Don’t let’s be beastly to the Germans
You can’t deprive a gangster of his gun
Though they’ve been a little naughty to the Czechs and Poles and Dutch
I can’t believe those countries really minded very much
Let’s be free with them, and share the BBC with them
We mustn’t prevent them basking in the sun
Let’s soften their defeat again and build their bloody fleet again
But don’t let’s be beastly to the Hun
Recognise it? It’s (one version of) the last verse of Noël Coward’s 1943 song Don’t Let’s be Beastly to the Germans.
Coward is now starting to slip from popular memory, but it’s impossible to overstate the influence he had on the mid-20th century British culture. You might even argue that through his plays and movies, and their endless performance by small town am-dram societies, he has done more than any other artist to shape the manners and self-perception of the English middle classes.
In retrospect, the Second World War was a rich period for him creatively, producing the hugely popular movie In Which we Serve, the evergreen play Blithe Spirit and his wonderful patriotic song dreamed up in a railway station during the Blitz, London Pride.
At the time, it did not feel to Coward as though he was having a “Good War”. He was criticised for his extensive travel, but couldn’t reveal it was because he was on government PR work. His house was destroyed by a bomb and Churchill ensured his knighthood was turned down because he feared his lavish lifestyle would make him unpopular. He was fined for contravening currency regulations.
One of his lesser setbacks was the fact that many people didn’t get the joke in his 1943 song Don’t Let’s Be Beastly to the Germans. It was written, he later said, “as a satire directed against a small minority of excessive humanitarians who, in my view, were taking a rather too tolerant view of our enemies.” Irony, though, it appears, was rationed along with everything else, and both the BBC and his record company received several complaints about it. The BBC played it once or twice, but then pulled it from the playlists. Many complaints, however, may well have been on account of his use of the word “bloody”, which had (allegedly) never been heard on the BBC before and which really would have shocked many folk at the time. Churchill loved the song, though, and made him play it three times at a party.
Coward really only emerged as a national treasure after the war (he was finally knighted in 1969) but despite public mistrust of him as a fop who led a pampered lifestyle while everyone else was on iron rations, the Nazis were in no doubt. He was on a hit-list of Britons who were to arrested and liquidated in the event of invasion. When the list emerged after the war, Rebecca West, who was also on it, famously sent him a telegram saying, “My dear! The people we should have to be seen dead with!”