Entertainers have performed in war and peacekeeping zones for decades, but what does it take to get them over there? And what happens if things don't go according to plan?
In this podcast, Warrant Officer Class 1 Mark Langley shares a peek behind the curtain of a Forces Entertainment concert from recruiting to the curtain call. Listen as he unpacks stories of escorting comedians, musicians and performers to gigs all over the world.
Cold Chisel's Ian Moss with WO1 Mark Langley in East Timor.
Cast Of Characters
The opinions expressed in this podcast are those of individual contributors and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Shrine of Remembrance.
LAURA THOMAS: Hello and welcome to the Shrine of Remembrance podcast
My name is Laura Thomas, and I’m the production coordinator here at the Shrine.
In this episode, we’re jumping into the world of Forces Entertainment, where comedians, musicians and entertainers have shared their talents to lift spirits and bring a slice of home to troops abroad.
But my guest today isn’t someone you would find on stage.
Instead, he was working madly working behind the scenes to recruit entertainers, get them well versed in the world of the military and safely escort them to gigs all over the world.
Warrant Officer Class 1 Mark Langley is that man, and he joins us know for a behind the scenes peek at what it takes to put together a Forces Entertainment tour.
MARK LANGLEY: No problems, Laura. Pleased to be here.
LAURA THOMAS: Now, I just was hoping you could start off by telling us a little bit about what the Forces Entertainment unit is. So when did it form and what's the general history of that unit?
MARK LANGLEY: It's not really a unit, Laura. It's only about two or three people, Army Reservists normally, and they formed around about 2003 as part of Defence Headquarters, and following a lot of work by a guy named Lieutenant Colonel Charles Reynolds, who set it all up. He started by setting up a board, which consisted of entertainment promoters, such as Michael Chugg, artists, managers, business executives, and people like the CEO of ARIA, CEO of commercial radio, those sorts of people. And also Angry Anderson, John Farnham and Little Pattie were on the board. So that's how it all started.
LAURA THOMAS: And prior to that, it had a bit of a history in Vietnam, didn't it? And then it was discontinued for a while.
MARK LANGLEY: That's correct. Yes. It was certainly up and running in the Vietnam era. In fact, I think it went back further than that to Korea. I'm not exactly sure. But it had a bit of a break and then started up again in around about 2000.
LAURA THOMAS: So tell me a little bit about you and how you got into it. Were you into music growing up? Was it a passion of yours?
MARK LANGLEY: Always into music, but I'm not a musician by any means. I guess it was a bit of luck, that I sort of fell into it through a friend. I was working at Royal Military College and looking for something else to do. And a friend of mine Marge Bullivant said 'Why don't you come over and give us a hand?' So I did and stayed for 14 years.
LAURA THOMAS: Wow. What was your first impression of being involved in it?
MARK LANGLEY: I thought 'How do I get out of here?' The paperwork was mind-boggling.
LAURA THOMAS: Oh, right. So it wasn't just the overwhelming tasks of getting everyone on board. It was...
MARK LANGLEY: Nah, not at all. The background work was just amazing. Full on.
LAURA THOMAS: Yeah, which is peace of mind for our performers
MARK LANGLEY: Yeah, you gotta get the paperwork right.
LAURA THOMAS: Exactly, exactly. So can you tell me what it actually involved day to day like what were you doing when you were working there?
MARK LANGLEY: Day to day, I drank a lot of coffee. My last boss, in Forces Entertainment was Lietenant Colonel Ian Robinson. To be honest, we used to sit there and talk a lot about who we should get, how we're going to get them, and we're going to take these people and how we're going to do that. As you can appreciate I'm sure, there's a hell of a lot involved in getting a civilian onto a military base in a war zone, for example. It's not just a Qantas flight. I guess the biggest challenge was tracking down the entertainers to try and encourage them to give up their time for anywhere between seven and 30 days. And it was for free. So it's a big chunk of their work life that they're giving away.
LAURA THOMAS: So how did you do it?
