Leslie-Henson-Tonights-the-Night-WW1016Leslie Lincoln Henson 1891 - 1957 (Emanuel 1903 - 1907): wartime and peacetime entertainer to Kings, Generals, Admirals and a legion of adoring fans

Leslie Henson was one of the most popular entertainers of the early 20th Century. His star shone brightly in theatre land in the inter-war period and during both world wars he entertained the troops and both Kings George V and VI.

Born in Notting Hill, he attended Cliftonville College before entering Emanuel at the age of 12 in 1903. In addition to being the touch judge for Emanuel's first Rugby team of 1906, he also got his first taste of theatre at Emanuel, as he remembers,

Theatricals were frowned upon by our very strict headmaster, but encouraged by everyone else – particularly on Sunday afternoons after scripture. There was a platform in what was known as the New Hall, and on this I used to give a concert party programme.[1]

He continues:

We had a boy keeping cave at the door to give warning of the headmaster's approach. This was necessary, for he often did come. Directly we heard the cry of "Cave!" we performers went into hiding under the platform because of our costumes and make-up, and our audience, including some of the younger masters, split up into groups and the hall had the appearance of a normal Sunday afternoon.[2]

Known as "Troutie" at school for, as he writes, his "piscatorial features", Leslie took an interest in both cricket and football.[3] One can imagine he was rather an amusing school boy, as the Emanuel School history explains:

While we regard it as generally unfair to refer to school reports, we have, with Mr. Henson's consent, made an exception...he made good progress in music under Mr. Evans, and that his strongest point in classwork was English composition. But probably a more valuable clue to the talents and personality which have resulted in a series of brilliant theatrical successes is a red ink note on one of his reports: "General behaviour, N [ot] S [satisfactory] –S.T.W." Apparently the fund of humour and high spirits which made "Trouty" so popular in dormitory and classroom was not always appreciated by Mr. Whitaker, who was unable to see the real genius which underlay them.[4]

Leslie Henson Emanuel School Touch Judge 1906

Image: Leslie with the Emanuel School 1906/7 1st Fifteen of which he was Touch Judge, far right in photo.

After leaving school he worked for a firm of hide, skin and tallow merchants in Dundee, before becoming an apprentice butcher with the family business but his heart was in the theatre and, after amateur roles in 'Aladdin', where he first learnt to contort his facial features, for which he would later become famous, his mother encouraged him to become a drama student. He got his first break in 1910 with The Tatlers concert party but tragedy soon struck with the early death of his father. Minor roles and tours followed until he made his first appearance in the West End in 1912 in "Nicely, Thanks", although he and the rest of the party almost never performed again. When they went to take a bow at the end of the first part of their programme the act drop, which was a solid curtain, came crashing down on their necks.

In 1913 he made a lifelong friend of the comedian Stanley Holloway, with whom he later recorded a Second World War comedy song called Careless Talk, which had a serious message for the wartime population of Britain that they shouldn't talk about wartime related news in public because they never knew who was listening and any such news could be used to the enemy's advantage.

A small part followed in the musical comedy "To-night's the Night" and, at his first audition at the Gaiety Theatre was Old Emanuel and theatre impresario, Alfred Butt. The show opened in New York and Leslie's ship sailed in November 1914. The German raider 'Karlsruhe' chased it part of the way but none of its passengers knew this at the time.

Leslie Henson Tonight's the Night WW1016

Image: from the popular First World War play Tonight's the Night.

Whilst in New York Leslie was offered a contract for three pictures but had already accepted an offer to open at the Gaiety Theatre in London. Leslie thought at the time that moving pictures wouldn't 'last any longer than roller-skating' and so a Hollywood career never materialised. Theatre work during the First World War was not without its perils as Zeppelins bombed London. Leslie remembered:

One of the Zeppelin raids on London occurred while we were actually playing, and a bomb fell so near the theatre that the door of the scene-dock was blown in and shrapnel rattled on to the stage. Our messenger boy was killed and the call boy was seriously injured.

Leslie was quick to act and calmed the audience by jumping up on a couch and moving in time to the music of the orchestra being directed by the conductor who had jumped up into a seat. The audience proceeded to take their seats again.[5]

Leslie played in a sketch called "In the Trenches" at a charity matinée at the Gaiety in 1916. Leslie suggests that the war had been a taboo subject on the stage up to 1916 but the sketch, which was about a lonely soldier who never got a letter and asked to read a bit of another's soldier's letter, went down well with an audience of injured soldiers on its first night and continued to run 'for successive weeks at Hackney, Chiswick and the Coliseum'.

