In the late 1950s, musical variety shows on television played a critical role in the careers of numerous singers, particularly women working in mainstream pop. Some even hosted their own shows, becoming “television personalities,” a new type of performer skilled at conveying televisual authenticity and intimacy. We can better understand the significance of these often overlooked singers by recentering the role of television in their careers. This article takes as its case study the British singer Vera Lynn and Vera Lynn Sings, the lavishly produced, prime-time musical variety show that she hosted from 1956 to 1959 and that was the centerpiece of her exclusive, multi-year contract with the British Broadcasting Corporation. By examining her star persona on the show, the article offers a corrective to accounts of Lynn’s long life as a public figure, which tend to emphasize her fame as a singer in World War II while skimming over her accomplished career in the decades that followed. Drawing upon production documents and scripts at the BBC Written Archives Centre, together with press sources, this article argues that Vera Lynn Sings helped shape popular notions of British national identity in the late 1950s. Through its musical, performative, and visual strategies, the show offered a vision of national belonging that placed aspirational, white, feminine domesticity at the center. Anchored by Lynn’s sincere persona and sentimental songs, the show’s intimate address and musical repertoire welcomed a “family” audience across lines of gender, class, and age, while simultaneously reinforcing racist and colonial definitions of national belonging.
Content Warning: This article quotes from historical sources that contain racial slurs that are disturbing and may be triggering. We have chosen not to reproduce the racial slurs in full, replacing some letters with asterisks. We do not wish to sanitize what historical speakers and writers have said, but neither do we wish to create additional harm via the unnecessary and insensitive repetition of offensive terms.
In 2014, Cole Moreton of the Daily Telegraph interviewed Dame Vera Lynn, marking the release of her reissue album National Treasure (2014). The interview included the following exchange: “What modern music does she listen to? ‘I don’t listen to music. I never have done.’ That is a startling thing for a legendary singer to say. ‘The only time I used to listen to it was when we recorded a song, to see if it was OK. I don’t listen to the radio. I’d rather watch the television.’”1 For the iconic British singer, best remembered as the Second World War’s Sweetheart of the Forces, who came to fame through her wartime broadcasts over BBC radio, and who recorded more than three hundred singles and almost two dozen albums over a decades-long career, this was indeed a striking admission. But Lynn’s frank embrace of television viewing recalled her history as a television performer, going back to the earliest days of the medium in the late 1930s, her starring role in BBC and ITV television variety shows that ran in the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s, and guest appearances well into the 1980s.
In this article, I take Lynn’s embrace of television seriously by examining her role as a television personality in the late 1950s and analyzing Vera Lynn Sings, the musical variety show that was the centerpiece of her exclusive BBC contract from 1956 to 1960. The 1950s were the linchpin in Lynn’s extraordinarily long life as a public figure, from early in World War II until her death at the age of 103 in June 2020. Lynn’s career during the 1950s bound together her famed sincerity, rooted in her People’s War “radio girlfriend” status and unpretentious working-class roots, and her preeminence as an entertainer, which included not only performance but also her active role in the show business profession and its many charitable initiatives. Although her image was rooted in Second World War memory, she described the 1950s as “the busiest period of my whole life—even more than the wartime years.”2 Throughout the decade, Lynn starred in major productions in London’s West End, was a top recording artist, and engaged in extensive touring and broadcasting. As BBC Audience Research found when the then forty-year-old singer was featured on This Is Your Life in 1957, audiences saw Lynn both as “an ‘historic’ figure in the world of entertainment” and as a figure “at the height of her professional career and popularity.”3
And yet, despite all this, popular accounts (including obituaries)4 have tended to treat Lynn’s postwar career as a sort of coda, and scholarship on postwar music, broadcasting, and entertainment has overlooked this portion of her career almost entirely. In his pioneering Popular Music on Screen, for example, John Mundy devotes a couple of pages to Lynn’s wartime films (which Kate Guthrie has also perceptively discussed) but then excludes her from his account of British television in the 1950s, focusing on the youth-oriented rock ’n’ roll programs Six-Five Special and Oh Boy!5 In his monumental history of the BBC, Asa Briggs concludes his analysis of youth-oriented television music shows in the 1950s and 1960s by observing that “the continuing preponderance of the wartime audience was demonstrated by the fact that on television in 1960 Vera Lynn Sings could win a bigger audience (19 per cent) than Juke Box Jury (14 per cent). … The Forces’ Sweetheart was still very much in the news.”6Vera Lynn Sings was not innovative in the mold of Oh Boy! But as a show watched by nearly one in five UK adults, and that attracted up to 44 percent of the total UK television audience, it needs to be considered in histories of postwar television entertainment.7
As Murray Forman argues, histories of music television focused on rock ’n’ roll have overlooked the significance of television shows that drew on older popular music traditions, like mainstream pop and jazz—an omission that also erases the performers working in these traditions.8 The problem is also gendered. It was only in the late 1950s that television became a “mass” medium in the United Kingdom, and women were a critical audience for what was seen as a distinctly domestic technology. Both the BBC and its new commercial competitor, ITV, courted women viewers by featuring women as continuity announcers and hosts. According to Janet Thumim, however, as television’s “internal hierarchies” developed during the 1950s and 1960s, “women and the feminine were increasingly marginalized.”9 As the BBC Television producer Cecil Madden observed upon his retirement in 1964, “[Women] used to be the fireside favourites. Now it is the men who have taken over.”10 This marginalization has been reproduced in television histories focused on “prestige” programming, like news, drama, and even rock-oriented entertainment, although feminist television scholars have done much to uncover how important women’s television programming really was during the 1950s.11
Because of her long career, Lynn represents a particularly interesting case study of a 1950s woman singer/television personality. Between 1956 and 1958, the BBC featured as variety hosts numerous women singers, including Yana (née Pamela Guard), Petula Clark, Shirley Abicair, Jill Day, Alma Cogan, Carole Carr, the Beverley Sisters, and Vera Lynn, as well as the pianist Winifred Atwell.12 In the 1950s, television hosting was nearly as important as recording contracts for such performers. Many had developed their careers by touring in the variety theater circuit; a television hosting job was a sign of arrival—and the new visual medium drew on the performative skills (movement, dance, the ability to connect with an audience) they had honed on the stage. Singers (and instrumentalists like Atwell) tended to operate professionally more like variety artistes than musicians; Vera Lynn, for example, belonged to the Variety Artistes’ Federation, not the Musicians’ Union. They were professional entertainers, possessing specialized expertise and holding membership in professional organizations; indeed, both their status and their career trajectories could be seen as part of what Harold Perkin has described as the postwar rise of professional society in the United Kingdom, characterized by large organizations, specialized occupations, and professional societies that sought to “control the market for their service[s].”13 They were also women, however, which meant that their professionalism was assumed to be secondary to their domestic responsibilities, a theme often emphasized in publicity aimed at making them more relatable. This combination of relatability and professional skill made them particularly effective as television hosts, given that such work involved inhabiting the emerging role of television personality, a performer skilled in televisual “ordinariness, authenticity, and intimacy,”14 which served to balance the visual spectacle that might otherwise overwhelm the domestic setting. Recognizing the significance of these performers thus involves understanding the role of television in their careers, the emerging conventions of television entertainment, and the centrality of domesticity in 1950s British culture.
In this article, I build on the work of scholars engaged in the study of normative, mainstream, and conventional popular music and television in order to examine the cultural work performed by Vera Lynn Sings in late 1950s Britain. In her writing on women’s middlebrow genres, Lauren Berlant argues that such genres create intimate publics around “a love affair with conventionality.”15 Conventionality is both a normative way of being in the world and one of the ways in which genre is defined (or “sanctioned,” as Jim Samson writes in the entry on genre in Grove Music Online)16—through conventions, formulas, and audience expectations. Although conventionality is often seen as an embrace of stasis or tradition, it is, to follow Judith Butler, produced actively through a series of performative practices and negotiations.17 I argue that Vera Lynn Sings helped fashion and cement popular ideas of British domesticity—and of Britain’s domestic, or national, identity—in the late 1950s through its performance practices and representational strategies. A musical variety show, it advanced a vision of national belonging that placed aspirational, white, feminine domesticity at the center, with an intimate address that welcomed viewers across lines of gender, class, and age while simultaneously reinforcing racist and colonial definitions of national belonging that reflected white fears about Britain’s waning imperial power. Indeed, the show’s use of musical variety conventions, alternating between intimate numbers featuring Lynn and spectacular production numbers, often depicting “exotic” scenarios, served to reinforce these representations of national belonging and exclusion. The exclusionary force of these production numbers came from the conventions of specularity, which invited an objectifying, even fetishizing, gaze, while also recalling histories of elaborate theatrical productions and the dehumanizing display of people and cultures considered to be other.18 Meanwhile, Vera Lynn Sings advanced its vision of who belonged through its musical, textual, and visual representations of white, feminine domesticity, show business professionalism, and middle-class aspirationalism. These representational strategies helped make a space for Lynn in 1950s public culture. Yet these very strategies also contributed to the marginalizing of Vera Lynn and other women hosts in the early 1960s.
I base my analysis of Vera Lynn Sings on a wealth of sources housed at the BBC Written Archives. These sources include production documents for nineteen of the show’s forty-three episodes, scripts for all but six of its episodes, Audience Research reports, contract documents, and other internal BBC correspondence, as well as the complete musical repertoire lists for Vera Lynn Sings, which are preserved in the BBC’s Programmes as Broadcast logs (compiled as part of the BBC’s licensing agreement with the Performing Rights Society).19 When compared to Lynn’s broader repertoire, over which she maintained a high degree of control, the repertoire that she sang on the show gives significant insights into the musical persona she cultivated on that platform.20 Finally, I supplement my repertoire and documentary analysis with contemporary press sources, program listings, commercial recordings, and Lynn’s 2009 autobiography.21 Sadly, though not atypically for early television (especially given the stringent limitations on taping and rebroadcasting imposed by the BBC’s agreements with the UK Musicians’ Union),22 no footage from the show seems to have survived. This case study contributes to the larger project of investigating the work of women performers called for by Laurie Stras, which requires a “re-evaluation—with the emphasis on value—of the very premises of 1950s and 1960s pop.”23
The Origins of Vera Lynn Sings: 1950s Television Culture and the Musical Variety Show
To understand the conventionality of Vera Lynn Sings and its performance of domesticity and national belonging, it is important to understand the conditions that made the show—and Lynn’s leading role in it—possible, and that helped shape its approach to the television musical variety show genre. First, I examine three interrelated developments in 1950s Britain that set the stage for Lynn’s prominence in television: the culture of postwar domesticity, the beginning of a competitive UK television market in which women were recognized as a key audience, and developing notions of televisual skill and “personality.” I then turn to the origins and aims of television musical variety shows in a section that considers the tension between conventionality and spectacle within the genre.
Why Vera Lynn? Domesticity, Competition, and Televisual Stardom in 1950s Britain
During the postwar period throughout North America and western Europe, domesticity—organized around gendered familial roles (father-breadwinner and mother-wife-homemaker), single-family homes, and consumerism—was a core cultural value, shaping social practices, government policy, and media representations.24 In Britain, public discourse celebrated the roles of wife, mother, and homemaker as women’s primary vocations, although married women also participated in the paid workforce, with rates growing from under 25 percent in 1951 to half by 1991.25 Thus, women working in television, including Lynn, had to negotiate discourses of domesticity even as they pursued their professional goals.
Lynn Spigel, Maggie Andrews, and others have shown how television was a potent object in postwar culture, as a highly desirable consumer good, source of home-based entertainment, and vehicle through which advertisers and broadcasters could promote their own visions of postwar domesticity.26 Following the end of austerity, the policies under which food and consumer goods were rationed in Britain from the end of World War II until 1954, the number of combined radio and television licenses (an annual fee paid by all radio and television set owners) more than doubled, from 4.5 million in 1955 to 9.3 million in 1959.27 The increase in television ownership coincided with the start in 1955 of commercial Independent Television in Great Britain, introducing competition between BBC Television and ITV for audiences and performers.