MARK LANGLEY: A lot of talk. Again, Ian Robinson, my previous boss, Robo, everybody knows him as, he could talk till the cows come home. And he did most of the convincing, and I did most of the legwork. He's fine with that.
LAURA THOMAS: Yeah. But how do you go about, you said you sit down and you have conversations about who you should try and approach for this. What were you looking for when you were approaching these musicians and comedians?
MARK LANGLEY: We had a little bit of a formula if you like. Robbo used to say a head-banging rockstar and a comedian, and a good-looking MC, but it didn't always work like that. That was just a throwaway line, I think. We took many and varied entertainers. We took country music, rock music, R&B, what's Bliss n Eso, what do you call them?
LAURA THOMAS: Oh, would they be hip hop, rap?
MARK LANGLEY: Hip hop, yeah. And magicians, dancers, all sorts of people. We just tried to take what we thought would best fit the audience. Obviously not going to please them all all the time. And some people walked away from some gigs. But a free show? I don't get that.
LAURA THOMAS: And on the other side of the coin, what were the motivations for the performers going?
MARK LANGLEY: They would obviously be many and varied, but some of them would have been looking for an adventure. And that was obvious from the first moment you meet them. They were up for an adventure, and that's fine. But I think most of the entertainers would be trying to support Australians overseas, doing a job for their country. Nothing to do with the war. They're just supporting the individuals. So yeah, I think that that's the major reason. One particular guy that I know, Fergus Lineacre, who's the lead singer of a band called Kingswood. His brother was in the Special Forces and he got killed in a car accident. And Fergus chased us down to go over and just support his friends, basically. So that was good of him.
LAURA THOMAS: One of the McClymont sisters, her husband is in the Air Force I think as well...
MARK LANGLEY: Yeah that's right. Her partner is an Air Force officer. And they met on a plane going to Baghdad, I think.
LAURA THOMAS: Oh, while she was going to-
MARK LANGLEY: Yeah, yeah
LAURA THOMAS: Gosh romances and performances all budding, that's great. And I want to touch on a point that you mentioned that they were going over for the individual people, and it didn't have anything to do with the war, because some of the performers that went over, for example, Tom Gleeson, was quite outspoken about being against the war in Iraq in particular. So you think that the motivation was more 'Okay, these individual people who are doing things for our country?' I guess I just want to know why someone who was quite outwardly anti conflict, went over to entertain the troops.
MARK LANGLEY: It actually got mentioned quite a bit on stage over there, that 'I'm not here to support the war. I'm here to support you'. And a lot of entertainers said that on stage.
LAURA THOMAS: Okay.
MARK LANGLEY: So it wasn't just Tom. A couple of people rejected our office to go because they thought it was supporting the war. A couple of them changed their mind along the way and got to go. So yeah, there's no pressure to go. But we'd like you to.
LAURA THOMAS: And once they had signed on the dotted line, what's next? How do you prepare performers and civilians to be in a warzone?
MARK LANGLEY: Yeah. Again, there's a lot of talk. We would meet with them over coffee, usually, and pretty much go through the whole tour with them, not specifically where they're going, because we wouldn't know at that stage. But basically go through what's required. We need to give them medicals. We need to give them vaccinations. We organised protective clothing. Briefing sessions we had with them, to get them all together to bond as a group if you like, because most of them haven't met before. Rehearsals I'd organise. Liaison with technical people about what we're going to take because we had to organise that and ship it over, and hope it turns up.
LAURA THOMAS: Was there any situation where it didn't turn up?
MARK LANGLEY: Yeah, we had to run out and do a local hire pretty quickly. Plus, it's pretty hot over in the Middle East and valves and things like that just melt. So we had to get some online repairs quickly. As part of their contract, they had to sign the Official Secrets Act. And part of that was not to disclose their whereabouts or when they're going or where they're going, that sort of thing. Most of them just about ignored it, but anyway. And Angry Anderson pulled me up in Baghdad and said, 'My mom just rang me and said, where are you?' And apparently Defence had released it and put it in the newspaper. I was a little bit embarrassed. And, yeah, I got out of it I think.
