diary · family · History

Nan’s Diary: Theatre in the war years

The Coronavirus pandemic has had a devastating impact on many sectors, particularly the arts and heritage, where many museums and theatres are teetering on the brink of survival.

Whilst reading through my Nan’s memoirs, recollections of how London theatre coped during the war years shows the importance of the arts in pulling people through the darkest times. I hope it is remembered how vital it will be to keep access to creativity alive as we rebuild our lives in a more compassionate and inclusive vein.

Here are some of her recollections, which become all the more poignant to me as she places her memories within landscapes in which I have since spent time:

‘In September 1943, I registered at Birbeck College in the City of London. It was an interesting period because we had to contend with the bombing in London – we didn’t know whether we would find the building (which was badly damaged in the first place) standing or not when we attended lectures.

When I registered for this course, I met Noel Fritchley, a New Zealand Air Force Officer and Mosquito pilot who sat down beside me in an ABC cafe in the Strand – I was on my way home towards Charing Cross Station and I called in for a cup of tea. It was an accident that led to a happy interlude during the war.

We had quite a close relationship and he was a smashing companion. When we had spent the evening together (theatre, meal visit to the NZ Forces club, or just walking) he used to see me onto the train at Charing Cross where I caught the last one by the skin of my teeth. The porters would keep an eye out for us and would hold it until the last minute.

Something that was a wartime phenomenon was queuing all night for tickets for the last night of the Promenade Concerts. This applied to the promenade area in the middle of the Albert Hall where one could get in for 2/6d (I think). A group of us would take sleeping bags and food, sleep the best that we could the night before the concert, then take it in turns to go to the loo, buy more food, get washed, or just go for a walk to pass the time. Then, when it was time to go into the Hall, the sleeping bags would be taken to Imperial College round the corner where some of the crowd were studying.

We had spent some of the day sitting on the pavement, conserving strength for the 2-3 hour stint at standing in the promenade area. All the discomfort was worth it to listen to the wonderful music, which most of us were just beginning to appreciate.

During the war though, the churches and halls in London used to put on concerts at lunchtimes and these were very popular. I can remember going to St Martin in the Fields, St Brides and All Hallows to hear piano recitals (Myra Hess was always giving concerts) and small group recitals.

As well as promenade concerts, we also queued all night for ballet tickets at Covent Garden. Margot Fonteyn, Moira Shearer and Beryl Gray were big names then, with Robert Helpmann as one of the male dancers. Some of the ballet music was never to be forgotten.

When I went to the ballet with Noel, there was no such thing as queuing for hours for tickets as he had plenty of money to buy the tickets for more expensive seats! That was the advantage of going about with an officer, especially an overseas one!

Image from Pixabay.

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