The key to those wartime melodies

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The Independent Online
Today, children, I am going to tell you a story about Dame Vera Lynn and myself. She comes out of it quite well, unlike myself, but I must tell it, if only to try to exorcise the memory.

This goes back to the days when I was playing in the cabaret group, Instant Sunshine, and we had a regular slot on the Saturday afternoon Radio 4 programme called Stop the Week with Robert Robinson. One year the producer, Michael Ember, decided to have a gala edition for New Year's Eve called Stop the Year with Robert Robinson for which he lined up several glittering star guests of whom the only two I can remember were Jonathan Miller and Vera Lynn.

"With any luck I might be able to get Vera Lynn to sing one of her hits on the programme," he told Instant Sunshine. "Do you know any of them? Could you back her?" Our collective lips curled. We only did our own material. We did not go around singing Vera Lynn songs. We did not go around singing anyone else's songs. Nor were we going to start now.

His face fell. It suddenly occurred to me that we were not exactly behaving like professional musicians.

"I think I could manage a pub piano backing of one of her songs, if I had to," I said.

His face brightened: "I'll give you a ring if we need you."

He gave me a ring. The Dame had agreed to sing "We'll Meet Again".

"Do you know it?" he asked.

"Never played it, but it sounds easy," I said. "I'll buy the music. I'll learn it."

I bought one of those albums of wartime songs containing black-and-white photographs of people digging allotments and the music for the songs they sang as they dug for victory, like "Der Fhrer's Face" and "Kiss Me Good Night, Sergeant Major" and "Lilli Marlene". And there was "We'll Meet Again".

It was written in G major. Not a bad key. I practised it. One or two funny chords, but not that hard. I went along to the programme full of confidence. I was introduced to the Dame. She smiled and went on with another conversation. I was just retreating from the regal presence when I was approached by a small, anxious, middle-aged man. He turned out to be her husband.

"Here, are you the bloke that's playing for our Vera?" he said.

"I am her accompanist," I said stiffly.

"What key are you playing it in?"


"G? G? You can't do it in G!"

"Why not?" I said. "It was written in G."

"I don't care about that," he said. "Vera hasn't been able to get up to G since about 1950. We're down to E flat major now."

Not only is E flat a whole two tones lower, it is also a very different kind of key, especially if you are playing "We'll Meet Again" in it. For the first time. With Vera Lynn. Without any rehearsal.

I went into panic mode. I spent the next frenzied little while scribbling the new chords into my wartime album, but before I could even try them out on a piano, we were into the studio and recording the programme. It was a nightmare. I was about to charge into no man's land and I did not even know if my gun was loaded.

All I can remember of the programme now was the moment when the guests were all asked to nominate a new year's resolution and Jonathan Miller said that his was to give up eating stews and casseroles.

Robert Robinson asked him to enlarge on that.

"Oh, you never know what you're going to find in the bottom of those mystery dishes," said Dr Miller. "It's like trawling a pond for clues.

"You put in a fork and you bring up this mass of unidentified cartilaginous integument, rather like the corsetry of some ancient whore who drowned there many years previously."

I remember that phrase "cartilaginous integument" with total clarity. What I cannot remember is what it was like playing for Vera Lynn. The memory has been suppressed. We must have got through it somehow, but more thanks to her than me.

Well, she had spent 30 years getting from G to E flat, after all, and I had had barely half an hour for the same trip. Some of it I got right, some I did not. Later, a fan of the group wrote to Instant Sunshine saying he thought our songs on the programme were really good, "but who on earth was that pianist?"

Yes, I have mixed feelings about Dame Vera. Put it this way: I did not go to Hyde Park the other night and I did not hear her singing "We'll Meet Again".

Did anyone notice what key she does it in now, by the way?