Who dares sings: how Vera inspired the SAS

#1
Another good piece by Ben Macintyre:

The forces’ sweetheart had a rebellious streak that enraged the BBC – and an insurgent style that energised soldiers.

After a hard day’s work destroying German airfields in the Libyan desert in 1941, there was nothing soldiers of the SAS liked better than heading back to camp, sitting around a fire and singing sentimental songs.

“The bigger and burlier the singer,” noted the SAS doctor, “the more heartfelt the singing.” Their songs were not the martial chants of warriors, but the schmaltzy romantic popular tunes of the time: I’ll Never Smile Again, My Melancholy Baby, I’m Dancing with Tears in My Eyes. And absolutely anything and everything sung by Vera Lynn.

Suitably heartened by a shared rendition of The White Cliffs of Dover or We’ll Meet Again, the SAS would then head off to kill more Nazis and blow up more planes.

Vera Lynn has announced the release of a new album next month to mark her 100th birthday, with re-orchestrated versions of her most famous hits. Today, Dame Vera is the living embodiment of wartime spirit, the forces’ sweetheart who sustained the nation through the darkest days of war. At 92, she became the oldest artist to top the album charts. She has a street, a steam locomotive and a Pink Floyd song named in her honour.

But Dame Vera’s status as the most priceless of national treasures obscures the fact that she was once a figure of intense controversy, an innovator attacked as a drain on masculine morale, a pusher of musical “drugs”, and an Americanised “crooner”. She prompted a ferocious debate within the BBC over what sort of music should be broadcast in wartime, and provoked a revolution in radio listening. She helped to win the war, but she also created an appetite for British popular music that has lived on ever since, instilling the idea that the public should be allowed to listen to what it liked, and not just what the BBC decided was good for it.

Vera Lynn, Companion of Honour, Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire, Officer of the Order of St John, was a rebel.

Early on in the conflict, the BBC concluded that music could be a vital weapon of war, boosting civilian and military morale, promoting Anglo-American unity and increasing industrial production. “Victory though Harmony” was the slogan, but there was very little harmony about what music would work best.

Conservative voices at the BBC wanted to broadcast the aural equivalent of cod liver oil, “healthy” tunes that were not always easy to swallow: patriotic, unambiguously masculine melodies, marching songs, and hymns. Until 1938 dance band music was banned on Sundays.

At the other end of the music scale were the catchy, sentimental ballads and love songs, and the style known as “crooning” — a function of the microphone, which allowed soft singing that was nonetheless audible, nuanced and intimate.

No one used a microphone quite like Vera Lynn, with her clear English diction and girl-next-door charm. Her first wartime radio show, Starlight, was an instant hit. Sincerely Yours, which went on air in late 1941, was even bigger, a mixture of songs and dialogue framed as “a letter to the men of the forces from their favourite star”. More than 20 per cent of the population listened in. “Her beautiful voice quality was unmistakable, her fan mail immense,” recalled Cecil Madden, head of the BBC’s Overseas Entertainment Unit.

Then came the backlash. Some within the BBC argued that this “sickly and maudlin” music had caused significant British losses in North Africa by its “drugging” effect of military morale, sapping virility and the will to fight. In March 1942, a retired lieutenant-colonel wrote to The Daily Telegraph attacking the “crooners and sloppy sentimental music” on the BBC, a view echoed by a minority at the front. One corporal wrote: “Please, please put an end to those dreadful songs which keep drumming into us the inevitable parting from our wives, mothers and sweethearts.”

Lynn had some staunch defenders. The jazz musician Spike Hughes wrote: “Today, thousands of servicemen overseas ask to hear Miss Vera Lynn singing Miss You. They are not allowed to hear it because the BBC considers it would be harmful to morale and remind the sailor too much of home.”

While the battle raged within the BBC, Sincerely Yours was “rested”. Lynn did not get another solo show for 18 months. The Dance Music Policy Committee swung into action against “slush” and sentimental crooning: 30 singers were banned and 60 more cautioned.

To some, Lynn’s repertoire sounded louche and Americanised. There was even a whiff of racism in the opposition to the new style of music crossing the Atlantic. “What is it about Negro voices that gives so many people a particular delight?” wondered the Radio Times in 1943.

But Lynn was simply too popular, and too good, to suppress. Far-sighted radio executives such as Madden continued to promote “croonerettes”. The BBC’s new Listener Research department tracked tastes by demographic group, including frontline soldiers, and discovered the blindingly obvious: “Radio girlfriends” could forge a unique musical bond with men fighting far away.

