Entertaining in wartime France…
In February, 1940, Dad received a phone call from ENSA summoning him to a meeting. We had been working for ENSA on and off since my dad created a comedy act with my brother and I in November, 1939. We were known as Tommy Jover with Nena and Raf. The government required people in show business to spend six weeks per year entertaining the troops. We didn’t need to be reminded – we were grateful for the work.
We couldn’t wait for Dad to get home and tell us what this special meeting was all about. It was tea time when he burst through the door.
“We’re going to France!” he announced.
“How can you go to France?” said my mother. “We’re at war.”
“Well, our troops are over there, and they need entertainment.”
“Wouldn’t it be dangerous?”
“They’re paying us extra for that. And we have to join the British Expeditionary Force. Just in case the Germans capture us. They can’t shoot us as spies.”
My mother just sank into a chair. Seeing how upset she was, my dad added, “Well, I’m sure it will be OK or George Formby wouldn’t be coming with us. He’s the star of the show.”
At the mention of star’s name my mother was somewhat mollified, and a look of resignation came over her face.
Raf and I were too young to think of anything but the excitement of such a venture. Only my mother was worried.
On March 3rd, we took an early train to Dover where the boat that would take us to Calais was waiting. It was a beautiful sunny day and it was hard to believe we were headed for a battle zone. An officer carefully checked our names from a list as we boarded. Everyone was very serious. There was no joking around.
Raf and I stood on the deck and leaned over the railing, our eyes glued to what looked like dozens of bowler hats bobbing on the water. “Those are bombs,” Raf said. “They’re sure close to the boat.”
A bell rang and the boat started to inch forward. No one spoke a word as the captain slowly worked his way through the minefield. After about ten minutes, the atmosphere around us suddenly changed as we heard the captain give orders in a loud voice. We were clear of the mines.
A steward said that there was a nice meal waiting for us below deck. We didn’t need to be told twice, so Raf and I joined the rest of the passengers, who were mostly the other acts in our show. There were four girl dancers, Neil McKay, a Scottish comedian, Terry Wilson, who was a fixture in many summer pier shows, a trampoline act and a group of male singers with soprano Dorothy. Mr and Mrs Formby were not there having travelled to France by some other means.
We had barely finished our meal when we arrived in Calais. The busy port was covered with soldiers and equipment. At last we learned our destination was Arras, a town very close to the Belgian border. “It’s where the British army has its headquarters,” our driver said. “You’re staying in the same hotel as the brass.”
That was good news.
There’s something to be said for travelling with a star.
As I was only 17, Dorothy was to be my chaperone and we shared a room. She proved to be a nice lady, but I hated her chain smoking. It wasn’t so bad during the day, but once we went back to our room, I couldn’t wait to open a window.
We started our entertaining the very next day. Our venues would be mostly dusty old opera houses that hadn’t been used for years. The audiences were the most appreciative a performer could ever hope for. When the curtain went up and that sea of khaki faced us, it was breathtaking. Most of the men out there were not much older than I was, and I couldn’t help but feel anguished as I knew this ‘phony war’, as American reporters called the situation, would end some day and a real war start.
During our month in France, food was plentiful. When we weren’t at the hotel, we ate in restaurants where menus went on forever. Why was there so much food in France when at home it was sometimes a struggle to put food on the table?
One day, when we did a show on an army base, we afterwards ate a meal with the men. We discovered our troops did not share in this bounty.
I’d taken one bite out of a piece of dry bread. Before the orderly took my plate away, he cut out the part of where I had eaten, and took the rest back to the kitchen to be used in a bread pudding or some other dish.
About halfway through our tour, George Formby went to Paris to do a charity concert, so the army took us on a jaunt to Mont San Michel, a little island off the north coast of France. We had to time our arrival carefully as it was only possible to visit it at low tide. The driver only allowed us an hour to explore the island, but we made the most of that time climbing up the steep little streets, and even ducking into a cafe where I indulged in a decadent cup of hot chocolate topped with a huge dollop of whipped cream.
That was the only recreation we had during that whole month of entertaining, eating and sleeping.
The most memorable and heart-warming moments of that tour really happened every night during the show. The last act on the bill was Fields and Saunders, a comedy trampoline act. After they finished and had taken their bows, George Formby came back on stage and asked if anyone in the audience would like to try his luck on the trampoline.
There were always several volunteers. George chose two or three and led them onto the stage. The first thing the men had to do was take off their heavy army boots. This invariably evoked a huge yell from the audience as there was never a man who did not have holes in his socks. The men enjoyed bouncing up and down and even doing an occasional somersault.
Their reward for being such good sports was a pair of hand-knitted socks. These socks had been made by women at home who wanted to do ‘something for our lads’. The Government supplied the khaki yarn to anyone who would knit a pair. I often wondered who was wearing the socks I made.
Our month’s tour finally over, the Army decided not to let us leave from Calais where we might get in the way of its activities, but to take us to Cherbourg. We were the only passengers on a rusty old fishing boat. It was fortunate that the weather was nice, as the boat had no cabins and reeked of fish. We sat on stacks of oily coiled up rope and reminisced about our unique experience.
As we drew closer to Weymouth, everyone became quiet, lost in thought. I looked at the barriers and barbed wire strewn across the beach. What would happen when someone finally decided that the phony war would end and the real one start?