Today we are going to venture to the extremity of the interwar period in Britain – September 1939. Britain declared war on Germany on 3 September 1939. In hindsight, this started what is now commonly referred to as the ‘Phoney War’ – a period that lasted until April 1940 during which little actual military action took place. At the time, of course, Londoners weren’t to know that the declaration on 3 September would not lead to immediate hostilities. Accordingly, the city prepared for the worst and much public activity was suspended. As soon as it became clear that the invasion was not imminent, however, restrictions were also loosened again very quickly. After our collective experience of various levels of restrictions and lockdowns over the past 18 months (at the time of writing), this period of rapid closures and re-openings of venues in 1939 resonates.
When reviewing the newspaper coverage of the first weeks of the war, what is striking is the relative prominence articles give to the closure of entertainment venues – specifically cinemas and theatres. On 1 September, the British government implemented formal blackout regulations to obstruct bombing efforts by enemy troops. Next morning’s Daily Mail article described how streetlights, hotels and even Buckingham Palace where thrown into darkness, but tellingly the headline of the piece is ‘London Cinemas, Theatres, Carry On in Dark.’[i] Whilst many cinemas and theatres understandably opted to close completely at night, some businesses attempted to continue business whilst adhering to blackout measures. It is these venues that the Mail celebrates for their determination to continue business as usual despite the circumstances.
On 7 September the Mail followed this up with an article that reassured readers that managers of theatres and cinemas that had been closed for the previous week, were ‘standing by’ in expectation of an imminent return to business as usual.[ii] The message to the reader is clear; no matter what may lie ahead, Londoners should be able to visit the cinema and theatre at night. After only a week of blackout, the entertainment industries were confident that the Government would exempt them from the regulations. As a sector that did not directly support the war effort, this confidence seems remarkable, but it was justified. On 8 September the Government approved that cinemas, theatres and football pitches in ‘safe zones’ could re-open immediately for business.[iii] Cinemas in London’s suburbs followed on 11 September, and Central London cinemas on 15 September.[iv]
For the Mail, it was clear why these spaces should be allowed to operate: they had a ‘job of assisting to maintain a cheerful Britain.’[v] The article presents the night-time entertainment industry as vital for keeping up the morale at the home front. The re-opening was presented as a return to ‘normality’, and a mark of resilience of Britons in the face of grave danger. The news of the first wave of re-opening was considered so welcome that a second article was included in the same issue, which highlighted the scale of the impact of cinema closures in particular. According to the Mail, cinemas served a million customers a week – the real numbers were in fact much higher.[vi]
When central London cinemas and theatres were finally reopened on 15 September it was front page news for the Mail again, and the article immediately listed which films would be showing where. The article ends with the sage reminder that ‘[i]f you do go to the cinema to-night, don’t forget your gas mask.’[vii] Despite this possible danger, the Mail assumed its readers would rush to visit the cinema, as implied by the listings provided and the considerable coverage the Mail had given the issue over the previous week. Editors understood films to be an important part of their readers’ lives, even in wartime; and encouraged readers to continue with their lives as normal despite the war.
From reading the Mail coverage over these weeks, it appears that there is support for the Government decision to impose the blackout at the start of September, but also that it was considered unnecessary for that blackout to apply to places of entertainment. It was considered imperative for the public’s morale that they should be allowed to go out at night and enjoy themselves, also to show the enemy forces that the British spirit would not be broken.
Of course, entertainment venues were not immune to bomb damage. Once the Blitz started in earnest in autumn 1940, they did become targets – most famously, when the Café de Paris was hit in March 1941 dozens of people died. But during those first months of the Phoney War, entertainment venues were an important symbol of what was considered important to Londoners.
[i] ‘London Cinemas, Theatres, Carry On in Dark.’ Daily Mail, 2 September 1939, p. 10
[ii] ‘Managers ready for the ‘all clear’’, Daily Mail, 7 September 1939, p. 7
[iii] ‘Cinemas, football, start again to-day’, Daily Mail, 9 September 1939, p. 1
[iv] ‘First Two London Theatre Reopen’, Daily Mail, 12 September 1939, p. 5; ‘Cinemas and theatres are open until 10 to-night’, Daily Mail, 15 September 1939, p. 1 and p. 10
[v] ‘Cinemas, football, start again to-day’, Daily Mail, 9 September 1939, p. 1
[vi] ‘3,000 Cinemas Open Today in the “Safe” Areas’, Daily Mail, 9 September 1939, p. 5
[vii] ‘Cinemas and theatres are open until 10 to-night’, Daily Mail, 15 September 1939, p. 1 and p. 10