Mother Love - Virginia Lewis-Jones and her mother Dame Vera Lynn
PUBLISHED: 15:20 23 February 2010 | UPDATED: 14:51 26 July 2017
'Men are what their mothers made them' - so says the old quotation. In celebration of Mother's Day on March 14, Angela Wintle asks three Sussex personalities how their famous mothers shaped them
Virginia Lewis-Jones has often been mistaken for her famous mother, the Ditchling-based veteran singer Dame Vera Lynn. But although she now manages her mother’s career, she has taken pains never to walk in her shadow
Last year was a very big year for Dame Vera Lynn. She is well used to the limelight, but on the 70th anniversary of the Second World War she was very big news indeed and she marked the event by producing a best-selling autobiography and chart-busting CD.
But when it came to finding a narrator for the audiobook of her autobiography, her publishers were nonplussed. Who could they find to step into Dame Vera’s shoes? The answer, of course, had been staring them in the face. If they couldn’t have Dame Vera (well, she was 92 after all), then why not the next best thing: her daughter, Virginia? Not only did they look alike, but they sounded virtually identical, too!
“Everybody comments on it,” says Virginia, who lives next door to her mother in Ditchling, East Sussex. “In fact, if we’re together, a lot of people recognise me first because they remember Mummy from when she was younger. Or sometimes they hear my voice and turn round, thinking it’s her. I’d like to be able to say I sing like her, too. But I can’t sing a note!”
Since her father’s death 11 years ago, Virginia has managed all Dame Vera’s appointments. “We discuss whether she wants to do something and, if she does, I arrange everything,” she says.
But cast aside any thoughts that, at 93, Dame Vera is enjoying a cosy retirement. Last year was her busiest ever and Virginia handled all her bookings, working quietly, efficiently and, sometimes, firmly, in the background.
“There were one or two occasions when I did have to put my foot down,” she says, referring to the unreasonable requests occasionally made by the media. “I’m like my late father in that respect. He used to manage my mother and if anybody needed telling off then it tended to be him doing it. Mummy would just step back. Now it’s me doing it and I don’t suffer fools gladly!”
Perhaps it’s just as well that Virginia’s no doormat. When your mother is an international singing legend, I imagine it would be all too easy to get trampled underfoot. Virginia nods in agreement. “Somebody said to me recently: ‘I bet you didn’t think this past year would take over your life.’ And I gave them a cold stare and said: But it hasn’t. I haven’t allowed it. I have another life with a family, and I have to ensure that I balance everything. I do my own thing.”
By normal standards, Virginia had a remarkable childhood. An only child, she grew up in a large family home in Finchley, North London, where she attended a local day school. When her mother was away performing, she was cared for by nannies. And if her mother was away for longer periods, her grandparents moved in to look after her.
“We had lots of well-known people to the house, although it was second nature to me because I didn’t know anything else,” she recalls. “On New Year’s Eve, my parents threw a big party in their music room and guests would include Alma Cogan and Russ Conway, big names in their day.
“I’ve never forgotten the American country and music singer Tex Ritter coming to visit. I asked him whether he’d come on his horse and he replied in his broad American accent: ‘No, I left it up the road and got a cab instead!’”
Virginia has had many jobs, ranging from PA in a fashion house to television researcher on the Michael Parkinson Show. She even enjoyed a guest spot on the 1960s pop-themed panel show, Jukebox Jury. She admits her name may have opened doors, but she has never forgotten Bill Cotton Jnrs invaluable advice. Nepotism, he said, may be the highest form of business. But while it may get you in, if you can’t do the job you’ll be out anyway.
I ask if she and her mother have always been close. “When I was growing up, daughters weren’t as close to their mothers as they are now. These days, they’re more like sisters, and I haven’t decided whether or not that’s a good thing. But the older Mummy and I have got, the closer we’ve become. And since Daddy died, we’ve become closer still. She’s a great mum.”