In 1916 Leslie joined the Royal Flying Corps and qualified as a first-class motor driver and second class air mechanic. He soon took charge of the RFC's technical reference library and quickly became frustrated with red tape when technical books, which were needed urgently, were not ordered immediately because he was told an order from the Treasury was required. Leslie recalls that he could have got them within less than a week but six months later and after landing in France those books still had not been ordered. At this time Leslie had just finished playing in "Yes, Uncle".

Leslie reported to an officer in Farnborough but immediately recognised the Posting Major as Lawrence Legge who had played in "The Chocolate Soldier". Thanks to Lawrence, Leslie was transferred from quarters under canvas to Salamanca Barracks, Aldershot. He also benefited from being recognised by the Corporal in charge of the cookhouse, who had worked with his father for fifteen years in Smithfield Market. He soon left for France after doing several entertaining stints at Farnborough. When in France he had a couple of hair raising journeys, one of which could have seen the early end of Leslie, as he was climbing underneath a train to join his friend on another that was about to leave on an adjacent platform. He missed the train and was carried away on an empty one in a story that reads straight out of a comedy. The initial hiccup was soon over and he received a commission because General Sir Hubert Gough wanted him to organise shows for the troops.

Leslie remembers organising his first show:

I got busy at once, and in a week had a concert party of twelve in pierrot costume and make-up. Our theatre was a barn, but we had good lighting. I called the party 'The Gaieties', for what then seemed old times to me.

Leslie was in France at the time of the German offensive of March 1918 when he describes walking back after a show one evening, with his friend Major Dennis Critchley-Salmonson:

... we walked back together about midnight to our billet in a creepy, ghost-like farmhouse, and I remember him saying solemnly: "Matey ('Matey' was his name for me), the big offensive starts this morning". So when at 4 a.m. or thereabouts we were wakened by a soul-shaking, terrifying sense of sound that vibrated and quivered through the night, I knew what Critchley-Salmonson meant when he said: "Matey, here they are!" The great German offensive of March 1918, had begun.

After breakfast we made our way back to Nesle, amid the sound of gunfire and resounding crashes, while ambulances came tearing down the road...things were bad and going from bad to worse. The Fifth Army was in retreat. We retired from Nesle, soon to be smashed up, and went from one uncomfortable spot to another. At last, in Amiens, we began to take root again, and I raced round trying to get hold of people to make up a show-never more needed than in those black days of the retreat.

His show performed in 'barns, in schools and in tents'. The Tanks Corps built them a theatre with Chinese labour in a day, with an audience of around a thousand officers and men at one point. Leslie's job after the German evacuation of Lille in October 1918 was to find a theatre. The Germans had completed the building of Lille's theatre after they occupied it in 1914. Leslie was tasked with getting this theatre in to shape and to organise shows as soon as possible. An interesting coincidence occurred some years after the war, when Leslie adapted a play by the German authors Arnold and Bach. Arnold travelled from Berlin to see Leslie in England. Arnold's play, "Nice Goings On", was the fourth Leslie had adapted and in his dressing room the two spoke about the war, which had been, by this stage, over by fifteen years. Leslie takes up the story:

We began to reminisce, and naturally the Great War was mentioned. I told him the story of my tenure of the Lille Opera House, and threw a compliment to whoever the German director was who had run the theatre so beautifully during the four and half years' occupation. Arnold's eyes lit up. "Herr Henson, I was that director. I walked out as you walked in.

4.The Gaities WWI

Image: the Gaities in WW1, Leslie first from left sitting.

The Theatre was up and running in a week. Leslie's 'Gaieties' was very much an 'Allied revue' for it included French artistes. Leslie paints the scene of the show's grand finale:

It began with a series of tableux, Number one was 'The Angelus' – interrupted by the 'Fall in!' ...Number two was 'Au Revoir' – a poilu saying goodbye to his girl ...Number three was 'The Enemy' -a German officer appeared, seized the girl and put chains round her wrists and ankles. I was the German officer, and I was very proud of that make-up. No laughs here. Hisses galore, but no laughs -an artistic triumph. Number four was 'Occupation' ...Number five was 'Liberation' -the German officer explaining in dumb show that all was over ...strains of 'Tipperary' from the orchestra, and finally a Tommy rushing on to help take the chains off the girl. Then the black cloth behind them went up revealing the full stage set as a palace scene, with a hundred convent children (marvellously stage-managed by the nuns) grouped on stairs at the back. All they had to do was ...sing the Marseillaise ...the audience rose to their feet.