Featuring women on television was a strategy for courting women viewers, a crucial audience in this newly competitive environment. Broadcasters regarded women as the directors of their household’s schedule; if they could be convinced to watch, the rest of the family would follow.28 Women announcers and hosts had a special role on an audiovisual medium that entered into domestic spaces and routines.29 As informative and entertaining “fireside favourites,” they became sympathetic friends, who, with their dress and grooming, brought a touch of glamour into the everyday lives of their female viewers.30 They served as unthreatening representatives of the new technology and of the broadcasters themselves. The BBC, which had started television broadcasting in 1936, recruited white, upper-middle-class, conventionally beautiful women as in-vision (i.e., onscreen) announcers, who could “naturally” embody the respectable glamour valued by the public service Corporation.31 ITV, which went on air as television sets became affordable for more UK families, did not use in-vision announcers; however, its “air hostesses” (whose announcing was heard but not seen) were depicted as fashionable and glamorous in publications like TV Mirror.32
The arrival of ITV also introduced competition for television talent and, with it, myriad challenges for the BBC. First, few artists could afford to alienate ITV, which had close ties to artist management companies. Val Parnell, ITV’s variety manager, also ran a powerful booking agency, as did Lew Grade, who owned London’s Palladium theater and handled bookings for ITV’s flagship show Sunday Night at the London Palladium (1955–69).33 Second, the BBC had to remain faithful to its “public service ethos” of education and respectable entertainment.34 Third, it remained difficult to predict a performer’s success on television, which required different performative skills from those needed on the variety stage or radio. Ronald Waldman, who headed BBC Television’s Light Entertainment division for most of the 1950s, promoted the development of television-specific technical and performative skills, ranging from camerawork and lighting to timing and “personality,” that would improve televisual flow and help attain the balance of intimacy and spectacle that was so critical for the home-based medium of television.35 The greatest challenge for the BBC was hiring the right talent, and doing so within the constraints of a public service budget. By 1956, James Bennett reports, BBC Audience Research found that two thirds of viewers thought that ITV’s variety programming was better than the BBC’s.36 In response, the BBC announced that, for the fall and winter seasons, it would feature one big light entertainment show and one major serious show each evening of the week—all of which required hosts.37
Thus, when Lynn signed an exclusive contract with the BBC in 1956, it was a significant coup for BBC Television’s star-starved leadership. One of the most important things to understand about Vera Lynn Sings is that, although it has been overlooked in histories of television and popular music, the show was a priority for BBC Television’s Light Entertainment division. BBC Television executives were keen to sign an exclusive contract with Lynn, a popular and skilled entertainer, and they were prepared to invest in both her and the show. Waldman involved himself personally in wooing the singer, when, in April 1956, Lynn, her husband Harry Lewis, and her manager Leslie Macdonnell indicated that she might be interested in an exclusive contract with the BBC.38 The £8,000-a-year contract extended beyond television to include BBC radio, a crucial but reluctant partner. (To make her fee sufficiently large, BBC Sound had to absorb a large number of shows featuring Lynn, which placed constraints on its budget and schedule.)39 The contract put Lynn among the “very few artists” who could “earn their major income from the BBC combined Sound and Television contracts”; indeed, her fee of £350 for each episode of Vera Lynn Sings was well above the £100 that in 1953 had been considered “a good fee for a single appearance, with rehearsal, of a well-known variety star.”40
The effort that Waldman expended in developing the contract, and his observation that Lynn was being “completely realistic about finance,” raises the question of what made her so appealing as a television personality in 1956.41 The answer, as Doreen Turney-Dann suggested in a Birmingham Daily profile in March 1956, was Lynn’s “own sincerity”: she “ha[d] stayed at the top for 20 years simply by being Vera Lynn.” She was a singer without “gimmicks”—such as Alma Cogan’s giggle, Shirley Abicair’s zither, or Yana’s plunging necklines.42 Instead, Lynn specialized in what she called “greeting card song[s],” mostly mainstream pop ballads that she selected because she believed in the lyrics and then interpreted them with melodic fidelity, clear diction, and emotional investment.43 Her ability to make “the sentiment [ring] true and sincere” had helped sustain her career as a top recording artist for nearly two decades.44 Meanwhile, profiles depicted her as being personally unaffected by fame, emphasizing her ordinariness, commitment to family, and domestic skills.45 Lynn’s authenticity extended to her onscreen performances. Like other good television personalities, Lynn was able to convey an inner sincerity to audiences at home. As the romance novelist Barbara Cartland observed in a TV Times article, in which she cited Lynn as an example of true glamour on television, “The TV camera … pierces through insincerity, and has a genius for revealing the empty mind of the doll-like Venus. … [T]his ‘certain something’ [glamour] … must come from the heart or not at all.”46
Lynn had come to fame during World War II through her mastery of radio’s intimate address, conveyed through both her singing of heartfelt ballads and her sincere, friendly spoken delivery, but she also had an active career in variety.47 By the early 1950s, she was hailed as a “top rank” variety artiste for her star turns in the West End revues The Peep Show and London Laughs, The Stage noting that “her controlled projection of personality, firm but unobtrusive use of technique, and keen sense of presentation are brilliantly blended with her fresh voice and easy charm.”48 Success in either radio or variety did not guarantee success in television, but success in both indicated that Lynn might have the skill to negotiate the intimacy and spectacle of live television—to perform well without seeming to perform.
By the time Waldman was pursuing an exclusive contract with Lynn, both the BBC and ITV had recognized her strengths as a television personality. In May 1955, BBC Audience Research reported that she was the highest-rated performer in Bless ’Em All, BBC Television’s lavish VE Day tribute featuring a host of wartime variety entertainers, 70 percent of respondents indicating that they liked her “very much” and “a number saying that they would like to see her more often on Television.”49 By the end of the year, ITV was offering one of its “highest-paid contracts” for Lynn to star in two thirteen-episode series, first The Vera Lynn Show, which, Turney-Dann reported, was “high in the audience popularity figures,” and then Vera Lynn’s Melody Cruise.50 The shows’ focus was Lynn’s singing, backed by a full orchestra and chorus, but they also included a series of guests. Gale Pedrick observed, “No one can put over a song of sentiment better than Vera Lynn with her clear, boyish voice, but she has shown that she can bubble over with fun and good humour when necessary.”51 (Figure 1 shows Lynn on the ATV set.)
Lynn’s dedication to sentimentality had been considered a problem by BBC radio producers since the war years, though expressions of concern were always balanced by accounts of her sincerity. Her World War II radio show Sincerely Yours—Vera Lynn was a flashpoint in the controversy that developed when, after a string of military defeats and mass surrenders in late 1941, sentimental entertainment on the BBC was blamed for unmanning the forces abroad and undermining morale at home. In response, the BBC had banned male crooners, sloppy lyrics, and “over-sentimental,” insincere singing by women. It even briefly “rested” Lynn’s shows for home front audiences (where most of the criticism originated), but she was too popular—and too obviously sincere—to ban.52 Lynn continued to air regularly on BBC radio after the war until 1950, when Jim Davidson, the Assistant Head of Variety (Music), informed her manager Leslie Macdonnell that any new radio series were out of the question unless she was “prepared to ‘brighten’ her programmes.”53 In addition to the BBC’s ongoing aversion to sentimentality, I suspect that BBC radio’s reservations about Lynn were in part occasioned by her refusal to be dictated to. A brilliant and intuitive musician, she insisted on maintaining control over her repertoire and interpretive approach, guided by a strong artistic vision that she communicated to arrangers, accompanists, music directors, producers, and (assisted by her husband Harry Lewis) sound engineers.54 During the early 1950s, Lynn largely stepped away from BBC radio, airing her series on Radio Luxembourg instead.55
So, what changed for Lynn in 1956? Arguably, it was her commitment to family that informed her interest in an exclusive contract with the BBC.56 She already had contracts with Decca, ITV, and Radio Luxembourg, and she commanded top fees in variety—but variety required touring.57 If Lynn’s contract with the BBC was lucrative enough, she and her husband could remain in London with their school-aged daughter, and she would gain greater control over her schedule, including Sundays off and an August holiday.58 Recalling her earlier tensions with BBC radio producers, one of the few sticking points in the contract negotiations was the question of creative control. Lynn wanted veto power over all songs, orchestras, and producers for her shows—demands that the BBC negotiators regarded as impossible. Ultimately, Lynn ceded final authority to the BBC after she was assured that her wishes, particularly in terms of her personal repertoire, would be respected.59 Thus, while it would not be accurate to read Lynn’s authorial intention into every aspect of Vera Lynn Sings, the final contract suggests that it would be reasonable to assume that she approved of the songs she sang and had a say in other aspects of the show.
By signing an exclusive contract with Lynn, BBC Television gained a singer who had proved adept at negotiating between a changing entertainment industry, the desires of her fans, and her own artistic convictions. She was also a singer who had embodied the values of home, nation, and belonging during a war that remained central to British national identity—and who continued to engage with these values in the 1950s, a decade in which domesticity became a central concern. Like many women public figures, Lynn developed a persona that leavened professional skill with domestic authenticity, a blend that proved ideal for television, widely regarded as a domestic medium. Before turning to the way these values shaped Vera Lynn Sings, I will briefly discuss the conventions of musical variety on television, focusing on the BBC.
Vera Lynn Sings as Musical Variety Show
During the 1950s, musical variety shows balanced populism and sophistication, domestic intimacy and glamour—a balancing act that Vera Lynn Sings also had to navigate. Broadcasters were willing to invest significantly in the highly popular genre, as well as in the famous singers who often served as star performers and hosts. But variety shows took many forms, depending on their use of still evolving television production techniques and their combination of skits, dialogue, songs, and production numbers. In the United States, musical variety became sufficiently distinct as a television genre to gain its own Emmy in 1954, when the Emmys also added categories for best male and best female vocalist.60 At BBC Television, musical variety was administered by the Light Entertainment division, which also handled quiz shows and comedy.61 Most television variety aired live and was performed before large studio audiences in dedicated facilities, such as the King’s Theatre.62 Television variety at the BBC drew upon British music hall traditions of character song and dance, comedy, participatory audiences, and a host or “chairman”; theatrical variety with its big name stars and elaborate production numbers; and its own tradition of radio variety shows like Henry Hall’s Guest Night (1939–57) and Music Hall (1940–52), in which dialogue between host and guests, as well as an announcer, linked the segments into a coherent progression. A long-standing challenge for BBC radio was to balance populist and “sophisticated” elements in its address to a national, mass audience. It aimed to provide wholesome, middlebrow entertainment, not lowest common denominator “trash.”63
These goals carried over to television, where variety shows were ascendant in the late 1950s. Several shows built directly on the models of theatrical variety and music hall, such as ITV’s star-studded flagship show Sunday Night at the London Palladium and the BBC’s Good Old Days (1953–83), respectively.64 But many television variety shows took advantage of the medium’s intimate affordances (such as the close-up) and built their appeal around a single, telegenic personality who served as host.65 The BBC’s hosts included comedians like Benny Hill, bandleader personalities like Billy Cotton, singers like Vera Lynn, and even the magician David Nixon.66 Viewers also saw American hosts, because the BBC included popular variety shows from the United States in its lineup, including The Jack Benny Program (CBS), The Perry Como Show (NBC), and The Dinah Shore Show (NBC).67 (Shore was described to British readers as “America’s Vera.”)68 The limited scholarship on musical variety shows in the United Kingdom belies their popularity and significance in the late 1950s.
Exclusive contracts, such as the one Lynn signed, became a key strategy in the BBC’s efforts to compete with ITV for talent. By the end of the 1950s, the BBC had signed exclusive contracts with a range of UK and US performers, as well as writers. Eric Maschwitz, who took over from Waldman as the head of Television Light Entertainment in 1958, described the relationship as a long-term commitment, an “ever-growing family of top television performers.”69 Indeed, the BBC went to considerable effort and expense to twice renew Lynn’s exclusive radio and television contract (until 1959), after which it engaged her in a television-only contract that ran until mid-1960.70
The centerpiece of Lynn’s exclusive BBC contract, Vera Lynn Sings, ran in six series between August 1956 and July 1959 for a total of forty-eight fortnightly episodes.71Vera Lynn Sings was allotted £1,600 per episode (later raised to £1,700), including Lynn’s fee of £350, but it regularly overran its budget, reaching costs as high as £2,940 per episode.72 Produced by Albert Stevenson, the forty-five-minute show had a thirty-piece orchestra, a twelve-member dance troupe, a vocal quartet, and a piano duo, plus several guest performers from the light entertainment and classical worlds.73
In a format similar to that of US musical variety shows starring Perry Como and Dinah Shore, who also specialized in mainstream pop ballads, Lynn sang several solo numbers (around five or six per show), interspersed between monologues and “repartee with guest artists.” Como’s and Shore’s shows ran for only fifteen minutes, however.74 In its ambitious length, Vera Lynn Sings more closely resembled other long-running variety shows on BBC Television, such as Billy Cotton’s Band Show (1956–68), with which Vera Lynn Sings ran in weekly alternation on Thursday nights during 1958 and 1959. Lynn’s show also differed from its US counterparts in its exclusion of advertising, which laced Shore’s and Como’s quarter hours with references to Chevrolet and Kraft, respectively.75 Lynn was the face for a different brand: the BBC, the national, public service broadcaster. Through the representational logic of doxa—which I discuss below—she became the face of the British nation itself, while her show presented national belonging as bound up with the values of domesticity, respectable glamour, and middle-class aspirationalism.
The Cultural Work of Vera Lynn Sings
As my discussion of its place in 1950s television and the musical variety show genre illustrates, Vera Lynn Sings was a vehicle for an important entertainer and, as such, developed through a series of negotiations between Lynn’s management of her own performing persona, the conventions that were emerging for television variety shows, BBC institutional logics, and audience expectations and desires. The show’s conventionality can be understood as a strategy for survival in a period of intense change. Examining why and how Vera Lynn Sings worked (and eventually failed) can tell us much about the cultural labor involved in creating ostensibly conventional entertainment, not least because it reveals the highly contingent, multifaceted decisions involved in producing what viewers perceived to be a cohesive cultural product. As Forman asserts in his study of conventional 1950s music television in the United States, we lose much when we simply dismiss such entertainment as reflecting the “‘bland’ cultural tastes” of the era.76
Indeed, the concept of blandness gives sensory and aesthetic expression to the racialized, gendered, and classed politics of normativity, particularly as it relates to what critical race scholar Ruth Frankenberg calls “doxa”: the racialized (white) “national/natural state of being.”77 Offering both possibility and restriction for white women, doxa in the 1950s involved the “feminine virtue[s]” of marriage, “domestic competence,” and respectability, as well as aspirational self-improvement and conformity.78 With her by all accounts sincere embrace of doxa, Lynn gained a lucrative contract with the national broadcaster, where she had to work within the limits of respectability. On television, she thus came to embody the values and aesthetics that rock criticism and the counterculture would rebel against in the 1960s—middle-class aspirations, maturity, professional polish, family-friendly wholesomeness, and “white” mainstream pop in the Tin Pan Alley tradition.79 The “bland” exterior of doxa in Vera Lynn Sings was nonetheless produced by a great deal of labor and cultural negotiation, as I show below through an exploration of the way in which it represented domesticity, respectable glamour, show business professionalism, middle-class aspirationalism, and national belonging. Examining the show’s production documents, as well as the responses of audiences, critics, and BBC executives to Vera Lynn Sings, contributes to a more complex picture of popular music and television in Britain during the 1950s. It also gives insight into changing understandings of who deserved a voice in postwar British society, and on what terms they could speak, a topic that I discuss in detail in the conclusion to this section.
Inviting Viewers In: Domesticity and Respectable Glamour
When BBC Audience Research asked viewers what they thought of Vera Lynn Sings, some turned to the word “homely,” describing the show as “friendly and homely yet providing … first class entertainment.”80 In British usage, the word is literally the adjectival form of “home,” and evokes domesticity, unpretentiousness, the everyday, and even comfort and coziness.81 Indeed, the “fortnightly programmes” of the new series were framed in BBC publicity as “shows without gimmicks” (much like the singer herself), and reviewers praised Vera Lynn Sings for these qualities: it was “eminently sensible entertainment, with no straining after glamour” and “a quiet relaxing 45 minutes by the fireside.”82 Lest these be interpreted as backhanded compliments, it is worth noting that the Liverpool Echo called it “the year’s best musical show.”83 For both critics and viewers, the show’s “atmosphere of homely informality” was rooted in Lynn’s well-established persona: reviewers praised her as “a homely, friendly commère,” “good company,” and “obviously completely sincere and completely natural.”84 Somehow, a show with more than seventy performers and crew had achieved an effective blend of entertaining spectacle and domestic intimacy. It was a balancing act, involving the politics of gender, class, and televisual strategies—all undergirded by the period’s obsession with domesticity, particularly when it came to women in the public sphere.
