The Entertainments National Service Association (ENSA) was an organisation set up in 1939 by Basil Dean and Leslie Henson to provide entertainment for British armed forces personnel during World War II.

ENSA operated as part of the Navy, Army and Air Force Institutes. It was superseded by Combined Services Entertainment (CSE) which now operates as part of the Services Sound and Vision Corporation (SSVC).

The first big wartime variety concert organised by ENSA was broadcast by the BBC to the Empire and local networks from RAF Hendon in north London on 17 October 1939. Adelaide Hall, The Western Brothers and Mantovani were amongst those entertainers appearing on the bill. A Newsreel of this concert showing Adelaide Hall singing We’re Going to Hang out the Washing on the Siegfried Line accompanied by Mantovani and His Orchestra exists.

Despite many extremely talented entertainers and movie stars working for ENSA, the organisation was necessarily spread thin over the vast area it had to cover. Thus many entertainments were substandard, and the popular translation of the acronym ENSA was “Every Night Something Awful”.

ENSA plays a modest role in the 1944 motion picture Love Story in which Margaret Lockwood stars as a concert pianist who makes an ENSA tour to North Africa and the Mediterranean region.

The 1959 film Desert Mice follows the fictional escapades of an ENSA troop starring Sid James assigned to the Africa core.

The only known ENSA theatre to have survived in its original condition is the Garrison Theatre at Hurst Castle in the New Forest National Park. Created by servicemen in 1939, the proscenium arch still bears the badge and grenades of the Royal Artillery, and the curtains still hang from an original galvanised gas pipe. Shows are presented from time to time by the Friends of Hurst Castle.

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In Britain, during the Second World War, entertainment was considered an essential to keep morale high. In 1939 ENSA was organised by Basil Dean to send groups of entertainers to factories and military camps.

The artists in ENSA were initially civilians and consequently could not be sent to areas were fighting was occurring. This did not mean that they were in places where there was no danger from enemy action—the whole of Britain was a war zone due to the air raids. Later ENSA performers were commissioned as officers.

In order to get concert parties to forward areas, Stars in Battledress was formed. Talent existing in serving members of the army and ATS was transferred and sent to perform in any location, even on the edge of a battlefield. Colonel Basil Brown, together with Major Bill Alexander and Captain George Black (son of the impresario George Black) started up the organisation. As all the members of the concert parties were in the Armed Forces of Britain, there was no restriction of the location of concerts.

Stars in Battledress encompassed all three services. The RAF had a group called the RAF Gang Show, which was organised by Ralph Reader (who had in the pre-war years produced the Boy Scout Gang Show). The Navy also produced many concert parties that performed both afloat and in onshore venues.

SIB was directed during the war by Frank Chacksfield. It also included the popular band leader Bert Firman.

Stars in Battledress is frequently referred to as an Army “concert party troupe.” It was very much more than that and had a considerable number of companies performing at various locations at the same time. Its official title was the War Office (forerunner of the Ministry of Defence) Central Pool of Artistes which was based in Upper Grosvenor Street, London. This was the first war in which there was an official military entertainment unit. Shows rehearsed at studios nearby and went on a shake-down tour of units, including AA sites, in the London area before going out on more extensive tours abroad or in the UK.

Only other ranks were allowed to be in the cast. Officers had to be producers.

Comedian, Sergeant Charlie Chester, was a major performer and in charge of the script-writing department. He was reputed to have taken a company abroad on the heels of the troops in the D-Day landings. Among his company was Arthur Haines who had developed his comic skills while serving in the Royal Engineers, and with whom he did a double act. While near Caen, northern France, Arthur pointed to a trench full of mud and scores of tiny frogs. He told Charlie: “Nothing would get me into that.” At that moment, a German plane appeared, raking the ground with its machine guns and Arthur promptly dived into the trench from which he emerged covered in mud and frogs.

Haines joined Charlie in the BBC radio series Stand Easy which developed from the Army show and ran from 1946 to 1949 and Arthur went on to further success including the Arthur Haynes show in the early sixties.

As it became clear that Germany had lost the war, more SIB companies were formed. Among them was Going Places with Lieutenant Desmond Llewellyn, who played Q in the James Bond films after the war, as producer, and Sergeant Wally Huntley, in charge on the road. Going Places had eight soldiers and two ATS members. Walter Huntley’s own story and of what it was like to be in a SIB show is told in his book Dummy Bullets, published by Trinity Mirror in 2008. As a cub journalist he had enlisted in the Territorial Army in 1939 and was mobilised at the start of the war with the 149th Regiment, Royal Horse Artillery, in Hoylake, then in Cheshire. Because the Army had so few soldiers who could do shorthand and typing he was quickly posted to the regimental office.

