On composing Girlfriends
Girlfriends was mostly written in 1985, when I was 27. I had had my first musical, The Hired Man, produced in the West End and was looking for a new challenge. The Hired Man’s lusty, earthy choruses had been dominated by men’s voices and I wanted to follow this with a piece that would celebrate the sound and difference of women’s voices. After music, my chief interest is in history and after reading an autobiographical account of one woman’s experiences in the WAAF during World War II, All the Brave Promises, The memories of Aircraftwoman 2nd Class 2146391, by American volunteer Mary Lee Settle, published in 1966, I began to ‘hear’ the polyphonic, contrapuntal choruses that became the signature choral style of Girlfriends (for me, musicals always begin with a sound-world). I asked the RAF if they’d let me delve into their archives to discover whatever I could about the many thousands of WAAF recruits during the war. The experiences of WAAFs were mirrored across the forces by the army’s WAACs and the Navy’s WRNS (one of whom was my wonderfully artistic and unconventional Auntie Gracie, with whom I had spent many delightful days as a young boy in the 1960s, at her home in Catford. She never mentioned her wartime career, as was the case for so many of her generation). My friend Richard Curtis drafted an intriguing, though rather complicated, first draft and the piece began to emerge from there, reaching its first audiences in Oldham in the spring of 1986.
What was so striking about the women who volunteered to join the WAAF is that six or so weeks before doing so they were ordinary young people who suddenly, with minimal training, preparation or build-up, who found themselves at the front line of history’s most frightening, industrialised and barbaric confrontation. These were not trained military personnel, nor were they modern people who could see TV reports, surf the net or read detailed news journalism before they arrived on an airbase. They were relatively innocent and open-minded, and yet they rose to the challenge of the enormous contradictions and difficulties they faced with considerable stoicism and good humour.
It is essential to understand that for the whole 1941 period of the action of Girlfriends, many if not most people in Britain suspected that they were out–gunned and out-numbered by their enemy and that they were heading for a crushing defeat, and likely invasion. And so it was their mental attitude, alongside their military courage and improvisation, that must have pulled them through, as much as anything else. What they thought about what they were doing was therefore of critical interest to me. Whilst I felt it imperative to put the point of view of those who viewed the bombing campaign as cruel or futile (a position expressed by the character of Jasmine), I also felt it was unfair to the historical context if her view was the one that ultimately prevailed. It seemed to me that for most of the participants on the Allied side, the execution of the war was undoubtedly grim but the lesser of two evils and they faced its horrible necessities with great valour.
This musical was written, with a young person’s sincerity and passion, forty years after the end of the war, at a time of relative peace and prosperity. I could not have imagined – in my wildest dreams – that it would be revived, thirty years later, by another generation of young people, and I am humbled to be witnessing its rebirth in 2018. I hope above all we do justice to the fortitude and sacrifice of the young people (including my Auntie Gracie) who served our country against fascism, with scarcely a complaint or regret, putting their lives on hold and their hopes in abeyance, between 1939 and 1945.
Howard Goodall CBE October 2018