The home as physical place played a potent role in postwar discourses of domesticity, but there was a gap between the dream and reality. Britain had a post–World War II marriage boom, like other industrialized nations, but it lagged behind the United States in prosperity. Not only did it continue to ration food and consumer goods under austerity, it struggled to address significant housing shortages to which wartime displacements and bombings had contributed.85 By the early 1960s, “only a quarter of … couples” started their married lives in independent quarters, and Gallup found that married couples’ most commonly stated concern was access to housing.86 One waggish critic touched on this tension when he discussed Lynn’s performance of “A House with Love in It” in the show’s first episode: “Vera laid on all the old sentiment, forgetting, I fear, that many of those Servicemen [who had appreciated her during the war] are now living in houses with in-laws for company!”87 Apparently, the audience could handle the tension: noting numerous requests, Lynn repeated the song in the following episode and again in the series finale, describing it as a hit.88
During the 1950s, class distinctions were also remapped within the home. Household duties for working- and middle-class housewives became more similar because fewer middle-class families could find or afford domestic workers (the “servant problem”).89 Further, as the 1950s progressed, laborsaving devices and consumer goods became more available, transforming domestic work and recreation for all classes. The home became a site for consumerism, leisure, and DIY (do-it-yourself) improvement across classes.90 Indeed, the third series of Vera Lynn Sings, which aired in fall 1957, was scheduled directly after a new series, Short Cuts, for “the do-it-yourself enthusiast” that was hosted by “designer and decorator Peter Heard.”91 Unlike Short Cuts or women’s programming, for which BBC Television’s women’s editor Doreen Stephens developed a blend of practical advice and issues-oriented coverage of domestic realities, Vera Lynn Sings represented the domestic comfort and communality that was so urgently desired by viewers across the class spectrum.92 Scheduled between 7:30 and 8:30 p.m. on weekday evenings, it was, as one butcher told BBC Audience Research after the first episode on October 16, “an A1 show for all the family.”93
Crucial to the show’s homely, family-friendly atmosphere was Vera Lynn, the host herself. As Bennett, building on Su Holmes, has explained, television personalities, particularly if working class, were often depicted as unchanged by fame, and their performance on television as congruent with the “real” person.94 Lynn’s famous sincerity was grounded in both her working-class upbringing in London’s East End and her domestic orientation, which figured prominently in profiles going back to the 1940s.95 Like many women entertainers of her generation, Lynn had a place in public life because of her professional accomplishments, but her domestic achievements were what made her relatable and recognizably feminine. “She enjoys the job of being a housewife just as much as she enjoys her career as a singer,” wrote Michael Cable in a typical profile.96 In one 1957 feature, in which Lynn shared cooking tips for roast beef and potatoes, tongue, and chopped liver, the interviewer Helen Burke observed, “After meeting her in her own kitchen, I understand why she is so popular. She is ‘that nice girl next door’ who, in stage and television appearances, dresses up in beautiful clothes—but looks just as pleasant in blouse and skirt. You get the feeling, too, that she can cook—and she can.”97 A March 1957 episode of the BBC series At Home actually opened with Lynn making coffee for her guests in the kitchen, which the host Berkeley Smith described as “an appropriate place to meet Vera.” Smith, Lynn, and her husband Harry Lewis then discussed “her new relaxed attitude to her career and her singing and what it has done for her,” and visited her sewing-machine-equipped “hobby room” (see figure 2); the episode closed with Lynn singing with her accompanist Barry Grey in the music room.98
Running through these “real person” profiles was a tension between authenticity, signaled by the blouse and skirt, and glamour, signaled by the “beautiful clothes” in which women usually performed—a duality with which Vera Lynn Sings would play. Bennett argues that television conventions were defined by paradox: as a medium, television balanced spectacle and intimacy; its personalities had to be both authentic and glamorous, especially if they were women. Whereas a working-class male comedian like Benny Hill (Bennett’s case study) could exude “sincerity, authenticity and ordinariness,” working-class women in the public eye had to balance ordinariness with femininity, respectability, and glamour—traits that, unlike middle-class women, they were not necessarily assumed to possess.99 For Lynn, performing an aspirational version of femininity that was both respectable and glamorous—while remaining sincere and authentic—was a significant achievement. Indeed, Barbara Cartland, citing television stars like Lucille Ball, Alma Cogan, and Vera Lynn, recognized the labor involved in their television performances, offering a definition of glamour that emphasized its relation to feminine performativity: glamour was “the outward and visible sign of a determined and concentrated plan to bring out the charm which lies … in the soul of every woman.” For Cartland, glamour on television involved both authenticity (“[t]he TV camera … pierces through insincerity”) and conscious performativity: “the glamour queens of entertainment … act all the time with as much care and precision as a scientist making a dangerous experiment.”100 While some critics recognized the effort involved in conveying friendliness on screen, others took Lynn’s brand of authentic glamour at face value: “the Forces’ sweetheart? She was more like Mum having a few friends in.”101
The sets for Vera Lynn Sings contributed to the show’s homely, welcoming atmosphere. Broadcast from the large BBC Television Theatre, it used two main sets: a large main stage for production numbers and “Vera’s side set,” which, the props lists indicate, was furnished with chairs, rugs, side tables, tchotchkes, pictures, a “brick chimney-breast,” and “artificial Ivy creepers” (see figure 3).102 Throughout the show’s run, Lynn spent much of her time on the side set, often sitting down. (Audiences apparently had such a good view of her chair that some wrote to the BBC in late 1957 to report that the chair back was dirty.)103 Using the side set, of course, enabled scene changes on the main stage, but it also meant that Lynn did much of her singing, interviewing, and announcing against a domestic backdrop—a device used in other music-oriented shows from the 1950s (examples including Liberace’s piano salon or Les Paul and Mary Ford’s living room).104 In a show that featured at least four or five solos for Lynn, plus an opening and closing solo, we are left with the image of Lynn in her television parlor, singing to audiences in their own living spaces.
No element signaled the show’s blend of homeliness, authenticity, and glamour (in Cartland’s sense) more clearly, however, than Lynn’s costuming: a sweater or blouse, and a skirt. Lynn’s costume represented a direct challenge to the conventions of respectable glamour that defined how women appeared on television, whether they were in-vision announcers, whose dresses facilitated audience engagement, or variety show hosts, like Alma Cogan, who was famous for her dramatic and never-repeated gowns.105 The Shields Daily News opined, “What a disappointment for some women … those who find more interest in the dresses than the songs. The men have no complaints. They have never looked upon Vera as a glamour girl.”106 Indeed, “There was … much comment, and a considerable difference of opinion,” BBC Audience Research observed dryly after the first show: whereas a printer suggested Lynn “needed a bit of glamourizing,” an outfitter’s wife praised her “simple … pleasantly informal and natural” style.107 The scriptwriters took up the theme in the second show with a dialogue between Lynn and the music director, Eric Robinson, about his choice of a “sports outfit” over tails:
VERA: I know ours is an informal programme but it’s not that informal surely. You’ll be coming in carpet slippers next.
ERIC: As a matter of fact, I have.
VERA: Oh Eric.
ERIC: Well you should talk … turning up in a blouse and skirt.108
Beyond costuming and sets, Lynn proved to be a master of the intimate televisual address. BBC executives appreciated her “interview technique,” while audiences praised her sincerity, her “charmingly natural manner,” and her “extraordinarily warm, friendly personality.”110 Here, it is important to recall that Vera Lynn Sings, like nearly all television of the period, was broadcast live. As such, the show benefitted from Lynn’s skills as a seasoned variety performer: she not only sang but knew how to hit her marks in production numbers and understood the timing necessary to hold her own with comedians in semi-improvised skits. As the Northants Evening Telegraph remarked in April 1957, “Vera Lynn’s programme, though clearly carefully contrived, sounds sincere and genuine. Her unaffected announcing and easy manner are attractive and satisfying.”111 The show’s homely atmosphere succeeded because of Lynn’s ability to seem relaxed and sincere under pressure. This persona was reinforced by the scripts themselves, which are infused with personal and domestic detail, not only in Vera and Eric’s discussions of gardening, holidays, and Vera’s love of cookery, but also in one episode, the start of the fifth series, that featured Vera reading a bedtime story to her daughter Virginia.112
The chummy, intimate quality of these instances should not distract from the overall tone of the show, however. Throughout the scripts, Lynn also engaged directly with the audience (both at home and in the studio), often using second person and acknowledging song requests and letters. If Mum was indeed “having a few friends in” for Vera Lynn Sings, it seemed that everyone was invited to the party. But what were the terms of the invitation? Who was assumed to be already at home, and who was a guest? These questions are addressed below.
“All Kinds of Music for All Kinds of Viewers”: Televisual Spectacle and the Musical Middlebrow
If set design, costuming, and Lynn herself helped make a home of Vera Lynn Sings—a televisual theater of domesticity into which Lynn invited viewers—the show’s repertoire and guests served to welcome a broad audience with middlebrow material that balanced the intimacy of the show with entertaining spectacle—of virtuosity, of novelty, of inventive production numbers—recalling the pleasures of the variety theater. Vera Lynn Sings was a musical variety show known for its embodiment of homeliness, but, true to the conventions of the genre, it also included production numbers and featured numerous resident and guest artists. While “Vera’s side set” had an important role, more spectacular sets also played a part. The show opened, for example, with a dramatic shot of the main stage, filled by large, electrified letters, arranged in a “V” shape and spelling out “V-E-R-A L-Y-N-N,” each of which was illuminated in time with the phrases from Lynn’s rumba-infused signature song “Yours” (see figure 4).113Vera Lynn Sings, like other variety shows, had the task of translating theatrical spectacle to TV in a manner that could achieve a balance between “spectacle and intimacy” so necessary on the new medium.114 It also participated in the BBC’s tradition of broadcast variety, which emphasized respectable, middlebrow material for a broad audience.115 The goal was to include a wide enough representation of acts and repertoire to please (and potentially uplift) viewers of all ages and tastes without offending or intimidating anyone.
Some of the most spectacular elements of the show were provided by the resident twelve-woman dance troupe, the Silhouettes, led by the choreographer Leslie Roberts. A significant line item in the show’s budget, they enhanced the opening and other production numbers and were also featured in two set pieces per episode.116 Their specialty was something called a “black and white” routine, which suggested “trick” camerawork by featuring black costuming punctuated with white gloves, shoes, and ties, together with half black and half white top hats or bowlers, and white cut-out figures as props—such as the parasols used for a routine accompanied by “I Cry More,” a song that combined rain imagery and lovelorn sentiment.117 It was, according to the Belfast Telegraph, “one of the most successful gimmicks on television today.”118 Roberts had translated the theatrical chorus line “to produce a show which can … be done only on television.”119 The Silhouettes’ other set piece was a “ballet” exploring a national or seasonal theme (discussed further below).
At the core of Vera Lynn Sings were its musical acts, which spanned a range of genres. Announcing the new show, the Shields Daily News reported, “The aim of the producer, Albert Stevenson, is to provide all kinds of music for all kinds of viewers.”120 At the start of the first episode, Lynn announced, “We hope to bring you your kind of music.”121 While addressed to the entire audience, Lynn’s statement raises two questions: Who was encompassed by “you” and what did “your kind of music” actually mean? Over the next three years, the show’s representation of “your kind of music” radiated out from a normative center, represented by the figure of Vera Lynn, through the resident artists and into the margins, embodied by several guest artists as well as by the resident dance troupe’s “round the world”-themed ballets.
At the center was the host and her repertoire of mainstream pop, a genre whose middlebrow, mature, white, and middle-class associations Keir Keightley has traced in the US context.122 This repertoire was characterized by hummable melodies, lush arrangements, an exclusion of backbeats and other rhythm and blues signifiers, and romantic but respectable lyrics. Within this field, Lynn was best known for her heartfelt ballad work and attentiveness to lyrics. As a reviewer for Disc commented in 1958, “Impeccable diction, that overwhelming sincerity and a respectably ‘square’ beat make this a disc for the Mums and Dads.”123 The genre was hardly cutting edge, but about a third of Lynn’s repertoire on Vera Lynn Sings had been published only recently. Of the 197 songs she sang on the show (not including the instrumental version of her signature tune with which it opened, or the songs with which she regularly closed it), 61 (around 32 percent) had been published between 1955 and 1959.124 As she often noted in her spoken introductions, Lynn had recorded around half of these songs, even charting with some, including “The Faithful Hussar” and “A House with Love in It.”125 Other songs had been popularized by other artists, like the Oscar-winning “Que Sera Sera,” which Doris Day had sung in Alfred Hitchcock’s The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956), or were associated with well-known cultural phenomena, like the selections from West Side Story (1957) that Lynn performed after returning from New York City, where, she announced, she had seen the musical.126
The largest proportion—43 percent (a total of eighty-five songs)—of Lynn’s repertoire on Vera Lynn Sings comprised standards published between 1923 and 1938, such as Mort Dixon and Harry M. Woods’s “I’m Looking Over a Four-Leaf Clover” (1927) and Wilhelm Grosz’s “Red Sails in the Sunset” (1935). As Keightley has shown, standards, which became increasingly important in mainstream pop during the period, were associated by listeners with what they understood to be enduring quality, and mature good taste; they embodied middlebrow values in popular music.127 For singers like Lynn, the inclusion of older material also helped expand their repertoire at a time when few new songs aligned with their performance idiom.
Strikingly, on Vera Lynn Sings, songs from the 1920s and 1930s far outnumbered songs from World War II, despite the fact that it was during the war that Lynn had become established as a solo artist and famous as the Forces’ Sweetheart. Whereas the show included only twenty-two songs that were associated with the war (such as “A Nightingale Sang in Berkeley Square”) over its three-year run, it featured forty-one songs from the years 1932–38. Memories of the war nonetheless echoed in the show’s closing number, “We’ll Meet Again,” an iconic wartime song from 1939 that was one of Lynn’s most recognizable signature songs. (From 1958, the show’s closing paired “We’ll Meet Again” with the newly composed “Goodnight, God Bless” by Ray Mack and Martin Lewis.) Curiously, Vera Lynn Sings included only twenty-six songs from the immediate postwar period (1946–54), when Lynn was regarded as a top recording artist in the United Kingdom and was actively promoted by London Records in the United States, where in 1952 she became the first UK artist to top the US Hit Parade, with “Auf Wiederseh’n, Sweetheart.”128 In sum, the main body of the show drew most heavily on current numbers and standards from the 1920s and 1930s.