Huntley had been an amateur ventriloquist since his school days and had acquired a full size walking dummy, whom he enlisted with him! They were soon involved in troop shows. As the Army had even fewer ventriloquists than shorthand writers he eventually became a full-time entertainer with SIB and spent most of the war “talking to myself.” His dummy, Gunner Jimmy Green, had a battledress made for him by the Army and developed his own persona in military circles. After media publicity in the newspapers and on radio and TV – including a live broadcast from the BBC Centre at Shepherd’s Bush – he took up residence at the Imperial War Museum in London in 2009, where he is one of the exhibits.

Post war operation of entertainment for the forces was taken over by the Combined Services Entertainment.

Some SiB artists who became well known after the war include

Janet Brown (actress, comedian, impressionist)

Ian Carmichael (film actor)

Frank Chacksfield (musician and composer)

Charlie Chester (stage and radio comedian)

Kenneth Connor (film actor)

Michael Denison (film actor)

Dick Emery (stage, radio and TV comedian)

Bryan Forbes (actor, writer, film director)

Nat Gonella (bandleader)

Tony Hancock (TV comedian)

Frankie Howerd (stage, TV and film comedian)

Emanuel Hurwitz (violinist)

Griffith Jones (film actor and later Royal Shakespeare Company stalwart)

Elisabeth Kirkby (stage and TV actor, writer and producer)

Alfred Marks (film actor, singer)

Spike Milligan (‘Goon’, actor, writer)

Stella Moray (actress)

Jon Pertwee (film and TV actor)

Robert Rietti (film, TV and radio actor)

Cardew Robinson (comedian)

Harry Secombe (‘Goon’, singer, comedian)

Terry-Thomas (film actor)

Bruce Trent (singer, actor, stage and radio)

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Basil Herbert Dean CBE (27 September 1888 – 22 April 1978) was an English actor, writer, film producer/film director and theatrical producer/director.

Together with Leslie Henson, he set up the Entertainments National Service Association, or ENSA, in 1939 to provide entertainment for British armed forces personnel during the Second World War. Born in Croydon, south London, Dean started his career in showbusiness in London as a West End stage actor, and then later became a theatrical producer. He later moved into the film industry and in the early 1930s founded Associated Talking Pictures (later, under Michael Balcon, to become Ealing Studios). He publicised and worked alongside Gracie Fields and George Formby, among other entertainers.

When World War II started, he left the film industry and became the head of ENSA, the government-sponsored body responsible for bringing live performances to the armed services. He was awarded the CBE for his work with ENSA, which he described in a book called The Theatre at War.

His wives included Lady Mercy Greville and Esther Van Gruisen; also, from August 1934 until 1939, he was married to British stage and film actress, Victoria Hopper. Earlier, Dean had a relationship with one of his theatre and film stars Meggie Albanesi and after her early death in 1923 continued to be obsessed with her.

Basil Dean died in Westminster, London in 1978 from a heart attack at the age of 89. His son Winton (1916 –2013) became a musicologist.

Producer filmography

The Constant Nymph (1928)

The Return of Sherlock Holmes (1929)

Escape (1930)

Birds of Prey (1930)

Sally in Our Alley (1931)

Nine till Six (1932)

Love on the Spot (1932)

Looking on the Bright Side (1932)

The Impassive Footman (1932)

The Water Gipsies (1932)

The Sign of Four (1932)

A Honeymoon Adventure (1932)

Three Men in a Boat (1933)

Skipper of the Osprey (1933)

Loyalties (1933)

Autumn Crocus (1934)

Love, Life and Laughter (1934)

Java Head (1934)

Sing As We Go (1934)

Lorna Doone (1934)

Look Up and Laugh (1935)

Midshipman Easy (1935)

No Limit (1935)

The Lonely Road (1936)

Laburnum Grove (1936)

Keep Your Seats, Please (1936)

Whom the Gods Love (1936)

Queen of Hearts (1936/I)

The Show Goes On (1937)

Keep Fit (1937)

Feather Your Nest (1937)

Penny Paradise (1938)

It’s in the Air (1938)

When We Are Married (1938) (for television)

21 Days (1940) (associate producer)

I Believe in You (1952) (co-producer)

The Gentle Gunman (1952) (co-producer)

Director filmography

The Constant Nymph (1928)

