johnson, the Tiptoes Dance School.
Directed by Tony Jo. Produced by Paul Iles and Phil Harrison.
A select bibliography for Theatre at War
Theatre at War conference delegates, school students and performance patrons may discover more about the subject in only a limited number of publications: this period in British theatre history is the most under-researched. Most of the following books are out of print, but see, for instance:
John Graven Hughes, The Greasepaint War: Show Business 1939-45, London, New English Library, 1976.
Basil Dean, Theatre at War, London, Harrap, 1956.
Michael Munn, Stars in Battledress, London, Robson Books, 1995.
Bill Pertwee, Stars in Battledress: a Light-hearted Look at Service Entertainment in the Second World War, London, Hodder & Stoughton, 1992.
Jack Greenwood, Blackpool Entertains the Troops, Blackpool, for the author, 1986.
B. Ifor Evans and Mary Glasgow, The Arts in England, London, Falcon Press, 1949.
Nick Hayes and Jeff Hill (eds), Millions Like Us? British Culture in the Second World War, Liverpool, Liverpool University Press, 1999.
Richard Fawkes, Fighting for a Laugh: Entertaining the British and American Armed Forces 1939-1946, London, Macdonald and Jane’s, 1978.
A review of Theatre at War
by Iain Mackintosh
You do not get many playbills today and those proclaiming TONIGHT ONLY are rarer still. One sticks out in my memory, for the New Tyne Theatre for 6 May 1983. Chairman Jack Dixon and his ‘bunch of amateurs’ (in the po-faced words of latter day arts administrators of the north-east) knew their newly restored Tyne Theatre of 1867 to be Britain’s best theatre and so they hired the world's best tenor, Placido Domingo, to sing Cavaradossi alongside Mara Zampieri, making her British debut and giving her ‘Tosca’ in the complete production and setting of WNO with the 60 strong Northern Sinfonia in the pit. Dixon's loyal audience, 1,200 of them dressed to the nines, paid £50 a seat in the Grand Circle, £15 in the gallery (22 years ago remember) and Dixon balanced the books without a sponsor or a penny of subsidy. On the sixth call there were still no flowers until a lady came down the centre aisle and passed something to the conductor who passed it to the second violins, then to the woodwind. The clarinetist stood up, Domingo bent down and held it up before handing it to Mara Zampieri: an empty bottle of Newcastle Brown with a single long stemmed red rose. The audience went wild. James Dunbar-Nasmith, Christopher Brereton, David Wilmore and I pressed our shoulder blades to the theatre wall in the side aisle of the Upper Circle, convinced the cast iron and timber framed Tyne Theatre was about to collapse. A night to remember.
And so was Saturday 3 December 2005 at the Grand Theatre, Blackpool, Matcham’s 1894 masterpiece, his earliest all electric theatre and the only one to retain its original circle front fittings and central electroliers. The Manager is Paul Iles, not Director, General Administrator or Chief Executive Officer, but Manager - as the bloke who runs a theatre has been called for the last two centuries. ‘Theatre at War, Dedicated to the ENSA artistes of World War II’ was Paul's idea as a crown to the 60th anniversary celebrations to the ending of the Second World War. He managed a grant from the Big Lottery Fund, important for a theatre which receives only 2% of its annual income from grants.
Paul pegged the show firmly to Blackpool, which in the early 1940s had 11,000 American airmen plus many, many more British servicemen, relocated civil servants and evacuees filling the town and its theatres 52 weeks in the year. In the magnificent souvenir he reprinted the programme at The Grand, week of 4 January 1944, for The United States 8th Air Force Special Services Section (all male) in SKIRTS, a prior to London presentation with dances directed and musical numbers staged by our Wendy Toye. In his show Paul echoed this in a neat editing of the words of the Mayor of Blackpool welcoming the Americans, ‘overpaid, over-sexed and over here’, and warning them of British customs. This cultural address was spoken by the Tragedian of the North, Barrie Rutter, known as the Director of Northern Broadsides until re-christened by Paul.
This was a full variety bill, including some ‘tributes’ such as the New Squadronaires and The Cupcakes, who do The Andrews Sisters. But others were ‘the real thing’. Wyn Calvin, ‘The Welsh Prince of Laughter’ slipped into ENSA as a 17 year old in 1945 (which must make him 77), did ‘stand up’ as it was and continued at breakfast the next morning when he and I, plus our wives, shared theatrical digs. Mark Raffles, Magicologist, performed impeccably and silently with those five interlocking and separating gold rings. He made his debut at the Queen's Park Hippodrome, Manchester in 1938 which puts him in his mid 80s.
But words fail for Mo Moreland, Blackpool’s Bombshell, who started playing London Underground platforms during the blitz, saw peace declared while playing at the Elephant and Castle and was a subject for ‘This is Your Life’. The mid tabs opened, the New Squadronaires back lit against the eye, Mo Moreland singing ‘Lili Marlene’ under the lamplight - very well. Huge Applause. Lights up and she moves down centre where MC Tony Jo courteously takes her coat off complete with the lamp, lit, attached by a curious device to the leopard skin. Then the floral dressed bomb belts out another number. Wow.
The Tribute to Jimmy James was performed by his son plus Eli Woods, the original stooge to Jimmy James himself. And so it went on: more blue birds over the white cliffs of Dover than you can remember - a pity nobody told the American lyric writer that blue birds never get over here.
Paul gave us a great evening. Where he had a gap he filled it imaginatively: Ruth Madoc was about to open in panto at the Grand so, wearing blond pigtails, she gave us ‘There is a Hole in My Bucket’ with the Tragedian of the North who obviously does comedy as well.
The closing number featured the British Legion, all berets, blazers, white gloves and banners. More patriotism and more tears. A night to remember. And a demonstration that managing a theatre properly is a most creative job. The Grand knew Paul between 1988 and 1992 before he became the first Manager of the reconstructed Empire in Edinburgh - the Festival Theatre where I met him - until 1997 when he briefly retreated into academia, winning an MPhil and MLitt at Glasgow University, the first with a thesis on Howard & Wyndham, before returning to Blackpool in 2005. I guess he will become as part of the landscape as the Tower - in whose ballroom on the afternoon of 3 December there were 2,000 nymphets from the ages of 7 to 16 competing in sequins, eyeshadow and very little else in the north west's big disco dancing competition. But that is another story, and another Matcham.
From Theatres: the magazine of The Theatres Trust, London, Issue No 7, Spring 2006, pp. 13-14. Iain Mackintosh, Chairman Emeritus of Theatre Projects Consultants, was a trustee of The Theatres Trust from 1984 to 1991, as was Paul Iles from 1996 to 2005.
The action of the theatre, though modern states esteem it merely ludicrous unless it be satirical and biting, was carefully watched by the ancients, so that it might improve mankind by virtue; and indeed many wise men and great philosophers have thought it to the mind as the bow to the fiddle; and certain it is, though a great secret in nature, that the minds of men in company are more open to affections and impressions than when alone.
The object of the theatre is not to teach us what this or that particular person has done, but what every person under certain circumstances would do.
The theatre is a mirror of life.
The purpose of playing, whose end, both at first and now, was and is, to hold as 'twere the mirror up to nature, to show virtue her own feature, scorn her own image, and the very age and body of the time his form and pressure.