When Lynn introduced a standard, she often acknowledged it as an “oldie” or a “memory song,” even explaining in the first episode that “unless I include one of the old numbers, I get into awful trouble from the Mums and Dads, and the last thing I want to do is upset them.”129 For viewers who were close in age to Lynn, who turned forty in 1957, the dominance of songs from the 1920s and 1930s meant that they would be remembering their prewar childhood and adolescence; there was less focus on wartime and austerity—difficult times not only for the nation but also for anyone following a normative life trajectory, with the challenges of starting new jobs, families, and domestic arrangements. While Lynn’s introductions sometimes evoked a romanticized past, like the “far off years when crooners and the talkies were the big entertainment,” they more frequently referenced her lengthy career as a performer and recording artist.130 In the fifth season (fall 1958), for example, a recurring segment revisited particular years in Lynn’s recording career, ranging from 1935, when she started recording, to 1956.131
The backward gaze in Vera Lynn Sings also involved the audience directly. Each episode from the second series onward included a sing-along for the studio audience, always featuring an older number.132 The sing-along recalled both the music hall tradition, in which audiences joined in with the choruses, and the broadcasting and filmic trope of the sing-along in World War II, which “enacted the sense of egalitarianism, community, and participation so important to the People’s War.”133 It also resonated with many of Lynn’s performances and hit recordings of the 1950s, such as the nostalgic “Auf Wiederseh’n, Sweetheart,” which featured “a 70-member chorus of sailors and airmen of Her Majesty’s forces.”134 Thus, although Keightley’s arguments about the middle-class associations of mainstream pop are certainly relevant to Vera Lynn Sings, particularly given that it aired on the avowedly middlebrow BBC, the prominence of oldies and sing-alongs on Vera Lynn Sings also evoked the values of working-class authenticity and friendliness. After all, Lynn’s working-class background was no secret—and both she and her repertoire had first become popular during the Second World War, commonly dubbed “the People’s War,” in which contributions to the war effort by ordinary, working-class people were celebrated.135 The “you” addressed by the show included both middle- and working-class viewers, uniting the expanding population of television owner-viewers as a “family” audience.
Vera Lynn Sings was not limited, however, to Lynn’s narrow specialization in ballad-oriented mainstream pop. As the Liverpool Echo noted, “Vera is very good, but in wise acknowledgement of the fact that she is not good enough to carry a 45-minute show without strong support, she has grouped round her a team with talent to spare.”136 The sizable cast of resident artists, together with weekly guest artists, enhanced the show’s sense of spectacle—through their virtuosity, novelty or exoticism, comedy, or glamour—in dance numbers, medleys, and solo features. Not only did the cast and guest artists help sustain the performative energy expected of a musical variety show, but they also expanded the range of musical genres it could represent while enabling Lynn to stay true to her persona as sincere singer and friendly hostess.
During the lead-up to the first broadcast, the Shields Daily News reported that the music featured on Vera Lynn Sings “will vary from the classics to rock ’n’ roll.”137 Lynn and her mainstream pop repertoire represented the show’s stylistic center while the poles of rock ’n’ roll and the classics were defined, respectively, by the Keynotes, the resident vocal group, and Rawicz and Landauer, the resident piano duo. The inclusion of rock ’n’ roll represented a significant gesture toward younger audiences, especially given the moral panic about the music and its ability to inspire antisocial behavior that had erupted the previous year, when the showing of Bill Haley’s Rock around the Clock in cinemas had inspired a few well-publicized riots (“jiving in the gangway, ripping up of seats, occasional actual or threatened violence”).138 Dennis Spicer, the show’s youthful resident ventriloquist, included a quip about the riots in the first episode:
DENNIS: Don’t say that you were involved in those rock’n roll riots?
JAMES [THE DUMMY]: Involved. Listen, Mac. I did more damage to J. Arthur Rank’s cinema than Television.139
The Keynotes, a male vocal quartet—plus a “girl” singer, Jean Campbell—were led by the singer and arranger Johnny Johnston and could navigate arrangements oriented toward jazz, blues, and occasionally even rock ’n’ roll.141 They exemplified the BBC’s approach to controversial musical styles, like hot jazz or swing in earlier decades, which was to feature specialist groups only rarely, instead allowing an occasional number to be played by a mainstream ensemble, thereby transforming potentially objectionable music into a novelty item.142 “Rockin’ through the Rye,” for example, a gloss on the traditional Scottish song “Comin’ Thro’ the Rye” with lyrics credited to Robert Burns, also featured the dance troupe in “Highland costumes.”143 Having the Keynotes as resident artists meant that the program could include repertoire with jazz, blues, and R&B elements—musics coded as American and Black—without bringing Lynn into the performance.144
This approach changed with the group’s dismissal in 1958, on the grounds that, according to the BBC Television leadership, they were “not, repeat not photogenic. Admirable artists, but not in vision.”145 During the last two seasons, the Keynotes were replaced by the Lynnettes, a vocal group of four men and four women—“all beauties!” according to Maschwitz—who were “trained by Michael Sammes, who is today the best chorus-master for this kind of music [i.e., Lynn’s brand of mainstream pop].”146 In feature spots and as backing singers for Lynn (who herself had transitioned to fancier frocks), they embodied the show’s more glamorous “new look.”147 Meanwhile, the producers began to invite groups specializing in youth-oriented music, like the Mudlarks and the Hedley Ward Trio, to appear as guests on Vera Lynn Sings.148
Whereas the approach to rock ’n’ roll on Vera Lynn Sings had an air of tokenism, the approach to “the classics” was far more robust—though what the term actually meant was far from stable. In many ways, “the classics” on Vera Lynn Sings aligned with the genteel, aspirational values of the middlebrow.149 In his slightly tongue-in-cheek 1949 Life magazine article, “Highbrow, Lowbrow, Middlebrow,” which has become a touchstone for scholarship on the middlebrow, Russell Lynes distinguished between lower- and upper-middlebrow tastes: in music, upper middlebrows favored Classical and Romantic (not modern) “symphonies, concertos, operas,” while lower middlebrows favored easy listening instrumental music by Andre Kostelanetz, musical theater, and mainstream crooners like Como and Lynn.150 Keightley has argued that during the 1950s middlebrow musical tastes were united by their preference for hummable, tonal, and lushly orchestrated music.151 Indeed, the sort of “classics” featured on Vera Lynn Sings were distinguished from the mainstream pop repertoire more through their presentation—as classy, virtuosic, and aspirational art—than through formal complexity or experimentalism; they would never be confused with the intellectually challenging, highbrow fare of the BBC’s Third Programme.
The show’s aspirational, yet accessible, approach to the classics was best exemplified by its resident pianists—the duo Rawicz and Landauer in the first season, and then the soloist Semprini (Fernando Riccardo Alberto Semprini), who remained with the show for much of its run. Both the duo and Semprini specialized in glossy, virtuosic popular classics and light music like Richard Addinsell’s Warsaw Concerto, Rachmaninov’s Variations on a Theme of Chopin, and Semprini’s medley of Neapolitan songs.152 The tradition of popular piano virtuosity went back to the nineteenth century; it received a fresh burst of popularity in film during the 1940s (consider the use of Tchaikovsky’s First Piano Concerto in The Great Lie, or Addinsell’s Warsaw Concerto, composed for Dangerous Moonlight) and, during the 1950s, in television.153 The most famous of these television piano virtuosos was Liberace, whose opulent yet homely show was aired by ITV and who was clearly a point of reference: the Vera Lynn Sings scripts mention Liberace’s “monopoly on candelabra” in an introduction for Semprini.154 On Vera Lynn Sings, the resident pianists usually performed in a discrete segment near the end of the show, just before Lynn’s final solo and closing numbers. With their own reputations already independently established through touring, broadcasting, and recording, the pianists were the most popular resident artists on the show, as BBC Audience Research found: “Rawicz and Landauer were very well liked indeed,” while Semprini repeatedly “proved by far and away [to be] the most popular of the supporting artists.”155
Several of the guest artists worked in a similar vein of virtuosic light music, such as Eddie Calvert, “the man with the golden trumpet,” and Freddy Alberti and her four “Lady Harpists,” both of whom appeared multiple times on the show. There were also musicians who played unusual instruments, like the cimbalom, zither, and glass harmonica, as well as guest acts aligned more clearly with the world of variety, such as Gregory and his panther, Les mains jolies (a puppet act), and Harry Vendryes, described as one of the great dove acts in online magic forums.156 There were also guest artists from the “legitimate” art world, such as Alexis Rassine and Gillian Lynne, who danced the pas de deux from The Nutcracker.157
Classical instrumentalists were the biggest contingent of guest artists to appear on the show.158 These included violinists Tessa Robbins and Antonio Brosa, French horn player Dennis Brain, flutist Geoffrey Gilbert, clarinetist Reginald Kell, and ensembles like the London Oboe Quartet. There were also early music performers, like the lutenist Julian Bream. Often, they were promoting an appearance at the Proms, which was sponsored by the BBC, or a more serious recital on BBC radio or television. On Vera Lynn Sings, classical musicians were presented as approachable and friendly. Not only would Lynn chat with them before they played, but their repertoire fell squarely within the popular classics category. When the harpsichordist George Malcolm visited the show, for example, Lynn introduced him as “the only harpsichordist to play boogie,” and his set included “Bach Goes to Town” and “Flight of the Bumblebee.”159 Featuring these guests advanced the aspirational nature of doxa, as well as the BBC’s educational mission, but the touch was gentle. Lynn did not lecture her viewers; rather, she joined them in their potential confusion, such as when she introduced Ferry Kerutz as a “cotton-wool hammer player,” letting the music director Eric Robinson correct her on the pronunciation of “cimbalom.”160 (Many viewers would undoubtedly have been reassured by the performance of feminine ignorance and masculine expertise.)
Classical music had a strong presence on Vera Lynn Sings, but it never destabilized the show’s overriding atmosphere of friendly, comforting entertainment. Audience Research reported that “[o]nly a minority … complained that the program had ‘gone all too high-brow.’” Stevenson seemed to have achieved his goal of appealing to a wide range of musical tastes: as an engineer observed, “There is always something for everyone and it always seems, thanks to Vera, so natural and friendly.”161 But, of course, just as the show’s atmosphere of domesticity and friendliness was gendered and classed, it was also defined by race, ethnicity, and nationality—topics that are addressed in the next section.
Limits to Belonging: Nationalism, Race, and Ethnicity
During the 1950s, the notion of what it meant to be British underwent significant change. India’s independence in 1947, the Suez Crisis in 1956, and other events pointed toward the end of Britain’s status as an imperial power, even as Britain’s leaders participated in Cold War alliances and diplomacy, notably via the North Atlantic Treaty Organization and the United Nations.162 Within Britain, these shifts manifested most concretely through immigration, which was precipitated both by the availability of work in the United Kingdom (in 1946 there was an “estimated … [labor] shortfall of between 600,000 and 1.3 million people”) and by the passage of the British Nationality Act on July 30, 1948, which “created a new form of citizenship” encompassing everyone in the United Kingdom and Commonwealth and enabling freedom of movement between its member nations.163 Immigrants arrived from Europe (especially countries that fell under Soviet control), from former colonies, and from the Republic of Ireland. Signaled by the often cited June 1948 landing of Empire Windrush, with its 492 passengers from the Caribbean (many of them ex-servicemen who had served in Britain during the Second World War), the most remarked-upon group of immigrants comprised British subjects from the Caribbean and South Asia, exercising their rights to free movement under the Nationality Act, whose arrival increased the visibility of people of color within Britain. This wave of immigration was followed by xenophobic backlash (such as the Notting Hill race riots in 1958) and public debates about race and British citizenship.164 Such debates were not new: Jewish, Italian, and Black individuals, as well as others who were perceived as foreign, had long been subject to bias and discrimination.165 But in the 1950s, questions about how Britishness could be defined—whether through imperial power, whiteness, place of birth, or notions of Englishness—gained fresh energy, forming a crucial backdrop to discourses about domesticity. Vera Lynn Sings, with its homely atmosphere and weeknight airings on the national broadcaster, contributed to these discourses by representing who was at home in postwar Britain, and who was a visitor.
There were only a few explicit appeals to nationalism on Vera Lynn Sings. One occurred in an episode of April 1959 that featured tributes to Shakespeare’s birthday and St. George’s Day (St. George being the patron saint of England). The “great Actor Felix Aylmer” recited John of Gaunt’s speech from Richard II, the “most famous description of England in our language,” and Lynn and the Welwyn Male Choir sang Elgar’s “Land of Hope and Glory” in place of the usual closing music.166 Reinforcing a long-standing tendency to equate Britishness with Englishness, the episode highlighted a holiday that had fallen out of favor since World War II—a situation attributed by Richard Weight to the “end of empire” and the fact that “‘Great Britain’ carried with it echoes of glory … with which ‘Little England’ could not compete.”167 The decision to close with “Land of Hope and Glory,” traditionally performed at the Last Night of the Proms, underlined the show’s patriotic themes by recalling Britain’s imperial past.
