Henry Hall’s Gestapo nights
ROBIN HOUSTON uncovers some unpalatable facts about the famous bandleader and BBC Radio stalwart’s visits to Berlin in the 1930s
IT IS HAND-PAINTED on the wateredsilk, gold-braided banner: ‘Henry Hall and his Orchestra. It was great! Auf Weidersehen!’ Another banner bears the legend ‘Berlin, 28.2.39’. Oldies will remember that from the 1930s into the 1960s, Henry Hall was one of the major stars of British radio. Under his baton the BBC Dance Orchestra used to broadcast daily, and for many years after the Second World War, Henry Hall’s Guest Night entertained millions every Friday evening.
Many years ago I worked for a time in Hall’s Mayfair office. One day in 1973, while doing a clear-out, he offered me a couple of carefully wrapped packages which he said had been given to him by some fans in the 1930s. I failed to look at them at the time and packed them away. Doing my own clear-out the other day I found the two silk banners and I was disturbed at what they revealed: in February 1939 – only a dozen weeks after the terrors of Kristallnacht and barely six months before the start of the Second World War – Henry Hall and his Orchestra had performed in Berlin.
It was no secret even in early 1939 that Jews in Germany were already suffering the horrors of what came to be known as the Holocaust. As well as the camps, those Jews still at liberty were being tortured by increasingly oppressive laws. The world of popular music was not exempted. By the time Hall and his colleagues appeared in Berlin all Jews were prohibited from attending concerts there, Jewish musicians were forbidden to perform publicly and popular music written by Jews was prohibited.
To fulfil his contract in Berlin, Hall would have had to comply with these Nazi decrees. He was not Jewish, but inevitably a number of his musicians were. And a large amount of popular music was by Jewish composers and lyricists. For instance, two big hits for Hall in those days were ‘Underneath the Arches’ by Bud Flanagan, and ‘Little Man, You’ve Had a Busy Day’ with words by Maurice Sigler and Al Hoffman. And one of Hall’s most successful music arrangers was Benjamin Frankel. It would have been impossible in 1939 to listen to a Henry Hall concert or broadcast without hearing any music written, arranged, or performed by Jews.
But before going to Berlin, Hall was forced to agree to the German promoter’s demands to remove anybody Jewish from his band and everything Jewish from his programme. British newspapers were quick to pick up on his compliance: ‘Henry Hall Booked For Germany, Won’t Play Tunes By Jews’ revealed one newspaper.
‘Henry Hall’s Aryan Programme’ read the headline in another. ‘Mr Henry Hall, the dance band leader, last night replied to criticisms made of his forthcoming visit to Berlin, as it has been reported that he would comply with the Nazi regula- tion of making the programmes 100 per cent “Aryan”. Publishers have co-operated with him in ensuring that none of the works in his repertoire will be by Jewish composers.’
Hall responded to the critics: ‘My band has always been popular in Germany ... naturally I do not want to spoil such good relations by behaving in a way that would offend in Berlin. What I am doing is purely a matter of common sense. There is, after all, plenty of Aryan music I can play – Cole Porter, for example, Noel Gay, and so on. We go to Berlin on January the 26th.’
And so they did. The band arrived in the German capital to fulfil a fourweek booking at the Scala Theatre. By decree the audience was to be entirely non-jewish. Many of them would be in uniform, including that of the SS. And it was expected that Heinrich Himmler would visit, if not Adolf Hitler himself.
On 1st February 1939 the band performed their first thoroughly ‘Aryan’ programme. Hall reported they had a ‘riotous’ welcome from the audience and the press. They played to capacity every night, with three matinées every week. And it was not only Hall who was complicit with the Nazis; so was the BBC. The Corporation transmitted the concert live from Berlin on 4th February.
The final performance was on 28th February, and it was then that Hall’s German fans presented him with the banners. He was paid lavishly, in sterling, by the promoter. During the short time Hall had been in Germany, Hitler had threatened the extermination of the entire Jewish race, Jews had been ordered to surrender all their gold and silver, and the complete ‘Aryanisation’ of Jewish property had been decreed. Two weeks after the band left Berlin,
Germany invaded Czechoslovakia.
Back in London Hall wrote in the press about the German popular music scene, but also noted the ‘thrill’ he experienced in seeing a torch-lit parade of Hitler’s Stormtroopers. ‘It was a tremendous sight,’ he wrote, ‘made all the more impressive by the fervour of the fanatical civilians for whose benefit it was staged.’
Writing his autobiography fifteen years later, Hall was less enthusiastic about what he had seen. ‘Uniforms of one kind or another seemed to be everywhere, and soon some of them – the Stormtroopers, for instance – gave us an uneasy feeling.’
Between those two conflicting views came the Second World War. Hall had been shamefully eager to dance to the Nazis’ tune in 1939 (and he was by no means the only British entertainer to do so). But not surprisingly he changed his tune when the conflict began. He agreed to play a major role in morale-boosting for the troops and the general public, his pre-war tour to Berlin largely – but not completely – forgotten.