In the lead up to Remembrance Day we're inviting you to join the BBC Big Band and singer Annie Gill as they capture the spirit of the 1940s in Our Finest Hour here on 4 October. Looking back in words and music at the momentous turning point of World War Two, and Britain’s finest hour, from the miracle of Dunkirk to the decisive victory of the Battle of Britain, this evocative tribute is presented by Kevin Whately, who took some time out of a busy schedule to tell us more ...
What can audiences expect from Our Finest Hour?
It's a little like Last Night Of The Proms except it's the BBC Big Band playing music from the Second World War era - both British and America - as well as music inspired by the war, Annie Gill singing some wartime songs and myself hosting it.
As the host, what is your role in the performance?
I'm introducing the music, doing narration between the performance pieces and reading things like a letter from an unnamed serviceman who left it for his mum and didn't return from a bombing raid, which sums up certainly how the people in the RAF felt about their war effort and how important it was.
As a singer yourself, will you be participating in any of the musical numbers?
[Laughs] They haven't asked me to yet but I'll be ready if they do.
Why do you feel its important that we remember Dunkirk and the Battle of Britain?
They were both such massive turning points in the war. Dunkirk was probably the worst time of the conflict but because we got through it didn't mean we were exactly on the home run but from then on things started going better and the Battle of Britain was won against all odds really. It's important that kids know about the war and what exactly it entailed as well as them seeing the social side of it, which they will do through the music and songs.
Are there lessons to be learned from that time in history?
With the sort of Cold War that's going on at the moment it's so easy for politicians to slip down that route. It seems to me that with some politicians – and I'm not saying it's necessarily true of the current ones – their CV isn't complete unless they've overseen a war, which is quite terrifying. I was born just after the Second World War and for the most part we've been at peace all that time, and it's really important to keep reiterating the fact that it's no fun and it's not all glory.
Have you done any research into the era and the music?
My very first theatre job in rep was Cowardy Custard singing a load of Noel Coward songs and later I did plays like A Nightingale Sang In Berkeley Square, which was set during the war in the Blitz, as well as films like The English Patient. So I feel I know a lot about the war and the different aspects of it.
Why do you think the music of that era still resonates?
It's mostly a nostalgia thing, isn't it? It's a time which, for all the hell of war, people see through a rosy glow. It was a kind of nobler time and a more selfless time when community was much more important and people had to pull together. At the time people's spirits were kept up by these songs with singers like Vera Lynn turning up to perform for the soldiers, airmen and sailors all around the world.
Do you have a favourite song or piece of music in the concert?
I love all the Glenn Miller big band stuff. It makes my hair stand on end whenever I hear it. The song A Nightingale Sang In Berkeley Square is also very nostalgic for me because it was in the play of the same name that I met my wife. And the music in the show seems to have been around all our lives. It's always on somewhere.
The show features the Dam Busters March and music from Ron Goodwin's classic scores for Battle of Britain and 633 Squadron. Do you remember those movies from when you were young?
I remember all of those films plus Sink The Bismarck! and things like that. [Laughs] I saw so many war movies I'm surprised I turned out comparatively sane. It seemed like there were so many war movies, with the only alternative being cowboy stories whereas now it's all murders and detectives.
Do you have any relatives who served in the Second World War?
My dad was in the Navy, his brother was in the Army and my grandmother on my dad's side lost, I think, four brothers in the First World War. My wife's dad was in the Merchant Navy and his ship was sunk three times – they were torpedoed three times but he survived. My dad was in the North Atlantic down in Africa during the Second World War but he wasn't at Dunkirk and he was one of those people who never talked about it. I think he once spoke about being in Gibraltar but he wasn't one for recounting war stories.
Did you ever consider a military career yourself?
No, I didn't. My brother did. He was going to join the Navy but I think his eyesight wasn't good enough. But it never crossed my mind.
What lead you into acting instead?
I was a very shy kid but I always felt comfortable on stage pretending to be somebody else, hiding behind another character. From a very early age, from doing Nativity plays at primary school, I remember that feeling of liking being up there. It was all I ever wanted to do and it took me 21 or 22 years to find out how to go about it. I went to drama school and after that I was a folk singer for a year, then I went to a careers advisory guy in Newcastle, said I wanted to be an actor and he declared 'There's no future in that, son! What else do you want to do?' I heard myself say 'I'd like to be a big business tycoon' at which he perked up and said 'For that you need to be a chartered accountant'. He had me articled to Price Waterhouse in two days and I was there for over three years before I got back into acting.
What have been your subsequent career highlights?
I've enjoyed them all for different reasons. Auf Wiedersehen, Pet was huge fun and they're all still my best pals. Inspector Morse was a massive success worldwide. In terms of stage work, I enjoyed doing Gypsy a lot but that was mostly because of watching Imelda Staunton perform. I've played John Proctor twice in The Crucible and that's probably my favourite stage role.
And which roles are you most recognised for?
It varies hugely, although most often I'd say it's still Auf Wiedersehen, Pet. The thing is that when you're playing a policeman like Inspector Morse you're not quite as approachable, I suspect, to people as when you're playing a comedy part. With Auf Wiedersehen, Pet it felt like because we were all one of the lads that anyone could approach us. It was like being in a rock group, a different sort of fame altogether.
Do you have any pre- or post-show rituals?
I'm the least superstitious person I know. I do a voice warm-up on my way to the theatre that dates from drama school, the same little exercises, which takes about 15 minutes. [Laughs] But I don't turn round three times or anything like that in the dressing room. After a show, I like a little tipple but that's about all.
What's the one thing you couldn't be on tour without?
That'd be my car. Particularly with a tour like this, I like heading off at a tangent from the road where I'm going to see what's around. If you're going by train it's not that easy. I like the car and my own space and music.
What do you hope audiences will take away from seeing Our Finest Hour?
I hope they have a warm glow and enjoy joining in with the songs when they're invited to as well as the thrill of hearing a big band on stage.
The tour calls at Lighthouse in Poole. Does it have any significance for you?
My wife [Madelaine Newton] and I toured there in A Nightingale Sang In Berkeley Square when we first got together so Poole has very happy memories for me.