Wartime Britain – Channel 5


  The star of this programme, with all due respect to the family reconstructing life in wartime Britain, was a trilby-hatted potato being serenaded by Betty Turpin (sorry, Betty Driver).  “Potato Pete, Potato Pete, look who’s coming down the street.”  I love the wartime information cartoon characters – Potato Pete, Dr Carrot, and, also featured in the first episode of this two-parter, Mrs Sew-and-Sew.  So much better at getting the message across than the likes of the irritating “obesity tsars” we get now.  Nice mention of the work done by Guides and Scouts, as well: we don’t hear much about the important contribution made to the war effort by young people.

I’ve had it up to here with lockdown.  My respect for the generations who got through six years of war has always been high, but it’s gone stratospheric since all this started – and it was fascinating to see how, despite all the talk of keeping calm and carrying on, so much attention was paid to looking after the nation’s mental health, whether it was putting morale-boosting music on the radio and encouraging employers to letting it be played in workplaces, or promoting the idea of “victory roll” hairstyles.  Or having a laugh with the Colonel Bogey “balls” song (you know the one).  And, of course, getting Betty Turpin to serenade a trilby-hatted potato.

It wasn’t the best programme I’ve ever seen, it has to be said.  Referring to the Second World War as “World War II” seems to be endemic now, and I suppose could be forgiven.  Referring to the Queen as “Her Royal Highness” rather than “Her Majesty” really couldn’t be forgiven, though, and saying that GIs were in Britain in 1940 was even worse.  And a lot of it was same old, same old – using gravy browning to draw on stockings, thinking that carrots help you to see in the dark (because RAF men joked about how that was how they were able to see what they were doing), etc.

But there were some fascinating snippets in there, which aren’t mentioned so often.  If the binmen noticed food in your bin, you could get into trouble for wasting food at a time of shortages.  (Potatoes were not affected by shortages, as so many of them could be grown in the UK, hence the Potato Pete song encouraging people to eat potatoes!)   Even growing up in the ’80s, we had the mentality that it was a sin to waste good food.  I never understand younger people chucking stuff out because it’s five minutes past its sell-by date, although I don’t think doing that’s as common now as it was twenty years ago.  And, whilst I think most people are familiar with the idea of “make do and mend”, we don’t usually hear about bemused servicemen coming home on leave to find that their clothes had been transformed into outfits for their female relatives 🙂 .

Another good point made was about the role of older children in the war – all the work done by Guides and Scouts, and the importance of young people aged over 14 in the workforce.  Also mentioned was how families made their own toys for little kids, because toy factories had been turned over to producing goods for the war effort.

And there was a lot about hair and make-up – and how part of the reason for focusing on this was to cock a snook at Hitler, who subscribed to the idea of “pure natural womanhood”.  Sanctimonious people going on about how people shouldn’t moan about hairdressers and beauty salons being closed during lockdown could do with watching this part of the first episode.  OK, if people don’t want to wear make-up or do their hair, that’s obviously up to them, but my eldest great-aunt, who lived through two world wars, was still slapping on a faceful of make-up every day when she was in her 90s and living in a care home, and I really do get that.  Anyway, I haven’t got the confidence to leave the house looking “natural” – it might work if you’re stunningly beautiful, but it certainly doesn’t for me!  Using beetroot lipstick, boot polish mascara and cornflour/calamine lotion foundation when you couldn’t get anything else … brilliant!

But the main thing that really came through was that, as far as possible – obviously not so easy with so many people away in the Armed Forces or doing other war work, and many children having been evacuated – people got through it together. Yes, all right, we all know about the people who broke rules on rationing and all the rest of it, but they were a minority, and things like sewing circle and dances were so important.  Even during air raids, you’d often be with neighbours.  It helps so much when people pull together.  And people understood the importance of keeping up morale.  Also, they had a trilby-hatted potato.  I’m going to be earwormed by that potato song for days …




9 thoughts on “Wartime Britain – Channel 5

  1. Sarada Gray

    Beetroot lipstick! Interesting. My mother grew up in the war and would never waste food; I used to mock that but now I’m the same. Leftovers get eaten or composted and I have continual tussles with my son about the stupidity of use-by dates. He donates all his unwanted food to us, so it generally gets eaten anyway. Can’t stand beetroot though so I don’t think beetroot lipstick would work for me, but you’re right about the mental health aspect. Why do you think we don’t do that now? Is it because we’re more cynical? Or less used to ‘making do’?

    Liked by 1 person

  2. mrsredboots

    Three things:
    1) Have you read Janie Hamptons “How the Girl Guides won the War”? If not, rectify this forthwith – £5.99 on Kindle and worth it.
    2) The Queen was Princess Elizabeth in those days, so HRH was the correct way of referring to her.
    3) “Dearly beloved brethren,
    Is it not a sin
    That when we peel potatoes
    We throw away the skin.
    The skin feeds the pigs,
    And the pigs feed you.
    Dearly beloved brethren,
    Is this not true?”
    I believe – I could be wrong – that this is a wartime rhyme!

    Liked by 1 person

    • No – the then Queen, i.e. the Queen Mother. The wartime film reel correctly referred to her as “Her Majesty”, and then the stupid presenter said “Her Royal Highness”. That was bad enough, but going on about dancing with GIs in 1940 was worse!


  3. Yes, I think we’ve lost the art of keeping our chins up. When every news programme ends with a tear-jerking account of someone who has died of Covid it’s kinda hard to stay cheerful. Of course these are real tragedies and I’m not minimising them, but wouldn’t it be great instead to finish with a heart-warming story of how someone survived? Or of someone who volunteered to help in an unusual way? I think the desperation for a bit of cheer was what made the country take Captain Tom to their hearts last year. I often wonder if we’d be able psychologically to fight a war now… fingers crossed we never have to find out!

    Liked by 1 person

    • I actually wrote a letter to the local paper saying that we could do with some more positive news, and they published it on the letters page … but I’m not sure that they took any notice! I’m very sorry for kids who are missing school, and I’d have been hysterical if my exams had been cancelled, but do we have to keep being told that kids are going to suffer for this for the rest of their lives? Plenty of people have time off school due to illness or family problems, and manage to catch up.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Indeed! It’s also the kind of idea that you should feel bad if you say anything optimistic because that must mean you’re callous. My brother drives me insane with this. If I say “the vaccine rollout is going brilliantly – won’t be long now” he’s bound to reply, with true Eeyore lugubriousness, “that will be a real comfort to all the people who’ve died, I’m sure”. I give up! I can imagine him listening to Churchill…”never in the field of human conflict…” and muttering to the radio “but think of the noise pollution caused by the planes”… 😉


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