LAURA THOMAS: Good to hear. How long does that process take then? So from the time that you approach the performer, to the time that they're on the plane flying over, what's the time?
MARK LANGLEY: Three months would be nice. It was usually about four weeks.
LAURA THOMAS: Wow. So a very quick turnaround.
MARK LANGLEY: Yeah. No offence to any entertainer, but it was difficult to get entertainers to say yes to so long away from home. A, not being paid and B, just getting away from their work. Because it's a double banger for them, they don't get paid by us, and they don't get the usual income. So it took quite a bit of convincing for some people to go. And we would hold off if we're chasing one particular person, we would hold off. Keep trying, keep trying. Yeah, so yeah, the timeframe was shrunk quite a bit.
LAURA THOMAS: So tell me about when you get over that, tell me about your first tour going over, your first concert. Where was it?
MARK LANGLEY: I was looking back. I couldn't remember.
LAURA THOMAS: There was so many.
MARK LANGLEY: I think it was in East Timor in 2005. And I didn't know much about East Timor, just what I'd heard at work. And I knew it was gonna be hot, and I hate the heat. And I would've been a ball of sweat for about 10 days. But Jon English was the main performer for that trip. So I was pretty stoked to meet him. And his son John. I was a big fan of his, and he sadly passed away. During that trip, I think we visited about eight smaller bases and ended up in Dili. And even though as a military person, you're fully trained for that sort of thing, you really don't know what to expect until you get there and start walking around and get the flavour of the place. For that particular tour, I remember I had my first experience with Wayne Deakin, a comedian. Because we had some dignitaries in the audience I had to ask him not to swear. So that's like red rag to a bull, and didn't quite work out.
LAURA THOMAS: As I imagine it was the same situation with a lot of comedians and things going over.
MARK LANGLEY: Well, we didn't really have to ask them not to swear. But on some of the American bases there were quite determined that it didn't happen.
LAURA THOMAS: If you can, can you paint a picture of what the performances were like for people who have never seen anything like that before? What were the concerts and the performances actually like?
MARK LANGLEY: It just depended where we were. A lot of performances were done on the back of a semi trailer, just an open semi trailer. And people sat on the road or in the sand depending on where you were. Some of them were on a stage about 10 centimetres high and everybody just sat around that. Certainly, one was in Baghdad in a hall, one of Saddam's old halls that he used to use for his meetings. There were about 250 people in there. One in the Solomon Islands that I remember, Yothu Yindi went over. And once the locals heard about it, they went a bit nuts. And there were people hanging out of trees to watch. Yeah, there was about 50,000 or more people there. They were everywhere. And we sort of knew they were gonna get a crowd because it was at the local soccer stadium. But didn't quite expect that many.
LAURA THOMAS: The performers obviously aren't on stage all day every day. So what are they doing when they're not performing? How do you keep them entertained?
MARK LANGLEY: Most of them are quite happy to wander around and rubberneck all around the bases just looking at what happens in military life. Because it's different to anything. We did have to keep them busy in the downtimes, but there wasn't a hell of a lot of downtimes, because moving between base, setting up, breaking it down, moving again. So it was a pretty intense period while they were overseas. Sometimes we organised displays if you like, soldiers showing them how weapons work or things like that, or, or their armoured vehicles, or even their working dogs, how they operate. Some of the entertainers wanted to put on the big glove that they wear for training dogs. They wanted to get into it, and they did. That's fine. That's fine. And I remember one comedian, he wanted to try capsicum spray. I don't think he'll do that again.
LAURA THOMAS: It's one of those things you've only got to do once, isn't it?
MARK LANGLEY: Yeah, I don't even know why he did it. Yeah, but um, we did keep them busy, all sorts of things. Shopping was the last thing we did on any tour, and that was only a couple of hours in town, if we could. Really it was only available in Dubai. Everywhere else was sort of too dangerous.
LAURA THOMAS: And I imagine there would have been some big personalities involved in some of these tours. So how do you manage that? Because when you're in a war or a peacekeeping situation, there's not really much room for big personalities.
