Live Events

From Vera Lynn To David Beckham: A Brief History Of Forces Entertainment

How Winston Churchill paved the way for today's entertainment for the troops

Britain's armed forces have been entertained for more than 75 years thanks to BFBS Live Events - but what is the history of forces' entertainment and what has Winston Churchill got to do with it?

With visits from the likes of celebrities such as football legend David Beckham to stand-up gigs by comedians like Jason Manford and stage shows by pop stars such as former Spice Girls singer Geri Halliwell, BFBS Live Events has kept up the spirits of personnel and the military family since 1946.

The organisation has evolved over the years, with some small changes including its name but at its heart, it has continued to deliver on its mission throughout - to support the wellbeing of our forces by delivering live entertainment to the military – from taking celebrity acts to perform in warzones, to putting on events for troops and families on home turf.

The line-up of the concerts and shows can give troops a much-needed break from the hostile environments they work and live in, although it is not just personnel who benefit from the work of the entertainments teams but families and the military community too.

Events are tailor-made to match the audience’s unique needs, and in addition to operational areas, the team also delivers Mess functions, family days, medal parades, seasonal balls/ parties, kids’ entertainment, as well as festivals with famous headline acts.

Where, then, did it all start?

Here we take a look at the history of forces entertainment from its roots as a civilian organisation during the Second World War to later times of change, when Prime Minister Winston Churchill is thought to have wanted shows for troops to have closer ties to the military - sowing the seeds for what the organisation was to become today.

Some of the highlights in recent years are also explored, as, during just the past 20 years alone, troops overseas have enjoyed gigs with comedian Al Murray, magician LCpl Richard Jones and, as mentioned above, a visit from footballer David Beckham.

Angie Avlianos, BFBS Live Events Manager, told BFBS, the Forces Station broadcaster Hal Stewart, how she has fond memories from that trip with the footballer to Afghanistan in May 2010, saying: 

“It was extraordinary to see somebody like him sitting in a cookhouse, eating Angel Delight surrounded by people that just wanted a moment to be able to walk away and say ‘I’ve just met David Beckham’.

“I think he shook hands with about 10,000 people in three days.” 

David Beckham
Credit: BFBS Live Events

David Beckham In Afghanistan

One particular memory Angie has from that trip is a real insight into the work that goes on behind the scenes of these gigs. 

After David Beckham’s visit to Afghanistan, the flight home was cancelled which was a big problem. The former professional footballer needed to be back in the UK by 3pm on Monday afternoon because the England team were playing Mexico in a friendly match. Despite the player having injuries, the then England manager Sven-Göran Eriksson wanted Beckham there on the bench. 

As is often the case in warzones like Afghanistan, flights that night were grounded for 48 hours. Angie said:

“I’m having this mad conversation with the point of contact saying 'David will be in a lot of trouble with Sven-Göran Eriksson if he isn’t at that game'."

Eriksson is understood to have only agreed Beckham could go to Afghanistan on the understanding he would be back in the time for the Mexico match, so this delay was about to put paid to that agreement. Angie said:

"I felt so sorry for the poor RAF guy having to tell us that. So, I think someone very senior got involved and pushed to see if there were any flights we could get on."

After some very careful negotiation between Angie and senior-level RAF personnel and with permission from the highest levels, the team and David Beckham were put on another flight - with the RAF coming to the rescue to get the footballer back in time for the match. By this point, everyone had been awake for 24 hours so were thrilled to be going home at last. She said:

"David Beckham got to Wembley by the skin of his teeth and we were eternally grateful to the people at Bastion who pulled out all the stops to look after us and make sure we got home safely."

What Is The History Of BFBS Live Events? 

BFBS Live Events has entertained troops on operations at the front line, in personnel recovery centres, at The Royal Hospital Chelsea, family days – wherever armed forces personnel and their families are, you will find the dedicated team offering high-quality entertainment. 

And it is not just troops that get entertained. The families left behind when their loved ones are deployed, wherever they are in the forces world, also get treated to the same level of care and consideration. 

Popstar Peter Andre and Britain’s Got Talent double act Stavros Flatley performed at RAF Marham’s 100th Anniversary friend’s and families’ concert in July 2016. The festival-style gig was the culmination of more than 12-months of planning and was the station’s most ambitious event ever thanks to the involvement of BFBS Live Events. 

Peter Andre
Credit: BFBS Live Events

Entertaining the troops like this is not a new idea. Keeping up the morale of armed forces personnel has been a high priority since the start of the Second World War. 

The Entertainments National Service Association, or ENSA as it was more commonly known, was founded in September 1939 by writer and actor Basil Dean and silent movie star and comedian Leslie Henson. Together, they organised thousands of shows across the Second World War from Iceland to Rangoon. 

