Imagine September 1940 and you think of searchlights, air raids, bomb craters; the RAF taking on the Luftwaffe in the skies over southern Britain more remarkable that, three-quarters of a century later, an RT cover star from that time is sitting opposite me in leafy south London, entertaining me with tales of her career.
Helen Clare was a big star in the 1930s and 40s. She was one of three entertainers on RT’s cover of 27 September 1940, for a revue about salvage called Up Housewives and at ’Em — “which was funny,” says Helen, “because back then I couldn’t even boil an egg!” They were members of the BBC Variety Repertory Company. “We did everything — acting, singing, dancing, sketches — to lift morale.”
Helen is now 98, though that’s hard to believe in the company of this vivacious, immaculate woman who was still singing in a church concert at 90. Her soprano graced the dance halls of Britain throughout the 1930s, and she made her first TV broadcast— with Jack Jackson’s Orchestra — from Alexandra Palace in 1938.
She’s been singing all her life. Born in Bradford, she was a child star in Australia, her family having emigrated when she was four. “Even at that age,” she says, “I loved audiences.” She sang a duet from Faust for Dame Nellie Melba.
The financial crash of the late 20s saw the family return to Shipley. Helen was a hit on her first booking at the Argyle Theatre, Birkenhead. "My mother took me to London to get me an agent, but she was poorly and went home, so I stayed with this agent at the top of a rickety building in Soho. In the flats below they were all ladies of the night. I was sent down to collect the electricity money!
By day, back home, she struggled to keep her eyes open as a costing clerk, while by night, at 17, she was singing in clubs. “My brother begged my father to let me sing with his band in Bradford and, unlike their usual singer, I didn’t need a megaphone! I was soon getting bookings all over.
“My boss got me an audition with the BBC in Manchester — the head of Variety, Eric Maschwitz, was up there scouting. I did shows in Manchester, and also sang with a dance band at the Grand Hotel, Harrogate. At a society do they had in London, Jackson spotted me on the dance floor at the Dorchester and asked me to work with him. Later I sang there."
Helen's wartime memories are full of fun, even making light of being bombed in her bedsit in Bristol: "I was doing the ironing and whoosh! The windows came in. So we went next to the shelter and took this little old lady with us. One of the girls was frantic and we tried to calm her with a few drinks. When we ran out of rum, we went over the road to the pub. But as we went in, a bomb dropped and the ceiling came down! I think we still got some rum. When the old lady came out of the shelter she asked, 'Has the post come?' It did make us laugh."
Helen had her own radio shows: "On Calling Forces Gilbraltar I sang soldiers' requests." What was her favourite? “All the Things You Are. That was a lovely song.” And on It’s All Yours, servicemen would ask to hear their children on air. “One day this tiny little thing came into the studio to sing to her uncle, serving in north Africa. It was Petula Clark — her first broadcast, live on my show.”
Did Helen know Vera Lynn? “Yes, very well, and I liked her very much. Vera and I are about the last two singers left from those days.”
One moving song of the war years, Coming in on a Wing and a Prayer, was about an RAF aircraft limping back to base. As she holds close to her ear the recording of it she made in 1943, Helen’s eyes are shining. It has been a privilege to meet her.