The idea of a Gang Show was created by Ralph Reader for the Scouts in 1932, being popularised in a film in 1937. The idea of a gang show was a variety show used to raise money and interest in the scouting movement, with the scouts themselves providing the acts for the show. The idea of a gang show was adapted by Ralph Reader in the Second World War to create a show based around the RAF and today we are looking at the programme for this production:
This programme dates from the last year of the war as the battle honour ‘Normandy’ is included on the cover. The rear of the programme details the many men employed behind the scenes to put on the show, together with box office information:
Inside the programme is the full list of what was being performed with a series of songs and skits, with Ralph Reader himself heavily involved in many of them:
Ralph Reader’s wartime service was rather curious. Through the prewar Gang Shows, Reader became friends with Air Commodore Archibald Boyle, the deputy director of RAF Intelligence. The German Ambassador, Joachim von Ribbentrop, attended the 1938 London Gang Show and invited Reader to visit the Hitler Youth Movement in Germany. Boyle persuaded Reader to become an Intelligence Officer in the Royal Air Force Volunteer Reserve with the rank of Flight Lieutenant, although the diplomatic situation had deteriorated before he could take up von Ribbentrop’s invitation.
On the outbreak of war, Boyle sent Reader to France for undercover work, in the guise of running a concert party, for which some former Gang Show members were recruited into the RAF. The show was entitled “Ralph Reader and Ten Blokes from the Gang Show” and, besides allowing Reader to complete intelligence tasks, had a positive effect on morale.
On returning to England, Reader was ordered to expand the Gang Shows, while his visits to RAF stations allowed Reader to monitor subversive propaganda which was a concern of the RAF high command. Reader eventually raised twenty-four RAF Gang Show units and two female WAAF units with a total establishment of nearly four hundred serving personnel. The RAF Gang Shows toured nearly every theatre of war, from Iceland to Burma.
By 1944, Gang Show units were estimated to have travelled 100,000 miles and entertained 3,500,000 servicemen. Some of those who served in the RAF Gang Shows would later become well known entertainers, such as Peter Sellers, Tony Hancock, Harry Worth, Dick Emery and Cardew Robinson. For his services to the Royal Air Force he was awarded an MBE (Military Division) in 1943.