Virginia Lewis-Jones is remembering her north London childhood, when as a girl she would use her dolly’s tea set to serve her mother. “I remember that tea set,” muses Virginia, now 71, about her appearance on the cover of Radio Times. “It’s a pearly green – I’ve still got it somewhere. I was about six; I’d come in from school and play afternoon tea with Mummy, depending on whether she was working.”
Working mothers were a true rarity then. This was 1952, and the ritual of dolly’s afternoon tea was captured on our cover – for the “Mummy” in question is Dame Vera Lynn, whose 100th birthday is 20 March. Stories of disastrous showbusiness parents are ten a penny. In this, as in so many ways, Vera Lynn has always been different.
In 1941, and already the Forces’ Sweetheart for delivering the songs that buoyed a nation’s wartime spirits, she married musician Harry Lewis. Virginia, their only child, arrived five years later, and the marriage lasted until Harry’s death in 1998. Always close, that loss brought mother and daughter closer still.
Having lived for many years next door to her parents in Sussex, Virginia and husband Tom now occupy the top floor at the sprawling property, with Dame Vera and her fulltime carer downstairs; Virginia’s stepdaughter has three children who call their step-greatgrandmother “Nanny DV”.
The warmth of the pair’s relationship is evident to all who visit. “When I was young she wasn’t home a lot, but I just accepted it,” recalls Virginia. “I was looked after by a nanny, or if Mummy was away for longer my grandmothers would stay. Once she went to America for a couple of months [when Auf Wiederseh’n Sweetheart became the first record by a British performer to top the US charts in 1952]. She rang me every day, but she was quite put out once because I said, ‘Hello Mummy, I’m just off to a party, bye’.”
She laughs. “I never felt like I had to share Mummy. I knew she was a celebrity, so I was used to her being in the papers and on the radio, but I never thought of her as humungously famous. Fame was different then, without all the hype and gush of today. It was quite exciting occasionally when she was on the same bill as the Beatles. But otherwise it was just ordinary.”
It is that very ordinariness which, incongruously, has always set Vera apart. This was no construct – elevation from her audience has always been anathema to her. “That’s it,” nods Virginia. “If Twitter had been around 40 years ago, I can’t imagine her doing it because she’s always preferred real contact. So it was easy to be ordinary at home. She loved sewing, gardening, painting, cooking; on Sundays she’d make a special pudding. I can still remember the wonderful taste of her lemon meringue pie.
“At bedtime she would read to me – Noddy, the Famous Five, What Katie Did. Our house has always been choc-a-bloc with books.”
The usual teenage stage of thinking her parents deeply uncool never materialised. Virginia loved it when Vera and Harry came to watch her at gymkhanas, where victory did not equate to fuss. “Mummy was tactile to a certain extent. She was very caring, but I was brought up properly. My parents were fairly strict, with much more discipline than today. As a child you knew what you were allowed to do, and if you were asked to do something, you jolly well did it.”
Even though her last public performance was 22 years ago, Dame Vera still receives “a minimum” of 50 letters a week. “More at the moment – it’s manic,” says Virginia. “Some are from schoolchildren doing projects. We had one from an 11-year-old in the US whose grandmother played him some of Mummy’s records and now she’s his favourite singer.”
Vera Lynn’s appeal never wanes, it seems, and her daughter feels nothing but gratitude for all she has been. “Your parents are the people who mould you,” says Virginia. “I was so lucky to have my parents, and to have Mummy. She’s a great mother.”
Dame Vera Lynn: Happy 100th Birthday is on Saturday 18th March at 9:00pm on BBC2