The 1940's and Pantomime
Wartime Britain, and the period after the war ended in 1945, produced some of the most difficult times for theatre and pantomime. In the early days of the war in 1940 it looked as if all places of public entertainment would be closed indefinitely, and one by one the country’s theatres opened their doors, and the world of pantomime existed as a glittering escape from the streets ravaged by nightly air raids and austere conditions at home and abroad.
It was an era of great producers and performers. They had survived the onslaught of the cinema, and, in these pre-television days, drew from the popular radio shows and variety shows to provide some of the greatest pantomime stars.
The great Empires of variety were places to escape the troubles for a few hours and indulge in a world of bright lights and, above all comedy. This was the era of the comic as well as the “Big Bands” . Britain needed to laugh, and some of the greatest comedians ensured they did- twice nightly.
This was a time when Max Miller packed them in at the Holborn Empire and the Finsbury Park Empire- in variety- he was never invited to appear in pantomime- his risqué style forbade that! An era when Norman Evans was holding court “Over The Garden Wall”, Lucan and McShane were hurling china at each other (on and off-stage) and Sandy Powell was imploring “Can you hear me Mother?”.
Radio in the 1940’s made huge stars out of their performers. The public often had no idea what their heroes looked like- certainly not “live”, and enterprising managements took them (and often their radio show format) on tour, and into Pantomimes throughout the country.
The Kings of radio were many- these “Radio Times” produced many contenders. Max Miller was exiled from the BBC for alleged “improprieties” in his material, but gained a huge audience broadcasting on radio Luxemburg. An imaginary world was created on the roof of Broadcasting House by Arthur Askey and Richard “Stinker” Murdock each week, in “Bandwaggon”, while Tommy Handley and his team lived in an equally bazaar realm called “ITMA”.
Pantomimes resounded with catch-phrases. Radio had created catch-phrase mania- “Can I do you now Sir?”, “Can You Hear Me Mother?”, “Turned Out Nice Again”, “I Don’t Mind If I Do”, and “Here’s a funny thing…Catch phrases issued by the Government worked just as well- “Be like Dad- Keep Mum”, “Make Do And Mend” and “Dig For Victory” being just a scant few.” Abbreviation became the norm.
ITMA (“Its That Man Again”) was at home in a war torn Britain where everything seemed to be abbreviated- From ENSA to the NAFFI to the cheery farewell TTFN (“Ta Ta For Now”) still in use over sixty years later.
ITMA - Jack Train, Molly Weir, Tommy Handley and Lind Joyce
Up and coming performers like Frankie Howerd, Al Reid and Morecambe and Wise entered the world of pantomime, following in the footsteps of Jimmy Jewel and Ben Warriss, Tommy Trinder and “Cheerful” Charlie Chester.
Beryl Reid took her radio persona of “Marleen” on stage, and into Pantomime as “Gretchen”, Mother Goose’s servant, as did Hylda “She Knows Y’Know” Baker and Betty Jumel.
Nat “Rubber legs” Jackley , Reg Bolton and Freddie Frinton donned skirts to become Dames, as did some of the ladies- in an era of “Man Shortage”, like radio’s “Revnell and West- The Long And The Short Of It”, and Iris Sadler, as Dames, Sisters or overgrown Babes.
“The Dresden Palace” scene of the Ganjou Brothers and Juanita” vied with the sand dance of Wilson, Keppel and Betty “Cleopatra’s Nightmare” in the world of pantomime that had such wonders as The Dagenham Girl Pipers, the Magic of Kardoma- “He fills the stage with flags!” (or flowers by 1941) and even Duncan’s Collies-“Kings of the Canine World”!
Those not appearing in pantomime might be touring the war zones with ENSA- or broadcasting “Somewhere in England”. Wee Georgie Wood and Dolly Harmer might be in the Middle East bumping into George Formby and Beryl, and perhaps giving advice to the soldiers who kept pantomime alive in foreign parts with their own home grown NAFFI panto’s.
