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Monday 28 Jul 2014

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The Week We Went To War: Katherine Jenkins interview

Katherine Jenkins (image: BBC/Finestripe)

Katherine Jenkins presents BBC Daytime's tribute to heroes on the Home Front – The Week We Went To War.

Internationally recognised at the age of just 28 – not only for her singing, but also for her charitable work supporting the British Forces – Welsh mezzo-soprano Katherine Jenkins regularly flies out to war zones to entertain the troops and has been dubbed "the new Forces Sweetheart".

"Dame Vera [Lynn] has always been lovely to me and she has always been very supportive. I will never forget when we sang in Trafalgar Square for VE Day – all the veterans were there and they just adore her and it's great to see that she means so much to them. It is definitely something to aspire to.

"It's lovely to be described as the new Forces Sweetheart and a lovely compliment. When it first happened, I felt like I had been given the title and I wanted to earn it. So, for me, it is an ongoing thing and I think it requires a lot of work.

"I am totally enjoying what I am doing but it's something that I feel I have to achieve – I don't want to just be given it. I will always think of Dame Vera as the Forces Sweetheart.

"I feel so proud to have been able to visit these places and I will do it for as long as they want me to go out there."

The Week We Went To War is part of BBC Daytime's week of special programmes marking the 70th anniversary of the outbreak of the Second World War.

The programmes celebrate the everyday heroes of the Home Front, from families who took in evacuees, to ordinary people who went into bombed buildings at risk of their own lives to save those trapped inside.

Katherine says: "If you have links to the war, the programme is going to bring back memories. For young people like myself, there are a lot of events that I was unaware of because they happened on the Home Front – terrible things like the Bethnal Green Tube disaster, where 173 people died. I have learnt so much."

Each day Katherine is joined in the studio by Michael Aspel who talks about his wartime memories, including his experiences as an evacuee.

She says: "Michael was brilliant – so charming and lovely and he had some great stories, there was great banter between us. The in-joke in our family when I was little was always: 'One day you are going to be on This Is Your Life' – and I also used to love the Antiques Roadshow! I think Michael really helped me, and I was really sad when the shows came to an end because I was quite fond of him!

"I think we all know a lot of stories about people who were on the front line, but this programme looks at the conditions at home, commemorating 70 years since the start of the war. We had brilliant contributors with fascinating stories. The one that really got to me, though, was the one about love."

George and Joan Taylor were apart for six years during the war and wrote to each other every day.

Katherine says: "They were talking about the letters they had written to each other every single day for the years they were apart. And they re-read their letters to each other and they were sitting there holding hands. I did find it very moving. When they first got back together they said they were like strangers but they worked through it and I think that is just amazing. We are all so used today to quick emails and texts, and for them it was the letters that kept them going.

"The topics are fascinating – for example, how people coped with rationing. We have this young student on the programme who was a finalist in Masterchef and we asked him to live off rations for a month to see how he coped and what he was able to make and what he missed.

"Unfortunately, I don't have anyone in my family who was alive then, so I don't have anyone left to ask. But I have found the whole thing fascinating and I just felt that, with things like the rations, how easily we now throw stuff away. You can see why older people are so careful not to be wasteful.

"And when evacuees went back to the homes that they were evacuated to and they hadn't been back since, that was really moving as well – because they were able not only to see the places but also the people again."

Katherine is no stranger to travel, both for her singing career and visiting the troops – her first troop visit was Christmas 2005.

"I have to be a good traveller, and I am getting better at it. I am on planes all the time and you get used to it. I've got my bag which is always packed with essentials for the plane and I know what to do. I tend to sleep on the plane – it is the only time I get a bit of peace and quiet! I also read and listen to music and watch films because I don't often get to see much telly. So it is generally a catch-up of normal stuff and the sleep and then adjust to the time zone.

"I've been out to Iraq twice and to Afghanistan, Kosovo, Northern Ireland and Cyprus. I am always trying to get new artists to go out to where the troops need morale boosting.

"At the moment it is 'fashionable' to talk about Afghanistan, whereas two years ago they were all talking about Iraq. There are people in many different places who are still away from their families, they are doing the same job. And I think it is about remembering them as well.

"And also there are lots of places, for example in Cyprus, they have decompression camps – so you have people coming back from places like Iraq and Afghanistan and these people can't come in from being in the middle of theatre to going home to their family in, say, Bradford. So they have to have three or four days of getting back to normality and we need people to be out there singing to them and entertaining them – I've done a few shows out there. It's more than just those two places.

"When I went to Afghanistan it was almost medieval. The geography of the place surprised me – when you go there you realise it's not as you imagined. There were these massive sand dunes and you would see a man with a camel walking across and you'd think: 'Where on earth has he come from?' It's like you see on films and I didn't expect that I would be able to see those sort of things on my travels. But also I was really surprised by the way the troops took to my music. I was a little nervous the first time I went out, thinking: 'What are a bunch of squaddies going to think of me singing these songs and how is my classical music going to go down with the troops?'

"But, in actual fact, I chose stuff like Nessun Dorma because I thought they would know it from the World Cup, and I sang a couple of Christmas carols, and when I sang Over The Rainbow they all started singing along with me and it was one of those lump in the throat moments. I think they appreciate any music – just the fact that someone has gone out there. So it's all those sort of things that, once you have gone out there, you can't really forget it."

Katherine thinks The Week We Went To War will have real resonance for families with loved ones currently in the forces and was delighted to be asked to present the series.

"People today will be worrying just as much about their sons or daughters out in Afghanistan, and I think they will feel just as much concern. Back then people could only keep in touch by letter, now there are multiple ways of doing it. But I think it is hard on the family no matter what time it is."

"The first thing I thought when I was asked to do the series was: 'I'm not really a presenter and can I do it?' Then, having talked to everyone involved, and finding out what it was about, I was really interested. With my links with the military and the veterans, I just thought it would work and it's a great topic – lots of people are interested in it and I thought I have the interest and I thought I will also have sympathy for the people who would be coming in to talk about friends and family they had lost.

"I don't get the time to do all the singing I want so I would only want to do more television presenting if it was something that I was genuinely interested in, like this, and I also don't know if I am any good at it – so we will have to wait and see what people say!"

"I'm loving all the opportunities I get and I didn't imagine that it would turn out this way, so it's brilliant. It goes from one thing to the next and you don't really take it all in."

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