“We had a full house expecting a very special concert and it would have been terribly deflating to have come out and said “Sorry, John’s dead but we’re going to carry on anyway,” she says.
“It wasn’t at all courageous, I was simply thinking of the poor audience; I’d come to terms with my “poor self” a long time previously.” Dame Cleo manages to imbue the phrase “poor self” with such fiery derision that it’s hard not to wince until she (eventually, and it’s a pretty long wait) smiles and defuses the tension.
Jazz singer extraordinaire with a vocal range of four octaves, famed for her “scat” singing, although she prefers the term “vocalese” and a CV of best-selling recordings that would take too long to list, her virtuousity is such that she is the only female performer to have ever received Grammy nominations in the jazz, pop and classical categories.
“The children quite often tell me I’m a toughie” she beams.
“But life has a habit of knocking you sideways so you have to be prepared to stand firm.
Yes, from time to time I am a complete wreck, but I do my weeping silently, by myself - I always think of Joyce Grenfell referring to people “speaking in a Sunday voice” to the bereaved, and I can’t stand that.” She pulls an exaggeratedly pious face to illustrate the vehemance of her point.
Certainly, it takes a toughie - and a not altogether diplomatic toughie at that - to volunteer details of her husband’s marital infidelity at a juncture when the posterity would be quite content to leave his memory unblemished.
Not only that, but when she does mention it, it is with the sort of dismissive matter-of-factness that would earn her a standing ovation from her fellow octogenarian Debo, Duchess of Devonshire who famously laments Britain’s fatal slide into sloppy sentimentality.
“I knew John probably had a fling from time to time when I was away on tour,” says Dame Cleo.
“I’ve been on the road for most of my life and I know what it’s like when couples are separated and how even a man deeply in love can stray.
On the windowsill of Dame Cleo Laine’s Buckinghamshire sitting room, between the photograph of “Dankie getting gonged by the Queen” and the framed Valentine’s Day doggerel which rhymes “waffle” with “I loves yer, dear, with all my heart - and all me other offal”, stands a Hallmark card bearing the word “Granny” picked out in pastel flowers. But despite the tragedy the show went on, indeed it was only moments before the finale that Dame Cleo broke the news of his passing to the audience.
I don’t knit for them or cook for them or remember their birthdays or anything like that - I’m a great-grandmother too - but I suppose I do get them out of the s*** if they ever need money.” John, Dankie, is her late husband, Sir Johnny Dankworth, who died in hospital after a short illness last February, on the day of a milestone celebratory concert to mark the 40th anniversary of the couple’s music venue, The Stables, which they established in the grounds of their rural home in Wavendon, near Milton Keynes.
To say it came as a shock would be something of an understatement; subsequently she was commended in the media for her bravery.
But it is an accolade that, somewhat oddly, still rankles.