The first ENSA show took place on December 10, 1939, at The Old Dean Camp in Camberley. Several well-known performers of the time graced the ENSA stage wherever troops were during World War Two.

Dame Vera Lynn rehearsing at microphone cover image 300756 CREDIT PA
Dame Vera Lynn | Credit: PA Images

Who Performed For The Troops During The Second World War? 

  • Dame Vera Lynn - forces sweetheart and singer 
  • Sir Noël Coward - playwright and actor 
  • George Formby - comic actor and singer 
  • Adelaide Hall - jazz singer and entertainer 
  • Frankie Howerd - comedian and actor 
  • Dame Gracie Fields - comic actress and singer 
  • Laurence Olivier - actor and director 
  • Peter Sellers - comic actor and singer 

It was Dame Gracie Fields who headlined the first overseas ENSA show in in Douai, France on November 15, 1939. 

LISTEN: Angie Avlianos, BFBS Live Events Manager, speaks to BFBS, the Forces Station broadcaster Hal Stewart about the history of forces entertainment

When Did ENSA Become CSE? 

At the end of the Second World War, ENSA disbanded due to Winston Churchill's desire to have forces entertainment run by a team with military connections and not civilians.

It was replaced by the robust and military-run Combined Services Entertainment (CSE) in 1946 who took over the work.

The shows in Hamburg, Germany were run by the then Lieutenant Roger Moore, who went on to play James Bond during the 1970s and 1980s in Live And Let Die, The Man With The Golden Gun and Octopussy to name just a few. Angie said: 

“[Roger Moore] was one of the first entertainment managers I suppose of what CSE has turned into.” 

CSE eventually returned to its roots as a civilian organisation by the end of the 1960s and was run by a former British Army officer Derek Agutter for more than a decade.

CSE was re-branded to BFBS Live Events in 2020 and has continued to provide top quality entertainment to the troops ever since its formation. The team has travelled the world and joined troops wherever they are based. They have put on gigs in warzones for frontline combat troops and do not shy away from a place, a venue or an audience that might be challenging. In fact, they thrive on it. Angie said: 

"I sometimes think about those times and wonder “did I really do all that?” 

Afghanistan Camp Bastion Al Murray Maff Brown Angie Avlianos Sinead Quinn Brooke Supple Credit BFBS Live Events

Credit: BFBS Live Events

The stages that entertainers like comedians, singers and the much-loved dancers have performed on have ranged from purpose-built arena-style stages on Ops in the desert to the decks of ships and the backs of military trucks. 

Nicky Ness, Director of Broadcasting and Entertainment,  is  proud of the team and everything they have achieved, saying: 

"Forces audiences know we have the skills and the widest stable of appropriate performers to put on a show in any location. 

“From a Forward Operating Base in Helmand to festival size stage event in Germany, to Homecomings and Balls in the UK, whatever the budget - we've done it all." 

The Making Of Stars 

CSE did not just provide a much-needed break for troops stationed overseas from 1946. They also put on gigs that became a springboard for many household names and up-and-coming performers. Celebrities we have known and admired over the decades performed for troops around the world in places like Belize and Korea. 

Revered entertainers such as Bob Monkhouse, Tony Hancock, Benny Hill, Harry Secombe, Ken Dodd, Ann Shelton, Jimmy Tarbuck, Paul Daniels and Debbie McGee, Jasper Carrott, Lena Zavaroni, Joe Pasquale, Roy Hudd and Sam Fox, to name but a few. 

How Does BFBS Live Events Work? 

The team divides itself into two distinct areas - customers and beneficiaries. Beneficiaries are troops on Ops such as Estonia or further afield plus any client in the UK they feel fulfils the beneficiary criteria. For example, they might be on very short notice to move or have just completed back-to-back deployments. 

There are also clients who get in touch with BFBS Live Events that say 'we just want to put on a big show, we’ve got this much money, what can you do’? Speaking about those events and how important they are, Angie said: 

“They’re the ones that make the money so we can go and do the stuff for the people who don’t have the money. 

“We don’t stuff money in our back pockets, it all goes back into that pot to provide shows for the people that need it the most.”

What Does The Audience Say? 

“Thursday night was absolutely brilliant…It was incredible to witness residents, who have been battling severe physical and/or psychological issues throughout their stay here, have their minds taken off things for an evening; some of our most troubled and least responsive residents up at the front, dancing in the heart of the party! It was completely overwhelming and enormously beneficial to the residents on a number of levels.” - Tedworth House Staff 

“Your presence at the event provided amazing entertainment for all our families, it bought parents, children and teachers together… the children had lots of fun and new friendships were formed which will help our service children when transitioning to secondary school." - Elise Gower, Service Family Link Worker, Alverstoke School, Gosport