The Arts

 

On the 1st and 2nd July 1944, an arts and craft exhibition was held in an empty hut to showcase the talents of the prisoners. Portrait and landscape painters had worked in oils and watercolours and achieved most impressive results, whilst illustrators had been equally successful with magazine cover or poster artwork. The crafts section consisted of most anything that had been manufactured in-camp, from needlework and various utensils through to house models, engineering drawings, and furniture made from the wood of Red Cross packing.

 

A section of the Arts and Craft exhibition A fly poster for Oscar Wilde's The Importance Of Being Ernest Furniture at the Arts and Craft Exhibition

 

Theatre

 

The British prisoners had brought a few instruments from Italy that they had received through the Red Cross, and so at a much earlier stage than was their previous experience, they were able to put on a show to make for a welcome diversion on an otherwise dull evening. The French and Belgians had converted Hut 27B into a theatre, but it was fully booked for the first few months and the British were unable to squeeze in a show until Christmas 1943. "Gay Time" was chosen, but producer Ralph Griffin had only 15 days to arrange and rehearse, at a time when the acting talent available to the British huts had yet to be tested, but nevertheless the play was a success in spite of the snow outside and the cold wind coming through the broken windows. More performances did not follow until February, due once more to the problems to securing theatre time. "Here We Go" on the 21st and 22nd March 1944 was conceived in January and had faced many production problems, grappled with by G. Skinner and E. Randall, but the show was a fine success and proved that soldiers could dance.

 

A scene from Bumbles of Bumbleton The band perform "Musical Parade" A scene from "Once A Crook" A scene from "Once A Crook"

 

Some of the actors were deeply interested in their work and used the experience of Stalag theatre to hone and showcase their talents, which they might not have had the opportunity to do were they free men. Aside from the writing and performance aspect, a great deal of backstage work had to be done to ensure that the production was a success. The Props Room, masterminded by Roly Hunter, was a hive of creativity and home to any scraps and odds and ends that they could lay their hands on, legally or otherwise. Using only what many would describe as junk, they were able to create realistic props, from jewellery, clothing, plants, and cocktail shakers, to suits of armour and furniture. If they were asked to provide an unusual item at the last minute, it was always in place by the time the curtain went up. The Lightning Department did not exist as such to begin with and it detracted from the overall quality of the production, however Ollie Squirrell stepped forward and was not only able to deal with cabling and switches, but also manufactured anything from light dimmers to neon signs.

 

Some of the Backstage Crew with their props The Carpenters

 

Ted Pearson wrote his musical farce, the Bumbles of Bumbleton, in less than six weeks and also composed six of its 30 songs. Fred Coley took care of the orchestration, as he did for a great many other shows, and it ran from the 25th to the 27th April and set the benchmark for all performances thereafter. June brought "Melody Parade", which was a show totally focused on the musicians, partly to bring their talent to the fore but also to give the other performers a break. "Whizz-Bang", "Ermatrude's Follies", and "Choose Your Shoes" were all fast paced revues which combined a great many Variety disciplines and enabled the subject matter to be thrown wildly around, from Dutch ballet one minute to a scene involving Maoris the next.

 

A scene from "New Edition" A scene from "New Edition" A scene from "New Edition" A scene from "The Milky Way" A scene from "The Milky Way"

 