The other Vera Lynn Sings episode to invoke themes of patriotism was the finale of the first series, which aired on January 1, 1957, and featured 120 Boy Scouts as guests.168 Although the Scouts had become an international movement by the 1950s, they were rooted in Edwardian concerns with the development of healthy citizen-soldiers and the continuance of empire, especially as articulated by the founder Lord Baden-Powell, a lieutenant general who had served in India and Africa.169 In the 1950s, the Scouts continued to embody these values of clean living, manliness, and patriotism.170 The Scouts who appeared on Vera Lynn Sings came from The Gang Show, an annual revue performed in London’s West End since 1932. Beyond the West End, The Gang Show had been the subject of a 1937 film and the model for local productions throughout the United Kingdom and the Commonwealth.171 According to Ralph Reader, the show’s founder and producer, The Gang Show’s “magnetic appeal” was rooted in the youth of its performers and the lively, “clean … and healthy entertainment” they offered.172
On Vera Lynn Sings, the Scouts performed Reader’s song “The One beside You” with Lynn; for their guest feature, they filled the main stage to perform the act 1 finale from the 1956 Gang Show, “Dark Town Jubilee.”173 In Reader’s 1957 book about the show, an image of this number depicts the entire 120-boy cast wearing straw boater hats and holding blackface minstrel masks before their faces, an image repeated in the backdrop.174 In sheer size, the “Dark Town Jubilee” number must have been among the most visually spectacular in the show’s run; but it also built upon the racist spectacle at the heart of blackface minstrelsy, animated by a dehumanized white imagining of Black bodies.175 It is also worth recalling the distanced camerawork needed to capture the mass of performers at once, and how tiny they would have looked on a 1950s television screen: if a close-up conveyed intimacy and individuality, the long shot gave a distanced view of bodies rendered as spectacle and collective.176 The Scout’s “Dark Town Jubilee” was not the only blackface minstrel number to be included in Vera Lynn Sings. In fact, the previous Christmas episode had featured the Silhouettes, the show’s resident dance troupe, performing what Lynn announced as “a n*** minstrel routine” accompanied by a “Southern medley,” which the choreographer Leslie Roberts had devised “in keeping with the season.”177 The critic for the Birmingham Daily Gazette praised the show, noting, “I particularly liked the n*** minstrel scene which uses the small screen to great effect.”178
Including blackface minstrel numbers on Vera Lynn Sings, particularly given that I have found no record of the show’s featuring a single Black guest or resident artist, conveyed powerful messages about national belonging. The BBC treated blackface minstrelsy as wholesome family entertainment, even devoting a radio series, The Kentucky Minstrels (1933–50), and then a television series, The Black and White Minstrel Show (1958–78), to the form, and its leadership defended the practice.179 Responding in 1962 to Barrie Thorne, who wrote a series of letters criticizing The Black and White Minstrel Show as racist, BBC Television’s Controller of Programmes, Kenneth Adam, wrote, “I yield to no-one in my detestation of apartheid and the Little Rock philosophy [i.e., Jim Crow segregation in the US South]. But to suggest that to continue a perfectly honorable theatrical tradition of the British music hall is a ‘disgrace and an insult to coloured people everywhere’ is, I submit, arrant nonsense.”180 On Vera Lynn Sings, Black identity was a resource for caricature, ideal for combining the affordances of a black-and-white medium with British theatrical tradition; meanwhile, actual Black people were excluded. In the representational logic of the show and a great deal of entertainment television in Britain at the time, Blackness was not treated as a trait belonging to real human beings who deserved dignity, respect, emotional consideration, membership in the domestic space, or participation in the British nation.181
The show often took a similarly stereotyping, exoticizing, and spectacularizing approach to cultures and nations outside of England. The most striking examples were the Silhouettes’ ballets, which regularly explored “national themes” and places like Venice, Spain, Siam, Portugal, the American West, Hawaii, Paris, India, Holland, Mexico, Scotland, and, in one black-and-white routine, the “jungle” (which included “cannibal” pots and spears as props).182 These routines were accompanied by songs like “Tulips from Amsterdam,” “Tango Bolero,” and selections from The King and I and utilized a wide array of props—gondolas, lobster pots, fruit baskets, vines, “special tulips (growing),” and a “non practical snake charmer’s flute.”183 The theme became explicit in the show’s fourth series, in spring 1958, each episode of which featured a “visit” to a different country.184 This imaginary travel echoed the show’s second series of the previous year, which was interrupted twice by live coverage of Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Philip’s European tour.185 But international travel was not limited to the elite; post-austerity, more people could afford to engage in international tourism.186 The beginnings of “mass” international tourism were exemplified when, in March 1957, Woman and Home introduced a new travel column, describing destinations like Spain and Paris and cruises through the Mediterranean and the Norwegian fjords, and inviting readers to contact its new “Holiday Expert.”187 While not everyone could afford to holiday abroad, the ballets on Vera Lynn Sings offered a fantasy of tourism in Europe and beyond. They also located racialized otherness elsewhere, far from the white, not-yet-postcolonial, British “we.”
The exoticizing spectacle of the ballets was not the only place where viewers could encounter otherness on Vera Lynn Sings. The show also featured a number of artists who hailed, explicitly, from Europe. There were Freddy Alberti and her Lady Harpists from France in their “first appearance in this country”; the Romanian violinist Noucha Doina, who “has only just arrived by air from Germany”; the Ukrainian singer and bandura player Vladimir Luziv; and the violinist Antonio Brosa, whose Spanish birth was emphasized, despite the fact that he was based in the United Kingdom and United States. (He played the virtuosic “Jota Navarra,” a movement from Pablo Sarasate’s Spanische Tänze op. 22.)188 In keeping with the show’s aspirational themes, Lynn’s introductions of the performers conveyed a cosmopolitan sensibility through references to air travel, the artists’ international reputations, and even the fact that Lynn had “discovered” some of the guests during her own international travels, such as Luis Alberto del Paraná and Los Paraguayos, a trio from Paraguay that Lynn had encountered at a Belgian cabaret.189
This cosmopolitan, sophisticated frame extended to artists who were based in the United Kingdom, especially the resident pianists. Marjan Rawicz and Walter Landauer had started their career as a duo in Europe in the early 1930s, emigrating to the United Kingdom in 1935 after the Nazis came to power. Like many Jewish émigrés, they were interned on the Isle of Man during World War II and became British subjects upon their release.190 The emphasis on their international reputation and cosmopolitanism was, of course, good marketing for classical musicians, but it was also animated by tropes long associated with Jewishness—especially in Britain, where Jewish people were regarded as perpetual foreigners.191 The mononymous Semprini was also marked as foreign, following in the footsteps of two centuries of Italian musicians working in Britain.192 Thus, as entertainers and musicians, the resident pianists inhabited a space that had long been available to Jewish and Italian “foreigners” in Britain. Lynn, of course, had grown up in show business and worked with numerous Jewish bandleaders and musicians (including her husband Harry Lewis, who had grown up Jewish and working class in London’s East End, and had played saxophone and clarinet in Bert Ambrose’s highly regarded dance band and the RAF Squadronaires). Having such performers as part of the Vera Lynn Sings family would not have been a stretch for her.
Perhaps the greatest stretch in the hospitality on Vera Lynn Sings was the guest appearance by actress and dancer Yoko Tani, the only person of color to appear on the show (as far as I have been able to ascertain). Tani had recently starred in The Wind Cannot Read (1958), a film about a tragic romance between a British officer and his Japanese language teacher, set in India during World War II.193 Lynn had sung the title song in the film and featured it twice on her show in June and July 1958, coinciding with the film’s UK release.194 The script for Tani’s appearance on Vera Lynn Sings included standard questions about Tani’s work in Paris, where she had an active career in cabaret and film, and whether it had “always [been] your ambition to be an actress,” but it also included prompts for questions that emphasized Tani’s foreignness: “Is your Kimono the traditional Japanese dress?” and “What does your name mean?” Lynn also brought up the film’s Indian setting, observing, “I’m sure the backgrounds will bring back many memories to the men who served in this part of the world—it did for me”—a reference to her four-month tour of Burma in 1944 and the close bond she had formed with veterans of the campaign.195 Indeed, the conventionality of the interview belied what it meant for Lynn to invite a person of Japanese ancestry into her parlor-like side set—and into the living rooms of her viewers. The British were far slower to reconcile with their World War II Japanese adversaries than they were with the Germans, a difference rooted in the nations’ different wartime treatment of prisoners of war and postwar acts of contrition, as well as racism.196 Tani’s appearance went unremarked in the press, but one wonders what veterans of the Burma campaign made of Lynn, who appeared each year at their Albert Hall reunions, conversing about kimonos with a Japanese woman on the set of Vera Lynn Sings.
The explicit mission of Vera Lynn Sings was to appeal to all tastes, but inclusiveness did not mean that everyone had an equal degree of belonging. At the center were numerous white, “all-British” artists like the classical musicians Malcolm, Brain, and Kell, the light classical trumpet virtuoso Eddie Calvert, and comedians like Max Bygraves. The show also included its cosmopolitan resident pianists and welcomed European performers. But when it came to performers of color, it either emphasized their foreignness, as in the case of Tani, or excluded them, resorting to stereotypes, caricature, and blackface minstrelsy. For a nation grappling with what it meant to be British, Vera Lynn Sings was a homely, family show that demarcated who belonged and who did not.
We’ll Meet Again? Vera Lynn and Television Variety in the 1960s and Beyond
During its run in the late 1950s, Vera Lynn Sings performed a great deal of cultural work. The show participated in the renegotiation of femininity, domesticity, middle-class aspirationalism, and national belonging that helped define postwar British society—which was, of course, not truly “postwar,” given ongoing colonial conflicts, the continuation of compulsory military service for young men, and the Cold War. Vera Lynn Sings did this work by representing who belonged in Britain, whose presence was tolerated, and who was foreign. It also offered an affectual sensation of belonging, community, and home, partially fulfilling, as Dyer argues, the emotional sensation “of ‘something better.’” In the process, the show engaged in the process of “defining and delimiting what constitute the legitimate needs of people in this society.”197
As a homely musical variety show, Vera Lynn Sings also represented domestic and feminine conventionality through the new medium of television for a growing British audience. The show’s intimate public coalesced around “a love affair with conventionality” defined by emotional intensity and a sensation of connection rather than explicit politics.198 While youth-oriented shows, like Six Five Special, pushed the boundaries of what could be represented on television, Vera Lynn Sings, its star, and its sizable cast explored the breadth of what could be represented: from classical music to “the rock and roll,” from exotic travel ballets to chats in a parlor, from sentimental song to piano virtuosity, and sing-alongs. Vera Lynn Sings and other conventional music variety shows built around women singers participated in shaping the powerful norms and categories that emerged during the 1950s—categories that became increasingly stratified by age, taste, and gender in society, in television, and in popular music.
By 1964, when Cecil Madden was reminiscing about the women hosts who had been “fireside favourites” in 1950s television, Vera Lynn Sings was only a memory. Its run—and Lynn’s exclusive contract with BBC Sound and Television combined—ended in July 1959, although she and Stevenson ground out one more series, called Vera Lynn Presents, in early 1960.199 Lynn’s contract with BBC Television finally came to an end in July 1960, with a flattering notice in The Stage that she had declined the BBC’s offer of a new contract for thirteen thirty-minute shows, with an option for thirteen more.200 As internal documents show, BBC Television was indeed attempting to negotiate a requests program with Lynn; however, Lew Grade and ITV were also courting the singer.201 This time, ITV won out, and the one-hour Vera Lynn Show began airing in October 1960 on Saturday nights in ITV’s “Saturday Spectacular” spot.202 After it ended in early 1961, Lynn remained a semi-regular and then occasional guest on Sunday Night at the London Palladium and other ITV shows until 1965.203
So, what happened? Why did Lynn, an entertainer for whose services BBC Television and ITV had aggressively competed in 1956, leave the BBC’s “family” of exclusively contracted artists in 1960 and, by the end of 1961, no longer have a show of her own? The short answer is that Vera Lynn Sings, and Lynn herself, were no longer perceived as up to date by television administrators, television critics, and some segments of the television audience. The long answer is that the powerful norms and categories established during the 1950s by Vera Lynn Sings and other conventional music variety shows contributed to the marginalization of Lynn and similar women performers in the 1960s. Because of their embrace of respectability, conventionality, and tradition, they were framed as antithetical to youth culture and the coveted youth audience. Despite the power Lynn had in the production of her show, television producers no longer saw a future that centered on women and the domestic sphere.
By 1958, the leadership at BBC Television had become concerned that Vera Lynn Sings did too much and did it too sloppily. Eric Maschwitz, the new BBC Television Light Entertainment division head, observed in June that the show lacked the “special ‘edge’ of production” found in better-resourced US shows like Como’s Kraft Music Hall.204 Kenneth Adam was also worried: the show had “served us splendidly. But for how much longer—without new thought, new timing, new length, new producers.”205 Hoping for a reset, they sent Lynn and Stevenson to New York to observe Como’s and other US variety shows, and Stevenson implemented several changes in the fall 1958 run of Vera Lynn Sings, including replacing the Keynotes with the Lynnettes and more glamorous costuming for Lynn (as described above).206 These efforts were not enough, however. Subtitled “Olde Worlde Production,” a blistering review in The Stage on May 28, 1959, praised Lynn but tore into Stevenson’s production as being “like … a music-hall down a side street” with its “naïve” utilization of the resident vocal group and dance troupe, cheap-looking sets, and pursuit of false gentility at the expense of “any flair and any imaginative touches.”207 Three weeks later, Adam tuned in for himself and described what he saw as “terribly old-fashioned television”—the kiss of death.208 The show’s final episode aired in July.
But did everyone consider being “old-fashioned” a liability, and what did the label actually mean? After Lynn moved to ITV, The Stage asserted that “ATV [Associated Television, one of the broadcasters in the ITV network] does better by Our Vera than the BBC ever did” with its high-quality production and top-rank guests like Mel Tormé.209 Some critics nonetheless still regarded Lynn’s ITV show as being too long, too slow-moving, and lacking in comedy, in contrast to the lighthearted Billy Cotton Band Show and the “slickness and speed” of The Black and White Minstrels, “which has made it one of the most popular shows on television.”210 (The description of a minstrel show as up-to-date television in 1960 boggles the mind.)
