The extraordinary life of the spy who wrote the lyrics for A Nightingale Sang in Berkeley Square

D-Day celebrations on June 6 reminded us that one of the best-loved songs of the Second World War, A Nightingale Sang In Berkeley Square, was written on the outbreak of hostilities 85 years ago.

But what is its history?

The multi-talented Eric Maschwitz.

It was co-written by the English writer and entertainer Eric Maschwitz (Lyrics) and the American composer Manning Sherwin (music).

The pair found themselves in the French fishing village of Le Lavandou, halfway between Toulon and St Tropez on the French Riviera, and 850 miles from Berkeley Square. It was the summer of 1939 and having been inspired by Michael Arlen’s 1923 short story When the Nightingale Sang in Berkeley Square, they gave the song its first performance in a local bar, with Maschwitz singing and Sherwin on the piano. However, the event passed without note.

It was only after being published in 1940 that performers took notice, and it was first included that year in New Faces, a London revue, where it was sung by Judy Campbell, mother of Jane Birkin, and became a hit.

Numerous versions have been recoded over the years, by stars ranging from Frank Sinatra and Bing Crosby to Nat King Cole and Rod Stewart. Glenn Miller produced a chart hit with his recording. However, it became a standard in the version recorded by Vera Lynn, while Petula Clark sang it to a live audience of millions in London on July 10, 2005, to mark the 60th anniversary of the end of the war.

For Manning Sherwin, A Nightingale Sang In Berkeley Square proved the highlight of his career, while Maschwitz, who also wrote the wonderful These Foolish Things, which provided Bryan Ferry with his first solo album, edited Radio Times and co-wrote the adaptation of the celebrated 1937 film Goodbye Mr Chips, for which he was nominated for an Oscar.

When war came Maschwitz joined the Secret Intelligence Service (SIS), where he worked on sabotage, and then the Special Operations Executive (SOE) before being commissioned into the Intelligence Corps, effectively as a spy. Stints in New York, Canada and then London, where he supervised radio programmes for the troops, led to a transfer to the Political War Executive, and by 1945 he was chief broadcasting officer for the 21st Army Group, and the senior of two officers responsible for broadcasting to troops in northern Germany in an operation that eventually grew into the British Forces Network (BFN).

By 1947 he was chairman of the Songwriters’ Guild of Great Britain, and by 1958 Head of Television Light Entertainment at the BBC, during which time he headed development of a new science fiction drama that eventually launched as Dr Who.

Along the way he first married the notable actress Hermione Gingold.

Maschwitz died a relatively young man aged 68 in 1969, but his legacy lives on in music, film, and TV.

With The Berkeley Square Fair in October, it is safe to say that there is still ‘magic abroad in the air…’