An era of great stars in those dark years. The radio Big Bands would hold court as stars like Betty Driver (better known today as Coronation Street’s Betty Turpin) Vera Lynn, Gracie Fields, Anne Shelton and Adelaide Hall sang of better times, of brighter lights and an end to the conflict- too many stars to mention in pantomime- as Albert Wheelan, Albert Burdon, Formby, Jimmy Clitheroe (fresh from Formby’s film “Much Too Shy”) Tommy Fields, and Sid Fields joined the stalwarts Dorothy Ward and Shaun Glenville in twice daily pantomimes around the country.
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Bringing these stars to the land of make-believe were the great impresarios-Emile and Prince Littler, Tom Arnold, Bertram Montague, Sam Newsome, Reg Maddox and Frank Maddox, T.C.Gwilliam and, of course Francis Laidler. The Stoll Empire presented a glittering array of pantomimes:
In 1949 Clarkson Rose-the great pantomime Dame- wrote an article for “The Performer” magazine.
Revived in1939 -The Entertainments National Service Association , for ever to be nick-named by the troops-“Every Night, Something Awful!”
A number of NAFFI “Canteens” set up, and entertainment was supplied to the services at home, and abroad. Often they would provide their own entertainment, including “in house” pantomimes, creating scenery and costumes from whatever they could salvage, and often highly topical and anarchic scripts! Jimmy Perry and David Croft recreated the atmosphere with their long running television series “It ‘Aint Half Hot Mum”.
In 1940 Drury Lane Theatre Royal was requisitioned by ENSA, to be used for the Forces Entertainments for the duration of the war. The Opera House Covent Garden was also to be used as a dance hall.
Our article on Dolly Harmer and “Wee” Georgie Wood describes some of the trials and tribulations these artistes had touring extensively to entertain “Our Boys Out There”.
Putting on a pantomime, or indeed any theatre show during the 1940’s was made more complicated due to rationing. Among services rationed in the 1940’s were Petrol, Coal, Electricity and Gas- confectionary & chocolate were strictly rationed (perhaps explaing that “smell of orange peel” that people often connect with memories of pantomime?) and also Paper rationing- this limited the size of theatre programmes and the amount of advertising.
No Star Dressing Room
Electricity Rationing was brought in1942.Under a Fuel and Lighting order the use of electricity was severely limited in all public places.For Front Of House and Backstage areas in theatres, a maximum of one watt per sixty square feet was imposed, and dressing room accommodation was to be used to maximum capacity. There would be no “Star” dressing rooms holding just one person.
Clothing was rationed: by 1941 Designers were required to “Make do and mend”. An Emergency Clothing Committee was established to allocate clothing coupons to the theatrical profession. 16 coupons for a coat, 7 for a pair of shoes, 2 for a pair of gloves. The maximum number of coupons permitted for any one show is 400 coupons for the entire wardrobe.
During the war years the effects of rationing meant designers and costumiers had to become more inventive. In “The Story Of Pantomime” by A.E.Wilson (1949) he describes Littler’s “Pantomime House” in Birmingham.
“Mr Littler is very proud of Pantomime House, his headquarters in Birmingham. There you find workshops of every description, and one of the busiest is that controlled by Mrs. P.L.Wright, who has adopted the curious name “Physhe”.
For last year’s productions she had 15,000 clothing coupons to dispose of in purchasing the necessary articles and materials. With them she had to provide 4,000 dresses- to say nothing of curtains, shoes and tights for six pantomimes. She employs fifteen girls in making and repairing costumes, embroidering, making button-holes and sewing on spangles. “Before The War”, she said, “You could make a crinoline for ten pounds. Now you are lucky if you can do it for One Hundred and Twenty Pounds. Satin ones cost us Four shillings a yard. Now- if you can get it- it costs anything from Four pounds to Five pounds a yard.”
Mr Bertram Montague has his pantomime factory in London, where twenty-four men and women are continuously employed. He will tell you that it once cost Thirty five pounds to provide a Principal Boy with a wardrobe. Now the cost is more than a hundred pounds.”
By1941 Touring Artistes were issued with Traveller’s Ration Books. All theatres appointed two local shops- a grocer’s and a butcher’s. Theatres informed these shops of the expected number of artistes at least three weeks in advance. Ration books could be handed over to the Theatrical Landladies in each town- in those days “digs” would generally provide most meals- breakfast, and supper after a performance if twice daily, or dinner before the show on a “once Nightly” show.
