Modern day Vera Lynn cheering up Covid Britons just like Forces Sweetheart


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Like her hero Vera Lynn, Annie Riley wants to lift the spirits of veterans and care home residents so has toured the country performing her songs

Annie Riley performing at The Not Forgotten
Annie Riley performing at The Not Forgotten

A singer has lifted the spirits of thousands of Covid-weary Brits – spurred on by the words of Forces Sweetheart Dame Vera Lynn.

Annie Riley has toured the length and breadth of the country, performing for ­veterans and care home residents.

Her mission – just like Dame Vera’s We’ll Meet Again wartime anthem in the 1940s – is to help people “keep smiling through”.

And it was a pep talk from Dame Vera – who she first met 14 years ago – which encouraged Annie to pull out all the stops.

Annie recalls Vera tenderly taking her hand and declaring: “Promise me that so long as you have air in your lungs, you will sing and share that singing with others.”

Vera Lynn, the Forces Sweetheart in uniform, 1941
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They met when Annie sang at a concert and it spawned a friendship that lasted until Vera died in June 2020, aged 103.

Last year, Annie, 47, and a band of song and dance entertainers working for charity The Not Forgotten did the star proud by performing for more than 4,000 Forces veterans and putting on socially-distanced shows at 100 care homes.

Annie also helped organise 22 drive-in concerts for The Not Forgotten, which runs events to bolster the morale of wounded, sick or disabled veterans.

Royal fan princess Anne at a charity bash

Her tireless enthusiasm has even earned her a thumbs-up from a royal namesake – the charity’s patron, Princess Anne.

One of the drive-ins was at the Princess Royal’s 730-acre estate in Gatcombe Park, Glos – and Annie was in charge of the Christmas party entertainment at St James’s Palace.

Mum-of-two Annie, from Charing, Kent, said: “The pandemic felt like my calling. I was feeling menopausal and thinking, ‘What am I going to do to help?’ and then it was clear.

I knew I couldn’t stop entertaining because helping people and cheering them up is like oxygen to me.

“Bless her heart, Vera really knew how important music was to people.

Care home concert in Cornwall

“I would never, ever compare myself with such a legend. But I thought about all the joy she spread during the war and when the pandemic started I thought, ‘This is my time to do something’.”

Ex-pub singer Annie got a break with the 40s song duo Swingtime Sweethearts over 15 years ago. She and pal Le’arna Castle first performed in front of Dame Vera in 2008.

But they went one better a year later – recording the single Not Forgotten with Vera. They became ambassadors for one of her charities and helped organise her 100th birthday celebration in 2017 with a concert at the London Palladium.

The singers have also rubbed shoulders with Strictly Come Dancing ’s Anton Du Beke and celebrity chef Phil Vickery.

Annie’s pandemic shows for The Not Forgotten started online in March 2020. She also helped the charity set up YouTube music and message videos to connect with veterans, and a raft of stars contributed.

Annie – married to former pro wrestler John, 56 – said: “Dame Vera sent a message. Russell Watson sent footage of him singing with his dog. Sir Cliff Richard sent footage from Barbados and some pre-recorded videos.

“Brian May performed We’ll Meet Again on his guitar. Peter Andre and Jeremy Vine got involved, and Elaine Page, and some cast of the sitcom ’Allo ’Allo, who I have worked with, were also keen to help.”

The videos were seen by more than 90,000 people. And not a single “hit” is not lost on Annie, who said: “You can’t change the world but you can change somebody’s world.”

Vera and fans
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When lockdown eased, Annie and her fellow entertainers kicked off their 100-gig care home tour. Each event ­represented a year of The Not Forgotten’s centenary.

Annie added: “Sadly, I’ve met veterans with PTSD who thought of taking their own lives and I heard even more of that during the pandemic. Some have said, ‘You have saved me’ just by spreading that bit of joy.

“I was at one home when a lady came up and said, ‘Thank you. You have given me my mother back for an hour’.

“She could see the old mother had returned, dancing and enjoying the music. It was ­overwhelming to hear that.

“We were all tearing up. Of everything I’ve done in my life – including performing in front of the Queen at the Palladium ­concert – nothing compares with knowing the good we’ve done in those homes.

“At St James’s Palace, Princess Anne turned to me and said, ‘I’m so thrilled with what the charity has achieved in the most difficult of years’.”

The singers meet Strictly star Anton

Two years ago, Annie worked with Good Morning Britain on a loneliness prevention campaign – an issue close to her heart.

She said: “I’ve always cared about the older generation. My dad died when I was young. I was brought up by my grandparents and mother. I’d sit on grandad John’s knee and sing.

“When he got Alzheimer’s, he had to be put in a care home. When I visited it was like God’s waiting room, so I had to do something – and I volunteered to sing.

“Before I knew it, I was singing five days a week at different homes. Grandad died 20 years ago but when the pandemic hit I knew I had to keep cheering the elderly on.”

At one event, Annie met a woman whose son was left disabled after being wounded on duty with the Royal Marines. The mum was in tears of joy at seeing him dancing.

The singers meet TV chef Phil Vickery

Annie said: “I could see what a big thing that was. That sums it up for me. The Not Forgotten concerts take a bad situation and add a bit of sunshine to people’s lives – that there is light within the darkness.

“We’re hoping to do more in 2022. We just want to put smiles on people’s faces.”

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George Holan

George Holan is chief editor at Plainsmen Post and has articles published in many notable publications in the last decade.

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