Till the Boys Come Home
The History Press
This volume has only just come to BTG’s attention but fully deserves a belated review.
It is sometimes hard to imagine how anyone can find a new topic to write about in the field of theatre. However, the enterprising Roger Foss has done just that. There are books on pretty much every topic under the sun but, as far as this reviewer is aware, nobody had previously addressed the interaction between London theatre and The Great War.
The author has actually chosen to start his book five years before the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand which led to the outbreak of war. This allows him to profile the prophetic An Englishman’s Home, a play by ‘A Patriot’, actually Gerald du Maurier’s brother Guy, a serving officer who subsequently lost his life in the conflict. In retrospect, his depiction of a war between the good old Brits and nasty foreigners seems an unnervingly accurate prediction of what was to come and acts as a good prologue.
The rest of a book that stretches to just over 200 pages, including numerous photographs and illustrations, deals with the First World War year by year. Initially, the authorities seemed highly suspicious regarding the intentions of those rogues and vagabonds who make up the theatrical profession, which delayed the benefits that they eventually derived.
You cannot help but admire the incredible efforts of all involved in attempts to alleviate some of the hardships of war through the medium of entertainment. At its simplest level, this could involve fundraising of enormous sums which were used to provide comforts for those in the trenches, their loved ones and the many who were invalided home. In addition, concert parties began to follow the troops to war, sometimes bravely working close to the front lines providing much needed rest and relaxation for those whose prospects of a long and healthy life were slim, at the very best.
At home, too, soldiers on leave but also those left behind were much in need of anything that could be done to raise their spirits and there is no question that musicals, variety shows and even the occasional more serious dramatic presentation were of great help.
While many of the names from a period that is now over a century ago are long forgotten, the likes of George Robey, Jack Buchanan and Harry Lauder should still ring a bell. Perhaps more surprisingly, young pretenders were already beginning to make their marks including Ivor Novello (who gave the book its title, since that was the original name of “Keep the Home Fires Burning”), Noël Coward and even Jerome Kern.
While the quality of the artistic presentations might sometimes have been a little dubious, the enthusiasm, bravery and spirit shown by those involved was remarkable.
Roger Foss is to be congratulated on presenting a new angle on theatrical history in a well-researched and -written volume that contains many delightful surprises and will entertain as well as inform its readers.
Reviewer: Philip Fisher