Wartime theatre

6 Jun 2024
Bristol Old Vic exterior during WWII

Today marks the 80th anniversary of D-Day and it’s got us thinking about what exactly was going on here through the war years.  What was a theatre-goers experience of entertainment and how did the theatre make it through?

The theatre’s survival was pretty precarious at that time – The then ‘Theatre Royal’ was marked by periods of closure due to damage, war restrictions and financial hardships – but the overwhelming determination from the Bristol public to keep their theatre alive led to BOV being formed and the theatre’s survival.

Much of ancient Bristol was destroyed during World War II but the theatre sustained only slight damage. After one night raid the Theatre Royal was for a time the only place of entertainment still open in central Bristol.

The general public tended to only venture to events near to home, and performances at theatres tended to start earlier to be finished by the time air raid sirens start.

Bristol Old Vic auditorium by C F Denning 1942

The first Wartime Christmas 
Revues and pantomime were still very popular after the outbreak of WW2. The first wartime pantomime was Red Riding Hood. The management were so afraid of the effect of the war on the takings that they tempted the Company to take part on a profit share basis. Their fears were entirely unfounded, and the actors came away with much larger salaries than they would normally have received.

Closures and crisis
The panto was followed by the comedy-revue Happiness Ahead - a rather inappropriate title, as it played for only one night before a further blitz closed the theatre for a fortnight. 

More postponements followed until May 1941 when the theatre closed as the two surviving partners in the ownership of the Theatre, Robert Courtneidge and Milton Bode, died within a few months of each other. At the end of 1941 their executors put the theatre up for sale. The auction was fixed for 28th January, 1942.

At this time the place was in a bit of a state - the Theatre Royal was sold for £10,500 to the Metal Agencies Company. who agreed to buy the building in order that the preservation committee could raise money to purchase it from him. 

1 May 1942
An appeal was mounted to save the theatre. At a crowded public meeting, a cannonball was released down the C18 thunder run to rally support.

Fundraising Bananas
During WW2, bananas were impossible to obtain, but in 1942 over 100 were auctioned at Coopers Hall after a local grower managed to grow some in his hothouse in Brislington. Local people were so eager to taste a banana once more that the auction raised £500 for charity; buyers were each paying the equivalent of a week’s wages for a working man for a single banana.

Coopers Hall as auction house
Coopers Hall as a fruit and vegetable storage warehouse

11 May 1943    
Recognising the theatre’s significance to UK culture, the Committee for Encouragement of Music and the Arts (C.E.M.A, predecessor to the Arts Council) saved it, renovated the building and supported the Theatre’s reopening with a production of She Stoops to Conquer.

Local ship chandlers were able to supply new rope, pulley blocks and essentials for stage machinery, which couldn’t be purchased otherwise due to rationing. Scenery given by Sadlers Wells and The London Old Vic, renewed and used, where it would fit.

Image courtesy of Bristol Archive

Pretty much all the staff - box office staff, electricians, carpenters, wardrobe etc.- came from the Prince’s Theatre initially as that theatre had been destroyed by bombing in 1941.


The BBC devoted half an hour to the opening ceremony-broadcasting the prologue and first few minutes of the play. The writer Herbert Farjeon celebrated the reopening with a new prologue including the lines:


“Whoever thought we should be reunited?

A narrow squeak, I vow! But worth the trouble, For hang it!  Han’t we had our fill of rubble?

Treasures like this – if we should slight or spurn ‘em Can we condemn the foe who’d bomb and burn em?”


Dame Sybil Thorndike on opening night of She Stoops to Conquer 1943

Through 1943-1945 the theatre hosted touring productions, many produced under the auspices of C.E.M.A, everything from Ballet Rambert and Robert Atkin’s Shakespearian Company to Travelling Repertory Theatre Company in partnership with the Old Vic in London.

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