Given that both Lynn’s ITV show and Vera Lynn Sings on the BBC were built around a single personality, the assessment of success ultimately depended on Lynn herself. Reviewers praised her diction, her well-chosen arrangements, and her commitment to her own inimitable singing style, but they also celebrated her agelessness—a backhanded tribute that actually emphasized her age.211 Indeed, few reviewers refrained from mentioning Lynn’s World War II stardom, her long career, or her sentimental style, whether to praise her for not having “surrendered to the dreadful things which meet some current tastes” or to wonder whether “some change in style was called for.”212 Not everyone valued change. As Norman Cook, the television reviewer for the Liverpool Echo and a stalwart critical friend of Vera Lynn Sings, observed in 1958, “no show, British or American, gives me greater enjoyment than the Vera Lynn show. On its present standard it could run for ever, as far as I am concerned.”213
Many viewers seem to have agreed. BBC Audience Research conducted six reports on the show during its run and two during the six-episode series of 1960, Vera Lynn Presents. (At least, this is the number of reports preserved in the BBC Archives.) The appreciation index for the show, based on ratings submitted by the television viewing panel, ranged from 80 on a 100-point scale for the episode of June 1, 1957, to a low of 63 for the final show of July 16, 1960; usually, the show averaged in the high 60s to low 70s, which compared favorably with the appreciation index average of 65 for televised light entertainment in the second quarter of 1957.214 Meanwhile, it enjoyed solid viewership, from 15 to 20 percent of the adult population; this was comparable to Billy Cotton’s and Charlie Chester’s variety shows, although Lynn’s show sometimes lost out to concurrent ITV offerings such as the popular detective drama Shadow Squad, which had a stunning 27 percent viewership.215
One important theme ran through the qualitative summaries in each of the Audience Research reports: while Lynn was extremely popular with the majority of viewers, there was always a minority who objected to the show because of what Audience Research called a “prejudice against Vera Lynn herself.”216 The fullest discussion of this tension appeared in the report on the episode of July 2, 1959:
[S]ome, while admitting her obvious sincerity, confessed that they found her manner altogether too “cosy,” and her rather sentimental attitude a shade embarrassing. However, the majority would certainly not agree with any of this. To them Vera Lynn was “a great artist in every possible way”—a “wonderful” singer, whose easy, natural style was a pleasure to listen to, and an extraordinarily warm, friendly personality.217
In her autobiography, Lynn described the Beatles and rock in the early 1960s as an overwhelming force that shunted aside her more melodic approach to popular music.219 And indeed, the (counter)cultural force of rock has been so strong that its ideologies continue to shape the ways we tell the history of popular music, particularly when it comes to cis and trans women as well as nonbinary musicians. To return to Laurie Stras, making a space for a wider spectrum of musicians in these narratives requires a “re-evaluation … of the very premises of 1950s and 1960s pop.”220 A host of scholars have been engaged in recovering—and revaluing—the work of women in rock and pop during this era, but there is more to do.221 Part of this project must involve taking into account the roles of entertainer and television personality, which helped shape the careers of so many women musicians at the time, as well as the work of more “conventional” women musicians, who did not or could not take on a rebellious, youth-oriented, or innovative stance. Attending to how such performers grappled with respectability, tradition, and convention can help us better understand the affectual and political strength (and struggles) of doxa and domesticity after the Second World War, including the ways in which these ideologies often helped deflect reckoning with racial injustice, colonialism, and imperialism, both at the time and in their nostalgic representations. The revaluing of 1950s and 1960s pop thus involves revealing both the significance of women performers and their imbrication with the structures of white supremacy and colonialism.
Turning back to Lynn’s television work, it is clear that Vera Lynn Sings and the shorter series that followed were too domestic, too earnest and uncool, too traditionally feminine to survive in early 1960s Britain. Indeed, Lynn broadcast rarely during the decade; instead, she recorded and toured extensively, including her first tours of Australia, New Zealand, and South Africa.222 But this was not the end of the story. Lynn returned to BBC Television in 1969 in a musical variety show that balanced her singing with slick, fast-moving production; called The Vera Show, it ran until 1977.223 Her career in the 1970s was vibrant; it included another turn at the Royal Variety Command Performance, being honored with a DBE (Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire), and a second feature on This Is Your Life. But Lynn’s engagement with “new” projects during this period ran alongside the continued use of her voice and her repertoire in invoking, commemorating, and celebrating Britain’s role in the Second World War. It was Lynn’s lengthy career that had laid the groundwork for her iconic World War II–based status, which persisted and even grew after her retirement from public performance in the 1990s.224 While Lynn is now remembered primarily as a wartime singer, she had sustained her decades-long career through work as an entertainer and television personality. In this light, her interest in television, with its liveness and spectacle, makes sense. Lynn’s fame was rooted in the past, but she was also able to adapt. Hers was a career that bound past and present over decades of change, coming, ultimately, to enshrine the feminine, homely, and sincere singer as a British national treasure.
This article represents part of a larger project on Dame Vera Lynn’s postwar career funded by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada. My thanks to the research assistants who have worked on this project over several years: Nikki Brown, Rebecca Flynn, Christina Pellegrini, Frankie Perry, Whitney Thompson, and Rory Warnock. I developed my ideas about Vera Lynn Sings and Lynn’s career in the 1950s in conversation with a wide range of colleagues (particularly Nadine Attewell, Sarah Brophy, Jennifer Purcell, and Annie Randall) and audiences, including presentations at the University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Music Colloquium, the Norbert A. Kuntz Memorial Lecture Series at St. Michael’s College, the Communication Studies and Media Arts Speakers Series at McMaster University, the American Musicological Society, the North American British Studies Association Conference, and the North American British Music Studies Association Conference. My thanks for the invitations and fruitful conversations. As this article neared completion, I also benefitted from constructive feedback from Lisa Kabesh and the Journal’s two anonymous peer reviewers. Finally, I am grateful to the BBC Written Archives Centre staff, especially Louise North and Els Boonen, for their insight and assistance. BBC copyright content reproduced courtesy of the British Broadcasting Corporation. All rights reserved.
Cole Moreton, “Dame Vera Lynn Interview” (archive interview, 2014), The Telegraph, June 18, 2020, LexisNexis.
Lynn, Some Sunny Day, 232.
“An Audience Research Report: ‘This Is Your Life,’ October 14, 1957,” November 1, 1957, BBC WAC T12/526/1.
See, for example, Associated Press, “Dame Vera Lynn, Beloved British Singer, Dead at 103,” CBC, June 18, 2020, https://www.cbc.ca/news/entertainment/dame-vera-lynn-dies-second-world-war-1.5617056; and Lawrence Van Gelder, “Vera Lynn, Singer Whose Wartime Ballads Lifted Britain, Dies at 103,” New York Times, June 18, 2020, https://www.nytimes.com/2020/06/18/world/vera-lynn-dead.html.
Mundy, Popular Music on Screen, 155–56, 182–99; Guthrie, “Vera Lynn on Screen.”
Briggs, History of Broadcasting, 5:226. Briggs’s “wartime audience” is an interesting turn of phrase. It both identifies an older audience with war and implies that “war” means World War II, despite the continuation of compulsory military service in Britain until 1960, the ongoing Cold War, and Britain’s colonial conflicts at the time (the Malaya Emergency and Mau Mau Uprising).
These figures come from BBC Audience Research, which conducted a daily Survey of Listening and Viewing. It calculated audience size as a percentage of both the United Kingdom’s adult population and the adult television audience. Because of still limited television ownership in Great Britain during this period, the latter figure roughly doubled the former. See “An Audience Research Report: ‘Vera Lynn Sings,’” November 2, 1956, BBC WAC T12/439/2.
Forman, One Night on TV, 4–6. There is a growing body of work focusing on such performers. See, for example, Bratten, “Nothin’ Could Be Finah”; Bourne, Black in the British Frame; McGee, Some Liked It Hot; Raykoff, “Liberace’s Musical/Material Appeal”; McGee, “Assimilating and Domesticating Jazz”; Doctor, “‘Jazz Is Where You Find It’”; and Morgan-Ellis, “Leslie Uggams.”
Thumim, Inventing Television Culture, 87.
Quoted in Fred Billany, “It’s a Man’s World on TV!,” Aberdeen Evening Express, October 13, 1964, BNA. The reasons for this shift are complex, but they seem rooted in the BBC leadership’s assumption that programs focusing on women did not appeal to a “general” audience. Not only did the BBC move away from women hosts, but, during the early 1960s, it also decreased dedicated women’s programming in the afternoon, and, in 1964, it closed the Women’s Programmes Department, which had been headed by the innovative Doreen Stephens. The department was amalgamated with Children’s Programmes to form the Family Programmes Department, which Stephens continued to lead. See Irwin, “What Women Want,” 115.
See Thumim, Inventing Television Culture; Skoog, “Focus on the Housewife”; Irwin, “What Women Want”; and Andrews, Domesticating the Airwaves.
See “Round and About,” Fraserburgh Herald and Northern Counties’ Advertiser, February 12, 1957, BNA; Norman Cook, “TV and Radio,” Liverpool Echo, April 1, 1957, BNA; and “TV for Schools and Farmers to Begin,” Northern Whig, September 3, 1957, BNA.
Perkin, Rise of Professional Society, 439.
Bennett, Television Personalities, 9.
Berlant, Female Complaint, 2.
Butler, Gender Trouble.
See Mulvey, “Visual Pleasure”; Lott, Love and Theft, 142–58; and Young, “‘Rude’ Performances.”
BBC WAC T12/439/1–7; BBC WAC TV Light Entertainment scripts, microfilm reels 81/82; BBC WAC R19/683; BBC WAC RCONT1: Vera Lynn / Artists.
My examination of Lynn’s broader postwar repertoire is based upon her over five hundred live performances on BBC television and radio between 1945 and 2005 and her discography of approximately three hundred singles and twenty albums released in the United Kingdom between 1947 and 1982—excluding compilation albums; see Middleton, Vera Lynn: Discography. Together, these sources include over 1,300 discrete songs—offering a robust picture of Lynn’s repertoire over her multi-decade postwar career and a site for comparison with her repertoire on Vera Lynn Sings. Not included in the full repertoire lists are live performances (though these tended to feature songs well established in Lynn’s repertoire, as shown in press documentation) and broadcasts on ITV and Radio Luxembourg, records of which are not as preserved or accessible as the BBC Programmes as Broadcast logs.
My two main resources for contemporary press are the ProQuest Entertainment Industry Magazine Archive (PEIMA), which covers the music and entertainment trade press, and the British Newspaper Archive (BNA) database. The BNA, which indexes national and regional newspapers from around the United Kingdom, was especially useful because it represents a wider range of opinions and tastes than can be found in papers of record like The Times of London. In addition, I consulted hard copies of TV Times, Radio Times (the BBC Programme Index includes Radio Times program listings but not articles), and Woman and Home.
For the best account of the impact of Musicians’ Union negotiations on BBC music policy, see Williamson and Cloonan, Players’ Work Time.
Stras, “Introduction: She’s So Fine,” 23.
See Langhamer, “Meanings of Home,” 342.
See Davis, Modern Motherhood, 144.
Spigel, Make Room for TV; Andrews, Domesticating the Airwaves, 129–38.
See Briggs, History of Broadcasting, 5:1005. The General Post Office started collecting license fees for radio receivers when the wireless was still an experimental medium. When the BBC was formed in 1927 with a public service (noncommercial) mandate and a monopoly on broadcasting in the United Kingdom, licensing fees for radio and later television receivers became its primary source of funding.
See Thumim, Inventing Television Culture, 31–32; McGee, Some Liked It Hot, 204; Irwin, “What Women Want”; and Moseley, Wheatley, and Wood, “Introduction: Television in the Afternoon,” 5.
See De Leeuw, “In-Vision Continuity Announcers.”
See Billany, “It’s a Man’s World.”
See Bennett, Television Personalities, 70–76. Madden, who made the “fireside favourites” comment, was an early architect of this approach. As head of the Overseas Entertainments Unit during World War II (when television was shut down), Madden also played an active role in fostering Lynn’s stardom in particular and promoting women radio broadcasters in general. See Baade, Victory through Harmony, ch. 7. Advocating for women broadcasters (or, to be specific, glamorous women broadcasters) seems to have been a career-long commitment for Madden.
The BBC eventually phased out women in-vision announcers; see Bennett, Television Personalities, 83–84.
See ibid., 55–56.
See ibid., 47.
See ibid., 53–54.
See “Here Are the Trump Cards in the Television Pack,” Sunday Sun (Newcastle), October 14, 1956, BNA.
See “Vera Lynn,” BBC Internal Circulating Memorandum (ICM) from Television Booking Manager (Holland Bennett) to Head of Light Entertainment, Television (HLE.Tel.) (Ronald Waldman), May 17, 1956, BBC WAC R94/2451; and “Vera Lynn,” BBC ICM from HLE.Tel. (Ronald Waldman) to Head of Variety, June 1, 1956, BBC WAC R94/2451.
See “Submission to DG’s [Director General’s] Finance Meeting, Vera Lynn: Proposed Exclusive Services Contract,” July 6, 1956, BBC WAC R94/2451.
Waldman, quoted in Bennett, Television Personalities, 51; Goss, quoted in Bennett, Television Personalities, 51.
“Vera Lynn,” BBC ICM from HLE.Tel. to Head of Variety, June 1, 1956.
Doreen Turney-Dann, “Vera Lynn—Singer without a Gimmick,” Birmingham Daily Gazette, March 24, 1956, BNA.
Lynn, Vocal Refrain, 81.
Keith Fordyce, “Rave for Sattin: Record Reviews by the Famous Luxembourg Chief Announcer,” New Musical Express, November 2, 1956, PEIMA. In 1956, New Musical Express ranked Lynn eighth in its list for “Outstanding British Feminine Singer”: “NME 1956–57 Nation-Wide Poll,” New Musical Express, November 23, 1956, PEIMA.
See, for example, Vera Lynn, “Concluding My Own Story,” TV Times, July 20, 1956, 28–29, and Helen Burke, “Vera Lynn Give ’Em Roast Beef,” Londonderry Sentinel, October 17, 1957, BNA.
Barbara Cartland, “TV Glamour—and That Extra Something,” TV Times, June 15, 1956, 7.
See Baade, “‘Sincerely Yours.’”
“Vera Lynn Conquers the West End,” The Stage, November 22, 1951, 1, PEIMA; “Two New Revues,” The Stage, April 17, 1952, 5, PEIMA.
“An Audience Research Report: ‘Bless ’Em All,’” June 3, 1955, BBC WAC T14/155/2.
“Vera Lynn Signs AR-TV Series,” Melody Maker, December 17, 1955, PEIMA; “TV Chance for Amateurs,” Melody Maker, May 26, 1956, PEIMA; Turney-Dann, “Vera Lynn—Singer without a Gimmick.” To be precise, AR-TV (Associated-Rediffusion) held the ITV franchise in the London area.
Gale Pedrick, “Women Comics Are a Dying Race,” Coventry Evening Telegraph, July 12, 1956, BNA.
See Baade, “‘Sincerely Yours,’” and Baade, Victory through Harmony, ch. 6.
