Bud Flanagan and Chesney Allen collectively made up one of the most popular singing duos of World War II – beloved by the British public because they sang comic songs of defiance against Germany, epitomising the bulldog spirit.
The bleak war years of 1939 to 1945 saw 2.9 million British men serving in the Army – with some 300,000 never coming home. For their loved ones back in Blighty, life wasn’t easy. Apart from the worry of wondering if fathers, husbands, brothers and sons would survive the frontline conflict, civilians also feared the bombing raids, which devastated thousands of homes.
Keeping people’s spirits up was paramount. Propaganda films, made by Pathé News, were shown in cinemas to try to make people smile, while the entertainment industry defied Hitler, proving that Britain would keep on going, no matter what.
Many songs poked fun at Hitler and the German armed forces, encouraging people to sing along. Other songs took a more romantic view and sang about missing your sweetheart. All of them were full of hope of eventual victory against the Nazi forces.
When the war broke out on 1st September 1939, Bud Flanagan was a 42-year-old music hall entertainer, who had been in the industry since he was ten years old. Chesney Allen was 45 and a former trainee solicitor, before being bitten by the showbiz bug.
When Flanagan met Allen, it was the start of one of the most enduring partnerships in the entertainment industry. Revered as comedy geniuses, their work is still celebrated today. They became famous for singing one of the best-loved songs of World War II, Run Rabbit Run, which they used to take the mickey out of Hitler!
While their biography reveals they first worked together in 1924, they had met briefly during World War I, while both serving with the British armed forces in Flanders, but their long friendship and professional association didn’t begin until six years after the war had ended.
Born in October 1896, in Whitechapel, London, Flanagan was the son of Jewish refugees from Poland. He worked behind the scenes at Cambridge Music Hall from the age of ten. Two years later, in 1908, he made his first stage appearance at the London Music Hall, playing a conjurer, Fargo the Boy Wizard.
He was prompted into running away for a life on the stage, believing the United States was the place to be. He joined the New York-bound SS Majestic at the age of 14, washing dishes.
His stage career didn’t take off right away and he became a Western Union messenger and newspaper vendor, before becoming a boxer, known as “Luke McGlook from England”. Eventually, he formed a vaudeville double act with Dale Burgess.
The duo became very successful, touring America, New Zealand, Australia and South Africa until the First World War broke out in 1914. Flanagan returned to England to enlist in the Royal Artillery and was posted to Northern France.
The son of a master builder, Allen was born in Battersea, London, in April 1894. Articled to a solicitor after leaving school, he was expected to follow a career in law, but he enjoyed taking part in theatrical productions in his spare time, although as a serious actor at first. He made his debut at the Wimbledon Theatre in London in 1912, when was 18 years old.
At the outbreak of the First World War, Allen also enlisted in the army and was shipped out to Flanders. It was said that he briefly met Flanagan while on active duty, although they didn’t work together until they renewed their friendship while working on a vaudeville show.
Double act debut
After the First World War ended in 1918, Flanagan continued his career in entertainment, forming a double act with several different partners – but none of them worked out. He became a taxi driver to pay his way in the early 1920s. In 1924, he joined a music hall revue show, led by the renowned Australian singer, Florrie Forde.
On leaving the army, Allen had also decided on a full-time career in theatre. As well as being a singer and actor, he also became Forde’s manager. When Flanagan joined the company in 1924, he and Allen tried out as a comedy singing duo – and found it worked well.
They performed regularly in Forde’s music hall shows, featuring a mixture of comedy and music in their act. During the 1930s, they performed in variety shows across the UK, even taking part in the Royal Variety Show at London Palladium in 1932.
Run Rabbit Run was their most famous and popular wartime song. It was written by the British song writing duo, Noel Gay and Ralph Butler, for the musical revue show, The Little Dog Laughed, which began a two-month run at the London Palladium on 11th October 1939.
At the time, numerous theatres had already closed down due to the outbreak of war, but The Little Dog Laughed, with a cast of 80 artists, continued until December 1939, rallying people’s spirits and helping them to forget the war for a few hours.
The original lyrics of Run Rabbit Run related to a farmer going out to shoot rabbits every Friday to make a pie, but Flanagan and Allen changed them to mock Hitler, singing, “Run, Adolf, run!” and taking the mickey out of the German armed forces. They transformed it from a popular music hall song into a rallying call, widely sung by the Brits.
They also sang We’re Going to Hang out the Washing on the Siegfried Line in 1939, written by Jimmy Kennedy. It mocked Germany’s military defences, called the Siegfried Line – a defensive line built opposite the French Maginot Line. It soon became a marching song for the British Army.
“We’re gonna hang out the washing on the Siegfried Line, ’cause the washing day is here,” they declared, making a joke of Germany’s defences. “Whether the weather may be wet or fine, we just rub along without a care!”
Other Flanagan and Allen hits had more of an emotional feel, such as We’ll Smile Again, which cheered people’ spirits during the Blitz in 1942. Written by Desmond O’Connor and Kennedy Russell, it contained the lines, “We’ll smile again with the sun through the rain, as we welcome back those good old days we knew.”
They also sang Down Forget-Me-Not Lane in 1942, reminding people to look for the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow, as they sang, “Rainy days don’t worry me – there’s a rainbow that I can see and it’s waiting for me, down Forget-Me-Not Lane.”
After the war ended in 1945, Flanagan and Allen continued to work together on live shows, in the recording studio and in comedy films, such as We’ll Smile Again and Here Comes the Sun.
One of their most famous songs, Underneath the Arches, was the title of a musical celebration of Flanagan and Allen’s life, staged in 1982 at London’s Prince of Wales Theatre. They will forever be remembered for keeping everyone going during the war.
People across the world are preparing to commemorate Remembrance Sunday on 10th November. To pay tribute to the brave men and women who made the ultimate sacrifice for the freedom of future generations, &Meetings will be observing the 2-minute silence.