Posted to India, Tom’s skills as a writer were recognised when an entertainment troupe was formed and he was “volunteered” to pen the script. Eventually he became the producer, a responsibility he didn’t welcome but nevertheless tackled with gusto. In later years he wrote of his involvement in the infamous forces concert party in which the willing, or sometimes unwilling, put on shows for the troops.
“When I first saw the hit television comedy show ‘It Ain’t Half Hot Mum’ I felt an uncanny sensation of deja vu. My mind went back more than fifty years and several thousand miles to the time when I and several mates were embroiled in situations which could, with very little alteration, have been made into episodes of this show. It was no surprise to learn, much later that Jimmy Perry, one of the script writers, had based much of it on things that had happened when he was serving in the Army in India.
“Wherever one happened to be in wartime there was no lack of entertainment – of a sort. Hundreds of people and several organisations were involved in entertaining the troops! One of the biggest was ENSA.
I can’t remember now what the initials stood for. It certainly wasn’t
EVERY NIGHT SOMETHING AWFUL which was what unkind critics dubbed it. “Yes, there were plenty of duff acts sent out under the ENSA banner, but there was a fair amount of gold among the dross as well.
Top liners who stand out in my memory include Noel Coward, Stainless Stephen (who?) and, of course, St.Vera Lynn of blessed memory.
At a time when many well-known showbiz people suddenly found there were pressing reasons why they should keep away from potential danger spots, or craftily consigned their appearances to theatres close to home, the gallant three trekked out to what were designated forward areas, which being translated means no danger spots. Incidentally, Stainless was a Sheffield comedian who frequently topped the bill.
“Noel was given a rousing reception when he sang his masterpiece
‘Mad dogs and Englishmen’ which seemed particularly appropriate in the north-east corner of India in what is now Bangladesh. And Vera, not then a Dame, but the wife of a humble ‘erk’ (aircraftsman) like us went to the top of our list when she firmly resisted attempts to sweep her off to the Officers Mess after the performance, and stayed with the other ranks for quite a long time.
“At this time I had managed, after several years on shifts, to wangle myself a day job. My best mate Nobby Clark and I ran the unit Orderly Room.
True, we had a senior, Flight Sergeant England, but he didn’t count.
He couldn’t even type!
“My happiness received a slight setback when, in response to urgent orders from on high, our small unit set up a concert party.
“One man, Arthur Brown, who had wide experience of show business, was a natural for producer, and another, Charlie Maxwell, who had been the pianist in one of the big dance bands for musical director. This meant that he played the old Joanna for the entire show. The rest of us were undoubtedly the rankest of amateurs. When it became known I had been a journalist in civvy life I was instructed to write the script.
“The trouble at first was that we hadn’t got a piano and without one our show was a non- starter. These instruments were notoriously prone to breakdown in the tropical climate when strings snapped and other vital parts deteriorated. We needed a Joanna, not just for the show but for essential rehearsals.
“If we had been in the American forces there would have been no problem. We heard that when Yanks in another part of India had a similar drawback a handsome instrument was flown from Hollywood in a Liberator bomber! We eventually located a piano twenty miles away and in our spare time we jogged to and fro in RAF trucks and went through our paces.
“It was the week before we were due to go on stage when the blow fell. Our producer, Arthur Brown, was posted with immediate effect to the opposite corner of the sub- continent. Panic ensued. Who was to take his place? Eventually we drew lots, and yes, you’ve guessed it, I was the ‘lucky’ winner.
I speedily found out that writing the script was child’s play compared to the hundred and one problems that face the hapless frontman of the enterprise. Getting people off shifts was one of the worst. Most of the other people in the unit regarded us as a bunch of skivers. Then came another blow. It was decided that our show should run, not for one night, but for a week at the Garrison Theatre in Chittagong, and that it would be free to all servicemen including soldiers and sailors.
“There was great rivalry between the three services, and I foresaw an unhappy ordeal for we unwilling thespians and a Heaven-sent opportunity for hecklers. However, the week came and much to our relief it passed off quite well. The show was applauded night after night and our boss, Squadron Leader Jack Brown was most complimentary.
