One of the more bizarre moments in British life was when Prince Charles described Gary Barlow as a ‘national treasure’ at an awards ceremony in London in 2012. Rather embarrassingly for His Royal Highness, the Take That singer was subsequently embroiled in a tax avoidance scheme for which he apologised in 2014.
Whoever coined the phrase ‘national treasure’ has a lot to answer for, particularly when applying it to Gary Barlow. I’m of the same opinion as the correspondent to the Guardian who, in 2016, wrote to the paper to ask: “Who decides that someone should become a ‘national treasure’ and why is it that many who make that list – eg Stephen Fry, Billy Connolly, Joanna Lumley – are appalling?”
The correspondent forgot to mention Cheryl Cole, Graham Norton or someone called Paul Hollywood. I’ve been out of the loop for a while so I had to google him. Apparently, he’s a chef.
I’m sure Mr Hollywood can whip up a delicious spag bol, but does that really make him a national treasure? The same can be said of Cheryl Cole, a singer and tv personality with a conviction for assault occasioning actual bodily harm.
Surely Britain has only two national treasures, one of whom is Her Majesty The Queen. The other our sovereign obliquely referenced during her address to the nation on Sunday. “We should take comfort that while we may have more still to endure, better days will return,” said the Queen. “We will be with our friends again. We will be with our families again. We will meet again.”
As a result of the Queen plugging “We’ll Meet Again”, the wartime song, recorded by Vera Lynn, has shot up the iTunes charts, leaping 830 places to 22. One of the artists leapfrogged by the 103-year-old Lynn is Sam Smith, whose ‘To Die For’ languishes at no. 77 in the charts.
Smith, you might remember, posted a message on instagram last month in which he admitted he was struggling emotionally with self-isolation during the coronavirus pandemic. Describing himself as “bored sh**less”, he added: “I have got a bit of a headache and allergies but I think I’m alright.”
Fortunately Dame Vera is bearing up better than Smith. “The spirit of the Blitz is very much here, as retired doctors and nurses return to work to help out, which is wonderful of them,” she told a national newspaper yesterday.
I happily confess I’m a little partial in this matter for in 2004 I had the privilege of taking tea with Vera Lynn when she invited me to her home to talk about the Blitz. I was researching a book and wanted to hear about her experiences. What a dame! Modest, warm, sincere and oozing elegance. “Lucky blighter!” muttered one envious Battle of Britain ace when I told him a few weeks later that I’d had tea with Dame Vera.
She was, and will forever be the Forces’ Sweetheart of the Second World War. Many of the combat veterans I interviewed preferred American big band music to Dame Vera’s sentimental ballads but I never met a British veteran who didn’t have anything but the utmost affection and respect for Lynn.
Lynn’s career was just getting going when war broke out and she was all set to volunteer to work in a factory on war work when the government realised she would be more useful using her voice to boost the nation’s morale.
London theatres closed when the Blitz began in September 1940 but by public demand they slowly reopened and in the spring of 1941 Lynn and the comedian Max Miller were the headline acts in a variety show called Applesauce! at the London Palladium.
Lynn was then 24, living at home with her parents in Barking. She drove herself to work each day in a green canvas-roofed Austin 10. “Once I’d been going home from a show when the air raid siren went as I drove through Poplar,”she told me. “‘God, what do I do?’ I thought. But there was only one thing to do and that was go on. And that’s what I did.”
On several occasions the siren sounded midway through the performance. Some audience members would leave but most, recalled Lynn, “stayed for us to carry on with the show”. Once the curtain came down the stars and the audience would “all have a little sing-song” as they waited for the all-clear siren.
Later in the war Lynn flew to Burma to entertain the ‘Forgotten Army’, the soldiers of General Slim’s 14th Army, who were fighting a bloody campaign against the Japanese. Sometimes she sang to a thousand troops, other times to a handful in an isolated outpost. Whatever the occasion, she gave it her all and never complained and certainly never acted the big shot. She knew that soldiers were the real stars, just as now she knows that it’s the doctors and nurses fighting on the frontline of the war against coronavirus who are the heroes.
Today’s self-obsessed celebrities should look at Dame Vera and learn. That’s what makes a national treasure, a star who puts their country before their career.