Musical comedy spy caper gave Blackpool RAF trainees a laugh before serious business of war began...

By Barry Band

Tuesday, 21st September 2021, 4:55 am
Cicely Courtneidge in the spy film Under Your Hat, 1940. Pic: Getty Images
Cicely Courtneidge in the spy film Under Your Hat, 1940. Pic: Getty Images

When war was declared in September, 1939, Blackpool’s Grand Theatre had a string of star-studded plays lined up, as we learned last week.

But the New Opera House (its formal name) faced a problem. The huge stage needed big musical shows and none were immediately available.

Fortunately, the Opera House had a film projection suite, which was busy for several weeks after the early closure of the summer season show.

Arthur Askey and his comic partner Richard Murdoch star in the Gainsborough comedy ‘Band Wagon’. Pic: Getty Images

Turned Out Nice Again, starring George Formby, Forty Glamorous Beauties (said the ads) and several top “spesh” acts, had launched the handsome new theatre in a blaze of publicity on July 14.

The first autumn stage show to arrive came direct from London’s Palace Theatre. It was a morale-raiser starring two of Britain’s favourite jolly entertainers, the husband and wife team of Jack Hulbert and Cicely Courtneidge.

Their London success, Under Your Hat, was a musical comedy spy caper that made fun of the Hun. So, for a couple of weeks in October the RAF men, in training in the resort, could have a good laugh before getting down to the serious business.

Under Your Hat was a natural vehicle for the Hulbert-Courtneidge style. “Sublime craziness” declared the Gazette’s reviewer.

George Formby, 1937. Photo: Getty Images

It was a farcical tale about a search for a miraculous carburettor that would make British aircraft go faster than the Luftwaffe’s.

When the tour finished the Hulberts went straight into making a film version that was released in September, 1940. Then it was back on the road in their Hulbert Follies revue, seen at the Grand.

But we’re looking at the Opera House in the opening months of the war. The Tower Company management could muster only one more live show in 1939. It was a revue called Funny Side Up, which played two weeks over the Christmas season.

In 1940 the big theatre had only three stage shows prior to the summer season of The Big Show of 1940, starring Arthur Askey and Richard Murdoch, who had become stars through the radio show Band Waggon (with a double “g”).

And there lies a puzzle. When the Opera House show opened it was advertised in the Gazette and on the posters as “Our Own Band Waggon” with a small credit line “By arrangement with Jack Hylton.”

But a few weeks later all reference to Band Waggon was removed and a reprint if the theatre programme carried the title The Big Show of 1940.

People in the business will suspect there had been a serious dispute over royalties with Bolton-born impresario Hylton, who owned the stage rights to the BBC’s Band Waggon show.

That’s showbiz!

But the Opera House was up and running for a busy, star-studded war, during which the Tower Company was able to pay its shareholders handsome dividends of 15 per cent.

It had “turned out nice again” as George Formby remarked when he starred in the 1940 Opera House pantomime, Dick Whittington.