The Return of Sherlock Holmes (1929)

Escape (1930)

Birds of Prey (1930)

Nine Till Six (1932)

Looking on the Bright Side (1932)

The Impassive Footman (1932)

Loyalties (1933)

The Constant Nymph (1933)

Autumn Crocus (1934)

Sing As We Go (1934)

Lorna Doone (1934)

Look Up and Laugh (1935)

Whom the Gods Love (1936)

The Show Goes On (1937)

21 Days (1940)

Writer filmography

The Constant Nymph (1928) (play)

The Return of Sherlock Holmes (1929)

Escape (1930)

Birds of Prey (1930)

Looking on the Bright Side (1932)

The Water Gipsies (1932)

A Honeymoon Adventure (1932)

The Constant Nymph (1933) (play) (dialogue)

Autumn Crocus (1934)

Sensation (1936) (play Murder Gang)

The Show Goes On (1937)

Penny Paradise (1938) (story)

The Constant Nymph (1938) (TV) (play)

21 Days (1940)

The Constant Nymph (1943) (play)

Selected Stage Works

Scotch Mist (1926)

The Moving Finger (1928)

Touch Wood (1934)

Call It a Day (1935)

Autumn (1937)

Escort (1942)

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Leslie Lincoln Henson (3 August 1891 – 2 December 1957) was an English comedian, actor, producer for films and theatre, and film director. He initially worked in silent films and Edwardian musical comedy and became a popular music hall comedian who enjoyed a long stage career.

He was famous for his bulging eyes, malleable face and raspy voice and helped to form the Entertainments National Service Association (ENSA) during the Second World War.

Born in Notting Hill, London, Henson became interested in the theatre from an early age, writing and producing theatrical pieces while at school. He studied with “the Cairns–James School of Musical and Dramatic Art as a child, making his professional stage début at the age of 19. His first West End role was in Nicely, Thanks! (1912) and he later starred in several hit West End Edwardian musical comedies, including To-Night’s the Night (1915) and Yes, Uncle! (1917). After briefly serving with the Royal Flying Corps, he was released from active service by the British government to help run a concert party called “The Gaieties”, which provided entertainment for the troops during World War I. After the war, he returned to the West End, playing in Kissing Time (1919) and a series of musical comedies and farces throughout the 1920s and 1930s.

At the start of World War II, together with Basil Dean, he helped to form ENSA, with which he entertained British troops abroad. Henson’s postwar stage success continued in revues, musicals and plays, including a West End adaptation of The Diary of a Nobody in 1955. Henson’s film career was intermittent, and he made 14 films from 1916 to 1956. The most notable of these was Tons of Money in 1924, which introduced the popular Aldwych farces to British cinema audiences for the first time. Leslie Henson was born in Notting Hill, London, the eldest child and only son of Joseph Lincoln Henson, a tallow chandler, and his wife, Alice Mary (née Squire). He was educated at the Emanuel School (Wandsworth), and at Cliftonville College (Margate). Interested in the theatre from an early age, Henson wrote and produced theatrical pieces while at school. He worked briefly in the family business but soon studied with “the Cairns–James School of Musical and Dramatic Art”.

Henson began his professional stage career at age 19 in the provinces with The Tatlers’ concert party, soon appearing in London in the pantomime Sinbad at the Dalston Theatre at Christmas 1910. After concert appearances, he toured in The Quaker Girl in 1912 in the role of Jeremiah. His first West End role was later that year in Nicely, Thanks! at the Royal Strand Theatre. Actor Stanley Holloway dedicated a chapter in his 1967 autobiography to Henson, describing how Henson helped establish his career by signing him to perform in Nicely Thanks![4] He performed with The Scamps’ concerts and starred in the comic roles in hit West End Edwardian musical comedies such as To-Night’s the Night (1914 on Broadway and 1915 at the Gaiety Theatre, London), Theodore & Co (1916),[5] and Yes, Uncle! (1917). His malleable features, bulging eyes and raspy voice made him an audience favourite, especially in his own comic sketches. He also appeared in films occasionally, beginning with Wanted: A Widow (1916).

Henson signed up with the Royal Flying Corps but was removed from active service in 1918 to run a concert party group called “The Gaieties” in the 5th Army, to give shows for the troops. That autumn, he was stationed in Lille, which had been recently evacuated by the Germans, and was able to stage revues and a pantomime at the abandoned Opera House.