Gladys Morgan, the Welsh Comedienne and star of the 1940’s had a routine about Theatre Digs.
“There was a big table- it sat twelve it did. It’ll my turn to sit down Thursday.. I said to the landlady “Excuse me”, I said “Excuse me, but there’s a crack in my plate”.
She said “No, that’s not a crack, love- that’s your bacon….”
My parents ran a shop during the 1940’s, in addition to a milk delivery service. Their shop was situated between the two large theatres in Singleton Street, Swansea- The Grand Theatre (still very much in existence) and The Empire- sadly long demolished. Being the closest grocers to the theatres, they took the orders for the artistes who visited each week according to the ration books.
At the beginning of the war Theatres throughout the country were closed. The streets were deserted at night, the blackout regulations strictly enforced, and on the roof tops the fire watchers kept an eye open for signs of danger. Below them on street level the ARP (Air Raid Patrol) did the same, and ensured the blackout was kept, with no light escaping from windows taped up and draped with blackout curtains.
George Formby, pantomime and variety star, and the highest paid British film star, kept abreast with the times. His popular song “Chinese Laundry Blues” of the 1930’s had Mr Wu running a laundry. By the war “Mr Wu’s An Air Raid Warden Now!”. His popular song “Sitting On The Top Of Blackpool Tower” was changed to “Spotting On The Top Of Blackpool Tower”- “spotting” was the term used for Fire-watching. So, even George Formby could “Make do and mend!”
In her Book “ The Time Of My Life”, Pat Kirkwood-West End Musical and pantomime star recalled the air raids of 1940 in London. She had just opened at The London Palladium:
“Air raids had started and the sound of bombs falling added to the emotion. We had raids every night, and we never knew who would be onstage when they dropped. Tommy Trinder had a side-bet arranged, based on which of the comics would be on when one dropped. It was always Tommy! Bud Flanagan said it was poetic justice. I had my turn too: one night in the middle of singing “Rhumboogie” a bomb fell so near to the theatre that all the stalls heavy double plated doors burst open and the whole auditorium shook. Everyone onstage carried on regardless and the audience never moved. This happened on the Saturday night of our first week at the Palladium.
On Sunday morning I had a telephone call from Charles Henry, George Black’s second in command, to inform me that the show was closing and that all theatres would be shut down until further notice. What we were not told was that on the Saturday night a landmine had landed on the roof of the Palladium and become lodged in the chimney. The bomb disposal men had defused it then carried it out through the stage door on Sunday morning! “
Dame Vera Lynn “The Force’s Sweetheart” recalled an incident recently about one of her experiences at the Palladium. Her story can be found on this link to the BBC’s website: http://www.bbc.co.uk/ww2peopleswar/stories/16/a4693016.shtml
Francis Laidler presented” Aladdin” at the Coliseum in 1940/41. It was during this time that, like the Windmill Theatre, the show never stopped during the bombing. In fact Laidler frequently spent the night backstage during the worst of the blitz, which was to damage his scenic store in London. Just before the “get-in” at the Coliseum he was given the news that his East London scenic store had suffered damage, and only quick thinking, and his many contacts resulted in a different set arriving in the nick of time.
From a Francis Laidler Programme for the Coliseum 1940/1 - Click to Enlarge
The following year he presented Norman Evans in "Mother Goose” at the Coliseum for the 1942/43 season.
Click on Image to Enlarge
One of the first theatres to become a casualty of war was the Pier Theatre, Clacton in Essex. In 1940 A drifting German mine struck the pier, causing £10,000 worth of damage, forcing the theatre to close.
In the autumn of 1940 the air raids began on September 7th.Among the London Theatres destroyed were The Shaftesbury, Queens Theatre and Little Theatre . Damaged Theatres included Sadlers Wells, The Old Vic, The Duke Of Yorks and the Kingsway Theatre.
The West End Closed. Only the Windmill and Unity Theatres remained open. Theatres gradually re-opened and one, London’s famous Windmill Theatre (non stop revue) proudly boasted after the war- “We Never Closed!”. This period in the Windmill’s life was recently turned into a film “Mrs Henderson Presents” with Dame Judy Dench.
