A Day With Dame Vera
The death of Dame Vera Lynn, at the age of 103, severs the last link with the old pre-War dance bands, two decades or so after most of her contemporaries had passed away. It is a sad day and doubtless there will be many fine tributes paid to her by a variety of people from the world of entertainment and from the armed forces. She was the ‘Forces’ Sweetheart’ and no one did more to sustain the morale of the troops than her. She went boldly to Burma where other entertainment feared to tread.
When I visited her at her home in Ditchling, near Brighton, she was a girlish 87, slim, elegant, erect, bright-eyed and with a laugh which was spontaneous and infectious. I remember thinking at the time that she looked good for a hundred and might well outlive me.
I was there to write a piece on her for Memory Lane, on the last surviving dance band singers. I’d managed to track down and interview eight survivors, probably the most famous of whom was Betty Driver, of Coronation Street fame. They were all down-to-earth people without any sense of once having been pop stars and I caught them more or less at the eleventh hour. Two of them, alas, died within weeks of me visiting them.
One singer, 95-year-old Cyril Grantham, who was huge in his day, lived in obscurity in a sheltered accommodation where the staff knew him only as Bill and had no idea he had once been famous. He had never ever referred to his having been a chart-topping singer. By contrast, Dame Vera lived in a large and fairly grand house, next to an identical one occupied by her daughter. Everybody knew her. ‘Welcome to the Dame Vera Lynn village,’ said the lady in the local café where I refreshed myself after driving through the night and waited for the appointed hour. ‘You’ll love her,’ she added when I told her my mission, ‘she’s the loveliest lady in the world.’
And so she was. I had never interviewed anybody in her league before and felt nervous but she quickly made me feel completely at ease. I noticed as the day went on that there were slight traces of cockney in her accent that had not been there earlier.
First of all we sat in her kitchen where I was intrigued and warmed to see a stack of Bing Crosby fan magazines on a table. She said she was a great fan of his and, of course, he had appeared on her television show. Her living room was so big that the grand piano just looked like an ordinary item of furniture. She made me a cup of tea which I have to say, hand on heart, no false sentimentality about it, was the finest cup I’ve ever tasted. It was strong and naturally sweet and reminded me of the tea served by Indian friends but better. She explained she made it a special way her mother had taught her. It fortified me for the rest of the day.
After about twenty minutes, it became clear we were slightly at cross purposes. I thought I was there to talk about her dance band days, beginning in 1936 with Charlie Kunz’s Casani Club orchestra. She was intrigued to know that in the 1970s I had met her old crooning colleague George Barclay, and smiled affectionately when I said it had been in a pub in Glasgow with him on one side of the bar and me on the other. But she sort of dismissed her pre-war years, describing herself modestly as a mere girl with a little tiny voice. She was happiest talking about the war years and the subsequent television fame.
The consequence of this was that I got on tape and in my notebook enough material for three articles in successive issues, covering her entire career, which the editor Roy Pallet, was pleased to use even though they extended beyond the magazine’s declared period of interest. I sent her copies, of course, and she replied on all occasions, signing off with ‘We’ll meet again’. Unfortunately, for me, we never did.
I spent the best part of a day with her and she made me sandwiches for lunch. She’d told me she no longer sang under any circumstances, although several years later she did perform in public for a war anniversary. As she entered the room, I cued her in on the grand piano with the last eight bars of ‘We’ll meet again’ and the opening chord. As I’d hoped, she came in immediately like a pro and as the tape was still running I can renew the precious memory of it whenever I want. She also later prompted by a sudden shaft of sunlight coming in broke into a few bars of ‘Sunrise Sunset’ which she said was one of her favourite tunes.
She was the last in my series, the last and the best. I can never forget the kindness she showed me in giving me a day of her life. Looking back I wish I had been better prepared for the interview. I had not expected to be talking about her television series, her recording sessions in America with a Country and Western band and her command performances. She seemed to understand and complimented me on my knowledge of the music of the ’Thirties, telling me with no sense of irony (I hope) that I seemed to know it better than she did.
When I told her how much I adored Bing, she smiled wonderfully, dropped her voice conspiratorially and said, ‘D’you know when he appeared on my show, I went into his dressing-room just before going on and found him drinking beer and eating ice- cream, can you imagine that?’
‘Maybe it was to lubricate his voice?’ I ventured.
For a second she looked puzzled. ‘I’d never thought of that. Maybe I should try it!’
What a lovely lady. Some people are blessed with extreme talent and lead blessed lives. Dame Vera was one of them. She possessed not only a magnificent voice but a wonderful personality. Although we shall not look on her life again, we will always be able to play her records.