Say the name Gracie Fields today and most people, certainly those under pension age, will simply look blank. Yet the woman born above a chip shop on 9 January 1898 in Rochdale, Lancashire, was, in her time, one of the biggest singing stars in Britain, if not THE biggest. She exerted so much star power that, when she inked a four-picture deal with Hollywood, she was able to demand that every movie film in England. She may have been made an Officer of the Venerable Order of St John for her charity work, and, in 1938, was awarded a CBE for her services to entertainment, but she remained a reassuringly down-to-earth figure all her life. Her final, most long-lasting marriage was, in fact, to a Romanian radio repair man.
The roots of ‘Our Grace’, as she was known to her fans, belonged to that long-vanished world of the British music hall. Playing to mostly working class audiences, she never tried to hide her Lancastrian beginnings, and her movie career typecast her always as the happy-go-lucky girl from the industrial north. Her songs, from Sally to Walter, Walter to The Biggest Aspidistra In The World, were cheerful, romantic and fiercely popular, rousing numbers that sold in their millions in the 1930s.
Gracie was in many ways a born entertainer. She’d made her professional stage debut in 1910, aged just 12, and by 18 was being managed by the impresario Archie Pitt (whom she’d later marry). By the 1920s she was a bona fide star, and at one point found herself playing three shows a night in London’s West End. She proved so popular that, in 1931, she was offered the lead in her first feature, the romantic comedy Sally In Our Alley. The movie showcased what would become her signature number and one that she would perform at every gig thereafter, the timeless Sally.
Gracie starred in 15 movies between 1931 and 1945, including semi-autobiographical musical romance The Show Goes On, with 1934’s Sing As We Go! one of her very best. Amazingly, this Depression-era feelgood flick (her second movie that year after Love, Life & Laughter) was penned for her by the socialist playwright J. B. Priestley (An Inspector Calls) and saw Gracie headlining as Gracie (most of her movie characters she shared a name with), a woman who, after being laid off from her job at a clothing mill, is forced to find work in nearby Blackpool where she lands an opportunity to show off her singing voice.
Directed by Basil Dean, who’d helmed her 1932 musical Looking On The Bright Side, Sing As We Go! isn’t just a stellar vehicle for Gracie’s talents as a leading lady and as a singer, it’s a pre-war classic in its own right. As a socio-historical time-capsule, it’s priceless, vividly capturing the sights and sounds of working class life in 1930s Lancashire. In what was often a recurring motif of her movies, the final scene has Gracie returning to the mill and leading all its workers in an inspiring song. If the movie’s mission was to leave audiences with a great big smile on their faces, it was job done.
Gracie made her final movie, the WW2 drama Paris Underground, in 1945 with the post-war years seeing a gradual decline in her popularity. Though she continued to perform, she never recaptured the skyscraping status she’d enjoyed in the 1930s. The 1950s, however, did yield one historic job. In 1956, she became the first actress to portray Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple on screen in a US TV production of A Murder is Announced. The production also featured Jessica Tandy and Roger Moore, and predated the Margaret Rutherford movies by five years.
Though she continued to turn down movie offers, ‘Our Gracie’ was still a regular on television in the 1950s and 60s, and in 1957 her song Around The World, made No.8 on the UK Singles Chart. She continued to make appearances on stage and screen into her seventies, and in 1978 made her tenth and final appearance on the Royal Variety Performance (she’d done her first one in 1928), belting out Sally at the finale, still fine of voice even at 80.
In February 1979, and by then living on the Italian island of Capri, she was finally made a Dame, but sadly Gracie contracted pneumonia a few months later after performing an open-air concert on the Royal Yacht and died on 27 September 1979, aged 81.
Gracie Fields may not be talked about much now, but in her home town there’s barely a resident who isn’t aware of her. In 2016, a statue of the singer was unveiled outside Rochdale Town Hall, the first statue of a woman to be erected in Lancashire for over a century. “Even though she died a long time ago, everyone wanted to be close to the statue,” said her friend Roy Hudd, who unveiled the memorial. “Her story is the Cinderella story of all time. She went from the fish and chip shop on Molesworth Street to a world famous superstar in Capri!”