Dame Vera Lynn on reaching her 100th year, a new album and being voted the Forces' Sweetheart
PUBLISHED: 15:22 20 March 2017 | UPDATED: 15:22 20 March 2017
Credit: REUTERS / Alamy Stock Photo
Dame Vera Lynn is celebrating her 100th birthday in style with a star-studded variety extravaganza at the London Palladium, a new album and a BBC documentary celebrating her remarkable wartime contribution. Angela Wintle takes up the story
Dame Vera Lynn may be turning 100, but in the hearts of the nation she will forever be ‘the Forces Sweetheart’, the girl with the bright smile whose songs kept the home fires burning.
Though there have been many milestones in her illustrious singing career, and many accolades – most recently when she became the oldest person to be invested with a Companion of Honour by the Queen last summer – she can scarcely believe she is celebrating her 100th birthday.
“To have reached my 100th year is quite an achievement, with all the memories that one collects over the years, the different places and the wonderful people one meets, not to mention the many fans who have supported me,” she says, speaking at her home in Ditchling, East Sussex.
Dame Vera makes no public appearances these days and generally refuses interviews, but her landmark birthday is not going unnoticed, with a spectacular variety extravaganza at the London Palladium on 18 March.
The charity concert featured stage, television and music stars, including comedian and TV presenter Alexander Armstrong and vocal group Blake and singer Hayley Westenra. They were accompanied by the Royal Air Force Dance Orchestra and the RAF band the Squadronaires, the latter a fitting tribute to Dame Vera’s late husband, Harry Lewis, who was a founder member.
Speaking before the event, Dame Vera said: “The show will be but a tiny insight into my career from when I started professionally on stage at the age of seven, through the war years, right up to the current day,”
“I want the audience to sit back and enjoy what, for me, has been an incredible adventure of song, dance and friendship.”
She also marks her milestone anniversary with an album featuring new, re-orchestrated versions of her most beloved music, alongside her original vocals. It is thought the collection will make Dame Vera the first singer to have released a new album as a centenarian.
She is joined on the album by a line-up of chart-topping British singers, including Alfie Boe on her much-loved song We’ll Meet Again, Alexander Armstrong on White Cliffs of Dover and Aled Jones on As Time Goes By.
“It’s truly humbling that people still enjoy these songs from so many years ago, reliving the emotions of that time – I was after all just doing my job as a singer – and it’s so wonderful for me to hear my songs again so beautifully presented in a completely new way,” she says.
Born in the East End of London in 1917, Dame Vera began appearing on radio broadcasts with the Joe Loss Orchestra in the 1930s, as well as singing with Charlie Kunz and the Ambrose Orchestra.
It was in 1939 that she was voted ‘the Forces’ Sweetheart’ in a newspaper competition. “I was flabbergasted,” she says. “I couldn’t believe they chose me in front of everybody else.”
Throughout the war, she played a huge role in keeping up the spirits of a British civilian population suffering under the Blitz. In 1941, she was given her own radio programme, Sincerely Yours, which ran on Sunday nights. She sent messages to British troops abroad and performed songs mostly requested by them, accompanied by her own quartet. It was the sound of resistance. One Dutchman wrote to say he had hidden with his radio in a haystack, knowing the Germans would shoot him if they found out.
She also appeared at the London Palladium and the Holborn Empire, and in 1944 toured army camps in Egypt, India and Burma, at great personal risk, to meet the boys in the hospitals and give outdoor concerts for the troops. “I reminded them of their sisters, the wives and sweethearts they had left behind, and what they were fighting for.”
Dame Vera’s last major engagement was in a concert outside Buckingham Palace in 1995 to mark the 50th anniversary of the end of the war in Europe. The celebrations were huge but they felt like the end of an era. Dame Vera gave a remarkably strong performance for a woman pushing 80. She kissed some of the boys in Chelsea Pensioner red and then headed off into retirement.
But she continued to make headlines when, in 2009, a surge of feeling for the troops in Afghanistan unexpectedly propelled her new album release to the top of the charts and helped her outsell the Arctic Monkeys. She also became the oldest living artist to land a UK number one album.
In addition to her renowned entertainment career, Dame Vera has dedicated more than six decades to charity work for ex-servicemen, disabled children and breast cancer. Proceeds from her Palladium concert will support the Cuckfield-based Dame Vera Lynn Children’s Charity which provides support and education for families with children affected with cerebral palsy and associated conditions.
For more details about the Dame Vera Lynn Children’s Charity or to make a donation, call 01444 473274; dvlcc.org.uk