With the outbreak of World War Two Bristol became a chief target for the bombs that were falling in the area of the Bristol channel. It was the fifth most heavily bombed city in Britain. The BBC transferred many of its departments to Bristol, as London was taking the brunt of the Blitz. The popular wartime radio programme “ITMA” (It’s That Man Again”) starring Tommy Handley was broadcast from Clifton Parish Hall in Bristol throughout this period.
On the 2nd November 1940 a severe bombing raid destroyed or damaged over 10,000 houses, with much loss of life.
On the night of 24th November 1940 the centre of Bristol suffered heavy bombing raids, and The Prince’s Theatre, along with The Coliseum were totally destroyed. One of the country’s top pantomime venues was reduced to rubble
That year other casualties included: Birkenhead-Argyl & Hippodrome, The Southampton Palace and Hippodrome, The Prince’s Theatre Manchester, and Portsmouth.
The following year,1941-Theatres destroyed or damaged included The Birmingham Carlton and Prince Of Wales Theatre, The Felixstowe Spa, The Alexandra Hull, as well as the Hippodrome and Empire.
Liverpool suffered badly with bombs striking The Rotunda, as well as the Coliseum and Metropole, The Empire, Middlesborough, The Plymouth Empire, Hippodrome and Pier Pavilion. In South Shields The Queen’s Theatre, and Sunderland Victoria Hall (with great loss of life)
Between 1940 and 1945 a great many theatres were lost in air raids.
1940-45 Provincial Theatres lost included: Birmingham Carlton and The Prince Of Wales:- The latter was the pantomime flagship of Emile Littler- he then moved his base of operations to London, but maintained “Pantomime House” in Birmingham.
The grim list continued: Those destroyed or damaged included:
Bognor Prince’s Theatre: Dover Royal Hippodrome: Dovercourt Empire: Felixstowe Spa: Folkestone Victoria Pier Pavilion: Glasgow Lyceum: Hull Alexandra & Tivoli Theatre, Liverpool Coliseum and Metropole: Manchester Prince’s: Plymouth Empire, Promenade & Pier Theatre & Hippodrome: Sevenoaks Club Hall Theatre: Southampton Palace of Varieties: South Shields Queen’s: Stoke-On-Trent Hippodrome: Sunderland Victoria Hall & King’s Theatre: West Bromich Theatre Royal: Weymouth Pavilion and The Whitstable Theatre.
In London the bombs took their toll in five years . 1940-45 London Lost Theatres include: Brixton Theatre, Shaftesbury Theatre, Streatham Grand, The Gate Studio, The Royal Holborn, The Queen’s Theatre, The Little, The Holborn Empire, St.George’s Hall, South London Palace, The Kingsway Theatre, The Canterbury, Hammersmith Palace and Ilford Hippodrome.
THE LAST CASUALTY
Writing this article a stone’s throw (hopefully not!) from Ilford’s current Theatre, The Kenneth More, It is easy to forget that once Ilford had a vast Palace Of Varieties- The Ilford Hippodrome. Each day as I pass the “Black Horse Pub” on route to the station, I am actually looking at the site of a Frank Matcham 2,500 seater. Where the store “Iceland” is today was once the entrance to a variety house that served not just this town, but the surrounding areas of East London.
THE ILFORD HIPPODROME 1909-1945
This Matcham Music Hall opened its doors on 8th November 1909, and presented its first pantomime “Dick Whittington” a month later.
During the 1920’s through to the mid 1940’s many of the country’s top stars appeared here. Flanagan and Allen, Gracie Fields, Max Miller and Vera Lynn all entertained during the war years, with a bill that changed weekly, ending each year with pantomime.
Sadly, just four months before VE Day the theatre fell victim to the war.
Lew Grade’s pantomime “Robinson Crusoe” starred Renee Houston and her husband Donald Stewart. On the night of January 12th 1945 the re was a huge explosion. A V2 rocket landed behind the theatre and destroyed a row of cottages. It claimed the life of fifteen people in the houses behind the theatre, and one person in the Hippodrome.
The theatre was rocked by the explosion, with the blast destroying the dressing rooms and showering the performers and the audience- many of them children- in debris and dust. There were juvenile performers backstage at the time as well, and one of them, Patricia Penrose, put her memories of that night to paper in a letter sent to the current Ilford Theatre, The Kenneth More after a request for experiences of the Hippodrome during the war years.
