This year marks the eightieth anniversary of the start of the Second World War. In memorial, BBC One’s enthralling series, ‘World On Fire’ helps to capture the nature of it, from the perspectives of a vast range of characters for us modern viewers: who can only begin to comprehend the experiences of those who suffered at that hands of the Nazis. Upon watching the series, I was particularly interested by the roll of Lois Bennet, played by Julia Brown, and Connie Knight, played by Yrsa Daley-Ward, who played their part in the war effort by volunteering with the ENSA organisation to entertain the allied troops. 



ENSA, an acronym for The Entertainment National Service Association, was set up in 1939 with the aims to bring enjoyment, hope, comfort and most importantly, spirit to the low morale of the British and allied armed forces. It’s founder, Basil Dean, a well known actor and film director, understood the importance of the distraction and relaxation that entertainment brought during a time of loss, suffering and gloom. To him, the soldiers needed to be treated like human beings, escaping the terror for a few moments and be reminded that England was worth fighting for. With this, many beloved stars such as, Peggy Ashcroft, Al Bowlly, Dorothy Squires and Vera Lynn (to name a few) were part of the travelling organisation delivering, moving and charming acts across the globe. These shows were often broadcast by the BBC and on local networks in order to reach out to the civilians in hardship, at home. The spirit and sense of togetherness was a vital part of coping with the war, with Churchill declaring that it was, “ your job to sing while while the guns were blazing”, setting a president for many young performers doing their part for their country: creating a total of 50,000 applicants for employment received at the ENSA Drury Lane headquarters. For the seven years, it was the main source of entertainment and with a budget of £45 million (in today’s currency), had displayed 2,650,000 performances to an international audience of 300,000,000 by 1946.



The life of an ENSA performer was by no means a glamorous one. One dancer, who went by the stage name Denise Harland, recounted that she would have to perform to her best ability despite the numerous German bombs,‘Doodle Bugs’, being dropped. Performers also had to deal with endless travelling, faulty lights, cockroaches, icy roads, exposure to diseases, stages made from planks of wood resting across oil drums, quick costume changes behind trucks and most notably risking their lives in war torn dangerous locations. There was little time to relax in-between shows, Dancer Jackie Reeves stated that she would “slap on the old makeup on, got the clothes and just got going”, continuing to do so almost before almost every performance. However, despite the short comings of the performance side, both the entertainers and audience simultaneously sought greater reward. ENSA performer Annie Robinson detailed that, “ The applause at the end was just so heart warming, it was just marvellous”. Musical numbers such as, “Roll Out the Barrel” and “It’s A  Long Way To Tipperary” usually had great successes ending in cheers and laughter. Moreover, the comic actors and comedians greatly eased fear and apprehension for a short while. Spitfire pilot and Air Sea rescuer, Nick Beryman illustrated that, “ You’d come out of doing a very dangerous job sometimes and it was all taken away from you by someone making you laugh”. These acts had such an impact, that Force Radio Historian and archivist, Alan Grace, remarked that after a performance given by Vera Lynn, “a German sniper appeared and surrendered, he’d been watching the whole thing through the telescopic lens of his snippers riffle” being so moved by her voice and the affection demonstrated by the crowd. Vera Lynn, herself, recounted her experience when being part of ENSA, sometimes doing up to six shows a day, she had become an important figure in hope and spirit for civilians and soldiers alike. “ There was a whole crowd about 6,000 boys… had been waiting there since the early hours of the morning just waiting for me to arrive”. Her music touched the hearts of millions and was once told by a member of the audience “ You being here, England does not seem that far away”.



Due to the large amount of land and settlements that needed to be covered the presences of famous and high quality acts were not always possible and many performers were substandard, as the organisation was spread too thinly across the globe. With this, the meaning of the ENSA acronym was popularly coined to, “Every Night Something Awful”. The organisation became widely held as an archive for bad acts, attracting negative reactions from politicians and newspaper outlets back in Britain. Moreover, the type of acts favoured often sparked class conflict within audiences. “Regular” troops wishing for spectacles from pretty women and witty comics, whereas officers preferred the more “high-minded” cultured acts of the ballet, Shakespeare and opera; thus enhancing the visual class divisions already present in civilian life. Never-the-less, it is indisputable the positive light ENSA shed in a time of darkness, providing laughter and smiles, not to mention, it was also responsible for starting the careers of many, since acclaimed singers, actors and comedians, such as members of “The Goon Show”.  



The legacy and remembrance of wartime spirit is now deep rooted into British history and culture. If anything is to be learnt from this mournful anniversary, it that time during hardships are much more cheerful and bearable when people all come together to bring comfort and joy to one another. With this I would like to leave you with a link to a touching video that reminds us of the horrors and war and the sacrifices made for our freedom today. 

(with intermittent sound).


By Margot Phillipson