I'm just glad Dame Vera didn't shoot the piano player

Miles Kington
Saturday 11 June 2016 01:15

Musical memories of wartime are tricky things. For instance, Gracie Fields is thought of as a darling of the British fighting man, but Spike Milligan always writes with horror about his encounters with Gracie Fields in embattled Italy. Every time the British looked like retreating, he wrote, they put on a Gracie Fields concert in the rear to get the men rushing toward the German lines again.

Everyone remembered Glenn Miller nostalgically after his death over the Channel, except some of the men who played in his band and came to hate the music - tenor saxophonist Al Klink once went on record as saying that on the whole he felt it would have been better if the man had lived and the music died.

Yet everyone, it seems, loves the memory of Dame Vera Lynn. And she was in the news again this week, threatening to boycott a D-Day concert because her boys, the veterans she sang for in the Second World War, have expressed disquiet over the event. She came out of this smelling of roses, the Government fumed with embarrassment, and everyone had wonderful memories of Vera Lynn all over again.

Not me, though. I have memories of Vera Lynn that are of an altogether darker kind, memories which I thought had been allayed a long time ago and which have just flared up again like an old toothache.

It all goes back to the days when I played with the group Instant Sunshine, and when Instant Sunshine played regularly on the Radio 4 programme Stop The Week with Robert Robinson. This, if you remember, was a quiz programme in which Robinson challenged the members of the team to see if they could remember what they had agreed beforehand to come up with spontaneously, and in the middle they took a break for a half-time team talk and to let us sing a song before resuming the chat as if nothing had happened - which was often the case.

Anyway, one year they decided to have a special end-of-the-year show called Stop The Year with Robert Robinson, a longer than usual version, done live, with guests. One of the guests was Jonathan Miller. Another was to be Vera Lynn. Why Vera Lynn? I can't remember. Perhaps it was 1985, and this was 40 years after D-Day. Perhaps it was 1979 and it was 40 years after 1939. That's the way the media mind works.

'I'd quite like to ask Vera Lynn to sing one of the songs that made her famous,' Mike Ember, the producer, told us. Don't ask me why. That's the way the media mind works. 'But she'll need some backing. Can you lads play 'We'll Meet Again'?'

Stunned silence. Of course we couldn't play it. Did the media mind know nothing about music? Or about us? We only played our own repertoire. We could play anything, as long as we had written it. But some devil forced me to speak up and say: 'I think I could do a pub piano backing easily enough . . .'

'OK,' said Ember. 'You're on.'

I went out and bought a book of war songs, full of 'Kiss Me Goodnight, Sergeant Major' and 'We're Going To Hang Out The Washing On The Siegfried Line' and other delectable wartime collectibles, and there, too, was 'We'll Meet Again'. It wasn't too tricky, apart from one or two odd chords. It was in G major. That was OK. I played it over and over again. I didn't want to let the war effort down. I wanted our boys to get through while me and Vera played for them back home. On the great night, a little man whom I now realise was her husband, Harry Lewis, came up to me and said: 'Are you the bloke that's playing for our Vera?'

'Yes,' I said.

'What key are you in?'

'G major,' I said. 'That's the key it was written . . .'

'G major?' he said. 'Bloody hell. She hasn't sung it in G since about 1950. She's down to E flat by now]'

I had about three minutes before the show to transpose it from G to E flat. In my head. E flat isn't a bad key, but it's a lot different from G, especially when there are odd chords floating around, and you have to be quite a good pianist to do the transition cleanly. I'm not good enough to do it cleanly first time. Live on radio. Backing the immortal Vera Lynn.

I can't remember much about the programme, thank goodness, except that Vera Lynn didn't seem to want to talk to me afterwards, but I do remember a fan letter the group received the following week. It said that we sounded really good on the programme and all power to our elbow. But who on earth, added the letter, was that pianist they got in to play for Vera Lynn . . .?

Yes, folks, you can count me out of this year's D-Day celebrations. I have known the glory and the horror of it already, and don't want to be reminded.

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