Dame Vera Lynn is sitting in an armchair with one leg high in the air when I enter her pink bedroom in her house in Sussex. Her daughter, Virginia and two of her nieces are laughing and chatting. “Come and join us, we’re doing exercises,” Vera cries, gaily.
That was some 10 years ago, when, at the age of 92, she had become the oldest living artist ever to reach number one in the UK album chart, providing the perfect excuse for me to make The Vera Lynn Story, a BBC documentary about the woman forever etched in the nation’s memory as the Forces’ sweetheart.
Vera was smaller than I expected, white-haired, with astonishingly alert, bright blue eyes and, although she walked with a stick, surprisingly fast and light on her feet. When she smiled, which was often, she looked radiant.
On a tray in her living room was half a bottle of wine and an open packet of crisps re-sealed with a peg. “I don’t eat red meat and I’ve never smoked,” she told me, “but I do like a glass of red wine and a few crisps at 6 o’clock.” Moderation, enforced by the spectre of wartime rationing, was perhaps the key to her longevity and youthful looks. So, too, was removing your make-up before bedtime, even if it was 3am. (She liked Nivea best, it was no nonsense and did the job - rather like her, I soon came to realise.)
Born working class Vera Welch in London’s East Ham, by the late 1930s, she was singing with the Bert Ambrose band, appearing on the radio and making gramophone records that outsold Bing Crosby and Judy Garland. But it was her trip to Burma that most clearly defined her; her memory had crystallised those few months in 1944 with a clarity and detail that made it hard to believe almost 70 years had passed. As she spoke, you could clearly see in her the young woman who had flown thousands of hazardous miles to entertain the troops. A soldier in Burma said to her, “You being here, home doesn’t feel so far away.”
Her trip was the highlight of her life. “We were told not to make any notes in case we were captured, but I did, I took my little notebook and wrote in tiny handwriting in pencil,” she told me, getting up and pulling a small, red, Collins diary from a drawer to read me excerpts. Weeks later, engaged in the jigsaw puzzle that is film editing, my eyes were drawn to archive footage of Vera in Burma. In one shot, she’s writing in a small notebook; the very same small diary that she had shown me.
Wasn’t she afraid during the war? “No, I never really felt afraid because everyone was in the same boat, there were terrible things happening with people, particularly in the East End. You just had to get on with everything, do your job, whatever it was.”
Her wartime radio programme, uniting the home front with the fighting front, was aptly titled, Sincerely Yours and perhaps sincerity is the word that describes Vera best. When she sang, she believed every word and so the listener did, too.
“I always followed my instincts and did the things that came naturally to me,” she said. “If something doesn’t feel right, I won’t do it. I don’t think there’s anything I should have done that I haven’t.” Her daughter, Virginia agreed, “She can be very obstinate at times, if she wants to do something, then she just jolly well does it. Her little heels get dug in and that’s it.”
On subsequent visits, I buried myself in Vera’s archive, a vast room upstairs, crammed full of show posters, photos, gramophone records and memorabilia. In a dusty cupboard I found rolls of film, home movies from the Fifties, never shown before. They painted a picture of the close family life that Vera, her husband, Harry Lewis and Virginia shared. “I think the Fifties were the best years,” she said, “it was just after the war, it was like a tree beginning to re-bloom, buds were coming out again, and coming back to life.”
On one visit, Vera’s older brother, Roger, then 96, joined us – a real “card,” full of tales of his time in the RAF and as part of a double act with Max Bygraves. He was, according to Vera, “a very nice dancer.” There was a special poignancy listening to the shared memories of their childhood. “I’m proud of her,” Roger told me, “I’m glad that I’m her brother, and I’m glad she’s my sister, but if she never sang a note, the feeling would be just the same.”
I last saw her in the South of France, where she and Harry had bought a small flat many decades ago. We had lunch in Le Café Bleu on the seafront in Golfe Juan; every now and then, one of us said something that reminded Vera of a song title and she spontaneously sang a few bars.
“Je voudrais vieillir comme elle,” said Dominique, the owner, who had known Vera for over 40 years. “I’d like to grow old like her.” Wouldn’t we all? Warm, honest, compassionate and hard-working, with a voice all her own to the end; I’m not sure they make them like her anymore.