A Scottish pipe band was heard in the distance: they were in a scene dock three floors below the stage. Nearer and nearer they came until they appeared, marching on to the stage ...slowly down the steps walked Bert Errol ...draped in a gigantic French flag. On one side was a Tommy, on the other a poilu, who ...duly embraced his sweetheart.[6]

The show was a huge success, being packed out with soldiers and civilians but on one special occasion they played to King George V who occupied the Royal Box with his sons, the Prince of Wales, later King Edward VIII and the Duke of York, later King George VI. When King George VI visited the start of Leslie's entertainment show at the beginning of the Second World War he reminded Leslie that he had been with his brother watching him in Lille in 1918, a moment Leslie recalls, 'Thus I had played for three Kings of England in one night, and that in a foreign country, viz.- George V, Edward VIII and George VI'.[7]

Leslie was sure that what the family called 'the Henson Luck' had brought his friends back safe from the war, as his mother had given him and 29 others a lucky bead to carry with them on their journeys.

The war ended for Leslie when he was demobbed in February 1919 and he set upon a golden inter-war career being one of the most recognisable faces in show business by the time of the next conflict in 1939. In quick succession, Leslie performed in three successful productions, "Kissing Time", "A Night Out" and the silent movies 1) Alf's Button and 2) Tons of Money.

When Emanuel was collecting money for a war memorial Leslie brought his Company to the School for the War Memorial Bazaar to perform the musical comedy sketch, "The Disorderly Room".[8] Emanuel remained very close to his thoughts throughout his career and one Old Emanuel, Vernon Greaves, wrote to the School after the war to say he dined with Leslie in France.[9]

L Henson with Duke and Duchess of York

Image: in the 1920s of Leslie with the Duke and Duchess of York, later King George VI and Queen Elizabeth with a wax effigy of our present Queen which was the main piece of an auction held at a Society Ball in 1927

In 1928 Leslie played with Fred and Adèle Astaire in the smash hit play, "Funny Face". It was during this run that a large gas explosion took place outside the theatre in Holborn in December 1928 and a most iconic photo was taken of Leslie with the Astaires outside the theatre. Leslie's career went from strength to strength throughout the inter-war period and his friends during this time read like a Who's Who of early 20th Century theatre and comedy. His talents were endless, being an actor, producer, director and interviewer, having on one occasion interviewed George Bernard Shaw. He was also passionate about filming and his home movie collection is a unique document, now held by the British Film Institute, including colour footage of Second World War scenes of Mountbatten, Prince Phillip, scenes on a troop ship, bomb damaged buildings in Berlin and the Victory Parade through London in 1946.

Leslie was in Capetown at the outbreak of the Second World War. He returned to England with a large convoy escorted by HMS Neptune. Leslie described his return:

Arriving in London in the black-out and miseries of war, was an immense contrast to the happiness and sunshine of what is most inappropriately termed 'Darkest Africa'. Most theatres had closed, and I, as an old campaigner in wartime entertainment, immediately went to Drury Lane...[10]

Leslie felt a sense of duty to do his part in the war as he explains,

...for the whole six years of pain and distress I was only too anxious to devote myself to the service man who was doing so far greater a job than I could ever do. An actor is the servant of the public.

Leslie met with Basil Dean and Sir Seymour Hicks, in order to organise a national entertainment organisation and Leslie came up with the name ENSA, which stood for Entertainments National Service Association. King George VI and Queen Elizabeth visited his concert group, known as the 'Gaieties', at a final rehearsal before they set off for France in late November 1939. He did two tours in France, one in 1939 and the other in 1940 before returning to England to appear in his first Revue. Soon the Battle of Britain was upon them, at which time all theatres were closed. During the bombing, London's Saville Theatre, where Leslie had been playing, was hit by four bombs and a photo depicts the damage with a sign reading 'Les Hen', the other half of the sign having been blown away.

Being a popular figure Leslie appeared in a National Savings Week film, where he urged the population of Britain to save, so that arms could be bought for servicemen as he exclaimed, 'We cannot let these gallant gentlemen down'. He encouraged the population to save in order 'to supply the munitions which will help to protect these men's lives'. He finished with a stirring appeal, 'So save and lend to defend the right to be free'.[11]

Leslie entertained the troops across the entire globe during the course of the Second World War. He went to France, Scotland, Gibraltar, North Africa, Italy, Northern Europe and the Far East. At the Navy station in Scapa Flow Leslie once again entertained King George VI and a photo of the performance shows the King being more than amused by one of Leslie's jokes. After the show, he dined with the King on board the battleship King George V. Sitting opposite the King, Leslie placed a bet of half a crown [12.5p now - Ed] with His Majesty about a scene in the Noel Coward war film "In Which We Serve". Some months later and after Leslie had taken up the issue with Noel Coward, the bet was lost and when meeting the King again in Hammamet, North Africa, he duly paid him 25 Francs, which was roughly equivalent of half a crown.[12]

5. The Gaities WWII

Image: the Gaities in WW2, Leslie in centre with beret.

