The Tommy who wore a frock

The Daily Telegraph - Saturday - - Front Page -

Like most young Bri­tish men of the Great War gen­er­a­tion, Tommy Keele served his coun­try on the Western Front. Un­like the oth­ers, how­ever, he did it dressed as a woman. As the 100th an­niver­sary of the out­break of war ap­proaches, the story of one of the Bri­tish Army’s least typ­i­cal soldiers is im­por­tant for its re­minder that the con­flict wasn’t fought by sepia-toned emo­tional strangers, but by peo­ple just like us with a ca­pac­ity for anger, cyn­i­cism, prej­u­dice and pride.

Tommy was in­ter­viewed by the Im­pe­rial War Mu­seum’s Sound Ar­chive in 1991 at the age of 98. The in­ter­view tapes, which are now avail­able on­line, re­veal a man speak­ing with sur­pris­ing frank­ness. For the first three years of the war, Tommy was an or­di­nary lance cor­po­ral in the Mid­dle­sex Reg­i­ment. At the start of 1917, he joined the Ace of Spades con­cert party as “First Girl”. Un­der the stage name Dot Keele, he took fe­male parts in theatres be­hind the lines for the en­ter­tain­ment of sex-starved soldiers. “The au­di­ence never imag­ined,” he says, “that dur­ing the war years, in France, they would see va­ri­ety acts like us.”

Tommy had acted pro­fes­sion­ally be­fore the war (in­clud­ing a role rid­ing a horse at a Drury Lane theatre), and he rel­ished the chance to re­turn to the stage. “Peo­ple didn’t al­ways know I was a man dressed up as a woman,” he boasts, re­call­ing how a colonel was in­vited to place a bet on which of the two Spades “girls” was gen­uinely fe­male. Af­ter care­fully study­ing the can­di­dates – Tommy and Dolly Clair (whom Tommy de­scribes as “a fat lit­tle man”) – the colonel con­fi­dently placed £50 on Tommy. “I was wear­ing a very low-cut evening dress. I used to put a dark red line half way down my chest, and then shade it off, so the side was a lit­tle pink. It looked like a cleav­age.” The colonel was fooled – and com­pletely re­fused to ac­cept that Tommy was a man. “So I had to go along to his bar­racks to prove I was a lit­tle lance cor­po­ral in the Mid­dle­sex Reg­i­ment. He was dis­gusted.”

Oc­ca­sional dis­gust was bal­anced by the ado­ra­tion of Tommy’s fans, the soldiers. He happily re­mem­bers their re­quests for signed pho­tos which brought him “a nice lit­tle in­come”. His roles ranged from song-and-dance rou­tines to se­ri­ous dra­matic parts. In a long-for­got­ten melo­drama, The White Man, he played a young In­dian girl: “I had to be glamorous and walk across the stage look­ing af­ter this lit­tle boy who was go­ing to be­come a lord. The idea was that they were tak­ing my charge to Eng­land, and I was so heart­bro­ken that I went be­hind a rock, fired a re­volver and killed my­self.”

As he was be­ing car­ried off­stage one evening, Tommy was “tick­led pink” to see a party of nurses all crying into their hand­ker­chiefs. But his In­dian make-up was hard to re­move. Af­ter one show, stand­ing at an es­taminet bar, Tommy no­ticed a sol­dier ges­tur­ing to­wards him: “He ain’t bad look­ing, is he, for a half­caste?” he said.

“I could be such a nasty lit­tle man,” Tommy ad­mits, re­call­ing how he once uri­nated into a wine bot­tle in his dress­ing room to de­ter a thief. “The wine never went down again!” he says, tri­umphantly.

The tapes re­veal Tommy to be a lively sto­ry­teller rep­re­sent­ing an age that is at once far re­moved – sex­ism, racism and ho­mo­pho­bia were rife – and yet strik­ingly con­tem­po­rary. For an oral his­to­rian such as my­self, they are gold dust. His tem­per can sud­denly flash as he re­mem­bers some per­ceived slight or other – but he is at his fiercest when de­scrib­ing a great per­sonal fear. “When we were play­ing at Ar­ras in the evening,” he says, “the theatre would show films in the af­ter­noon. In th­ese films, girls would be slightly I was good enough, I didn’t want to be!”

He may not have wanted to be good enough for the sergeant, but Tommy’s suc­cess de­pended on be­ing good enough for the or­di­nary soldiers. Wartime France, with all of its stress and dan­ger, was a makeshift world in which men lived in de­nial and the next best thing was of­ten good enough. He might not have ac­knowl­edged it, but Tommy Keele owed his pop­u­lar­ity and suc­cess to the same sex­ual con­fu­sion which made him so re­sent­ful.

Af­ter the war Tommy tried his hand at a va­ri­ety of jobs. He opened a mu­sic shop, ran a tiling busi­ness, and worked as a stew­ard on a cruise ship. Dur­ing the Sec­ond World War, he joined the Stars in Bat­tle­dress con­cert party, whose mem­bers in­cluded Benny Hill and Tommy Cooper. In his later years, he be­came a clown and chil­dren’s en­ter­tainer. But none of th­ese ven­tures could match his two re­mark­able years play­ing First Girl on the Western Front.

For most young men th­ese were years of mis­ery, en­durance and fear. For Tommy Keele, a man who had al­ready seen the bru­tal side of the war, they rep­re­sented op­por­tu­nity, ex­cite­ment, and the fear of be­ing mis­taken for some­thing once heav­ily frowned upon by so­ci­ety. At­ti­tudes have thank­fully changed since the First World War, but peo­ple, it is very clear, have not.

Joshua Levine’s two books, For­got­ten Voices of the Somme and For­got­ten Voices of the Blitz and the Bat­tle for Bri­tain (Ebury, RRP £7.99 each) are avail­able to or­der from Tele­graph Books at £7.99 + £1.10 p&p each. Call 0844 871 1514 or visit books.tele­graph.co.uk

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