The idea that Vera Lynn’s singing could depress rather than raise morale now seems absurd. Today, to younger ears, she sounds antique and syrupy, but to ears that were young 75 years ago she was fresh and even revolutionary.

Vera Lynn transformed listening tastes and gave Britain an enduring wartime soundtrack. And she succeeded in much the same way as the SAS: by circumventing conventional thinking, ignoring the old guard, and changing the rules.
 

Helm

MIA
Moderator
Book Reviewer
#3
My old man couldn't stand her, and said he wasn't the only one. Possiblyy one of those marmite people
 
#4
Quite a few few 14th Army veterans have written about the very negative effect that attending a VL concert (or any of the ENSA concerts) had on them. They were, of course, stuck for months and years in a largely woman-less environment, and so had mostly repressed sexual emotions in order to endure their monkish existence. Hence having pretty (but untouchable) female artistes thrust in their faces just served to exacerbate their feelings of loneliness, separation and sexual frustration.
 
#5
My old man couldn't stand her, and said he wasn't the only one. Possiblyy one of those marmite people
Fair comment. The same can surely be said for most who choose to spend their career in the public eye, including many, many (perhaps the majority?) of the so-called slebs today.
 

Helm

MIA
Moderator
Book Reviewer
#6
Fair comment. The same can surely be said for most who choose to spend their career in the public eye, including many, many (perhaps the majority?) of the so-called slebs today.
No doubt, he always turned the radio off when she came on is all I know.
 
#8
Quite a few few 14th Army veterans have written about the very negative effect that attending a VL concert (or any of the ENSA concerts) had on them. They were, of course, stuck for months and years in a largely woman-less environment, and so had mostly repressed sexual emotions in order to endure their monkish existence. Hence having pretty (but untouchable) female artistes thrust in their faces just served to exacerbate their feelings of loneliness, separation and sexual frustration.
Did they not have the WWII equivalent of a sangar available? ;)
 
#9
I bet she partook in many pork sword adventures.
Of that there is no doubt, but not enough adventures to properly service the needs of the 14th Army, the lazy Marmite Minx
 
#11
Quite a few few 14th Army veterans have written about the very negative effect that attending a VL concert (or any of the ENSA concerts) had on them. They were, of course, stuck for months and years in a largely woman-less environment, and so had mostly repressed sexual emotions in order to endure their monkish existence. Hence having pretty (but untouchable) female artistes thrust in their faces just served to exacerbate their feelings of loneliness, separation and sexual frustration.
Strange to relate, I have seen the same expression on the faces of riflemen exposed to ENSA at Bessbrook Mill back in the day.
 
#12
Think it's mentioned in one of Spike Milligans books that when she came on the radio in the desert or Italy as one all would tell her to go away and multiply with the RAF
 
#13
Think it's mentioned in one of Spike Milligans books that when she came on the radio in the desert or Italy as one all would tell her to go away and multiply with the RAF
Two questions: Was there only one radio in the desert or Italy, and is there a female-derived version of the eponymous "plasterers radio"? We deserve to be told.
 
#16
My old man couldn't stand her, and said he wasn't the only one. Possiblyy one of those marmite people
Was it your Dad or Dame Vera who was (like) Marmite?
 
#17
I thought she was placed to one side as they sang Lilli Marlene in the desert.
I know the Granda could sing it in perfect German when he'd had a snifter.

Saw a report that she was so expensive that even Bill Cotton who was the big band leader of the day couldn't afford her.
Reports of a £1000 per week in 1939.
Probably did more the war effort with her tax payments than anything else

 
#18

AfghanAndy

On ROPS
On ROPs
#19
I thought she was placed to one side as they sang Lilli Marlene in the desert.
I know the Granda could sing it in perfect German when he'd had a snifter.

Saw a report that she was so expensive that even Bill Cotton who was the big band leader of the day couldn't afford her.
Reports of a £1000 per week in 1939.
Probably did more the war effort with her tax payments than anything else

Does anybody know where I can find the version Lille Marlene used in the film 'play dirty.'
 
#20
Does anybody know where I can find the version Lille Marlene used in the film 'play dirty.'

From IDMB

Lili Marlene
German Lyrics by Hans Leip
English Lyrics by The Personnel of the Long Range Desert Group and the Special Air Services
Music by Norbert Schultze
 

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