Basil Hallam was an actor who achieved fame overnight with the opening of "The Passing Show of 1914" when he appeared as 'Gilbert the Filbert ' the Knut with a K'. This song was soon being whistled all over London as P.G. Wodehouse noted in Vanity Fair Magazine in 1914.
Knuts went out of fashion quickly with the arrival of the Great War. See this article on Refashioning male identity in WW1
Basil joined the Royal Flying Corps in Autumn 2015 and, after training at Roehampton, became a Captain in the Kite Balloon Division. In this role he went 3,000 feet up in hot air balloons which were tethered to the ground in order to sketch and later photograph the i.e. of the land for reconnaissance purposes. Thousands of aerial photographs were taken by balloonist during World War One and many of these can be seen at the Imperial War Museum.
We are very grateful to the Heritage Lottery Fund, First World War Then and Now scheme for grants which is have enabled us to research the role of women in men's roles in the period 1914-1918 and the war record of Basil Hallam and his on stage partnership with Elsie Janis. We are introducing people to the archives. Our young researchers are pictured here at the Imperial War Museum looking at diary accounts of Basil Hallam's 1916 balloon accident.
Elsie Janis, like Gwen Farrar and Norah Blaney toured the war zones of Northern France and Belgium entertaining troops in YMCA huts, hospitals and makeshift auditoria. In 1918 Elsie put together the revue 'Hullo America', making a return to the Palace Theatre, Shaftesbury Avenue, where she had starred with Basil Hallam in The Passing Show' in 1914 and 1915.
In 1915 they had become engaged, although this was probably a publicity stunt. There's no doubt they were great friends and Basil's death in 1916 is said to have inspired Elsie's determination to entertain soldiers so close to the Front.
Elsie Janis and Basil Hallam in 'The Passing Show of 1915'
Basil's song 'Gilbert The Filbert, the Knut with a K' became extremely popular. Audiences enjoyed seeing him play an upper class twit wooing Janis' cool American girl with songs like 'I've Got Everything I want But You' and 'You're Here and I'm Here'. We recreate these songs from old gramophone recordings in our show 'Fall of Duty'.
We are very grateful to the Heritage Lottery Fund, First World War Then and Now scheme for a grant which is has enabled us to research the role of women in men's roles in the period 1914-1918. This research formed the basis for our show and it's still going on. We have updated 'All The Nice Girls' four times now with new songs we've unearthed and to include new details we've discovered. We began by focusing on male impersonators of the Music Hall, Vesta Tilley, Hetty King and Ella Shields. Vesta Tilley played a role in recruiting soldiers at the start of the war. By 1917 when Ella Shields popularised the song, 'Oh! It's a Lovely War' servicemen and their loved ones at home responded to the irony of the piece.
Just behind the lines, as members of Lena Ashwell's pioneering concert parties for the troops, Gwen Farrar and Norah Blaney met each other in 1917. We have been able to source and original copy of 'Popular Music and Dancing Weekly Magazine' from 1924 in which Norah describes in an article how this came about,
"It was not long before I was invited to join a concert party that was going to France. It was Gervais Elwes who arranged the concert and of course I was keen on helping him although it was rather a wrench for me to give up all my classical playing. One of the members of the party was a young girl who played the cello very nicely and now I come to one of the most interesting points of my career for the cellist was none other than Gwen Farrar – the girl with the most delicious sense of humour I have ever known. I well remember Mr Elwes telling me about her when we were first making plans for the party. “There is one girl I am doubtful about.” he said, “She has never been to France and she’s rather a spoilt child – her father is a a millionaire and I don’t know how she will turn out.” I could picture to myself what sort of girl she would be – a spoilt darling who would put on a lot of side because of their father’s millions. I needn’t have worried. Gwen and I took an immediate liking to one another and we chummed up from the moment we first met. All went well until one day Wish Wynne – who was also playing in the party – sprained her ankle and couldn’t do her turn. Gwen saved the situation and proved that she could not only play the cello but play the fool just as well! That was really the start of our turn for after that Gwen and I always played together. Later on we came back to England and Gwen and I were such good pals by this time that the thought of parting from each other was almost unbearable. It so happened that I was engaged to sing at the Palladium at one of the Sunday evening concerts and I asked the manager if I could bring my friend along with me and do a double turn. He didn’t like the idea at first but at last I managed to win him over so Gwen came Halong almost as a bit of a make weight as she afterwards put it and absolutely refused to share my fee although I pressed her to take half. To come to the point quickly we made a wonderful hit and the manager was delighted with us. After the show a Music Hall agent came to see us and told us we must go on the Halls. Gwen said it was a thrilling idea so on the Halls we went and the agent booked us solid for four years."
The diaries of Gervase Elwes (mentioned above) have also proved a useful source of information.
Sunday June17th 1917.
'Miss Lena Ashwell joined us yesterday and recited splendidly. She is evidently loved out here and deservedly so, as the work she has done in getting up the concerts must have been immense, and the entertainments are generally an enormous boon to the soldiers.'
Wednesday June 20th
'Miss Norah Blaney is very amusing and a wonderful pianist, and Miss Farrar is also most entertaining and as clever as can be.She and Miss Blaney make up the young and giddy part of our 'Company' and of course have great fun with the young officers. We call them the 'bad girls of the family!' Miss Farrar and I have dog fights sometimes for the entertainment of the officers when we are dining at their Mess. She can growl excellently, and her ‘wounded dog’ is priceless, so that when we are both doing a dog fight the noise is really quite life-like, and has more than once had a success fou’”.
Gwen nicknamed Elwes ‘Uncle Nonnie’ after the chorus refrain ‘Hey nonnie, nonnie’ in one of the songs he sang , ‘Sigh no More’.
Their audiences were often enormous, at one, “about fourteen thousand…and how they did enjoy it! Everywhere they implore us to come back, it really is most affecting. They always say, too, that ours is the best concert party they have ever had.”
Despite the levity of these accounts, the importance of these concert parties should not be underestimated. They played a major role in supporting troop morale and the courage and resilience of the performers was considerable. The experience of performing in the Great War brought Gwen and Norah together, gave them the confidence and experience to take risks on stage and resulted in the creation of their unique, highly unconventional and entertaining variety act which they went on to perform in the West End and on Broadway.
This receipt shows Gwen and Norah taking home £30 after a week performing at the Chatham Empire Theatre of Varieties in December 1918.
Here's a link to our article about Gwen, Norah and Ella Shields on the website of Manchester's LGBT History Festival