The entertainment industry thrived during the war. Despite initial concerns about indulging in amusements during so critical a crisis, it was soon generally acknowledged that seeing a show or going dancing had morale-boosting benefits. Consequently, wartime tastes in theatre were for the fun and light-hearted, though revues were often interlaced with songs or sketches that stirred patriotic feelings and encouraged young men in the audience to enlist.
The male impersonator Vesta Tilley spent the war performing in theatres around the country as a convincing British Tommy, and was dubbed “Britain’s Best Recruiting Sergeant”. War-themed plays such as Tommy Atkins and Business as Usual were staged within weeks of the outbreak of war, but handled their subject lightly. German spy plays, such as Pigeon Post and The Man Who Stayed at Home, fed a growing national paranoia.
Other shows soothed audiences with their homely themes, such as Maid of the Mountains starring Laurette Taylor, while the French stage star Gaby Deslys dazzled with a succession of lavish costumes that would be unacceptable anywhere but the stage. It is significant that the three most popular shows of the Great War period were comic or escapist: Chu Chin Chow (a kind of quasi-Oriental pantomime with its female performers in notoriously skimpy costumes), The Bing Boys are Here (a comedy starring George Robey) and The Better ’Ole (a play based on Captain Bruce Bairnsfather’s cartoons for The Bystander).
Cartoons had their own part to play in boosting morale. Bairnsfather and his creation Old Bill kept the wartime nation laughing as did illustrators such as William Heath Robinson, H. M. Bateman and George Studdy, all of whom were published in the ILN magazines. The alluring pin-ups of Raphael Kirchner in The Sketch cheered up many dugouts at the front. Art exhibitions featuring popular artists were staged regularly and attracted healthy visitor numbers.
Cinema also flourished with films featuring stars such as Charlie Chaplin and Lillian Gish offering the same escapism as the theatre. For those seeking more sophisticated pleasures, nightclubs in London mushroomed during the war. Despite being subject to the same restrictive licensing laws as pubs, they attracted fashionable society who came to watch cabaret acts and try out new dances such as the Turkey Trot and Bunny Hug. More modest dance fans might roll back the carpet at home and tango to records played on the ubiquitous Decca gramophone.