He returned to the West End in Kissing Time (1919), Sally (1921) and a string of musicals at the Winter Garden Theatre, including A Night Out (1920), The Cabaret Girl (1922) and The Beauty Prize (1923). In Tons of Money (1922), he starred as Aubrey Allington, which led to the long-running series of Aldwych Farces, which he co-produced with Tom Walls. In 1924, he played Aubrey Allington again when he and Walls made his most notable film, Tons of Money, which introduced the Aldwych farces to British cinema audiences for the first time.

In 1926, he starred in Kid Boots in London and then toured the English provinces in Betty Lee in 1926.In 1927, he appeared in a musical, Lady Luck at the Carlton Theatre, London, followed by Funny Face, 1928. In 1930, Henson and his business partner Firth Shephard co-leased the Novello Theatre and presented a series of farces, It’s a Boy! (1930, also starring Henson), It’s a Girl! (1930), Follow Through, Nice Goings On! (1933), Lucky Break and Aren’t Men Beasts! (1936).

In 1935, he and Shephard took over the Gaiety Theatre, London and produced four successful shows, Seeing Stars (1936), Swing Along (1937), Going Greek (1937) and Running Riot (1938). During the run of the last of these, the aged theatre was condemned and was required to be closed. Henson also returned to film work in the 1930s, appearing in A Warm Corner (1930), The Sport of Kings (1931), It’s a Boy (1933), The Girl from Maxim’s (1933) and Oh, Daddy! (1935). His later films were The Demi-Paradise (1943) and Home and Away (1956). In 1938, Leslie Henson was appointed president of the Royal Theatrical Fund.

At the outbreak of World War II, he returned to the UK from a tour of South Africa and, together with Basil Dean, formed the Entertainments National Service Association (ENSA), a government-sponsored organisation with which he entertained British troops in Europe, the Near East and the Far East. He was in London in 1940, however, for the revue Up and Doing and in 1942 for Fine and Dandy (at which the King and Queen and Princesses Elizabeth and Margaret were surprise guests), both at the Saville Theatre. In 1945, he starred in The Gaieties at the Winter Garden Theatre, and in a revival of 1066 and All That at the Palace Theatre, London. In 1946, he toured the provinces in The Sport of Kings.

In 1948 he starred in Bob’s Your Uncle. Later performances included “straight” roles, though with less success, such as Elwood P. Dowd in Harvey (1950), in which he toured, and as Samuel Pepys in a musical composed by Vivian Ellis And So to Bed by J. B. Fagan (1951). He also had a hit in the title role of the musical farce Bob’s Your Uncle (1948) by Austin Melford and later starred in Relations Are Best Apart at the Theatre Royal, Bath (1953), as Mr Pooter in a stage adaptation of The Diary of a Nobody (Duchess Theatre, 1955), and as Old Eccles in a musical version of Tom Robertson’s Caste (1955). Henson acted up until the time of his death.

Henson was married three times, in each case to an actress: Marjorie Kate Farewell “Madge” Saunders, daughter of Edward Henry Master Saunders and Ellen Lucie Margaret White (died 1967), whom he married at St. George’s Church, Hanover Square, Marylebone, London in 1919, Gladys Gunn, in 1926, Harriet “Billie” Dell, in 1944. His sons with his third wife were Joe, a farmer, and Nicky, an actor. Joe founded Cotswold Farm Park; his son, Adam Henson, runs the park and is a TV presenter. Nicky’s sons with ex-wife Una Stubbs are composers Christian and Joseph, and another son with wife Marguerite Porter is Keaton, an artist.

Henson died at his home in Harrow Weald, Middlesex, in 1957, aged 66.  His body was cremated at Golders Green Crematorium.

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William Henry Ralph Reader CBE

(25 May 1903 – 18 May 1982), known as Ralph Reader, was a British actor, theatrical producer and songwriter, known for staging the original Gang Show, a variety entertainment presented by members of the Scouting movement, and for leading community singing at FA Cup Finals.

Reader was born in Crewkerne, Somerset, England, the son of a Salvation Army bandmaster. He was orphaned by the age of eight and brought up by aunts and uncles. Joining the Scout movement at 11, he put on Scout shows as a patrol leader in the 2nd Denton and South Heighton Troop in Newhaven, Sussex.

His first job was as delivery boy for a relative’s greengrocer’s shop in Seaford. His employer took Reader to Brighton to buy supplies and then visit the Hippodrome theatre, where he saw many music hall stars of the day. At age 14 he became a telegram messenger and, at 15, an office boy at a cement works.

