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Popular Pastimes And Entertainment In The Second World War

Entertainment during the Second World War provided civilians with a form of escape from the hardships of wartime life. It was equally important to those serving in the forces, both in Britain and overseas.

Radio was the chief form of news and entertainment, and listening increased during wartime and by 1945 there were nearly ten million radio licenses in Britain. The BBC enjoyed an almost complete monopoly for its two programmes, The Home Service and The Forces Programme. Shows ranged from the informative Brains Trust to popular comedy such as It's That Man Again. The popular singer Vera Lynn, known as the 'Forces Sweetheart', also hosted her own radio programme, Sincerely Yours – Vera Lynn, where she sang and passed on messages to troops serving overseas from their families.

The cinema was another extremely popular pastime. Every week in Britain, between 25 and 30 million cinema tickets were sold. The epic American film Gone With The Wind (1940) was the smash hit of the war, but British films such as In Which We Serve (1942) and Millions Like Us (1943) were also highly successful.

All theatres were closed on the outbreak of war. Many reopened soon after, although most shows were matinées or early evening performances.  In January 1940 the Council for the Encouragement of Music and the Arts (CEMA) was set up to support the arts during wartime. It organised concerts featuring classical music and drama, and took ballet and opera to new audiences. Originally a private venture, it was later sponsored by the government.

In 1939 theatre producer Basil Dean set up the Entertainments National Service Association (ENSA) to provide entertainment for British troops. In 1940 ENSA also began arranging concerts for British civilian workers. The celebrated pianist, Myra Hess, also had the idea of holding concerts for Londoners at the National Gallery which had been empty since the evacuation of its artworks in autumn 1939. The Gallery hosted a series of lunchtime concerts throughout the war, featuring Hess and other classical performers. During air raids these were moved to the basement and on one occasion even continued without interruption despite a bomb exploding nearby. The concerts were immensely popular with Londoners and, especially during the Blitz, provided a welcome cultural break from the hardships of war.

Professional sport was badly affected by the war. Initially all professional sport was suspended. Football grounds reopened in September and the football leagues were reorganised on a regional basis to cut down on traveling time. Crowds were restricted, with only 8,000 spectators allowed in some areas. Many clubs lost their key players as they were called up into the forces, and grounds were often requisitioned or damaged by bombing. However, spectators still flocked to fixtures in reformatted leagues or competitions.

Pubs faced difficult circumstances in the war. Reduced supplies of sugar and grain to distilleries resulted in shortages of beer and whisky. Imports of alcohol were stopped in October 1941. Erratic supplies of beer meant that many drinkers changed their habits, visiting the pub on a weeknight or in the early evening. Some pubs even experienced shortages of glasses and drinkers had to bring their own glass in order to get served.