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Gracie Fields: The extraordinarily ordinary box-office smash

Gracie Fields as Miss Marple with Roger Moore and Jessica Tandy on US television in 1956 Gracie Fields as Miss Marple with Roger Moore and Jessica Tandy on US television in 1956
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One of Britain’s biggest stars of the 20th century, Gracie Fields typified the talent and graft required to sustain success through changing fashions and mediums. As a new biography and CD celebrates her work, Michael Quinn looks back over her stellar career

At one time during the 20th century, there was no bigger British celebrity than Gracie Fields. A bona fide star of stage, film, television, radio and recording on both sides of the Atlantic, she acquired iconic status for an adoring generation who knew her simply as “Our Gracie”.

That sense of affection and attachment sustained a career stretching across seven decades from her stage debut in 1903, aged five, to her small-screen swansong in her 80th year in 1978.

Born above her grandmother’s fish and chip shop in Rochdale, she began performing in variety, acted in the West End, sang on Broadway, was feted by Hollywood and American television, recorded more than 400 songs and had a theatre named after her in her hometown. She was, says Sebastian Lassandro, author of a new two-volume biography of Fields, Pride of Our Alley, “Britain’s first international superstar”.

Gracie Fields, the veteran performer
Gracie Fields, the veteran performer

Drawing on a wealth of newly discovered diaries, letters and archive material, Lassandro’s near-1,000-page work goes a long way to supporting that claim, the breadth of its subject’s career matched by a longevity fuelled by seemingly inexhaustible energy.

Her first mention in The Stage was in 1913 at the Todmorden Hippodrome. The following year she was noted as “a pleasing comedienne” and hailed at the decade’s end as a “revue artist of first-rank ability”.

That acclaim had come in Fields’ breakthrough as a solo artist – following an apprenticeship served on the variety circuit with her siblings – in Archie Pitts’ revue Mr Tower of London. On the road for nearly seven years, it also gave Fields her West End debut at the Alhambra Theatre in 1924.

By the following year, she had transformed into “a performer of so compelling a personality, and with some striking gifts, that even poor material would become artistically profitable at her treatment”.

Her no airs-and-graces Lancashire persona was the epitome of working-class values’ Sebastian Lassandro

For Lassandro, Fields’ personality, as much as her obvious abilities, played a significant part in her success: “Her extraordinary ordinariness, her no airs-and-graces Lancashire persona became the epitome of traditional British working-class values and beliefs.”

All of which disguised a work ethic of prodigious dedication. In 1928, by no means an atypical year, she appeared alongside Gerald du Maurier in Walter W Ellis’ SOS at the St James’s Theatre. Her death in the First Act allowed her to race down the road to a variety bill at the Coliseum, then return for the curtain call before ending the evening with a midnight cabaret at the Café Royal.

On stage, screen and the airwaves, Fields’ persona was a honeyed blend of lightly worn authority and approachability, a quality rooted in her formative childhood in variety, suggests Lassandro. “She learned from the music-hall greats how to work an audience. Gertie Gitana (who took to mimicking Gracie in her own stage act), Maidie Scott, GH Elliott and George Formby senior were favourites of hers and she kept that tradition alive.”

It was, he adds, a facility that transferred easily to film, “where she would break the fourth wall, look straight down the camera and wink at the audience. It was a one-to-one relationship unlike any other at the time.”

Fields’ 1931 film debut, Sally in Our Alley, gave her the first, and most abiding, of several signature songs and brought her to the attention of Hollywood, which would later reward her with a star on its fabled Walk of Fame for her contributions to radio.

(click to enlarge)

So popular was Fields that she regularly attracted imitators. So many, in fact, that in 1934 she placed an advert in The Stage warning her countless impersonators – “good, bad and indifferent, and often injurious to her professional reputation” – to seek written permission for their tribute acts or “legal proceedings will be instituted forthwith”.

In variety, Fields was a box-office cert, headlining the London Palladium often enough to consider it her second home and breaking house records wherever she went. Such was her stature in legitimate theatre that she was the artist of choice to lay the foundation stone for the Prince of Wales Theatre and to lead its opening performance in 1937.

US television held her acting credentials in even higher regard, Fields securing an Emmy nomination for her appearance in a 1956 adaptation of JM Barrie’s The Old Lady Shows Her Medals – one of several ‘serious’ roles for the medium. The same year she was the first actor to play Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple on screen in A Murder Is Announced. As fashions changed and Fields grew older, she continued to adapt and survive, albeit for a period in later years falling all but out of sight in semi-retirement on the island of Capri.

The Stage’s obituary in 1979 (click to enlarge)

True to form, like the trouper she was, she returned to make a memorable 10th appearance in a Royal Variety Performance in 1978. Still in fine voice (luminaries such as sopranos Eva Turner and Luisa Tetrazzini had long thought of Fields as one of the great lost opera voices) she gave a reprise of Sally that seduced the audience into a rapturous singalong with an artist whose warmth, wit and modesty was matched by an incomparable talent.

In a 1949 interview with The Stage, Fields provided a telling clue to the grounded sense of reality, discipline and dedication that sustained a career unlike any other British entertainer before or since: “It is a bad thing to be too easily satisfied with your own work.”

Pride of Our Alley: The Life of Dame Gracie Fields by Sebastian Lassandro is published in two volumes by BearManor Media. Pride of Our Alley – The CD is released through chris@sounds-on-cd.co.uk

If you’d like to read more stories from the history of theatre, all previous content from The Stage is available at the British Newspaper Archive in a convenient, easy-to-access format. Please visit: thestage.co.uk/archive

Statue of Gracie Fields unveiled in hometown

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