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WW2 - People's War

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Contributed by 
Jim Dillon - WW2 Site Helper
People in story: 
James Edward Dillon
Location of story: 
Liverpool and area
Article ID: 
Contributed on: 
04 November 2003

I was a child of the wireless age, not of the 'radio', the 'tranny' or the digital but of the early playing about by my father with crystals and cat's whiskers, Woolworth's components at sixpence a time, heavy, wet, accumulator batteries, which had to be carried to the bike shop for re-charging. Much later came the superheterodyne monsters which plugged into the mains, when we graduated to mains.

The first programme I remember featured 'Salty Sam the Sailorman' who told far-fetched, completely unmemorable stories. His signature tune ended,
"I've bucked for years
With buccaneers
From Hong Kong to Siam.
I'm Salty Sam the sailorman,
Tiddleywinks old fellow, tiddleywinks old man."
At least that was what my father sang.

I've seen "tiddleywinks, old man" in soldiers' songs of WWI so I fancy Dad was extemporising.
"Children's Hour" was never on the menu so we missed 'Uncle Mac' and the single, most-cringe-making moment of the Queen's career. It came after her address to the children of the 'Empah', "Come on, Margaret Rose." Embarrassing? For that kind of money we should all get the chance to blush.

We were aware of 'Radio Normandie' and 'Radio Luxembourg'; my posh cousin listened to the 'Ovaltineys' on one of them. We knew she was posh because she said 'War-wick' street and 'fore-head' not 'Worrick' and 'forrid' like us (but what about the little girl who had a little curl right in the middle of her ......?).

My father's taste ran to Albert Sandler at the Palm Court of the Grand Hotel, light classical music, a sort of early Classic FM as has been well said by JAD. Originally the programme really did come from the Grand Hotel at Eastbourne, a haunt of Edward VII as Prince of Wales and Mrs Keppel, ancestress of our very own Mrs Parker Bowles. The hotel was unlicensed, something to do with the lease, so the Prince had to send to the 'offy' for his wines.

My mother was into plays and we were all into generalities: "In Town Tonight"; "Monday Night at Seven" which became "Monday Night at Eight".
"Band Waggon" was the first programme to take us into fantasy. 'Big-hearted' Arthur Askey and 'Stinker' Murdoch lived in a flat in Broadcasting House, too far up to expect the milkman to climb the stairs and use the lift. So they kept a goat. ("What about the smell? Don't worry the goat'll get used to it.")

Their cleaning lady was Mrs Bagwash. Askey was in love with her daughter, Nausea. Neither lady ever spoke although Nausea who was given to fainting was heard thudding on the sound-track as she hit the floor. I suppose this was the start of the running-joke which reached its ultimate with Elizabeth Mainwaring in "Dad's Army".

"Band Waggon" was written to a formula dependent on quickfire gags and catchphrases. The latter were seldom funny but they drew great applause on their predictable weekly airings.

"ITMA", supposed to be a British version of Jack Benny, wasn't like it in the least but it was unmissable. The formula was simple: door opens, greeting-gag by Tommy Handley, 'character' set-piece, Handley gag, 'character' catchphrase, roar of applause, door closes. Typing it takes longer than the sequence. Handley kept up to date with the news so his contributions were topical to a degree, a much admired quality.

From 1939-1949 through twelve series the settings changed frequently. The pirate radio station became the Office of Twerps. Handley was a Minister. When the war got serious and the Government too important to be satirised Handley became in succession Mayor of Foaming at the Mouth, squire of Much Fiddling, Governor of Tomtopia, denizen of the Scots Castle of Weehouse and permanent resident of Henry Hall, guesthouse for tramps.

The 'characters' and cast also changed. In the first full series Jack Train interrupted telephone calls as Funf, the German spy, Maurice Denham played Mrs Tickle, the office char.

"Zis iss Funf speakink" and "Don't forget the diver" entered the national vocabulary as did "I go, I come back" (Ali Oop, the "feelthy picture" salesman) and "After you, Claud, No after you, Cecil". Signor So-So's cod Italian came later and Mrs Mopp ("Can I do you now, sir?"), sent by "the Labour" to clean Handley's office, came after a series or two. In 1942 the bibulous Army officer, Colonel Chinstrap arrived. Every English sentence became an invitation to a drink, invariably accepted ("I don't mind if I do").

Sophie Tuckshop, an early manifestation of Hattie Jacques, was the schoolgirl who stuffed herself sick ("But I'm all right now"). and Frisby Dyke ("Fancy that!"), the 'character' best known by Liverpudlians, did not appear in the show until after the war. Frisby Dyke's was a 'quality' draper's shop on Lord Street from the mid-nineteenth century, between the present American Express and the corner of South John Street. The shop had gone long before our Community partners removed that side of the street opening the panorama from the remains of Paradise Street to the Victoria Monument.

