Entertainment in Britain throughout World War Two was considered vital by the government as entertainment was seen as ‘normality’ and a sign that all was well in the war. Entertainment was also used to keep up morale among the population – especially during times when the war was not going as well as the government wished – Dunkirk, the Battle of Britain, the Blitz, the Battle of the Atlantic etc.
Entertainment was controlled by the government. The television had been invented in the 1930’s but very few could afford one. Most people relied on the cinema – where Pathe News kept people informed (or possibly dis-informed) on how the war effort was going. What news was released was heavily controlled by the Ministry of Information. Its main purpose was to keep then nation’s morale up which is why the figures it gave out for the Battle of Britain (German planes shot down) were inflated but it gave out the clear message that we were winning that battle.
The cinema was also a good place to see information films that were designed to put over a message as to how civilians should behave during the war. “Miss Grant goes to the door” was a classic example. The short film gave the viewer advice on how to recognise a German paratrooper and spy; that you should lock away Ordinance Survey maps; that you could knit socks and mittens for sailors etc. Above all, the blackouts must be used at night. It also reminds the audience that Codeword Cromwell was the sign that Britain had been invaded – with church bells ringing. The film proved to be a great success.
At home people listened to the radio. The most famous programme on this involved Tommy Handley in ITMA (It’s That Man Again) – a comedy programme designed to keep up morale. Handley was the Minister of Aggravation and Mysteries at the Office of Twerps and the radio series was based in the Ministry. Such a playful ‘go’ at government was acceptable in the first few years of the war but as the war proceeded such take-offs were not considered good for morale. The show changed its name to “It’s That Sand Again” set in the town of Foaming-at-the-Mouth. Handley played the part of the town’s mayor. After 1941, the show reverted back to its original name – the darker days of the war were behind the government. ITMA continued throughout the war and ran through to 1949. The last ITMA was broadcast on January 6th, 1949, and Handley died unexpectedly just three days later. During the war, as many as 40% of the population tuned into ITMA and it is difficult to overstate the importance this radio show had on the nation’s morale. For a ‘mere’ comedian, two memorial services were held, one at St Paul’s Cathedral, London, and the other in his home city of Liverpool, also at the city’s cathedral. Thousands of ‘normal’ citizens lined the six mile route of his funeral cortege.
Tommy Trinder was also one of the more famous comedians at this time involved in keeping the nation’s morale up. Trinder was also involved in government information films – the use of famous people to pass over government messages to the public was common.
The three most famous singers at this time were Vera Lynn (“We’ll meet again” and “There’ll be Bluebirds over the White Cliffs of Dover”), Gracie Fields and Anne Shelton. Vera Lynn became known as the ‘Forces Sweetheart’.
Anything and everything was done by the government to keep up morale. Government films showing ‘ordinary’ citizens coping after the loss of their home after a bombing raid were shown; short films reminded people to keep quiet unless a spy heard important information; even such tips as just using five inches of water for a bath were used. Photographs were also censored. Only those approved by the government were released for the public. Pictures of so-called ‘Trekkers’ were censored – families fleeing city centres at night to escape German bombing raids.
Where possible, the government wanted the British public to think that life had gone on as normal – despite the war. Such a control on information was unprecedented in British history. Entertainment was to play a vital role in this.