The comedy shows that kept 1940s Britain laughing

By Peter Ormerod
Tuesday, 5th May 2020, 11:54 am
Updated Tuesday, 5th May 2020, 12:15 pm

Laughter can be especially helpful during times of trouble – and the 1940s provided plenty of mirth to leaven the misery. The BBC produced comedies aplenty during the decade – and while some have been forgotten, others went on to be regarded as classics. Here’s our pick of five gems from the era.


1939 to 1949

It’s That Man Again, or ITMA, as it became popularly known, was a BBC radio comedy that many believe played a major role in keeping up morale on the home front during the Second World War. The show ran for more than 300 episodes between 1939 and 1949. It was written by Ted Kavanagh and starred Tommy Handley in comic situations often related to current war news. Popular characters included Colonel Chinstrap and Mrs Mopp, while certain catchphrases outlived the show – including “Don’t mind if I do,” “After you, Claude – no, After you Cecil,” and “D’oh!”, used many decades before it became popularised again by Homer Simpson.

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    British comedian Tommy Handley (1892 - 1949) with the cast of his BBC radio comedy 'It's That Man Again' or 'ITMA', returning for a new series, October 1947. From left to right, Hugh Morton, Hattie Jacques, Lind Joyce, Diana Morrison, Handley, Fred Yule, Deryck Guyler and Joan Harben. (Photo by Doreen Spooner/Keystone Features/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)


    1941 to 1964

    Originally intended as a morale-booster for industrial workers in Britain during the Second World War, the variety programme was broadcast at lunchtime, three times a week, live from a factory canteen “somewhere in Britain”. For all its 23 years each show concluded with the words from the show’s producer, Bill Gates: “Good luck, all workers!” Throughout the war, Ernest Bevin, the Minister of Labour and National Service, would appear on these shows from time to time to congratulate the workers and exhort them to greater efforts. Many famous variety, vocal and comedy artists appeared over the years, such as Charlie Chester, Bob and Alf Pearson, Anne Shelton and Terry-Thomas.


    1946 to 1947

    Bringing some joy to the years of post-war rebuilding, Pinwright’s Progress is regarded as the world’s first regular half-hour televised sitcom. J Pinwright is the proprietor of a small shop. He has a hated rival, and his staff only add to his problems by attempting to be helpful. Ralph, the messenger boy, is a deaf octogenarian. Still photographs are all that remain of the show’s transmitted form.


    1944 to 1954

    The radio comedy starred Kenneth Horne and Richard Murdoch as senior staff in a fictional RAF station battling red tape and wartime inconvenience. One of the most fondly remembered parts of the show was the closing theme tune, with topical lyrics each week referring to the plot of the episode, written and sung by members of the cast.


    1947 to 1952

    The BBC Light Programme sitcom ran for 110 episodes. It starred double act Jimmy Jewel and Ben Warriss as proprietors of an Arctic trading post. Cast members included Betty Paul, Roger Snowdon and Jon Pertwee – the last-named later to find fame in Doctor Who and Worzel Gummidge.