Following the end of the first series of the BBC drama 'World on Fire', BFBS speaks to actresses Julia Brown and Yrsa Daley-Ward to find out what it was like to play the parts of historic wartime entertainers.
World on Fire is a period drama that starts in the build up to World War Two and then follows the lives of the characters during the first year of the war.
Julia and Yrsa play best friends Lois Bennet and Connie Knight who decide to do their bit for the war effort and join the Entertainments National Service Association (ENSA), a real life service set up by Basil Dean to entertain British troops during the Second World War providing them with a wide selection of live plays, cinema, comedy, dancing and music.
The characters are based on the show’s creator, Peter Bowker’s real-life grandmother, Rowena Mostyn (Lois) and her Afro-Carribean best friend, Anna Littlewood (Connie) who was his ‘Auntie Anna’ and a close family friend.
The pair were part of a 1930’s Manchester based variety act called the 'Two Shades' and the BBC drama reflects some of the significant cultural issues the women would have faced at the time with their interracial friendship, and specifically for Lois Bennett, the connotations of being an unmarried, pregnant young lady.
Julia trained in classical music before becoming an actress and describes being able to play the musical role as ‘a dream come true’ and ‘a real joy’ to learn the particular period style of jazz required for the show. Julia said:
“I knew beforehand that Vera Lynn had performed for the Entertainment Corps but when researching the part I discovered forums with accounts and letters from old ENSA performers.
“I had never really considered before that the war had actually opened up opportunities for people, particularly for performers who got paid quite well.”
Yrsa was also a singer and said it was ‘amazing’ to be able to perform the jazz classics with an old-time flavour. Yrsa said:
“Being able to see life through the eyes of someone doing their bit for the war effort as a performer for ENSA was really exciting.”
The show retraced the steps of ENSA performers who traveled to Northern France in ‘World on Fire’ and reflected on the dangers that ENSA entertainers faced as they provided much needed morale and distraction to service personnel stationed around the world.
Filming the scenes on an Army base in France was the highlight for the pair and really opened their eyes to the important role that ENSA performers had in providing entertainment and light relief to those troops who had been operating in some unthinkable circumstances. Yrsa said:
“When you base things on real people there is a sense of great responsibility and great honour.
“We just felt immersed and being part of this living, moving set, being able to travel with other ENSA performers like the ventriloquist and real-life musicians from Manchester was just amazing.”
Dame Vera Lynn, Sir Laurence Olivier, George Formby and Tommy Cooper are just a few of the famous faces that performed to an estimated worldwide audience in excess of 400,000,000 as war-time entertainers.
During the war years ENSA entertainers performed worldwide and some of the locations were depicted in the show. Yrsa said:
“It’s a dream role being able to sing in these gorgeous music halls. The sets of the working man’s clubs were absolutely stunning and being able to perform with the band was just incredible.”
The actresses were shown photographs of Rowena and Anna and the variety act they were part of and the drama illustrates the friendship of the women.
Yrsa describes interracial friendship as something that is not really illuminated in many other period dramas. She said:
“It was great to be able to portray a friendship like theirs of people with different skin colours.”
She credits Peter’s ability to write these real-life people and situations into the show, in particular the situation that Lois found herself in with becoming pregnant by a married man.
Lois, alongside working for ENSA, finds herself pregnant whilst nursing a broken heart and also caring for her father (played by Sean Bean), a former soldier suffering shell shock from his time serving in the First World War.
Julia describes her character as ‘headstrong’ with a lot of responsibility on her shoulders. She said it was particularly important that the show allowed a light to be shone on such a strong female characters that did exist at the time but are not well documented.
Working with her onscreen father was ‘daunting’ initially but Julia said:
“Sean was amazing to work with. He was so down to earth and humble and really generous to work opposite and just kind and lovely.”
There will be a second season of 'World on Fire' and so its not clear how the war will play out for the characters but for ENSA the doors closed on 31st August 1946.
An announcement signalling the end of the war with Japan was made during an ENSA show at Bourganville in the Pacific, starring Gracie Fields in 1945.
ENSA's final overseas show took place in Burma 1946 starring Tommy Trinder.
Although demand for the war time entertainment that ENSA provided continued to increase the founder himself became increasing unpopular within the military and there was a desire for an entertainment branch that could be under military control.
Combined Services Entertainment (CSE) was set up by former Lt. Col Richard Stone, to take over from ENSA and still exists today as part of the British Forces Broadcasting Service (BFBS) providing entertainment and care to British Forces and their families.