What must it be like to be the daughter of an icon? Not just social media famous or household name recognisable, but a copper-bottomed national treasure?
Growing up in the shadow of Dame Vera Lynn, whose unique role in British history will never be forgotten, could have been a burden - especially to an only child who admits she “couldn’t hold a tune.”
But as the White Cliffs of Dover singer’s 100th birthday celebrations take place this weekend, her daughter Virginia Lewis-Jones, 71, takes an entirely sanguine view of a childhood that was, by any standards, extraordinary.
“My mother was very famous and very loved and that was all very nice, but because I grew up in that world, I just accepted it as normal,” she says. “[Though] Mummy was good friends with the late Queen Mother, and they shared the same mischievous sense of humour. The Queen Mother would speak of her concern about how to balance work with having a family.
“Apparently they would discuss Prince Charles and me quite a lot, which is terribly funny to imagine. But for women of their generation, duty to one’s country was hugely important.”
Dame Vera’s extensive travelling schedule, throughout which she was accompanied by her late husband and manager, saxophonist Harry Lewis, meant Lewis-Jones was often left in the care of relatives and friends who became “like second families” to her. But she has no truck with 21st century child-centred sensibilities.
“I wasn’t in the least bit jealous of ‘sharing’ my mother with the world, why would I be?” she asks, not at all rhetorically. “Mummy had a huge talent and the fact that so much fuss is made these days about mothers who have demanding careers is a bit of an indictment of the times we live in.
“As a child I was immersed in ‘the business’ and yes, Mummy’s job would take her and Daddy away for long periods but they were always around for things like Christmas and Easter.”
A brisk, energetic woman who resembles her Essex-born mother – in her late teens she was often mistaken for her, and narrated the audiobook of the singer’s autobiography – Lewis-Jones may not have inherited Dame Vera’s musicality, but she has the same robust pragmatism.
Married to Tom Jones, a former RAF squadron leader, she has one stepdaughter and three grandchildren. The couple lives in the top part of the family home in Ditchling, East Sussex, while Dame Vera “whizzes about in her electric chair” on the ground floor.
Lean and poised, Lewis-Jones does adult ballet twice a week and has an equally rigorous mind; she was a television researcher for many years and laid much of the groundwork for the BBC Two documentary Happy 100th Birthday Vera Lynn, which is being broadcast on Saturday night. In the hour-long programme famous fans including Sir Paul McCartney and Sir Tim Rice pay tribute to the woman who won hearts and minds for her contribution not just to entertainment, but to public life.
Dame Vera had long established herself as musical royalty by the time her only child was born in 1946, beloved as the Forces’ sweetheart; a totem of steadfast patriotism during the dark days of the Second World War. Even as the bombs rained down on Britain, her voice had rung out through The Blitz, when she sang to evacuees in the London’s Underground stations.
Her radio request show Sincerely Yours was the 1940s equivalent of social media as she read out loving messages from the home front to troops fighting in faraway lands; the air force dropped radios so that the men could listen.
And it was at her own insistence that she toured Egypt, India and then visited the frontline in Burma where British soldiers fought a desperate campaign against the might of the Japanese war machine.
“Mummy was a brave, resolute woman and when she set her mind to do something she jolly well went ahead and did it,” is how her daughter puts it, with brisk unsentimentality. “She was a reminder of the wives, sweethearts and mothers the men had left behind.” In truth Dame Vera carried the morale of the nation; as her strong clear voice rang out with the words “We’ll met again...” she inspired hope and, with it, fortitude.
After the war, Dame Vera became the first British person to achieve a No1 single in America with Auf Wiederseh’n Sweetheart in 1952, before becoming doyenne of light TV entertainment in the big band era. “It seemed perfectly ordinary to me that I would be brought to all the big shows and socialise with people like Des O’Connor and Morecambe and Wise,” Lewis-Jones recalls. “I still laugh when I think of how Eric Morecambe would always greet me with his trademark ‘So, how are you young man?’”
To mark Dame Vera’s birthday on Monday, a tribute concert-cum-variety show is taking place at The Palladium in London this Saturday night, and tomorrow sees the launch of a new album, Vera Lynn 100 - the making of which breaks her own Guiness World Record for being the oldest person to release a new album. It features re-orchestrated versions of her best-loved music alongside her original vocals, alongside high-profile duets including Alfie Boe on We’ll Meet Again and Aled Jones on As Time Goes By.
It comes eight years after she broke another record by becoming the oldest living artist to land a UK number one album, when We’ll Meet Again: The Very Best of Vera Lynn topped the charts, beating off the Arctic Monkeys, whose lead singer, Alex Turner, was once voted NME’s “coolest person on the planet”
It would seem, quite rightly, that cool is no match for class; something Dame Vera had in spadefuls despite her humble working class beginnings in East Ham. Her stage career began aged seven when her parents discovered she could make more in one night singing in working men’s clubs than her docker-turned-plumber father could earn in a week. Although quite shy, even then her sense of duty overruled her natural reluctance.
“Mummy never ever sang at home unless she was rehearsing,” remembers Lewis-Jones, who was grateful to be allowed to “do my own thing. I wasn’t particularly academic so when I was 16 she offered me the choice of French finishing school or accompanying her on her travels across the world. I chose to travel and it was a fabulous education.” Since her father’s death in 1998, she has taken over as her mother’s agent; in the BBC film, the unshowy affection between the two women is perceptible.
“Mummy is frail of course but that’s just due to her age - her mind is as sound as ever,” says Lewis-Jones. She delights in reading the stacks of letters and emails from across the world arrive that every week from children who learn about her in school or who discover her through their grandparents’ old records.
And Dame Vera is still very much a force of nature who, Lewis-Jones says, retains a healthy sense of vanity. “Mummy wears the very same shade of Estée Lauder coral lipstick she always did and refuses to meet anyone until she has applied it,” she smiles.
“If I get to her age with even half as much of her zest for life, I’ll be very happy.”
Happy 100th Birthday Dame Vera Lynn is on BBC Two on 18 March at 9pm. ‘Vera Lynn 100’ will be released on Decca Records tomorrow