Guy Woodward finds echoes of PWE campaigns in a classic sitcom
After two years researching the Political Warfare Executive, I am beginning to find echoes of the agency and its work in all sorts of unexpected places. Watching some episodes of the venerable BBC sitcom Allo, Allo! the other day, for instance, I noticed a subplot involving the establishment of a French resistance radio station with covert British assistance, in which several elements recall the PWE’s wartime activities.
The subplot occurs in series eight, broadcast on BBC One from January-March 1992; in episode one, ‘Arousing Suspicions’, resistance agent Michelle Dubois (Kirsten Cooke – ‘Listen very carefully, I shall say this only once’) announces to café proprietor René Artois (Gorden Kaye) and his wife Edith (Carmen Silvera), that Free French leader Charles de Gaulle has ordered the resistance cell in the northern French town of Nouvion to launch a radio station:
We will broadcast the truth about the war, undermining German morale and rousing the brave French people to arms in preparation for the invasion.
These twin aims accord perfectly with the PWE’s propaganda strategy from 1941-45, of undermining the enemy’s will to fight and emboldening resistance movements.
‘But surely’, worries Edith, ‘the Germans will track down the radio station?’ Michelle explains that the cell will have to move the transmission equipment around the countryside to evade discovery. As a further precaution, broadcasts are to be pre-recorded on wax cylinders, to prevent the Germans apprehending members of the resistance during a live transmission; the wax cylinders and ‘Edison recording machine’ will shortly be airdropped by the British.
The typically convoluted plotting of writers Jeremy Lloyd and Paul Adam here establishes the grounds for the comic mishaps to come, but the scenario appears far-fetched. Histories of the resistance certainly acknowledge the importance of radio as a means of communication and of popularizing the cause: De Gaulle’s own broadcasts from London on the BBC’s Radio Londres service were hugely significant in this respect. I can find no instance of the British supporting local stations in France, but the PWE did establish a range of ‘Freedom Stations’ during the war, which were intended to sound as if local resistance groups were broadcasting from inside occupied territories. The agency’s official historian David Garnett recalled that
As an instrument of subversive propaganda secret broadcasting of this kind is a most potent weapon. So long as the audience believes that the station is operating secretly in its midst, its existence is a symbol of resistance.
Wary and weary of Michelle’s schemes, René says that he wants no part in the plan. ‘Too late’, says Michelle, producing a draft schedule from the pocket of her raincoat. Under his resistance codename ‘Nighthawk’, René is to broadcast on Wednesdays following Michelle’s own breakfast-time chat show – she suggests that ‘People cannot listen to propaganda all the time – they need some light relief.’
Michelle’s perceptive observation echoes the PWE’s approach to programming on many of its wartime radio stations, where propaganda messaging was carefully integrated into a schedule overtly geared towards entertainment, providing sports news or playing the latest popular music: PWE’s Sefton Delmer characterised this approach as
Cover, dirt, cover, cover, dirt, cover, dirt […] “dirt” being what we called the items which we hoped would make our listeners think and act on lines displeasing to their Führer.
Delmer records the pains taken to ensure that the musical numbers would appeal to German listeners, flying the latest German dance records in from Stockholm, and even producing recordings from scratch using a captured German band.
Back in Nouvion, when Edith brightly suggests – to René’s consternation – that she might record a song for broadcast on the resistance station to boost morale, Michelle refuses, noting that her voice is too recognisable and would ‘give the game away.’ Again, Michelle’s approach reflects that of the PWE, which took great care to ensure that voices heard on its black stations were not familiar from other contexts.
Michelle Dubois’s plan begins to unravel when the wax cylinders are dropped in error down the chimney of the nearby château, which has been commandeered by the hated Major-General Erich von Klinkerhoffen (Hilary Minster) and his occupying forces. To retrieve the cylinders Michelle, René, Edith and other members of the cell disguise themselves as a flamenco troupe visiting from Franco’s Spain, who have been engaged to perform for the German officers. Dressed in full ruffled and layered traje de flamenca, René eventually manages to smuggle the cylinders out of the château hidden in his fake bosom.
In the following episode, ‘A Woman Never Lies’, the café staff and resistance members assemble to record the first broadcast, a radio play in which undercover spy Officer Crabtree (Arthur Bostrom – ‘Good Moaning’) provides sound effects as dubious as his command of French, using coconuts to mimic horses’ hooves and slowing opening some rusty pliers to simulate the creaking of a door.
Michelle reveals that the recordings will be broadcast from a transmitter hidden in the hearse of Belgian undertaker Monsieur Alfonse (Carry On veteran Kenneth Connor); Alfonse’s whip will serve to disguise an aerial. As the hearse drives away however, members of the cell are gripped by panic when they realise that the wrong cylinder has been placed in the transmitter: instead of the resistance programming, Alfonse is set to broadcast a personal message recorded by de Gaulle for René, threatening to blow the cover of the whole cell.
The resistance radio station plays little part in the remaining episodes of the series, which are largely concerned with the ongoing tussle between various German factions over the ownership of the valuable painting ‘The Fallen Madonna With The Big Boobies’.
Allo, Allo! clearly demonstrates the comic possibilities of propaganda production, however – indeed, it is not hard to imagine a sitcom scripted by David Croft, Jimmy Perry or Jeremy Lloyd which focused on the activities of the PWE. The linguistic and imaginative contortions required in order to establish a successful Freedom Station might well be exploited for comic effect. As if outlining the setting for such a series, the printer and typographer Ellic Howe described the environment at the requisitioned Woburn Abbey in Bedfordshire – centre for the production of black propaganda during the war – as ‘sometimes more akin to surrealism than reality’:
The formula for a ‘mad’ atmosphere was ready made. Plant an ill-assorted collection of journalists etc. in and around the purlieus of a ducal mansion and more or less isolate them from the outside world – during the first fortnight of the war they were confined to the Riding School and stables area – and there is the perfect recipe for a black comedy.
 Olivier Wieviorka, The French Resistance, trans. by Jane Marie Todd (Harvard University Press, 2016).
 David Garnett, The Secret History of PWE: The Political Warfare Executive 1939-1945 (London: St Ermin’s Press, 2002), pp. 32-3.
 Sefton Delmer, Black Boomerang:An Autobiography: Volume Two (London: Secker & Warburg, 1962), p. 91.
 Ibid., p. 84.
 Ellic Howe, The Black Game: British Subversive Operations Against the Germans During the Second World War (London: Queen Anne/Futura, 1988; orig pub 1982), p. 44.