Several dramas were also attempted, in spite of there only being a few men in the camp whose acting abilities were especially noted, that it was not guaranteed that audiences would flock to see a serious work, and in addition that the plays were restricted in terms of props and the small stage. However these fears proved unjustified after the debut drama was aired in the form of Noel Coward's "Blithe Spirit". The lead role was taken at the last minute by the producer, Dan Bosman, who gave a great performance, ably supported by Arthur Arnold, Jim MacFarlane, Bill Bicketstaff, Charles Louisson as Madame Arcati, Len Wear as Ruth Condomine, and Les Davidson as Elvira the Ghost. Bosman returned in equally capable form in April, playing "Rough" in Patrick Hamilton's thriller "Gaslight", produced by Phil Parker. The part of Manningham was wonderfully portrayed by Herb Whitten, and though much of the cast were new to theatre they managed to carry the suspension through to the end. The high production standards continued with "Once A Crook", Youth At The Helm", Noel Coward's "Hay Fever", and the American comedy "The Milky Way". There was also "The Man Who Came To Dinner", however during Dress Rehearsal it was announced by the camp authorities that all stage performances were banned. The organizers obtained permission for a single showing half an hour after the end of the Dress Rehearsal, but without their consent another performance followed half an hour after the other had finished; it was a great feat for the cast to perform the play three times in quick succession without much rest. Six weeks later the ban was lifted and "The Man Who Came To Dinner" was given a second run only for the ban to be enforced once more soon after, and though a few Variety performances followed, this was the end of Drama.

 

A scene from Noel Coward's "Hay Fever" A scene from "The Man Who Came To Dinner" A scene from "The Man Who Came To Dinner" A scene from "The Man Who Came To Dinner"

 

The following productions were staged by the British:

 

Date

Production

29/12/43

Gay Time

22/02/44

Blithe Spirit

07/03/44

Pot Pourri

21/03/44

Here We Go

11/04/44

Gaslight

25/04/44

The Bumbles of Bumbleton

18/05/44

Once A Crook

30/05/44

Whizz-Bang

14/06/44

Youth At The Helm

27/06/44

Melody Parade

19/07/44

Hay Fever

03/08/44

New Edition

17/08/44

The Milky Way

29/08/44

Ermatrude's Follies

12/09/44

The Man Who Came To Dinner

25/10/44

The Man Who Came To Dinner

30/12/44

Choose Your Shoes

15/01/45

Choose Your Shoes

 

Music

 

Unlike most prisoners who arrive at a new camp, the British of Stalag VIIIA were lucky in that they were allowed to take with them the instruments they had acquired through the Red Cross in Italy, and music, whether in the form of an orchestra, choir, or boisterous sing-song, was a most popular manner of relieving the monotony. Even so, the initial lack of Red Cross support and the overcrowding problem resulted in nothing being held on a grander scale than the ever popular evening hut-concerts. Such entertainment was capably handled by either Eric Costello and his "Rhythm Boys", or Brian Miller and Legionaire Eresch with their "Metrognomes".

 

When Red Cross support came through it was invaluable in kitting out the camp with instruments, and in total over the period of their stay the British received: 9 saxophones, 4 trumpets, 1 trombone, 2 cellos, 2 double-basses, 6 violins, 1 viola, 4 clarinets, 1 flute, 1 piccolo, 25 piano accordions, 1 piano, 1 harmonium, 2 drum kits, and 250 mouth organs. In addition the Red Cross also supplied 25 gramophones and a range of records to play on them.

 

With these instruments, music began to take off during the first few months of 1944. Corporal Geoffrey Pretyman formed both of the two camp choirs; the Church Choir, established in February 1944 with a self-explanatory purpose, and the Concert Choir, who participated in any theatrical production where a choir was required. Also helping out in the Theatre was Fred Coley's Pit Orchestra. Coley also formed another orchestra, specialising in classical music, which due to the changing quantity of its members was known at various times as the Sextette, Septette, and Octette. Another classical group, the "Salon Orchestra" was created by Wilf Brunt in April.

 

Len Skane's "Camp Dance Band", also known as the "Empire Ambassadors", was formed in January and their every performance was heralded as a great success. So much so that in November they were allowed to go on a five-day tour and play concerts at Kommandos 12401 (a glass factory), 12402, 12403, and 12404 (all coalmines), and in so doing brought some cheer to the less fortunate men of Stalag VIIIA who had been put to work. The Ambassadors also played to the patients at the Görlitz POW Hospital, as did the "Septette", "Salon Orchestra", and "Metrognomes".