After a spell in Gibraltar Leslie went touring in North Africa when, after a long day in which he performed three shows, he was entertained at a reception by General Eisenhower, and Leslie noted, 'I don't know which was the bigger pleasure. To meet him or drink his beautiful cool American concoctions'. A little while later and he was performing before the Eighth Army. As he explains:

Monty himself came on to the stage after our first night. (What a reception he got as he walked into his box...He made a charming speech of welcome to us telling us we were appearing to "His Soldiers, the Finest Soldiers in the World" – that we were doing good work for their morale, that indeed he considered us "a battle winning potential". What a personality![13]

The audiences were very large as Leslie recalls playing to 16,000 "Desert Rats", in a Roman Amphitheatre. Leslie recalls one moment from the show, 'Back of me were the only two remaining pillars standing among the ruins...These were two beautifully fluted pillars with flat tops. I look back at them, sigh, and say, "Good old Battersea Power Station"'.

Leslie was an advocate of Sunday Opening for the Theatre, an issue he championed both in the 1930s and again in the Second World War. He argued that thousands of pounds had been lost by the Red Cross and Prisoners of War Fund because the authorities had refused to change the law and allow theatres to open on a Sunday. The genesis of the issue was established both on religious grounds of Sunday being a day of rest and also for fear that no one should work seven days in one week, which was a spurious argument, as Leslie suggested Theatres could choose to close on another night in a week. Despite Leslie's efforts the law did not change for a number of years.

In January 1944 Leslie entertained the troops in Italy at Campobasso. Malta, Sicily, Belgium and Holland followed that year. In 1945 he toured the Far East where he played to POWs:

For the first time we played to ex-prisoners of war, and later had an opportunity of talking to some of these poor fellows. All the gaiety of our tour was completely damped for the time being by the pathetic abnormality of the tortured men, and the work took to itself a much more serious turn.[14]

Whilst in the Far East, he entertained troops aboard the aircraft carrier HMS Colossus and dined with Lord Louis Mountbatten, Supreme Allied Commander, South East Asia Command. Leslie took the opportunity to film the time he spent with Mountbatten and also photographed the surrender of the Japanese Imperial Army at the Singapore Municipal Building in Singapore on 12 September 1945.

Leslie's contribution to entertaining the troops in both wars was a remarkable achievement and it must be emphasised that he was still carrying out a busy schedule as a performer, producer and director of revue shows.

In 1951 Leslie attended the 350th anniversary commemorating the granting of the Charter of Incorporation by Queen Elizabeth in 1601 of Emanuel Hospital held at St Margaret's, Westminster and, at a celebration luncheon in the Rembrandt Hotel, Kensington he gave the toast of "The School". Sadly in 1957 Leslie passed away at the age of 66 but he left behind an extraordinary legacy, never more so than in the thousands of laughing servicemen in two world wars. He made the cruel and savage experience of war a little lighter. A friend who attended Cliftonville with Leslie wrote to the Wandsworth Borough News after he died and felt Leslie never received the recognition he deserved for the immense journeys he made in both wars to entertain the troops. Perhaps a statue of the great man is long overdue!

Leslie's eldest son Joe started the Cotswold Farm Park in 1971 and Joe's son Adam is a regular presenter on the BBC's Country File. Leslie's youngest son Nicky Henson followed his father's footsteps into film and theatre, including appearances in a host of television dramas, the most recent of which has been as Charles Grigg in ITV's Downton Abbey. Nicky also appeared as Mr Johnson in an episode of John Cleese's Fawlty Towers, in addition to appearances in the cutting edge 1960s programme "The Frost Report", presented by the late Sir David Frost.


Article and images contributed by Daniel Kirmatzis. Please see the author's blog: http://emanuelschoolatwar.wordpress.com

[1] Leslie Henson, Yours Faithfully, John Long Limited, p. 15
[2] Ibid.
[3] The Emanuel School history by Scott-Giles uses the spelling "Trouty".
[4] The History of Emanuel School, p. 182
[5] Yours Faithfully, p. 53
[6] A Poilu was an informal name for a French Infantryman in the First World War.
[7] Yours Faithfully, p. 116
[8] The Portcullis, Christmas Term, 1920, p.29
[9] The Portcullis, Lent Term, 1920, pp. 39-40
[10] Drury Lane became the headquarters of ENSA.
[11] National Savings Week: Leslie Henson says a few words.
[12] Yours Faithfully, p. 118 and 134
[13] Ibid. pp. 134-135
[14] Ibid. p. 162

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