Canteen Concerts & the Politics of Play


A fictional monument to the fall of Western hegemony, palaces designed as ‘laboratories of fun’, and interwar children’s playgrounds were just some of the instances of play explored at this weekend’s ‘Play and its Potential Publics’ symposium at the Institute of Advanced Studies, UCL. 

As someone relatively new to play studies, I was delighted to take part and give a paper on canteen factory concerts during WWII. As the keynote speaker, Robert Pfaller, remarked, it’s wonderful when symposium organisers pose interesting questions and push your research into unexpected directions. This was certainly the case for me: the symposium’s dual emphasis on play and publics made me really think about who wartime factory concerts were for, and what those organising them hoped to achieve. 

The interior of a large room, filled with people seated around tables.  In the foreground there is a table stacked with plates, behind which stands a woman wearing an apron.
Kenneth Rowntree, ‘CEMA Canteen Concert, Isle of Dogs, London, E14, 1941’ (Art.IWM ART LD 1879) © IWM. Original Source:

Various themes emerged throughout the day, but almost all of the papers explored how play destabilises boundaries between the serious and the light, labour and leisure, fiction and reality. Play was repeatedly characterised as something which invites or creates disorder, whether the working-class children barrelling around the East End in 1930s films and cartoons (Lucie Glasheen) or miners impersonating their bosses in Joan Littlewood’s ‘experiments’ in the 1960s and ‘70s (Luke Dickens). 

In my paper, I explored the idea of play as a form of resistance. On the surface, wartime factory concerts organised by the Entertainments National Service Association (ENSA), the Council for Encouragement of Music and the Arts (CEMA) and the Ministry of Labour offered few opportunities for play. They were top-down, state sanctioned, often compulsory forms of entertainment. The end goal was less to entertain the workers and more to boost morale (and therefore productivity). The head of ENSA, theatre impresario Basil Dean, even tried to develop a ‘scientific’ system for how to boost productivity through entertainment. In practice, this meant organising performances according to gender, class, and profession, dividing audiences into ‘workers of a rougher kind who refuse to listen attentively’ and ‘workers of a better educated type’.[1] 

This attempt to define workers’ taste was doomed to fail. Without actually consulting audiences, both ENSA and CEMA claimed to know what workers wanted. ENSA underestimated their audiences’ taste, quickly becoming popularly known as ‘Every Night Something Awful’. CEMA, on the other hand, were accused of cultural elitism. A Ministry official wrote that its performances of opera and classical music were often ‘failures’: factory managers reported that their workers felt that they ‘had been cheated of their weekly fun’.[2]

You can get a sense of the complex cultural politics at play in the 1942 documentary, CEMA, available at the Imperial War Museum website. Click the second video (to the right) and scroll to 2 minutes 45 seconds to see extraordinary footage of an orchestra playing to a canteen full of factory workers.

Screenshot from CEMA (1942) © IWM Original source:

Half of the workers have their backs to the performers; others are trying to eat their lunch. If anything, the concert seems to hinder play, not encourage it. Discussions are made more difficult; workers had little choice about what to do during their lunchbreak. Yet some of the shots of the audience suggested that forms of resistance were possible: the man on the right looks like he’s smirking to himself; others roll cigarettes or continue their conversations. 

Screenshot from CEMA (1942) © IWM Original source:

So although the performances themselves might not have offered many opportunities for play, there were plenty of opportunities around the concerts. We could think of other small moments like jokes made during, after or before the performance; impressions or stories repeated at home or at the pub; or the singing or humming of a tune or song. 

Thinking about play and its potential publics helped me to consider the extent to which ENSA, CEMA and the Ministry tried to put workers into boxes, imagining that everyone who worked the same job had the same taste. Of course, in reality there were multiple publics present. In choosing to remain silent, applaud, laugh, sigh, fall asleep or talk over the performers, new publics were created and existing ones consolidated.

As usual, I’ve come away from the symposium with lots to think about. In my paper, I expressed surprise at the fact that the CEMA film showed so many audience members looking bored. Yet my fellow panellist Lucie Glasheen made two useful suggestions: firstly, that as entertainment wasn’t one of CEMA’s aims, it might have been strange if they looked enraptured. In that sense, we could see these bored audience members as ideal targets for the Council’s missionary work. Secondly, she suggested that the realist depiction might make more sense when viewed as part of a broader documentary tradition. Am off to watch more 1930s documentaries so I can compare!  

Thank you to symposium organisers Freya Field-Donovan, Jan van Duppen, Andrew Murray and Catalina Pollak Williamson and funders the Open University and the IAS for the kind invitation to take part. There are plans to share the papers from the conference, either as podcasts or in a special issue; visit the conference website or follow this blog for future updates. 

[1]Sir Kenneth Barnes, ‘Memorandum’, 19.10.43. National Archives ED 136/192. 

[2]H. R. Rossetti, ‘C.E.M.A. Deputation’, 1.3.1941. National Archives, LB 26/35. 

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