Wartime Hero, Peacetime Outcast - The Story Of Vera Lynn & The BBC
With the passing of one of Britain’s all-time greats and a proper national treasure, it only seems fitting to dedicate today’s article to Dame Vera Lynn, who has unfortunately passed away at the age of 103.
There are people out there today who would call the late Dame Vera Lynn as a one-hit-wonder, instantly putting her in the same category as the likes of Right Said Fred or Vanilla Ice. To even dare to call Dame Vera one of those sorts of musical artists is almost a defamation of character. Sure, all artists have their signature songs and to say that she didn’t would be wrong, but that signature song We’ll Meet Again is one that’s emblazoned on the hearts and minds of everyone up and down the country, especially in such harrowing times. From Berwick to Basildon and Dumfries to Dunstable, people know We’ll Meet Again and the Forces Sweetheart was so much more than just a one-hit-wonder. People who think that nowadays however wouldn’t have been alone back in the forties and fifties, because the BBC also thought that once the Second World War had ended.
First, a bit of background. Before the Second World War, Vera Lynn was an up-and-coming dance band singer, having made her on-stage debut at the age of just seven. By the age of fifteen in 1932, she worked for agent and band leader himself Howard Baker, who helped to supply dance bands all over London’s East End. Following a stint with Baker, the teenage singer would go on to work with Billy Cotton’s band for just ten days, where she was sent home following a week’s residence in Manchester. Billy Cotton might be a familiar name, and is in himself an interesting character. He’s best remembered for being a larger-than-life Cockney who presented The Billy Cotton Band Show in the fifties and sixties. Cotton also was a racing driver, and raced at Brooklands, the first ever purpose-built race circuit in the inter-war years. His loss was counteracted by the monumental gain of the pianist Charlie Kunz, who kickstarted Vera's tenure with the BBC through singing on broadcasts with his band.
Having worked with Bert Ambrose from 1937 to 1941, Vera had honed her craft and came into contact with Harry Lewis, the band’s new saxophonist in 1939. The two soon married in 1941 and at the same time, Ambrose’s band felt the full brunt of the war as they all joined the Forces. Lewis was a key figure in the setting up of the their RAF band, The Squadronaires, an outfit that continued even after the war ended. By the middle of the war, Vera Lynn had become a solo sensation and left Ambrose’s band for pastures new. She began working as a solo artist, topping the bill on variety shows up and down the country. It was at this time that the BBC were looking to change the format of the Forces Programme, a show that had been set up to be broadcast to the Expeditionary Force abroad. The pioneering Howard Thomas proposed a show that would act as “a letter to the men of the forces in words and music”. It would obviously be a patriotic affair, and with her resounding success as a singer and her sophisticated nature compared to her contemporaries, Vera would be a perfect fit. She was previously voted as the No. 1 Forces Sweetheart and given that moniker by the Daily Express, and the name stuck from then on.
The revamped Forces Programme was an instant success. With the title of Sincerely Yours, she would receive in excess of 2000 requests a week to sing and read out letters to the troops abroad. It would be on Sincerely Yours that she would truly become a household name, and where some of her greatest hits would become a part of the nation’s spirit. We’ll Meet Again had been recorded originally before Sincerely Yours was ever broadcast, but became her signature song soon after. It’s a song of great hope and tangible optimism and resonated strongly back then, and it still does now. She later described it as a “greetings card song: a very basic human message of the sort people want to say to each other but find embarrassing actually to put into words” and in these harrowing times, it’s easy to see why so many people still love it today. The White Cliffs Of Dover would also become one of her timeless classics, and even though it was written by an American (namely Nat Burton), it’s another one of those songs that people in Britain love because it’s an effervescent reminder of that wartime spirit.
Even with such immense popularity, Sincerely Yours and even Vera Lynn herself didn’t come without opposition. Some members of a BBC committee, whilst they noted the show’s popularity, strongly disapproved of the show, which formed part of a wider disdain towards the great crooners of the day, whose singing style was deemed to be too sentimental and littered with Americanisms. This was at a time when the BBC’s Received Pronunciation ruled the airwaves and people wouldn’t settle for anything less. It was noted that listeners would trust a northern newsreader less than one who spoke in RP - see this article in the Smithsonian Mag for details. This time of sheer anger against anything that wasn’t British unsurprisingly extended to Vera Lynn’s programme and the singer herself, who would be placed at the centre of this apparent vocal controversy, especially given the fact that Sincerely Yours drew such a large listenership. She was even attacked in Parliament because of the fact the show supposedly acted to undermine the fighting forces’ morale and also her voice and, with one MP calling it “refaned Cockney”, causing her to respond with the fact that “millions of Cockneys are fighting in this war.” Even with the common man’s heart won, Vera couldn’t appear to win everyone over.
It would be a five month entertainment excursion to Asia that would be the most enduring of her wartime career. She took in both concerts and hospital visits in both India and the Middle East, before supporting the troops in Burma. The time in Burma would remain with her for the rest of her life, with her even keeping a small and secret diary on the matter, detailing her sleeping conditions (“Slept on stretcher balanced on two kitchen chairs. A rotten night.”) and other parts of her time there. Following her time there, Vera became one of the most high-profile supporters for the remembrance and care of those who fought as part of the ‘Forgotten 14th’ Army in Burma.
With the Second World War over in 1945, the arrival of peacetime and the following years into the fifties meant that the Forces Sweetheart faced competition from up-and-coming rivals such as Connie Francis and Kay Starr. The BBC didn’t offer her any radio work for years following the War’s end because the BBC’s Head Of Variety at the time, Michael Standing, told Vera that “sob stuff” and sentimentality was on its way out, and with Clement Attlee on power, it seemed like the BBC wanted something different to reflect the radical changes in government. A few years later, Standing was quoted as stating that the BBC were “still looking for the next Vera Lynn.”
The BBC obviously thought that Vera's talent and rapport with people was something that could be replicated but with no result, clearly Standing was wrong. People like Dame Vera Lynn come once in a generation and it’s important to remember that when they’re around. As I said at the start of this piece, there are people even now who think that those wartime singers such as Dame Vera and George Formby were one-hit-wonders and clearly only good for the time they were most prominent. Nowadays it’s abundantly clear that they couldn’t be further from the truth - the Keep Calm and Carry On mentality and that wartime spirit is something that is threaded throughout the core of society and to dismiss national treasures as one-hit-wonders is, as I say, almost a defamation of character. You need people like Dame Vera to keep the country going in hard times and with her passing, it’s up to the people to come together and fill the gaping whole in British character that she’s left.