Heartbreaking true love story behind singing Chelsea Pensioner Colin Thackery

Resting in an armchair in his crisp scarlet tunic, Chelsea Pensioner Colin Thackery is, in his mind’s eye, in another time and place, giving himself up to a precious memory of his beloved late wife Joan.

In the rich, velvet voice familiar from his performance on Britain’s Got Talent, 89-year-old Colin starts to sing:

“We’re a couple of swells.

“We stop at the best hotels.

“But we prefer the country far away from the city smells.”

He is transported to the night he and Joan performed the number together dressed as tramps, like Judy Garland and Fred Astaire, who made the song famous in 1948 film Easter Parade.

Colin and Joan, who were married for 66 years, liked to sing it around the house, too, even while he cared for her after she developed breast cancer.

Days before Joan’s death three years ago, they were still singing together.

On BGT, Colin’s emotional rendition of Wind Beneath My Wings, also dedicated to Joan, made the viewers fall in love with him, and, apparently, even made the technicians shed a tear.

It also won him a place in tonight’s live semi-finals.

And although Joan cannot be there in person to sing with him, he insists she is always with him, in spirit, on stage – and still having her say.

He says: “I always have her picture in front of me, in my mind.

“And, of course, I talk to her every day, out loud. ‘Good morning’, ‘Good night’, I tell her what’s happening. And I imagine what she might say back.

“I have a word with her before I go on stage. I ask her to make sure I do it right. She was always telling me to hold my head up, and not to drop my voice at the end.”

Joan had a “good alto voice”, he says, adding: “We sang together publicly for the last time a month before she died, but we would always sing together around the house. I think singing must have helped her, with the pain.”

Sitting in a grand room at the Royal Hospital Chelsea, where Colin, who served in the 45th Regiment of the Royal Artillery, moved after Joan died, he says: “A lot of the guys here talk to their wives, a lot of us are widowers.”

Colin has become a bit of a celebrity among the residents since his appearance on the ITV show on May 11.

As we walk around the pristine lawns and colonnades at his 327-year-old home, the “Hello Colins” are coming thick and fast.

Although there’s a fair amount of ribbing too, as you might expect.

“Can I have your autograph?” asks one cheeky gent.

It was for the company that Colin moved here from the family home in Norwich which he had shared with Joan for decades.

His small “berth”, as the Hospital bedrooms are known, is decorated with wooden panelling made from captured French ships.

Colin has made a new life for himself. He sings regularly to entertain his neighbours, and every Thursday uses his voice to soothe those Hospital residents who are living with dementia. 

Colin says: “Some people up there, they never say a word to anyone, but it’s incredible, music gets through.”

A friend suggested Colin enter BGT after he had entertained residents at the “end-of-the-month curry night”. 

Colin says: “He said, ‘If you don’t use it, you’ll lose it – go on Britain’s Got Talent’. I said, ‘Don’t be ridiculous’.

“I watched it with Joan, I never thought I would be on it.

“But I went back to my berth and downloaded the form.”

Although nervous for the first interview, Colin chuckles as he remembers the treatment he received. “There were hundreds of people, but I’m very lucky, – because of my age they take you straight to the front of the queues.”

He chose Wind Beneath My Wings because he had learned it originally to sing to Joan as a surprise at their 50th wedding anniversary party.

Since that first audition, he has loved every minute of the BGT process, especially meeting younger contestants who dote on him “as a granddad”.

What’s more, his friend was right. Although he sucks honey and lemon lozenges throughout my visit – such is the strain of the daily rehearsals – he says his voice has strengthened.

The other benefit, he admits cheekily, is a little attention from the ladies. He has had his fair share of fan mail – some of it from women of a certain age interested in meeting up.

And he might take them up on it.

He says: “There’s still a lot of fun to be had, even at my age.

“I like female company, going for a meal, but as friends – nothing more. It couldn’t happen, because of Joan.”

His dedication to Joan began the moment they met, when he was 19 and she was 18, at a barn dance at an army base in County Durham.

In 1950, two weeks before he was sent to fight in Korea, they got married.

Colin says: “Some people thought it wasn’t a good idea as I might not have come back. But I was deeply in love and you don’t think sensibly.”

The couple did not see each other for two years. They were reunited when Colin was posted to Hong Kong, and Joan joined him after a month-long sea voyage.

He says: “She came off the gang plank and said, ‘By the way, you’ve got a bald patch’.” He doesn’t like to talk about the Korean conflict, apart from admitting it was “frightening” and a “nasty, filthy business”.

Working as a forward observer up front with the infantry, he saw his share of horrors.

He was injured twice – suffering a frost bitten leg, and then hearing damage after a “20-pounder tank gun” exploded above him. He says: “I never had any desire to go back again. Too many bad memories.”

One welcome release during his time in Korea, though, was singing for his fellow troops.

He was in a double act called “Couple of Swells”, which was also their “signature song”.

Little wonder that he introduced it to Joan when they were finally back together again.

The life of singing and dancing that he went on to build with her, their two children, and then their four grandchildren, sounds blissful.

Even at the very end, he spent every minute by Joan’s side.

He says: “Of course I cared for her. I’d be a poor soldier if I couldn’t cook, sew, iron and wash.”

He is keeping his choice of song for the semi-final secret, but it will have a connection to Joan.

Win or lose, he admits that he half hopes he might record an album when the show is finished.

And what might Joan have to say about that?

“She would probably say, ‘Be careful. Don’t be getting above yourself’.”

  • Britain’s Got Talent is on ITV on Wednesday at 7.30pm

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