Memories of Mrs Noel Leadbeater
In October 1942 I finished my initial ATS training and was at a holding unit in London waiting to be posted to Trowbridge for the start of my training as a Special Wireless Operator, ‘Y’ Group.
On one of the morning parades we were asked whether any of us could play table tennis, they needed volunteers. Despite solemn warnings from my father, (a soldier in the first war) about never volunteering, I stepped forward. There were jeers from some of the other girls. "You’ll be scrubbing mess tables all day", they told us.
Later in the morning, with five or six other volunteers, I was on a train taking us to Welwyn Garden City and a film studio. We were to be ‘extras’ in the film ‘The Gentle Sex’. The scene we were to be in was set in a recreation room in an ATS camp. A girl was needed to play table tennis with one of the stars. To our shame and the annoyance of the man in charge it now became apparent that none of the real ATS could play the game, or, at any rate, not to the standard required. A male stage-hand was conscripted and he played at one end of the table while the film star smashed ball after ball at him. Clever camera work somehow obliterated his hairy fore-arm and large male hand.
Then came the biggest thrill of the day. Leslie Howard appeared to direct the next scene. He was a well-known and much loved actor. The actresses, Glynis Johns, Joan Greenwood, Lilli Palmer and others, whose names I have forgotten, were getting the full treatment from hairdressers and make-up artists. Their uniforms were not the serge like ours, but fine, smooth gaberdine. They looked and smelled delicious. We peasants waved our arms and cheered as commanded by Mr.Howard.
I became aware that the great man was pointing at me. Had he spotted a future star? I blushed - no, nothing so elegant. My face became a hideous red. "You there! Yes, you. You’re far too tall … stand in a hole or bend your knees, my dear." It was said kindly but I cursed every inch of my five foot eight as I stooped and made like Quasimodo till I matched the other girls in height.
All day, except for an interval for a very nice lunch, we waved and cheered, my knees and back becoming more and more painful as the hours went by. About 4pm we were dismissed and given a princely sum, about five shillings, I think. When we got back to our unit we boasted to all who would listen about our starring parts in an important film.
‘The Gentle Sex’ is quite often shown on TV in the vintage film slot. Do look closely next time you watch it and, if you don’t blink or sneeze, you might spot a little group of ATS girls waving and cheering, a haunted looking hunchback in their midst. This jolly scene lasts at least forty seconds. Ah, well. That’s show-biz, as we film people say.