People often tell me they think I was born in the wrong era - and I can't disagree. As someone who loves nothing better on a rainy afternoon than curling up on the sofa and wallowing in an old black and white movie - anything with Bette Davis, Bogart and Bacall, or Fred and Ginger suits me just fine! - I always think how wonderful it would have been to have experienced the 1940s for myself. It is without doubt my favourite vintage era. I know I am far from alone in my passion for the 1940s. The music was incredible and the fashions amazing - despite the country having to 'make do and mend' . How, I wonder, during a time of severe hardship, was the music so good and the women so glamorous?
ENSA Entertainment was vital to the morale of the nation during World War Two. ENSA – The Entertainment National Services Association - was formed in 1939, primarily to provide concert party style entertainment to British troops during World War Two, with the aim of boosting morale and lifting the spirits of military personnel. As well as performing in shelters and factories on the Home Front, ENSA personnel would often travel to far-flung places and often perform under very dangerous conditions. A uniform was necessary to give them the same protection offered to the military. Only Tommy Trinder refused to wear his, famously saying: “If I get caught, then I deserve to get shot!” More often than not a singer or a comedian would turn up to entertain - but it could well be a ballet performance or Shakespeare. If you were lucky, you might have Joyce Grenfell or other big stars of the time like George Formby or Arthur Askey. If you were stationed in the Far East, you might have enjoyed a flying visit from the Forces Sweetheart herself, Vera Lynn. Most ENSA acts, though, were ordinary people who had previously been working up and down the country but now sent out to far-off places to give our troops something to smile about. Often I will perform as an out-and-out ENSA act - complete with authentic uniform and an original ENSA badge.
Entertainment is necessary to the morale of the people
I haven't just discovered the 1940s. The music and the fashions of the 40s were a huge part of my formative years. Influenced by my Mum and Dad, I grew up loving the songs that kept the nation singing and dancing throughout the Second World War and contributed greatly to people's morale during the conflict itself and the years of austerity that followed. I believe the music of the 1940s, in all its varieties, still stands the test of time today. From Gracie Fields, Anne Shelton & Vera Lynn on the Home Front to the big band numbers which rapidly gained in popularity in the dance halls when the American troops arrived, I include them all in my shows. The British songs were overwhelmingly nostalgic - longing for a better time. The message was always a positive one for a better day tomorrow.
Life on the home front during World War Two was a significant part of the war effort for all participants - and had a major impact on the outcome of the conflict. With food and clothing rationed and children evacuated to the country, it really was a case of getting on with life. As the most famous war-time slogan of them all had it, people at home were encouraged to Keep Calm and Carry On. Growing your own vegetables was actively encouraged - and rationing meant finding new and imaginative ways of preparing dinner! Regular meat was in short supply, which wasn't great news for the rabbit population - hence the popularity of the war-time song Run Rabbit Run. As a home front entertainer, I try to inform and entertain about this - and will often get some children up to join me in that song, complete with 'bunny rabbit' actions!
The song We Must All Stick Together was adopted as the ENSA opening song. If you aren't familiar with it, clicking on the title will take you to my version on YouTube. One of the most famous names to perform the song was another Lancashire lass - Gracie Fields. In his excellent book Greasepaint and Cordite, Andy Merriman writes: "A German propaganda magazine wrote: Gracie Fields has earned for England the equivalent of a hundred new Spitfires. She is adjudged a war industry and should be treated accordingly." After 'Our' Gracie had undertaken a tour of factories and shipyards, Hitler declared her an enemy of the Third Reich. Gracie retorted: “We’ve played to the finest audiences in the world - the Troops!" Although only forming a small part of my shows, I perform some of Gracie's best-loved songs - including the ones that kept up morale in the factories, and had audiences rolling with laughter.
Your job is to sing when the guns are blazing, exclaimed Churchill...