"ITMA" was of its medium and time. A film and a touring stage show both failed. Now, even as wireless it does not stand up. It is too mechanical, Handley's delivery too machine-gun like, its topical references too recherché and the catchphrases are unfunny. In wartime it was a national, morale-boosting institution, relieving stress and promoting solidarity. With an audience approaching twenty million a week it was a gift to the Ministry of Information.

Comedy shows sponsored by the service ministries were apparently on a loose rein. "Merry-Go-Round" embraced a naval show set in "HMS Waterlogged" at Sinking-in-the-Ooze, an RAF show at "Much-Binding-in-the-Marsh" and an Army show, "Stand Easy". All these were slightly subversive, officers were upper-class twits. Military procedures and accepted attitudes were satirised. They were tolerated as long as they hit nothing of substance, the fate of the mickey-taker in all ages. They, too, relied on catchphrases and appalling puns - "Whippit-kwik", the cat burglar and "Ray Ling", the Chinese fence both came from "Stand Easy".

The Government manipulated programmes like "Music while you work" and "Workers' Playtime". The first was cheerful, up-tempo popular music for factory workers. Slow tempos were out because they slowed production, "Deep in the heart of Texas" was banned because its hand-clapping took hands off the machines altogether. The venues for "Workers' Playtime", live, morale-raising variety shows from works canteens, were dictated by Ernie Bevin's Ministry. After the war, too.

The news was slanted. I suppose it was propaganda but I met French friends who listened and thought it worth the risk of deportation though they had only a 25% chance of returning home.

The 9 o'clock news bulletins during the Battle of Britain published the statistics like cricket scorecards, exaggerated on both sides. I counted the sinkings of the 'Ark Royal', on 'Lord Haw-Haw's' show. On the far side of the Channel Dad and Grandad could have been deported for listening to the enemy. I recall Russian communiqués which always finished with ".......Death to the German invader!" That was Stalin playing the nationalist card when the Communist one failed. We heard the main news on Sunday night with the national anthems of all the United Nations, it took a long time in '45 when it was safe to jump on our bandwagon.

Throughout I can't say I was frightened. Not by the war, anyway. Terror in its starkest form came not from the German Air Force but from "Appointment with Fear". Valentine Dyall put the wind up all of us just with his introduction: "This is your story-teller, The Man in Black", in his deep, resonant, menacing voice.He told classic horror stories which fascinated as they terrified. "Dr Who" had a similar effect on my children.

For nights after Valentine Dyall nothing could induce me to fetch a shovel of coal from the dark of the air-raid shelter or visit the unlit lavatory at the bottom of the yard.

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These messages were added to this story by site members between June 2003 and January 2006. It is no longer possible to leave messages here. Find out more about the site contributors.

Message 1 - Workers Playtime and Works Wonders

Posted on: 14 February 2004 by Eddie Gardner

I found this story very interesting and wonder if anybody (Perhaps at the BBC) knows the sites where the BBC broadcast the factory shows Workers Playtime and Works Wonders were broadcast.
At the factory where I worked we had a broadcast ot either Workers Playtime or Works Wonders.
A pianist was in the group of entertainers and it may have been Carroll Gibbons.
It would be of great interst to me to learn the date of the broadcast from VENNER TIME SWITHES LTD.,




Message 2 - Workers Playtime and Works Wonders

Posted on: 22 February 2004 by Jim Dillon - WW2 Site Helper

Dear Eddie,
How fascinating to have been in the audience at those shows. You were living history as well as living through it.
I think the BBC must have had some record of where they went but I haven't been able to find it. All the locations were as I recall "somewhere in England/Scotland/Wales.
I did a 'Google'search using '"Workers' Playtime" British wartime radio show' and it produced about three pages of 'hits', including my own piece that you read.
There was a reference to 'Troise and His Mandoliers' as one of the accompanying music groups. They were playing 'The Pavilion', Liverpool, the week I got my scholarship news in 1943.
Sorry I couldn't come up with the goods.


Message 3 - Workers Playtime and Works Wonders

Posted on: 28 February 2004 by Peter - WW2 Site Helper

Another winner! Anyway, I think you will both enjoy this links :-D



Message 4 - Workers Playtime and Works Wonders

Posted on: 02 March 2004 by Jim Dillon - WW2 Site Helper

Brilliant. Do you know I think I heard it when it was first done!
Rob Wilton was from up here when Liverpool was in Lancashire, a big favourite.

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