Letter from Jim Davidson, Assistant Head of Variety (Music), to Leslie A. Macdonnell, November 28, 1950, BBC WAC RCONT1: Vera Lynn / Artists, file 2. See also BBC WAC RCONT1: Vera Lynn / Artists, files 2–3. Lynn later recalled her response to the interview with the Head of Variety that preceded the letter: “I don’t often get annoyed, but in effect I told him what he could do with his one bright number, and walked out”: Lynn, Some Sunny Day, 232.
In her autobiography, Lynn described Harry’s role in the sound booth: “This was where Harry was indispensable: he knew the effect we were aiming at, and he had the ability to charm, cajole or bully—according to necessity—whoever was there in order to get it. Knowing that he was doing that for me gave me the confidence I needed to perform. We were a good double act”: Lynn, Some Sunny Day, 266. Although some within the BBC (especially in the sound booth!) found Lewis abrasive, he was no Svengali; see “Vera Lynn Show,” BBC ICM from Senior Sound Supervisor to HTO Tel.S., November 14, 1956, BBC WAC T12/439/2. Lewis and Lynn’s was a “50–50” partnership, according to Harry, in which he did “everything but the singing”: Scarth Flett, “Vera Wouldn’t Work If It Wasn’t for Me, says Mr. Lewis,” Sunday Express, April 29, 1973, BFI Press Cuttings. The couple’s shared working-class and showbiz backgrounds shaped their practical, loving, and egalitarian relationship. For Lynn, a singer who had to maintain good vocal health through an often grueling performance schedule—and whose entire public persona was built around being sincere, nice, and feminine—Harry’s management of logistics and potential conflict was critical.
See Lynn, Some Sunny Day, 232–34.
It is likely that Lynn’s emotional connection to the BBC also played a role: “It was a crazy institution in many ways, but I loved it and it had helped to establish me”: ibid., 232.
Lynn also revealed in her memoir that her ITV show was marred by the director, who caused “chaos” behind the scenes. “It got so bad that the studio hands and the technicians began taking bets on how much longer I’d stand it”: Lynn, Some Sunny Day, 258–59.
Judging from the grumbling within the BBC about this aspect of her contract over the following years, the notion that a woman’s primary responsibility should be to her family was more appealing in the abstract than in reality; see letter from Leslie A. Macdonnell to Tom Sloan, Asst. Head of Light Entertainment, BBC, December 7, 1956, BBC WAC TVART1: Vera Lynn / Artists.
See letter from Head of Programme Contracts to Leslie A. Macdonnell, July 12, 1956, BBC WAC TVART1: Vera Lynn / Artists.
See Forman, One Night on TV, 122–29.
See Bennett, Television Personalities, 48.
See Andrew Martin, “The Sunday Post: A Theatre Made for Television,” BBC Genome Blog, February 7, 2016, https://www.bbc.co.uk/blogs/genome/entries/0182fb0f-0809-4db9-b4aa-671d19ba8b33.
Frith, “Pleasures of the Hearth,” 106. For a more extended (and very insightful) account of the middlebrow and musical culture, see Chowrimootoo et al., “Colloquy: Musicology and the Middlebrow.”
See Bennett, Television Personalities, 49.
See ibid., 57–60.
See ibid., 55–64, and “TV for Schools and Farmers to Begin,” Northern Whig.
See “TV and Radio,” Birmingham Daily Post, June 4, 1959, BNA, and “Saturday Television News Round-Up,” Liverpool Echo, September 6, 1958, BNA.
“America’s ‘Vera’ Will Captivate Britain,” Aberdeen Evening Express, March 24, 1958, BNA.
Quoted in Briggs, History of Broadcasting, 5:197.
See BBC WAC RCONT1: Vera Lynn / Artists, file 3 (1951–62).
See BBC Programmes as Broadcast; TV Light Entertainment, Vera Lynn Sings, General (1955–60), BBC WAC T12/439/1.
See, for example, “Actual Programme Cost Statement,” BBC ICM from Light Entertainment Organiser, Television (John Humphreys), to Mr. A. Stevenson, November 20, 1956, BBC WAC T12/439/2; “Actual Programme Cost Statement,” BBC ICM from Light Entertainment Organiser, Television (John Humphreys), to Mr. A. Stevenson, December 10, 1956, BBC WAC T12/439/2; and “Vera Lynn—Estimated Costs,” BBC ICM from Light Entertainment Organiser, Television (John Humphreys), to HLE.Tel. (Eric Maschwitz), October 22, 1958, BBC WAC T12/439/1.
See TV Light Entertainment, Vera Lynn Sings, files 2–7 (1956–58), BBC WAC T12/439/2–7.
See Forman, One Night on TV, 130.
See Bratten, “Nothin’ Could Be Finah.”
Forman, One Night on TV, 9.
Frankenberg, “Introduction: Local Whiteness,” 15–16.
Stras, “Introduction: She’s So Fine,” 13.
See ibid., 12–14.
“An Audience Research Report: ‘Vera Lynn Sings,’” November 21, 1956, BBC WAC T12/439/2; “An Audience Research Report: ‘Vera Lynn Sings,’” July 4, 1957, BBC WAC T12/439/5.
OED Online, s.v. “homely, adj.,” accessed May 24, 2022, www.oed.com/view/Entry/87905.
“On Television Tonight: Vera Lynn Starts New Series,” Shields Daily News, October 16, 1956, BNA; “Tele-Viewpoint,” Lancashire Evening Post, November 14, 1956, BNA; “Showman’s Column,” Shields Daily News, October 20, 1956, BNA.
“Telecrit,” Liverpool Echo, December 31, 1956, BNA.
“An Audience Research Report: ‘Vera Lynn Sings,’” November 2, 1956; Andrew Smith, “It Was Party Night at Vera’s,” Daily Herald, October 17, 1956, BNA; “Showman’s Column,” Shields Daily News; “An Audience Research Report: ‘Vera Lynn Sings,’” July 4, 1957.
See Langhamer, “Meanings of Home,” 348.
Smith, “It Was Party Night at Vera’s.”
See Vera Lynn Sings scripts, October 30, 1956, January 1, 1957, episodes, BBC WAC TV Light Entertainment scripts, microfilm reels 81/82.
See Lees-Maffei, “Accommodating ‘Mrs. Three-in-One,’” and Langhamer, “Meaning of Home,” 360.
See Lees-Maffei, “Accommodating ‘Mrs. Three-in-One,’” 746, and Langhamer, “Meaning of Home,” 354–55.
Norman Cook, “TV News: Short Cuts for the Handyman,” Liverpool Echo, September 25, 1957, BNA; BBC Programme Index.
See Irwin, “What Women Want.”
See BBC Programme Index, and “An Audience Research Report: ‘Vera Lynn Sings,’” November 2, 1956.
Bennett, Television Personalities, 60–62; Holmes, “BBC and Television Fame.”
See Baade, “‘Sincerely Yours,’” 41.
Michael Cable, “Spotlight: Her Sincerity Brings Out the Hankies,” Disc, June 7, 1958, PEIMA. See also Robert Anderson, “Forces’ Sweetheart is really Back,” Aberdeen Evening Express, April 19, 1952, BNA, and Edward Bishop, “A New Vera Lynn,” Radio Times, May 18, 1952.
Burke, “Vera Lynn Give ’Em Roast Beef.”
Script, At Home, Vera Lynn, March 6, 1957, BBC WAC T14/119.
Bennett, Television Personalities, 62; see also Skeggs, Formations of Class, 110. As Beverley Skeggs has argued, femininity has long been regarded as the natural prerogative of white, middle-class women; for working-class white women and women of color, claiming respectable femininity has historically involved careful performative decisions and a painful awareness of judgmental and potentially hostile audiences (110).
Cartland, “TV Glamour.”
Smith, “It Was Party Night at Vera’s.”
Set plans for transmission of April 9, 1957, BBC WAC T12/439/1; “Furniture, Properties and Drape Requirements for Vera Lynn Sings 1,” from Albert Stevenson to Assistant Supply Organiser, October 16, 1956, BBC WAC T12/439/2.
“Television and Radio,” Shields Daily News, November 7, 1957, BNA.
See Forman, One Night on TV, 198–99.
See Bennett, Television Personalities, 79.
“Showman’s Column,” Shields Daily News.
“An Audience Research Report: ‘Vera Lynn Sings,’” November 2, 1956.
Vera Lynn Sings script, October 30, 1956, episode.
Norman Cook, “TV and Radio: No Glamourous Gowns for Vera Lynn,” Liverpool Echo, April 4, 1957, BNA; Vera Lynn Sings script, November 6, 1958, episode, BBC WAC TV Light Entertainment scripts, microfilm reels 81/82.
“The Vera Lynn Show,” BBC ICM from HLE.Tel. (Eric Maschwitz) to Controller of Programmes, Television (CP.Tel.) (Kenneth Adam), June 30, 1958, BBC WAC T12/439/1. Lynn’s warmth, friendliness, naturalness, and sincerity were a theme in nearly every audience research report on Vera Lynn Sings. See, for example, “An Audience Research Report: ‘Vera Lynn Sings,’” January 25, 1957, BBC WAC Audience Research R9/7/26, and “An Audience Research Report: ‘Vera Lynn Sings,’” July 22, 1959, BBC WAC Audience Research R9/7/41.
“TV and Radio,” Northants Evening Telegraph, April 24, 1957, BNA.
See Vera Lynn Sings scripts, BBC WAC TV Light Entertainment scripts, microfilm reels 81/82. Virginia Lewis appeared in a scene based on Alice in Wonderland in which Lynn sang “When You Wish upon a Star.” According to Leslie Roberts, the production team wanted a girl who looked like Alice, and twelve-year-old Virginia fitted the part. See Vera Lynn Sings script, October 23, 1958, episode, BBC WAC TV Light Entertainment scripts, microfilm reels 81/82; “Television: Vera Lynn and Virginia Make It a Family Affair,” Shields Daily News, October 23, 1958, BNA; and Clifford Davis, “Tonight’s View,” Daily Mirror, October 23, 1958, BNA.
See Vera Lynn Sings scripts and set plans for transmission of April 9, 1957.
Bennett, Television Personalities, 55, 54.
See Frith, “Pleasures of the Hearth.”
See Vera Lynn Sings scripts. One report on the show’s “disturbing” level of expense reported that “the cost of having a line of dancers” was £650.80 (£226.80 for the dancers, £84 for Roberts, £250 for wardrobe, and around £90 for orchestrations). This was over a quarter of the total cost of the show (£2,315.30) and well over a third of its budgeted cost (£1,700). See “Vera Lynn—Estimated Costs,” BBC ICM from Light Entertainment Organiser, Television, to HLE.Tel., October 22, 1958.
“Furniture, Properties and Drape Requirements,” from Albert Stevenson to Assistant Supply Organiser, November 21, 1956, BBC WAC T12/439/3; Vera Lynn Sings script, November 27, 1956, episode, BBC WAC TV Light Entertainment scripts, microfilm reels 81/82.
Robert Ray, “Is It You—or Just a ‘Ghost’?,” Belfast Telegraph, October 27, 1958, BNA.
Richard Sear, “Chris, 12, Calmly Picks Up £500,” Daily Mirror, May 30, 1958, BNA.
“On Television Tonight,” Shields Daily News.
Vera Lynn Sings script, October 16, 1956, episode, BBC WAC TV Light Entertainment scripts, microfilm reels 81/82.
Keightley, “Music for Middlebrows.”
“Roll Up You Dene-agers, This Is for You,” Disc, September 13, 1958, PEIMA. The disc in question included “Goodnight, God Bless,” which had been adopted as the closing song for Vera Lynn Sings.
See BBC Programmes as Broadcast.
See Vera Lynn Sings scripts. “A House with Love in It” was on the British charts from November 16, 1956, to January 18, 1957; see “NME Music Charts,” New Musical Express, November 16, 1956, to January 18, 1957, PEIMA.
Vera Lynn Sings script, May 7, 1959, episode, BBC WAC TV Light Entertainment scripts, microfilm reels 81/82.
Keightley, “You Keep Coming Back.”
See Desmond O’Connor, “Tin Pan Alley,” Accordion Times and Musical Express, May 30, 1947, PEIMA; “Decca’s Big British Record Export Drive,” Melody Maker, November 8, 1947, PEIMA; and “Music: London Ballys Lynn Platter,” Billboard, May 31, 1952, PEIMA.
Vera Lynn Sings script, October 16, 1956.
Vera Lynn Sings script, January 29, 1959, episode, BBC WAC TV Light Entertainment scripts, microfilm reels 81/82.
See Vera Lynn Sings scripts, October 25, 1958, November 6, 1958, November 29, 1958, December 4, 1958, episodes, BBC WAC TV Light Entertainment scripts, microfilm reels 81/82.
The production files include requests for song sheets for the studio audience; the lyrics were “not [to] be televised, [they were] only for the benefit of the theatre audience”: “Captions and Photographic Requirements,” from Albert Stevenson to Assistant Supply Organiser, May 31, 1957, BBC WAC T12/439/5.
Baade, Victory through Harmony, 4.
“Music: London Ballys Lynn Platter,” Billboard. Frank Lee, Lynn’s producer at Decca, was the architect of this device, which also figured prominently on Lynn’s live 1955 album of a troop concert she performed at the Guards Depot in Caterham. Indeed, Lynn also led sing-alongs when she entertained the troops and performed at ex-servicemen’s events. See Frank Lee, interview, September 1984, National Sound Archive, Oral History of Recorded Sound, C90/74; the 1955 album in question is Lynn, Vera Lynn Concert. A 1960 review of a budget-priced LP compilation, Vera’s Great Chorus Hits, highlighted Lynn’s close association with the sing-along and World War II: “Vera Lynn is really a living part of the English heritage. Her voice cheered millions of people during the darkest days of the war and the public have never forgotten this, keeping her right at the top during the recent tumultuous years in the record industry”: “LPs: Right Record for Vera,” Disc, November 12, 1960, PEIMA.
See Baade, “‘Sincerely Yours.’” “The People’s War” is also an important touchpoint for histories of World War II in Britain, such as Angus Calder’s The People’s War.
“Welcome Back Vera—You’re as Good as Ever,” Liverpool Echo, October 17, 1956, BNA.
“On Television Tonight,” Shields Daily News.
