September 2019 will mark the fortieth anniversary of the death of Dame Gracie Fields, who rose from being a mill girl to becoming a Global superstar and a champion of the British working classes. Her down to earth persona earned her the affectionate nickname of ‘Our Gracie’, and as such she became the epitome of traditional British values and beliefs. From humble beginnings above her Grandmother’s fish and chip shop in Rochdale, Gracie Fields enjoyed a career that spanned over seventy years and became one of the World’s highest paid entertainers and the first female variety artiste to be awarded the CBE.
To mark the significant anniversary of her death, Manchester biographer, theatre director and English teacher, Sebastian Lassandro has written, Pride of Our Alley, the most detailed biography of Gracie Fields yet. Spending hundreds of hours researching in public and private archives, trawling through tens of thousands of newspaper cuttings, diaries and letters and conducting interviews with family, friends and colleagues, Lassandro has written the definitive biography of Gracie Fields that for the first time will tell the complete life story of Britain’s first female superstar.
In this interview with The Reviews Hub’s Richard Hall, Lassandro talks about how he became interested in Gracie Fields and why now is a good time to re-evaluate her career and the contribution that she made to both entertainment and popular culture.
When did you first become interested in Gracie Fields?
When I was at High School and heard her voice on a compilation CD in a drama class when I was studying the Second World War. On track one she was singing an upbeat number called, Sing as we go, and later on in the disc, she sang Ave Maria. I thought that there must be a mistake on the track list as I couldn’t believe it was being sung by the same person who had previously sung the raucous, upbeat marching number. When I did some research I realised that it was the same person and that there was also a local connection with Gracie coming from Rochdale, and myself about 15 miles away in Hyde. My interest spiralled from there really. I’ve always been interested in music that predates my generation and in particular with artists such as Tommy Steele and Max Bygraves. I grew up with the music of Al Jolson, who my Nan loved and somehow listening to Gracie her voice just clicked with me and I wanted to explore and find out as much about her as I could. Interestingly, my Nan saw Gracie perform a couple of times in the 1930s, so maybe it came vicariously through her!
From developing an interest in Gracie Fields when you were at school, what then made you want to write a two-volume biography of her life?
Having started my research into Gracie at High School, I discovered that she was not as widely remembered as the likes of Vera Lynn, Anne Shelton and the Andrews Sisters and I wondered why that was. When I was sixteen I went to Rochdale Museum and realised that there is very little in the area that commemorates her life. There’s the Gracie Fields Theatre of course which she opened in 1978 but other than that her name wasn’t really remembered. So I decided to get in touch with people who knew Gracie and worked with her including family and friends and of course other fans.
Over a period of time I’ve assembled a big collection of Gracie Fields memorabilia and through this people have contacted me about her. When I was at University I wrote my English Literature dissertation on Gracie Fields’ war years and as a result of this and my interest in her, I now had a lot of research. Wondering what to do with it all, I decided to see if the story could take shape. In writing the books, I wanted to push my research and tell her full story. There have been a couple of books written about Gracie Fields previously but most have huge gaps, are rose-tinted or seriously make facts and dates up due to lack of research. She was a down to earth person who became a megastar and I wanted to present her as she really was – and present her important story chronologically and accurately.
What are the differences between the other books about Gracie Fields and the one that you’ve written?
The first thing is that my book follows a chronology. I’ve started before Gracie was born and researched her family genealogy thoroughly. Nobody’s done this before. Gracie mentions some stories about her family in her own autobiography but I’ve discovered that some of these are inaccurate. She mentions her grandmother working down the mines but this could not have happened as legislation changes at the time would have prevented this from happening. I’ve looked into her early years extensively, including the important years when Gracie ‘cut her teeth’ touring in low budget variety revues. Other books have covered this in a couple of pages, whereas I devote nearly five chapters to it. My research included her extensive war work that has never been chronicled before. In her own book, Gracie only dedicates three pages to her entire ‘war job’, whereas in fact she was busier than Vera Lynn and Anne Shelton combined, performing all over the World, often bankrupting herself. I spend a number of chapters looking at the previously unchronicled and hugely important war work as I want to readdress this imbalance and get her work the important recognition it deserves. She didn’t ‘run away’ from England during the war, but she was working extensively non-stop for its duration.
What was the secret of Gracie Fields’ success and why do you think she had such a long career?
Her secret was that she never tried to be anything that she wasn’t. All the way through her career she presented herself as a northern mill girl born above a fish and chip shop. This is how she continued to describe herself and even in 1968, when she performed at the Batley Variety Club, she opened her set by saying that though she had been born in a fish and chip shop she never thought that she would end up singing in one, referring to the chips in a basket that were being handed around the club. It’s the sense of “extraordinary ordinariness” about Gracie that appealed to the masses. I think she was probably one of the first celebrities to be known by an epithet such as ‘our’. In fact the tablet on her grave just says, ‘Our Gracie,’ and that sums it up. She was a part of the national consciousness in the 1930s and a symbol of solidarity and optimism during the harsh years of the Depression.
If you had to choose a moment from Gracie Fields’ career that sums up her character what would it be?
In 1948, Val Parnell, who had taken over the running of the London Palladium, persuaded Gracie to go back to performing in variety. After the War, she had not wanted to perform in variety as some members of the public had turned against her because she was married to an Italian. She kept the details of her opening set at the Palladium a secret but opened with an English Translation of La Vie En Rose, translated to ‘Take me to your heart again, let’s make a start again, forgiving and forgetting.’ This is exactly what the English public did and she received a fifteen-minute standing ovation. From that moment they forgave Gracie and retracted the xenophobic remarks that were made against her – and she enjoyed a second career which lasted for thirty more years until her death. She really knew how to capture an audience and that song was a perfect choice for Gracie to announce her comeback.
Finally, what do you hope that Gracie Fields’ fans will get from reading your book?
I hope her fans will get a more accurate picture of who she was both on and off stage. She was a great performer, one of Britain’s first superstars and also one of the first entertainers to go to America and earn big bucks in Hollywood. At one point she was the highest paid film star in the world, much to the annoyance of Mae West. She was the highest paid film star of the 1930s, the highest paid concert star of the 1940s and the highest paid radio star of the 1950s. She conquered every platform she appeared in but always kept her working-class roots as a key part of her character. She had a philanthropic side to her as well; she opened an orphanage near Brighton and donated large amounts of money to charity all through her life. There are two sides to Gracie Fields, the public and the private. For the first time, I believe that my book addresses both sides and using contributions from her family, friends and colleagues, I have attempted to paint a detailed picture of who Gracie Fields really was both on and off stage.
Pride of Our Valley, by Sebastian Lassandro, is published by BearManor Media and can be purchased on Amazon UK and www.bearmanormedia.com
Richard Hall | Image: Contributed