By Christmas of 1992 I had prepared another intermediate musical for our school’s Christmas production. The idea for the story came, oddly enough, from an interview with Ben Wicks on the CBC. He had recently finished a book entitled No Time to Wave Goodbye, an examination of the evacuation of British children during the Second World War. Wicks himself was a 12-year-old evacuee at the time and knew firsthand the trauma of war and separation. His discussion of conversations with fellow evacuees made for a compelling interview and motivated me to find out more about this aspect of the war.
In my reading I discovered that over three and a half million civilians, mostly children, were evacuated during this period- the majority to the English countryside but also overseas. In May 1940, the Children’s Overseas Reception Board (CORB) was estsablished to organise the evacuation of children to the Dominions, primarily Canada, plus South Africa, Australia and New Zealand. A surprising 210 000 applications were made by July when the scheme closed. However, shipping shortages soon slowed the evacuation process. After the sinking of the City of Benares on September 17th, 1940 (torpedoed by a German U-Boat), the entire plan was abandoned. The sinking had resulted in the deaths of 77 of the 90 children aboard the vessel. Only 2664 children had been sent abroad by that point (again, most to Canada). Meanwhile about 13 000 children had been privately evacuated overseas. It may seem an unlikely starting point for a Christmas production… but I decided it was a story which should be more widely known and one with a distinct Canadian connection (plus I’m a a fan of historical fiction).
So, to give the script a seasonal connection , I had a former CORB evacuee (now a grandmother) recounting her experience to her grandchildren during a Christmas visit. For an added yuletide element, the children on board their transport ship decide to hold an early Christmas party (even though it’s only September) to distract themselves from the very real dangers of the voyage.
The script synopsis went something like this…
Helen, an adolescent girl from England, is being sent by ship to Canada as part of the plan of the Children’s Overseas Reception Board. After the fall of France in 1940, England was in imminent danger of attack and invasion. CORB, under Sir Geoffrey Shakespeare, assisted parents by providing passage to countries such as Canada, the United States and Australia.
While on board, Helen makes several new friends and celebrates a somewhat unusual Christmas in September. She arrives in Canada unaware that one friendship made during the voyage will alter the rest of her life.
Years later, as a grandmother, she recounts her adventure to her grandchildren.
from the script of Crossing
Picture an elevated platform in one corner of the auditorium which is Helen’s living room in London as she and her parents listen to Churchill’s broadcast of the fall of France in 1940. Picture another platform on the other side of the auditorium where Helen (now a grandmother) reads from her journal and relives her voyage with her grandchildren. Finally, picture the entire stage which has (thanks to a talented set designer on staff and his class) been transformed into the side of the RMS Antonia, a transport ship bound for Canada.
Musically this show ushered in a new era in midi technology for me. Yes, I now finally had a hard drive on the computer. I also had software (Cakewalk) which would provide greater flexibility in recording. And I had a Roland sound card which (similar to the one I still use) opened up a much wider range of possibility both in the number and nature of sounds available. Songs from the show included A New World, Seasick Blues, Exercise, Get Around (not the Beach Boys) and A Call to Peace.
Here’s a sampler…
As the children board the Antonia, they try to put the best face possible on their daunting journey.
A New World
There’s no time like the present
We can’t remain in the past
We can’t foretell the future
Best to make this moment last
Life holds so much adventure
For us while we’re still young
Hope to see when we’re older
A new world for everyone…
Later as the children make preparations on board for their “Christmas” celebration, they sing Ready for Christmas (a song I tried to give a contemporary big band vibe).
Ready for Christmas
Christmas bells, tinsel and some- holly
Coloured lights wrapped around a- pine tree
Couldn’t imagine anything more- lovely
Than sitting down to dinner with you- and me
Forget about it now or we will- never be
ready for Christmas…
I keep mentioning that there always seems to be one song I particularly remember from each show. The previous two (above) had to be found on floppy disk, loaded into a computer which still had a floppy drive, transferred via USB and finally replayed to refresh my memory of them. Helen’s Song (below, in its entirety) is one which, for some reason has stayed with me. And a melancholy little number it is! As the others celebrate inside, she retires to the deck and reflects on her situation.
This isn’t Christmas
This isn’t real
This is just dreaming
How could this happen?
How could it be-
Here where I’m drifting
Far away from my home
Friends try to comfort
But they’re the same
Each with her own fears
Each with his pain.
But it’s not Christmas
And it’s not true
Maybe it’s better
To pretend this is real
Just deny what I feel.
So it’s not Christmas
So it’s not true
Maybe it’s better
To pretend this is real
Just pretend that I feel
This Christmas really is real.
After that, I feel I must point out that this tale did have a happy ending… really, it did!
For further consideration…
This was one of those scripts which came with a bibliography… in addition to Wicks’ No Time (1988), he wrote The Day They Took the Children Away (1989). Carlton Jackson had just recently published Who Will Take Our Children in 1985 (remember this was 1992) and Ruth Inglis The Children’s War in 1989. Now, of course, you can readily obtain lots of info with a quick search on the Net. Here are several pictorial views…
Our own NFB made a somewhat idealized documentary at the time (1940) entitled Children From Overseas. It provides a Canadian perspective on these events.
If you are wondering about Christmas (meanwhile) in wartime England (1940), you might find this clip informative (definitely reflective of the period).