Kynaston, Family Britain, 654–55.
Vera Lynn Sings script, October 16, 1956.
Vera Lynn Sings script, October 30, 1956.
See Denis Gifford, “Obituary: Johnny Johnston, ” The Independent, June 11, 1998, https://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/obituary-johnny-johnston-1164345.html.
See Baade, Victory through Harmony, 26–28, 110, 183–89.
“Wardrobe, Hair & Make-up Requirements,” from Albert Stevenson to Wardrobe and Make-up Manager, October 22, 1956, BBC WAC T12/439/2.
When it came to rock ’n’ roll, which, according to Lynn, “suited the boys, all right,” gender was also a factor, as noted in an article in Picturegoer: “Why has the Top Ten become such a masculine stronghold? Rock ‘roll is the answer. … Its beat had the kind of sexy rhythm that only men singers could perform and look other than indecent—or ridiculous”: Tom Hutchinson, “That Rock Beat Will Linger on,” Picturegoer, November 16, 1957, PEIMA.
“The Vera Lynn Show 26.6.58,” BBC ICM from CP.Tel. (Kenneth Adam) to HLE.Tel. (Eric Maschwitz), June 27, 1958, BBC WAC T12/439/1. The reassessment occurred around the time that Eric Maschwitz, a longtime proponent of more sophisticated, continental musical entertainment, replaced Waldman as the head of BBC Television Light Entertainment.
“The Vera Lynn Show,” BBC ICM from HLE.Tel. to CP.Tel., June 30, 1958.
“Visit to America: Albert Stevenson,” BBC ICM from HLE.Tel. (Eric Maschwitz) to CP.Tel. (Kenneth Adam), July 3, 1958, BBC WAC T12/439/1.
See Vera Lynn Sings scripts, November 20, 1958, January 1, 1959, episodes, BBC WAC TV Light Entertainment scripts, microfilm reels 81/82.
See Rubin, Making of Middlebrow Culture, xvii.
Quoted in Keightley, “Music for Middlebrows,” 318.
See BBC Programmes as Broadcast.
See Raykoff, “Concerto con amore.”
Vera Lynn Sings script, December 18, 1958, episode, BBC WAC TV Light Entertainment scripts, microfilm reels 81/82. Curiously, a 1959 libel trial regarding a nastily homophobic column that suggested the pianist was “homosexual” (a criminalized and stigmatized identity at the time) involved a quotation from a skit that described Liberace as “a sort of Winifred Atwell combining aspects of Vera Lynn”: “Cassandra and Mr. Beyfus in Court ‘Duel,’” Daily Mirror, June 12, 1959, BNA.
“An Audience Research Report: ‘Vera Lynn Sings,’” July 4, 1957; “An Audience Research Report: ‘Vera Lynn Sings,’” October 10, 1957, BBC WAC Audience Research R9/7/30.
See “Favorite Dove Acts,” Genii Forum, accessed February 12, 2021, https://forums.geniimagazine.com/viewtopic.php?t=5970.
See Vera Lynn Sings scripts and BBC Programmes as Broadcast.
I have seen no references to any classical singers, which is unsurprising given that the host was herself a singer known for being heartfelt rather than virtuosic.
Vera Lynn Sings script, July 10, 1958, episode, BBC WAC TV Light Entertainment scripts, microfilm reels 81/82.
Vera Lynn Sings script, October 16, 1956.
“An Audience Research Report: ‘Vera Lynn Sings,’” October 10, 1957.
See Weight, Patriots, 284–91.
See ibid., 136–41, and Kynaston, Austerity Britain, 520–22.
See Kushner, We Europeans?
Vera Lynn Sings script, April 23, 1959, episode, BBC WAC TV Light Entertainment scripts, microfilm reels 81/82.
Weight, Patriots, 55, 135. Scottish and Welsh nationalism gained strength following World War II, during which discourses of unity had dominated. Thus, while Englishness and Britishness were elided (especially in England), many in Wales and Scotland developed “a dual national identity” (ibid., 135). On Vera Lynn Sings, the occasional Scottish number seems to have been regarded as an opportunity for plaid-infused spectacle rather than patriotic display.
See Vera Lynn Sings script, January 1, 1957, episode.
See MacDonald, Sons of the Empire.
See Weight, Patriots, 285.
See Reader, This Is “The Gang Show.”
See Vera Lynn Sings script, January 1, 1957.
Reader, This Is “The Gang Show,” 134.
For further discussions of blackface minstrelsy, see Cockrell, Demons of Disorder; Lott, Love and Theft; Mahar, Behind the Burnt Cork Mask; Pickering, Blackface Minstrelsy in Britain; and Thelwell, Exporting Jim Crow.
My thanks to Alana Hudson for this observation.
Vera Lynn Sings script, December 11, 1956, episode, BBC WAC TV Light Entertainment scripts, microfilm reels 81/82. For the episode of December 4, 1958, the Silhouettes’ black-and-white routines (for a medley of “Swanee,” “Dixie,” and “Camptown Races”) were explicitly minstrel-themed, and were introduced by Lynn with the observation that “the traditional costume of the minstrel is black and white” and then a joke (at least in a draft of the script) that she had expected to see Eric Robinson “with a black face and a straw hat”: Vera Lynn Sings script, December 4, 1958, episode. The first series of Vera Lynn Sings included other production numbers involving “Southern” themes, such as an Al Jolson tribute medley and a campy performance of the spiritual “Dem Bones” accompanied by skeleton props, but there is no indication in the production records that these numbers employed blackface—or that Lynn or any of the show’s singing groups ever wore it. I have found no direct discussions of blackface in the internal documents.
FB, “Last Night,” Birmingham Daily Gazette, December 12, 1956, BNA.
See Pickering, “BBC’s Kentucky Minstrels.”
Quoted in Newton, Paving the Empire Road, 145–46.
Vera Lynn Sings was exceptional in its apparently complete exclusion of Black performers. Sarita Malik notes that Black performers often featured as variety show guests in the early decades of both ITV and BBC television, with a marked preference for featuring Black American over Black British artists. Malik points to The Black and White Minstrels as “[p]erhaps the most offensive example of how potential Black-British talent was being overlooked”: Malik, Representing Black Britain, 110–12. A notable exception, who by her exceptional status proved the rule, was the innovative piano virtuoso Winifred Atwell, who had her own BBC show in 1957; see McKay, “Winifred Atwell.” For further discussion of the representation of Blackness on British television in variety and beyond, see Bourne, Black in the British Frame; Malik, Representing Black Britain; and Newton, Paving the Empire Road.
See Vera Lynn Sings scripts, and “Property and Drape Requirements,” from Albert Stevenson (Producer) to Property Master, April 8, 1958, BBC WAC T12/439/7.
Vera Lynn Sings scripts, May 29, 1958, November 27, 1956, June 12, 1958, episodes, BBC WAC TV Light Entertainment scripts, microfilm reels 81/82; see also production documents, BBC WAC T12/439/2–8; “Furniture, Properties and Drape Requirements,” from Albert Stevenson to Assistant Supply Organiser, November 15, 1956, BBC WAC T12/439/2; and “Furniture, Properties and Drape Requirements,” from Albert Stevenson to Assistant Supply Organiser, May 15, 1957, BBC WAC T12/439/5.
See Vera Lynn Sings script, April 17, 1958, episode, BBC WAC TV Light Entertainment scripts, microfilm reels 81/82.
The interruptions occurred in the shows of April 9 and May 21, 1957, when the queen was visiting Paris and Copenhagen, respectively; see “Vera Lynn Sings—9th April, 1957—7.30 p.m.–8.30 p.m.,” BBC ICM from Assistant to Television Booking Manager (Bush Bailey) to Television Accountant, April 11, 1957, BBC WAC T12/439/4, and “State Visit to Denmark May 20th to 23rd 1957—Presentation Announcements and Trailing Arrangements,” BBC ICM from Robin Scott, Television Outside Broadcasts, May 10, 1957, BBC WAC T12/439/5.
The Holidays with Pay Act of 1948 helped facilitate domestic tourism, especially to holiday camps and seaside resorts, but international tourism remained out of reach for most during the 1950s; see Kynaston, Family Britain, 212–19.
“Our New Travel Series: Where Should We Go?,” Woman and Home, March 1957, 51, British Library; see Sezgin and Yolal, “Golden Age of Mass Tourism.”
See Vera Lynn Sings scripts, October 30, 1956, September 10, 1957, May 1, 1958, May 29, 1958, episodes, BBC WAC TV Light Entertainment scripts, microfilm reels 81/82.
See Vera Lynn Sings script, June 4, 1959, episode, BBC WAC TV Light Entertainment scripts, microfilm reels 81/82.
See Jewish Lives Project, s.v. “Walter Landauer,” accessed February 17, 2021, https://www.jewishlivesproject.com/profiles/walter-landauer; and Jewish Lives Project, s.v. “Marjan Rawicz,” accessed February 17, 2021, https://www.jewishlivesproject.com/profiles/marjan-rawicz.
See Kushner, We Europeans?, 259, and Kynaston, Austerity Britain, 270.
See, for example, Cowgill and Holman, Music in the British Provinces. The BBC also limited representation of Italian musicians, Italian music, and Italian-language singing as part of its restrictions on “enemy alien” music during World War II. Early in the war, the British government also interned Italians living in Britain, and mobs attacked Italian businesses. See Baade, Victory through Harmony, 84, and Kushner, We Europeans?, 176–89.
See IMDb, s.v. “The Wind Cannot Read,” accessed February 18, 2021, https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0052396/.
See Vera Lynn Sings scripts, June 12, 1958, July 10, 1958, episodes.
Vera Lynn Sings script, June 12, 1958 episode.
See, for example, Ian Buruma, “Why We Find It Hard to Forgive Japan,” Sunday Times, January 15, 1995, Sunday Times Historical Archive, 1822–2016, Gale Primary Sources, https://www.gale.com/intl/c/sunday-times-digital-archive.
Dyer, “Entertainment and Utopia,” 20, 26.
Berlant, The Female Complaint, 2.
See BBC WAC TVART1: Vera Lynn / Artists.
“Vera Lynn Turns Down BBC Offer,” The Stage, July 28, 1960, BNA.
See “Miss Vera Lynn,” BBC ICM from HLE.Tel. (Eric Maschwitz) to CP.Tel. (Kenneth Adam), June 17, 1960, BBC WAC TVART1: Vera Lynn / Artists.
See “Vera Lynn Gets Her Own Show on ITV Tonight” (caption), Daily Mirror, October 15, 1960, BNA.
See, for example, television listings, Belfast Telegraph, January 2, 1965, BNA.
“‘Vera Lynn Sings’: 12th June 1958,” BBC ICM from HLE.Tel. (Eric Maschwitz) to Mr. Albert Stevenson, June 13, 1958, BBC WAC T12/439/1; “Vera Lynn—Estimated Costs,” BBC ICM from Light Entertainment Organiser, Television, to HLE.Tel., October 22, 1958. The observation that US variety was better resourced than BBC variety was a perennial one, going back to at least World War II; see Baade, Victory through Harmony, 181. It also suggests that, while Vera Lynn Sings was significantly over budget, the program’s cost was not the deciding factor in its cancellation—though it likely did not help.
“The Vera Lynn Show 26.6.58,” BBC ICM from CP.Tel. to HLE.Tel., June 27, 1958.
See “Visit to America: Albert Stevenson,” BBC ICM from HLE.Tel. to CP.Tel., July 3, 1958, and Kelvin Portland, “Radio and Television,” Aberdeen Evening Express, September 18, 1958, BNA.
Derek Hoddinott, “I Always Thought Life Began at Forty,” The Stage, May 28, 1959, BNA.
“‘Vera Lynn Sings’: Friday, June 18,” BBC ICM from CP.Tel. (Kenneth Adam) to HLE.Tel. (Eric Maschwitz), June 19, 1959, BBC WAC T12/439/1.
“Pick of the Week,” The Stage, January 19, 1961, BNA.
Ibid. See also “Weekend Viewing Is Too Stereotyped,” Liverpool Echo, December 5, 1960, BNA, and James O’Toole, “Pick of the Week’s Programmes: BBC’s Old-Fashioned Humbug,” The Stage, December 8, 1960, BNA.
See, for example, “Welcome Back Vera,” Liverpool Echo; “Tele-Viewpoint: Behind the Iron Curtain by Television,” Lancashire Evening Post, June 5, 1957, BNA; Richard Sear, “Sweetheart Vera Is Back,” Daily Mirror, April 18, 1958, BNA.
Ray, “Is It You—or Just a ‘Ghost’?”; O’Toole, “Pick of the Week’s Programmes.”
Norman Cook, “Telecrit,” Liverpool Echo, April 18, 1958, BNA.
See “An Audience Research Report: ‘Vera Lynn Sings,’” July 4, 1957; “An Audience Research Report: ‘Vera Lynn Presents,’” August 2, 1960, BBC WAC Audience Research R9/7/47. Audience reports on Vera Lynn Sings and Vera Lynn Presents usually compared the ratings of a given episode to the series average, but the report for July 4, 1957, referenced the broader category of televised light entertainment.
See “An Audience Research Report: ‘Vera Lynn Sings,’” November 5, 1958, BBC WAC Audience Research R9/7/36.
“An Audience Research Report: ‘Vera Lynn Sings,’” November 2, 1956.
“An Audience Research Report: ‘Vera Lynn Sings,’” July 22, 1959.
See, for example, “An Audience Research Report: ‘Vera Lynn Sings,’” November 5, 1958.
Lynn, Some Sunny Day, 267.
Stras, “Introduction: She’s So Fine,” 23.
A sampling of this scholarship includes Brooks, “Nina Simone’s Triple Play”; Coates, “Teenyboppers, Groupies”; Fast, “Bold Soul Trickster”; Feldstein, How It Feels to Be Free; Mahon, Black Diamond Queens; O’Brien, She Bop II; Randall, Dusty!; Stilwell, “Vocal Decorum”; Stras, She’s So Fine; Wald, Shout, Sister, Shout!; Warwick, Girl Groups; and Whiteley, Sexing the Groove.
See Lynn, Some Sunny Day, 263.
See ibid., 273–76. See also contracts in BBC WAC TVART3: Vera Lynn, 1963–1970, and TVART5: Dame Vera Lynn, 1970–1980.
See Baade, “Vera Lynn 100.”