“Unfortunately for us, news of our efforts reached the pinnacle of top brass, Lord Louis Mountbatten, Commander -in -Chief of south East Asia, and later, the last Viceroy of India. He decreed that we should expand our scope and give a further performance at an airfield nearby. I pointed out that it had been difficult to get men off shifts for the original shows and those who had to work extra to make up for the absentees had been placated by saying that it would soon be over and it was only for one week. They did not take kindly to our success. The airfield show again went down well to an audience which included a lot of top brass, including Lord Louis.
I began to have delusions of grandeur and visions of having a special medal to go with the Burma Star and other occupational gongs which were popularly described as ‘coming up with the rations’. Happily I went back to my placid existence with Nobby and the orderly room typewriter.
“Another blow fell the following week when Squadron Leader Jack told me that my services were required for a big event the following month.
“A debate was going on in Britain as to the possibility of allowing women to serve in forward areas such as ours. As a result, the head of the Womens Auxiliary Air Force was sent out to India to see if conditions were fit for her girls. My job was to provide the cabaret for the big dinner and dance which was to follow, the main item of the reception given to this formidable warrior, Dame Felicity Trefusis-Forbes.
“In vain I protested that it had been difficult enough to get men off shifts and that the current malaria epidemic would make things even worse.
Squadron Leader Jack was adamant. He played his trump card.
Every man Jack in the cabaret would be given a sumptuous meal and plenty to drink. This was the luscious carrot that persuaded me, much against my will, to assemble my group of strolling players for what I was assured would be ‘one last time.’ I had a terrible job mustering my reluctant band but finally managed it. Altering my script which had been for an all-male audience to suit the restrictions of a high ranking woman officer was comparative child’s play.
“The night came and we appeared at the venue, where it was obvious that no effort had been spared to make this a gala night. We feasted our eyes on the food laid out ceremoniously. At one end there was a well-appointed bar. A brisk sergeant approached us and gave us our instructions. I mentioned the magic word ‘food’. ‘Keep your eyes off this lot’ he said brusquely, ‘your grub’s in the cookhouse’.
“We immediately went to the cookhouse and were directed to plates of bully beef on a table in the corner. “That’s yours” said the sergeant” and you don’t touch it until the show’s over”. “But” I said nervously “we were promised a good meal and plenty to drink.” “Ho, Ho, Ho, that’s a good one” the sergeant cackled, and made off. I went back to my mates and found that mutiny was imminent. In desperation I told them my plan. I would see if we could scrounge some drink out of the bar. I approached the bar and spoke to the white – coated corporal behind it, asking if the cabaret performers could have a drink after the show. “No chance!” said the corporal, a somewhat supercilious individual. “You’re not supposed to be in here at all. It’s just for officers, and their ladies.”
“Outside we lurked in the bushes arguing feverishly. I decided that I would create a diversion and that while the corporal’s attention was diverted The rest of the gang would nip in and pinch a few bottles. It worked like a dream! We ended up in the bushes with three bottles of whiskey. In no time at all the six of us had consumed the contents and hidden the bottles.
“The show went well although it must have been obvious that the performers were ‘on something’. We came off stage to polite applause and the dance band struck up.
“The officers and their ladies began to circle the floor. Memories of civvy Saturday nights surged through my inflamed brain. The Ladies’ were mostly nurses brought in from outlying parts to provide partners.
I swaggered onto the floor, seized the nearest Angel of Mercy and began to dance with abandon. It was sometime before I became aware of a horrified Sergeant following my partner and me around the outskirts making urgent signals to me to leave the floor. I was the only male on it who wasn’t an officer. I don’t remember much about the rest of the evening…
“Next day the orderly room was far from placid. Squadron Leader Jack said complaints had flooded in “you and your men behaved disgracefully”
He said sternly “You’re all on a fizzer” I explained to him about the bully beef etc and he began to relent. Eventually he said “alright then, I’ll see what I can do, but I won’t promise anything.” I don’t know what he did and whether our ‘crimes’ went right through channels until it reached Lord Louis, but it certainly worked. Ever after I had a profound respect for ENSA, even the duff acts.”