Treading the boards
I was 13 when the war started. My sister Frances, who danced and sang with me, was older by three years and waited patiently for me to be of an age to start entertaining.
In the meantime we did semi-professional work for Scottish Command, organised by Captain Archie McCulloch (husband of Kathy Kay who sang with Billy Cotton’s band) and at times compered by Janet Brown, who became famous for her impressions of Mrs Thatcher.
The time came for me and Frances – known as The Max Sisters – to audition for ENSA (Entertainments National Service Association) at the Theatre Royal in Glasgow. How excited we were. I had just turned 15 and would spend the next five years entertaining the troops. Our dream had come true.
It was winter and we started off in a five-handed unit travelling in a Black Maria, the three gentlemen in the show sat in the front seat and we were in the back with only a little window to see through.
The snow was piled up about two feet high as we travelled around, not always by roads but sometimes dirt tracks. Our comedian smoked continuously, lighting another cigarette from the one he had just smoked, and of course they found it hard to pass a pub without having a drink.
One evening when Frances and I were doing our thing, the music stopped and when we looked around our pianist had fallen asleep.
Nevertheless, we all got on well together eventually.
The next move was joining a munitions show whereby we entertained people who were doing war work all over the country. By this time there were ten of us in the show, which gave Frances and me more scope for our dancing as they had a lovely function room and big stages to work with. The show was relayed through a tannoy during their lunch break.
After one show, someone wanted to find out who had performed a certain number, and I was asked if I would audition for Billy Tennant’s Band. I was horrified at the idea that I would even consider leaving my sister, as even our pianist had to leave our act when he was called up for the RAF. However, it was good for my ego.
We now moved on to another big show called Double Scotch, and toured all over Scotland, including the Shetlands. Our parents were quite worried as we would be flying for the first time, and they filled a little hip flask with whisky so that we wouldn’t be nervous. We weren’t nervous, and one of the cast was only too willing to ‘get rid of it for us’. Being so young, we never drank or smoked – we were too good to be true.
The Polish Navy was stationed there, as well as some of our Army lads. That evening we had the night off so we had a dance party in the officers’ mess, just six of us girls with all these lovely men. How lucky can you get.
The Gairloch was a beautiful area in the Highlands, although we found it a bit lonely during the day. We went walking and called in at farms to see if they would sell us eggs to take home to our family at the weekend. On one trip, all of a sudden we heard jive music and, lo and behold, we met a dozen American sailors who had rented out a huge house while their submarines were in hiding in the loch. We had a very entertaining afternoon jiving, eating chocolate and drinking Coca-Cola.
Moving further south we played all sorts of places, moving nearly every week.
We only paid ENSA £1.10s and they subsidised the rest, whether we lived in a first class hotel or a boarding house – we even lived in a castle near Inverness. Our fee for our act was £10, which later went up by £2, so we were earning real money. My mother made all our dance costumes and decided to push the boat out by buying us silver kid tap shoes at three guineas a pair. When she bought what I called my Russian boots, she got them two or three sizes too big, to ‘make them last’.
In July, 1943, we moved on to another show called More Heather Breezes, travelling further south. In the Nottingham area it was mostly the army we performed for, and around Lincoln it was the RAF. One night in the mess after the show, we chatted to six handsome young men from New Zealand who said they enjoyed the show and would like to see it again the next evening.
I spent 1945 in England, during which we had a two week holiday. My better half, who I had been engaged to but called off, came to see my mother not knowing that Frances and I were home. He got a shock when I opened the door. Before he left that evening, I was given an ultimatum, “It’s either marriage or nothing at all.”
We got special banns which allowed us to marry within ten days, and we married on August 10th. In the midst of it all I received a telegram from ENSA asking if we would join the show for a one-off in Gourock to entertain the Navy.
Of course we did, and they allowed my husband, Taylor, who was a Fleet Air Arm pilot, to come along. When one girl said that her next song would be dedicated to the blonde in the show who had just married a Naval type, the response was ear shattering.
The war was over and my husband and I were supposed to go to India for six months. But he was demobbed instead, and so ended my trip abroad – and my career.
I worked for a few more months before arriving in Newcastle where I was to spend the next 20 years with my family.