Monday, 20 March 2017

THERE'LL ALWAYS BE AN ENGLAND: HAPPY 100TH BIRTHDAY, DAME VERA LYNN





I write this almost seven years to the day that I almost killed Dame Vera Lynn with a saucepan of soup. Not a lot of people can say that they've washed a Dame's kitchen floor, either. Not that it wasn't spotless when I arrived.
Paul Gambaccini, producer Clare Bramley, a camera crew, make-up artist and I trekked to Vera’s home in Sussex, to film a documentary. When it was time for tea, I volunteered to wash the cups. Just as she was digging out the Fairy Liquid from under the sink, in through the back door, right beside the draining board, came DVL's daughter Virginia (who lives next-door), with soup for Mother's lunch. Startled by the flinging-open door, I jumped, knocked the saucepan flying, and its steaming contents over everyone present. At least I caught the brunt of it. I spent the remains of the day dripping in apparent vomit.
Vera laughed like a trouper. She turned not a snowy hair. I understood why as I listened to her reminisce about expeditions to Burma during the Second World War, when she endured long, arduous journeys by seaplane and on foot to bring a shred of home to far-flung, homesick soldiers.
'I slept on a stretcher between two chairs,' she said. ‘There wasn't always water to drink, let alone to wash with. Dinner was most often a bowl of rice with a spoonful of jam. It didn't bother me. Those were the conditions our boys were putting up with. Who was I to demand better? They were the ones who were risking their lives, not me.'
She was ninety-three at the time. Her face was beautiful in the flesh. Like a child’s. There was a poignant moment in her bedroom, while she was dressing for the shoot, when she couldn't bend down to do up her shoes. She asked me if I'd mind doing it. Thus did I kneel at the feet of one of the most influential figures of the 20th Century. I think of it to this day.
Divas take note. All those backstage demands, all those far-fetched contract riders - piles of fluffy white towels, Smarties with the orange ones taken out, crates of perfectly-chilled Bollinger - you're having a laugh. Dame Vera, a legend and an entire nation's sweetheart, left her toddler at home and suffered unthinkable hardship to sing for servicemen offering their lives in the name of liberty. There ain't nothing like a Dame.
There'll Always Be an England. We'll Meet Again. Happy 100th Birthday and God bless you, Ma’am. Everyone buy the record: 'Vera Lynn 100', featuring the likes of Alfie Boe and Aled Jones. She becomes, today, the oldest artist in history to release a new album.

Footnote on the doc: thanks to the greed and deceit of its backers, the film has never yet been aired. Out of respect for Dame Vera, it absolutely should be. I saw Paul Gambaccini at Mike Batt’s new musical Men Who March Away on Friday night (the lead character, Katherine Grayling, is Vera personified). Paul, like Clare and me, is enraged. There are other villains to tackle right now. But we’ll get there.

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