Following your request for first-hand recollections to mark the 50th Anniversary of VE Day. You may be interested to hear my own story of the night the Ilford Hippodrome was bombed.
My best friend, Vera Marley and myself were both fourteen years old. We were in our very first engagement for our first ever show since leaving dancing school. It was the pantomime, Robinson Crusoe at the Ilford Hippodrome.
We had finished the opening number, and our next appearance was in the flying ballet. When Renee Houston was starting her opening song Vera and I had dashed to the upstairs dressing rooms to change and get into the harness for the flying. We were in a great rush, since we loved being in the wings watching the rest of the cast.
Suddenly there was the indescribable, deafening crash of the explosion. A shattering, smashing blast of breaking mirrors and glass in the dressing rooms. Sudden and total blackness, and a horrid smell of what must have been burnt explosive. There was terrible heat, and more almighty noise – the noise of flying masonry and bits of the building collapsing.
I realised I was hanging from a girder in what remained of the back wall of the theatre. I was trapped by my legs, and aware of masses of blood covering my body. I had got half my costume on, and I remember thinking that if the blood got on the costume I would get into trouble with the wardrobe mistress.
I was conscious, and very dazed, and aware of a large gash on my inside thigh. It seemed to be the biggest cut, and blood was spurting out. It seemed the right thing to do was to clasp it firmly, squeezing with my hands to try and close the wound. I just hung there.
I could hear the noise of people screaming and crying, and then someone coming to help. It seemed ages before two men came with a ladder and some little lamps and they lifted me down in the darkness.
I was laid on a stretcher and one of the men went to look for Vera. She had been right next to me, but now she was some distance away, half buried under the debris. There was a steel girder across her neck, and she was unconscious.
After they had lifted Vera out and found someone to look after her, they came back to me, and asked how they could help. They offered to contact my parents. They said they were regular patrons of the theatre and had been in one of the boxes in the auditorium when the bomb fell. They said they were Bob and Jeff Macer, from Goodmayes, and their family owned a butcher’s business. Later they visited Vera and me in hospital and brought flowers. I have not forgotten them or their kindness in all these years.
Renee Houston had been thrown off the stage into the audience. Vera and I were taken out through what had been the back wall of the theatre and were taken to King George Hospital where we underwent operations.
After some time in hospital Renee Houston had us stay in her home at Bourne End to convalesce, and we went to the Bourne End local hospital for out-patient treatment.
My leg wounds got better. The scars are hidden. I recovered and eventually went on to continue my career, including dancing, which I still enjoy.
The last remnant of the effects of the Rocket explosion was overcome in recent years when I finally lost the fear associated with lightning flashes or loud thunder claps. Though for many years afterwards tiny glass shards would suddenly come to the surface of my legs.
I had never been back to Ilford since then. But whilst on holiday in Portugal , I met a lady from Ilford. Reminiscing about those days, she told me that the Kenneth More Theatre was doing a show about the Ilford Hippodrome. So, we decided to come from Harrow to Ilford – fifty years on. I was able to show my husband where the Hippodrome had once stood, and remember those long gone days as I sat in Ilford’s replacement theatre.
I hope these memories may be of interest to some of your readers.
(Patricia Penfold as I was then!)
Renee Houston, the star of the pantomime recalled that night in her autobiography “Don’t Fence Me In”.
“The second house had barely started and I was on stage. Donald had come into the wings to watch.
I had just begun to sing The Fleet’s In when, with an almighty bang, the bloody roof came in. We had been hit by a rocket.
I was blown completely off the stage. Meantime Donald had been lifted off his feet by the force of the blast and thrown into the wreckage and his head being gashed open in five places. When he came round, he apparently saw nothing but a heap of rubble and clouds of smoke where I had been standing moments before and began tearing at the wreckage with his bare hands, screaming.
When he found me, I was being cradled in the arms of a man from the audience- a nice wee man who I met some years later in Bournemouth”
Despite the carnage, the audience reacted calmly- directed by the stage manager on microphone they made their way to the exits, with the orchestra striking up- despite being shocked, bruised and sprayed with water from a special effects machine, they made an orderly evacuation.