MARK LANGLEY: Yes, that's true. There were a couple. I mean, all entertainers, every single one of them has an ego, and it just depends on varying levels. I think I had to speak to somebody privately, maybe twice in 14 years. So we got along fine. All you've got to do is talk to them like a normal person, which they are. There wasn't any major issues with any entertainer, really.
LAURA THOMAS: I imagine once they're there, and they're seeing what our troops are doing, you know, they have a respect I'm sure
MARK LANGLEY: They walk around with their mouths open because they're gobsmacked. And yeah, I think the military without even thinking about it put on a show for them.
LAURA THOMAS: So tell me about what was one of your most memorable tours or memorable moments from your career?
MARK LANGLEY: I certainly remember my 50th birthday in a dust bowl in Qatar. That's a terrible base. So hot, so dusty, similar to my 21st actually on Mount Puckapunyal. The main highlight is really difficult because I met so many great people, and listened to so much good music and comedy, etc. From people most people never heard of. And it's awesome. There's so much talent in Australia. It's unbelievable. So if you can put in a big word for all your local entertainers. I guess I had a couple of really memorable moments. One particular one, Angry Anderson and I were doing that two-hour shopping trip through Dubai. We were just walking around. And we heard this huge bang behind us. And we turned around and a giant plant pot missed us by about a metre. It would have killed both of us. So we can just keep walking.
LAURA THOMAS: When you're about to be in a war zone, and the plant pot is the big threat there.
MARK LANGLEY: Exactly. No bullets, just plant pots. Lehmo has got a couple of good jokes about his tours. And one of them involves me to a degree, I suppose. I don't want to spoil his joke
LAURA THOMAS: I'm sure he won't mind
MARK LANGLEY: We were going through Basra airport. And it's a military and civilian airport. And it's in southern Iraq. And we walked up to the security and we were instructed to put our body armour on the scanner. My weapon on the scanner and my ammunition on the scanner. And it went through. They gave it back to me. 'Okay, you can go now'.
LAURA THOMAS: That's it?
MARK LANGLEY: What they were scanning for I really don't know.
LAURA THOMAS: Beyond the obvious
MARK LANGLEY: Yeah, some crazy people.
LAURA THOMAS: And I imagine you laughed a lot off the stage as well. It would have been a great experience being with all of the entertainers.
MARK LANGLEY: Absolutely, yeah. Not just the comedians, I mean, they're obviously funny. But the entertainers, the singers, songwriters, drummers, they all have their own band banter. But jumping in on that was fantastic. It really was a good experience. Going backstage when they're rehearsing or putting together a song that three or four of them can jump in on that's great. That's you know, something to remember.
LAURA THOMAS: And I'm going to ask you to play favourites. Did you have a favourite performer or performance that you saw?
MARK LANGLEY: How about I list just a couple of people. Angry Anderson went on a few tours and he was just awesome. And he played with a number of different bands on tour. Becky Cole, country artist, she was just amazing. She would grab hold of a crowd and just not let it go. Even a hardened rock crowd would melt like butter. She was awesome. I didn't get to see John Williamson in the Solomons, that was a shame. John Schumann from Only 19 fame, and Red Gum, etc, etc. He's a Great guy, and awesome on stage as well. So, yeah, there were many, many. Jenny Morris was one of my favourites. I was in love with her when I was growing up.
LAURA THOMAS: Were you a bit starstruck?
MARK LANGLEY: I was, I was! And she was the only one, actually, out of all the people I travelled with. She's probably the only one I was like 'Oh, nice'. That's about it. There was some great people. Gretel Killeen. Dr. Karl. Dr Karl went over and did science talks, would you believe? Dick Smith went over and did adventure talks. They were all great.
LAURA THOMAS: And how were they received having a different kind of rather than-
MARK LANGLEY: Really, really good. I don't think it's whether you play music or tell jokes or talk about science, it's just something different for them. Their days are pretty boring over there. And something different to take their mind off what they're doing every day, day in, day out.