In 1920 he moved to the United States of America, working in various menial jobs, while acting in and directing off-Broadway shows. At 21 he choreographed his first Broadway show and the New York Times wrote: “Watch Ralph Reader”. Returning to England, he produced and choreographed West End productions, notably variety performances at Drury Lane and at the Hippodrome.

In 1932, still in Scouting, he anonymously staged his first all-Scout variety show at the Scala Theatre, London. The Gang’s All Here featured 150 Boy Scouts largely from London’s East End, performing sketches, songs and dance numbers. The three performances were well received by public and critics. The following year The Gang Comes Back at the Scala played to capacity houses and the public and press began referring to “The Gang Show”.

In 1934 that became its title and Reader acknowledged he was their producer. Besides the Gang Shows, in 1936, Reader wrote and directed a dramatic pageant called “The Boy Scout” with a cast of 1,500 Scouts at the Royal Albert Hall. In the same year, he wrote and played the lead in a feature film called “The Gang Show” which premiered at the Lyceum Theatre, London in April 1937.

In November 1937 “a bunch of Boy Scouts”, as one writer described them, became the first amateurs to appear at a Royal Variety Performance. They shared billing with Gracie Fields, George Formby and Max Miller.

Through the prewar Gang Shows, Reader became friends with Air Commodore Archibald Boyle, the deputy director of RAF Intelligence. The German Ambassador, Joachim von Ribbentrop, attended the 1938 London Gang Show and invited Reader to visit the Hitler Youth Movement in Germany. Boyle persuaded Reader to become an Intelligence Officer in the Royal Air Force Volunteer Reserve with the rank of Flight Lieutenant, although the diplomatic situation had deteriorated before he could take up von Ribbentrop’s invitation.

On the outbreak of war, Boyle sent Reader to France for undercover work, in the guise of running a concert party, for which some former Gang Show members were recruited into the RAF. The show was entitled “Ralph Reader and Ten Blokes from the Gang Show” and, besides allowing Reader to complete intelligence tasks, had a positive effect on morale.

On returning to England, Reader was ordered to expand the Gang Shows, while his visits to RAF stations allowed Reader to monitor subversive propaganda which was a concern of the RAF high command. Reader eventually raised twenty-four RAF Gang Show units and two female WAAF units with a total establishment of nearly four hundred serving personnel. The RAF Gang Shows toured nearly every theatre of war, from Iceland to Burma.

By 1944, Gang Show units were estimated to have travelled 100,000 miles and entertained 3,500,000 servicemen. Some of those who served in the RAF Gang Shows would later become well known entertainers, such as Peter Sellers, Tony Hancock, Dick Emery and Cardew Robinson. For his services to the Royal Air Force he was awarded an MBE (Military Division) in 1943.

After the war Reader set up his own production company, Ralph Reader Limited, which revived many shows he had produced before the war. The first postwar Gang Show ran for three weeks at the Blackpool Opera House and broke the theatre’s records. He also began producing the London Gang Show in 1950, usually at the Golders Green Hippodrome in north London, and wrote more songs and musical plays for the Scout Association. He produced the Gang Show annually until 1974, and his association with it continued until his death.

He published an autobiography, It’s Been Terrific in 1953, with a second volume, Ralph Reader Remembers, in 1974. He was appointed Commander of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire (CBE) in 1957 “for services to the Boy Scouts Association”. In the 1970s he was appointed to the post of Chief Scout’s Commissioner, and in 1975 was awarded the Bronze Wolf, the only distinction of the World Organization of the Scout Movement, awarded by the World Scout Committee for exceptional services to world Scouting. He died in 1982, one week short of his 79th birthday.

He was the subject of This Is Your Life in November 1963 when he was surprised by Eamonn Andrews at the BBC Television Theatre.

Following his death, the Ralph Reader Memorial Fund was established with contributions from friends, colleagues and members of various Gang Shows. It continues to “assist deserving individual members of the Scout and Guide Movements under the age of 20 years. Grants may be given towards the costs of camp fees, Scout and Guide uniform, travel to Scout or Guide events, career training, convalescence after an illness, or any other purpose.”

In May 1984, a stone bench was unveiled in his memory outside the Church of St Clement Danes in the Strand, London, by the Royal Air Force Gang Show Association, in commemoration of his wartime entertainment work.In 2000, a blue plaque was placed on his birthplace at 12 Court Barton, Crewkerne, and on 8 October 2011, a further blue plaque was unveiled on his childhood home in Heighton Road, Denton, Newhaven. The 2nd Denton Scouts are known as Ralph Reader’s Own.

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