National treasure marks her 100th birthday
As the incomparable Dame Vera Lynn celebrates her centenary, the BBC is airing a one-hour special on the forces' sweetheart. Susan Griffin gets a sneak preview
Although we associate Dame Vera Lynn with the Second World War, she was actually born during the First World War, on March 20, 1917, in London's East Ham. Her father was a plumber, her mother a dressmaker and, while there wasn't much wealth growing up, there was a lot of music.
It was her mum, after noticing her daughter's remarkable vocal talents, who pushed her on stage.
"I was all right once I was on and in full swing," recalls Lynn, whose original surname was Welch. She took her maternal grandmother's maiden name as her stage moniker.
Lynn was singing in public before her eighth birthday and would impress the crowds with rousing renditions of classics at working men's clubs ("They were great audiences"). She soon earned her reputation as the 'little belter' as, despite her small stature, she'd manage to belt songs to the back of the hall.
Back then, there were no microphones, so Lynn would sing in a higher key. "I had to lower the tone of my voice when I started using microphones," she points out.
Despite her extraordinary success, Lynn never received formal training, although she does recall her one and only singing lesson with a wry smile. "I went once to extend my range, but was told, 'No, I can't train that voice. It's not a natural voice'. So I said, 'Thank you very much, madam,' and left."
At the age of 15, she was spotted, signed on the spot and catapulted into the fashionable world of the big band scene. The audiences warmed to her instantly, and she soon became a regular on BBC radio.
Lynn couldn't read music, and instead, she explains, "I would look at the lyrics, and if I liked the lyrics then I would listen to the tune, because I thought the lyrics were more important than the music".
In 1936, she had her first solo record, Up The Wooden Hill To Bedfordshire, and by 22 had sold more than a million records.
When war broke out, the government realised that entertainment on the home front was vital to boost morale, and Lynn was given her own weekly radio show called Sincerely Yours. It included lots of her favourite songs and messages to soldiers from their sweethearts and wives back home. She herself married clarinet player Harry Lewis in 1941, before he was sent away to fight.
The two songs Lynn is arguably most known for are We'll Meet Again - which she used to sign off from her radio show each week ("I sang it before the war. It was just a song that was sent, and I rather liked the lyrics and thought it's a good song because it goes with anyone, anywhere, saying goodbye to someone") - and her 1941 recording of The White Cliffs Of Dover. "It was the last thing the boys saw when they went away, and the first thing they saw on the way back," she says.
Despite her popularity, Lynn's radio show was taken off air, as certain quarters deemed it too sentimental. No longer able to sing to the troops over the wireless, she decided it was time to go and sing to them in person, and joined the Entertainments National Service Association (ENSA).
While many artists headed to Europe, Lynn decided to visit the soldiers of the "Forgotten Army" in Burma.
"I wanted to go somewhere nobody had been before, no artists," explains Lynn, who recalls the sweltering heat and how she had "terrible trouble" with her perm.
Veteran Stan Holland, who appears in the documentary, reveals how he and his pals travelled for two hours through the Burmese jungle to see her sing.
"It was packed out with servicemen and we were all pushing to get close to where she was," he says.
"We were all singing and crying at the same time. To think what we were going through there, it was a good bottle of medicine."
Veteran Ben Evans, who also contributes to the special, adds: "She did so much to cheer us up when things looked grim. She was a forces' sweetheart very quickly. It was marvellous she came to see us when so many of our entertainers didn't."
Asked if she ever felt frightened, Lynn says, "No, I knew I was being taken good care of. The boys never left my side."
With the tide turning in favour of the Allies, Lynn returned to England and was invited back to host another of her radio shows, which was broadcast home and abroad.
After the war, she continued to enjoy much success, with hits on both sides of the Atlantic. Auf Wiederseh'n Sweetheart, which she heard during a ski trip, reached number one in America in 1952 - she was the first Briton to achieve this accolade.
She also focused on raising her daughter, Virginia. "Mummy was absolutely super," comments Virginia in the special. "She always made sure she was home for holidays and birthdays and Christmas, and tried to put her work around my schedule, which is not always easy, but she tried her best to do that."
As households switched from radio to television, Lynn was a regular on screen throughout the Fifties, Sixties and Seventies, and in 1995 took a starring role in the 50th anniversary celebrations of VE Day.
In 2009, she became the oldest living artist to land a UK number one album, after releasing a Very Best Of collection, and this month will release a new album Vera Lynn 100. No wonder the fan letters keep arriving.
"Sometimes, we have letters that just say Vera Lynn, UK and they somehow make it to the house," says Virginia, who notes that her mother makes a point of responding to them.
"Oh yes; she thinks it's very important to retain a connection with people."
- Happy 100th Birthday Dame Vera Lynn, BBC Two, today, 9pm