LAURA THOMAS: Now beyond plant pots, was there any time that you were genuinely concerned, either for your safety or the performer's safety?
MARK LANGLEY: Not really no. Defence prepared the arrival of the entertainers and made sure everything was in place. So there honestly was nothing at any time that I was worried about. We did have explosions on bases at times, where we had to take cover for precautionary reasons. But that's about it. They weren't close. I don't even know where they were. But it was just some of the locals having a go. Couple of bands were pulled off stage because of that. And we went back on an hour later. That's fine.
LAURA THOMAS: And I guess all the training that they did beforehand would have prepared them
MARK LANGLEY: No
LAURA THOMAS: How did they respond when they were-
MARK LANGLEY: I think, I think their adventure gene kicked in, for most of them that it was a bit exciting. But when you boil it down, it's not exciting.
LAURA THOMAS: It's terrifying.
MARK LANGLEY: Yeah.
LAURA THOMAS: What kind of feedback did you get from the soldiers who saw those performances after the show?
MARK LANGLEY: I'm still friends with some soldiers who keep talking about it. Male and female, they all love it. Obviously, you have to cater for the needs of everybody if you can, whether it be country music, or rock musical or comedy. And that was difficult. But I think we met the needs of most people to take them out of their daily life for a little while.
LAURA THOMAS: Would you ever take requests if you're on one trip, and someone said, 'Oh, can you try and bring this one?' Would you work on that and try and get them?
MARK LANGLEY: Yep. There were always requests for 'Bring this person or bring this person' on one particular occasion there was a 'don't you dare bring this person'.
LAURA THOMAS: But we won't name names
MARK LANGLEY: No we won't
LAURA THOMAS: And you've touched on this a little bit, but I'd like to drill in a little bit more. What did Forces Entertainment do for the troops?
MARK LANGLEY: For most of the personnel over there, especially the desk jockeys, it was pretty much Groundhog Day that sit at a desk. In fact, they probably sit at a desk for 18 hours a day nearly. And the soldiers that go out on patrol, they probably do that every day as well. It was a break for all of them, usually. It's obvious when you look at them after the show that it impacted on their wellbeing.
LAURA THOMAS: From the forces entertainment exhibition that we have here at the Shrine, there's a video in that and it just talks about reminding them of home and giving them a sense of home and kind of, I guess, re-instilling that sense of purpose as to why that they're there and as well all the performers walked away with a similar thing saying, you know, 'I didn't expect to see what I saw. And now I've got a newfound sense of appreciation for what the defence forces are doing' you know, in the various places they went to
MARK LANGLEY: I think if you pick a performer that went with us, they would have a number of people they've met in the Middle East, on their friends.
LAURA THOMAS: And are you proud of the work that you did while you were working with Forces Entertainment?
MARK LANGLEY: Absolutely, yes. Apart from me loving it for 14 years, apart from the the paperwork, yes, very proud. Also a couple of special mentions, if I may. Firstly, Colonel Ian Robinson, he's a great guy to work with, all of the service bands who put in a lot of hard work to get us overseas. And they usually did all of the sound and lighting for all of the shows. Mention to the AFP. We supported them in Solomon Islands, Cyprus, and other places, they were in East Timor as well. And yeah, thank you very much for having me.
LAURA THOMAS: Well, thank you, Mark. It's been great speaking to you and hearing all the behind-the-scenes processes of how you organise the Forces Entertainment tour. Thank you for your time.
MARK LANGLEY: No problems, Laura. Thank you.
LAURA THOMAS: Thanks for listening to this podcast
The Tours De Force: Entertainers on the Frontline exhibition is on display at the Shrine until October 2024.
For more information, head to shrine.org.au
And if you’re interested in hearing what it’s like to be on stage for a Forces Entertainment tour, search ‘Tours De Force: Live’ on your preferred podcasting channel to hear stories from the likes of Merrick Watts, Lehmo, Little Pattie, Normie Rowe, Tom Gleeson and more.
Reviewed 01 May 2023