It’s funny what comes into your mind when you’re out walking your dog. The other Sunday I got completely lost in reverie about my friend Geraldine Farrar, who during the 1940s had been a very famous big band singer.
My daydream started as I walked past the bungalow that she lived in during retirement and before I knew it I was half a mile down the fields, with my dog John trying and failing to keep up with a hare that was deliberately provoking him by slowing down then speeding up when he got anywhere near.
When I came back down Church Lane, I stood for a few moments to look at the garden where I once spent a lovely afternoon making a film with Geraldine.
It was about this time of year, the sun was shining, we’d had a good lunch at The Sun Inn and Geraldine, or Aunty Gerry, as she liked me to call her had managed two gin and tonics. She looked at the camera crew and said “Would you like me to sing something dahlings?” in the way theatrical people do and then burst into a beautiful version of the old George and Ira Gershwin song ‘Summertime’ – “Your daddy’s rich and your mama’s good looking, so hush little baby, don’t you cry.”
Geraldine was in her 80s at the time and the crystal-clear soprano had long since disappeared under a barrage of Benson and Hedges, but her pitch was still bang on and she sang with a control only the truly great singers aspire to.
The Yorkshire TV crew were astounded – though not as astounded as when she announced that she was now going for an afternoon nap, only to return half an hour later, dressed in a mink jacket and wearing ruby lipstick. Geraldine was proper old-school show business.
She was born in Featherstone just after the First World war and her father was concert secretary at the ‘Rat Trap’ working men’s club. She once told me a very young Ernie Wise appeared there as a clog dancer in his father’s act.
Geraldine was born to be a singer. She was named after a famous American operatic soprano who found fame in the early years of last century. She found her own fame after winning a talent competition at Morecambe pier in 1938 and sang for a few years with Richard Valery.
During the Second World War she made more than a hundred broadcasts for the BBC from Oxford Road studios in Manchester and then joined the Harry Roy band and made some lovely recordings with him for the Decca label.
I’m lucky enough to have one or two of these old 78s and it’s a real thrill to blow the dust off now and again and listen to them on an old wind -up gramophone.
Geraldine spoke in a right posh BBC accent, she had trained at the Wigmore Hall and studied breathing alongside Deanna Durbin. Once when my twins were small she suggested that I should take them for elocution lessons and even made a couple of phone calls on my behalf to friends “in the West End”.
When I asked her why she thought my kids should have elocution, she threw her hands into the air like divas do and said “Because we don’t want them to be talking like you when they grow, do we?” Then she flounced off into her kitchen to feed the stray cats that she entertained. I had to laugh.
Geraldine died in the summer of 2001 and I treasure my memories of her. I sat many a time in her front room to drink tea from a china cup and saucer and watch as she leafed through ancient scrapbooks and told anecdote after anecdote about the places she had been to and people she knew.
There were photos of her with Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton and with Shirley Bassey. “Ohhh! Dear little Shirley”, she’d say. “She was such a frightened little girl when she supported me at the Glasgow Empire, when I sang with Sid Phillip’s Orchestra.”
Geraldine was a proper star. Right up to the end she had her hair done every week at the local hairdresser’s and still managed to make an entrance. The salon was only a hundred yards from her front door, but she insisted on booking a taxi to take her there.
I’m thinking about her right now. I have a lovely image in my mind’s eye. She is sitting on a tall stool at the bar in the Sun Inn, her glass leaves a wet circle on the polished wood, she puffs on a cigarette held in a fancy holder and greets everyone who comes in: “Hello Dahling, how awfully nice to se you again.”
They don’t make ’em like that any more.
If you would like to hear Geraldine singing, she is on the CD ‘Sid Phillips and his Band’ on Castle Pulse label PDSCD 673 and another called ‘Hors d’Oeuvres’ on Sunflower label SUN2413.