One member of the audience told me recently that a vivid childhood memory of that night was, upon leaving the Hippodrome, the streets appeared to be covered in frost- sparkling with the shards of all the shattered windows of the adjoining shops, and making her way along the High Road stepping over fur coats that had been propelled from a shop window onto the street.
The Ilford Hippodrome was the last theatre to be destroyed by enemy action in the war.
“I’m Going to Get Lit Up When The Lights Go On In London”
The last few years of the 1940’s were a time when Britain began to put itself back together again. Slowly, but surely. Rationing was still in force, but as the song said “When the lights go on again” the people emerged, and were in a mood to party. When peace was declared most theatres closed, in the knowledge that the street parties would continue for several days, and there was no need for more formal entertainment.
Film production had been affected both in America and in Great Britain, and, with a dearth of new films the Granada Cinema chain filled the gap with live entertainment, and pantomimes. The late ‘40’s and early ‘50’s were Granada’s pantomime hey-day.
The number of live shows in Granada cinemas was increased as a result of the film drought in the second half of 1947. Clapham Junction Granada staged “Babes in the Wood”, which featured over seventy artistes, a stage crew of twelve and four lorryloads of scenery. The Pantomime played Tooting for two weeks, moved to Sutton and then Woolwich for a week, ending up at Clapham Junction for six days. This Pantomime starred Jimmy Hanley, Adele Dixon and Jean Collin.
London Casino 1948
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At the same time “Cinderella” played at Shrewsbury and Rugby. It featured Marie Bailey, Phyllis Terrell, Len Clifford and the Granada Babes. “Aladdin” at Maidstone starred Cyril Fletcher and Joan Turner, playing until the 10th January, 1948.
Pantomimes in 1948 were “Aladdin”, starring Ralph Reader (of “Gang Show “ fame) and The Smith Brothers, playing the Tooting, Sutton, Woolwich and Clapham circuit, and “Dick Whittington” with Guy Fielding and Joan Winters at Shrewsbury and Rugby.
The Palladium also produced 'Cinderella' with Tommy Trinder and Evelyn Laye - it also produced a very interesting article in 'Tit-Bits' about the complexities of pantomime. Click on the image to see the article in full and on the programme to see the cast in full.
In 1949 Granada presented “Aladdin” with Joan Haig and Sirlani for three weeks at Shrewsbury, and “Dick Whittington” with Jimmy Hanley , Low & Webster and the Radio Revellers on tour.
By 1949 Business was booming for pantomimes all over the country. That year the West End had three pantomimes:
“Little Miss Muffet” at the “Casino” (Now the Prince Edward) with Pat Kirkwood as Tommy Tucker, and Richard Murdoch as Queen Hysteria. Both Paul and Charlie Cairoli appeared in this Emile Littler production.
“Puss In Boots” at the Palladium with Tommy Trinder, as Miffins, Zoe Gail as Puss, and The Bernard Brothers as “Sisters”, Dandelion & Buttercup. Betty Frankiss played Principal Boy.
“Dick Whittington” at Princes, (A Bertram Montague Production) with Hy Hazell as Principal Boy and Nat Jackley. As Idle Jack. “Dick Whittington” also had Ian Wallace as Emperor of Morocco, with Barry Lupino as Dame.
1949 saw “Snow White and The Seven Dwarfs” revived at the Victoria Palace. Not a pantomime, but Walt Disney’s Musical Fantasy. It opened on Boxing Day 1949 with Joan Davies as Snow White, Joy Robins as The Queen and Eric Palmer as The Prince.
The decade ended on a high for Pantomimes. The spectacle and expense of the pre-war productions was never quite achieved- it would take a long time before the austerity of war time lifted, but the stars who had entertained the public and the troops on tour, on radio and in revue were now bigger and brighter than ever.
As the decade closed the first flickerings from Alexandra Palace quietly ushered in a new medium- the dawning of television. This would be Pantomimes greatest challenge.
The Granada Pantomimes
Backstage Pantomime 1946
Bradford Pantomime 1947/8 - Wilfred Pickles
Pantomime Economics of Fifty Years Ago by Donald Auty Used with permission
Pantomime in the 1940's and 1950's by Donald Auty Used with permission
This page was last updated 22nd May 2007