Barry Band: How the theatre helped escaped the reality of war

Lawrence Wright
Lawrence Wright

An article that appeared here last January seems relevant in this weekend’s Remembrance of the end of the First World War. Here it is again.

Little has been written about what was on at Blackpool theatres in 1918 but there’s a story to tell, using the Grand Theatre’s list of shows.

St Cuthberts Church, Lytham

St Cuthberts Church, Lytham

First, there were no dramatic plays with war themes. The carnage of the war as revealed in the casualty lists in the newspapers.

On stage, nearly everything was glamorous and fancy free in comedies, musicals and revues (optimistic songs and sketches.

A revue seen at the Grand in May was Khaki and Blue, by Lawrence Wright, who was to have many Blackpool connections, not least his On With the Show summer seasons at the North Pier.

A second discovery in the files is that some shows returned several times during World War One and the following months. As many as eight times!

St Stephen's On The Cliffs, North Shore

St Stephen's On The Cliffs, North Shore

The problem facing stage producers for London shows and tours was the shortage of men. After conscription started in 1916 the problem became acute.

Many an ageing matinee idol had his career extended and promising juniors stepped up to adult roles. The theatre’s programme often had a panel stating: No member of the cast is eligible for military service.

A musical titled Betty made eight visits (weeks) to the Grand from 1915-19. A more famous show, The Maid of the Mountains, made six visits from 1917-19.

War dramas were “off limits” but a morale-boosting tale was welcome. The touring company of the London success Seven Days Leave visited the Grand four times. It was a spy story set in the east coast. An officer on leave led local heroes in foiling a German plot.

The public would not accept anything by writers with German-sounding names. When an American musical titled Soldier Boy opened in London in June, 1918, and came to the Grand in May, 1919, the Hungarian-born composer Sigmund Romberg was listed as S Rombeau, which sounded French.

In the 1920s, nobody wanted a stark reminder of the war and it was 10 years before it appeared in the form of RC Sheriff’s Journey’s End.

Even then, the main London producers turned it down and it was left to British-born Maurice Browne, a founder of the American Little Theatre system, to present it with a stage society in London in December, 1928.

It starred Laurence Olivier, who had another role waiting and was not with the play in its West End success the following year.

It was filmed in 1930 and the 2017 remake will have two Fylde Coast screenings this weekend.

It will be at St Stephen’s Church, North Shore, tonight at 7.30pm and at St Cuthbert’s, Lytham, tomorrow at 3.30pm.

• Did you spot last week’s blooper? American actor Peter Graves was pictured. It should have been the British Peter Graves.

My fault. I should have told our picture editors to be on their guard.

It’s a generational thing!