IT’S been 70 years since Glenn Miller vanished over the English Channel as he flew to Paris to entertain the troops during the Second World War.
No one knows what happened to the man whose music defined an era but his disappearance stunned the world.
Now the story of one of the most iconic musical figures of the 20th century will be brought to life in a brand new theatre production, led by one of South London’s favourite sons – Tommy Steele.
And according to the 78-year-old Bermondsey-born entertainer, the Glenn Miller Story promises to have audience on their feet jiving, be-bopping, swinging and jitterbugging while taking them back to the big band days of the 1940s.
“The story is solid gold,” he tells me. “It’s such a great story – a real adventure in music that will get your toes tapping away – and it was that that made me want to do it.
“It’s got great music of course and singing, dancing and with a full and spectacular 16-piece orchestra, it will really wow audiences.
“It’s got the heritage of the story and the sound. People will come and enjoy the music, the dancing and the splendour of it all.
“Glenn Miller died right at the top of his profession and it was only after his death that he became such a hit. It’s very sad.”
It was while Tommy was talking to friend and producer Bill Kenwright that the idea for this production came about.
Bill discovered that his love of Elvis Presley was equal only to Tommy’s adoration of Glenn Miller and his orchestra and thus the seed for a musical collaboration were sown.
“Glenn Miller was the most famous big band leader and I’ve always loved his music – I’m a huge fan,” says Tommy.
“He changed the face of popular music from 1939 to 1943 and he was the most popular recording artist in the world.
“Bill and I were talking about the James Stewart film The Glenn Miller Story and he got really excited about the possibility of telling the story as a musical.
“But there was an obvious problem – although I am fit and healthy and an ‘eight shows a week’ song and dance man, I’m a pensioner from Bermondsey – I’m too old!
“However with a bit of theatre magic we’ve made it work and I’m delighted. It's full of drama, so an actor's dream and it’s going to be wonderful to sing all those amazing songs. And we’ve got some fabulous dancers – the choreography is stunning and it will take everyone back to the big band days of the 1940s.
“It will be wonderful and I can’t wait.”
The show is about to start a 12-week UK tour and will come to the New Wimbledon Theatre next week. It is a theatre Tommy knows well and he tells me it was where he performed Half A Sixpence many years ago.
“It was the first theatre I performed in,” he says. “I remember it was Half A Sixpence and the producer said we didn’t have a good enough number for the second act. So we all got together with the composer who said he’d written this song, Flash Bang Wallop. It ended up being one of the biggest songs of the year!”
So how will he cope with the rigours of the 12-week tour I ask.
“I work out five days a week and have done all my life,” he chuckles. “I’ve always tried to look after myself and I run a lot. I go to bed at 1am because usually I’m doing a show – if I'm not doing a show then I get really fidgety!
"But I love every second of it and couldn’t imagine doing anything else.”
It wasn’t always like this though. In fact Tommy had no real ambitions towards stardom when he was growing up.
He had a number of odd jobs before enlisting with the Royal Navy at 15 but it was whilst in America that he heard the sound of Buddy Holly and a spark was ignited.
When he got back to the UK he began singing and playing his guitar in Soho coffee shops while on leave, was discovered, and shortly afterwards he had made his first record.
His subsequent career in entertainment is legendary – singer, songwriter, actor on both stage and screen, author and even sculptor, he is regarded as one of this country’s best-loved all round entertainers.
Indeed his CV includes more than 20 hit singles, 12 hit films and numerous award winning stage musicals.
“I like showing off,” he laughs. “That’s what it was all about really. I had no idea I was going to go into showbiz. I took up playing guitar and went on the stage. Someone asked me to do panto and I thought it would be a bit of fun and it was – I realised I wanted to do this for the rest of my life.
“I’ve worked hard but had a ball along the way and I would love this to last forever.”
And when he wants to relax a bit he says he writes, paints or does his sculpting.
“All that is done over a period of time but it’s a way of relaxing,” he says. “I like to be busy – it’s what drives me and keeps me young.”
He also likes his pie and mash and makes a weekly trip to Manze’s Pie and Mash shop in Tower Bridge Road when he’s in London.
“I live in Lambeth so it’s very quick to get there,” he says. “It’s a great place and has been there since my dad was a little boy. I love it.
“My wife and I used to live in Richmond but when our daughter moved out we were just rattling around and I decided and I wanted to come back here.
“It’s got everything you need – great theatres, the Thames and wonderful buildings. If it was good enough for Shakespeare it’s good enough for me!”
The Glenn Miller Story is on at the New Wimbledon Theatre between Saturday August 28 and Saturday, September 5. Tickets from £21.40. Visit www.atgtickets.com/wimbledon or call the box office on 0844 871 7646.