Women We Loved: Gracie! (BBC Four, 2009)

Synopsis: After undergoing life-threatening surgery,  singer and actress Gracie Fields (Jane Horrocks) is preparing to leave Britain to convalesce in Capri with her family and film director Monty Banks (Tom Hollander).  Her plans are interrupted by the outbreak of World War II, and the request that she perform as part of the war effort.  When she marries Italian Monty, she must choose between staying in Britain and risking his arrest and detainment as an enemy alien, or leaving for America.  On choosing the latter, her popularity is dented by a vicious press campaign against her.
Gracie TV film Jane Horrocks

This image from Gracie! sums up nicely the story that the drama wants to tell.  In the foreground, smiling and singing in the snow to cheer up some good old British Tommies who have accosted her for a song, is Gracie Fields.  Relegated to the background, out of focus but visibly put out by the whole thing, crossly folding his arms in disapproval, is Monty Banks, Gracie’s tour manager and soon-to-be husband.  Gracie’s determination to do the right thing by her audience comes always at Monty’s expense.

Gracie! tells the story of Fields’s dutiful sacrifice of health and marriage to put herself through a gruelling series of international concerts during World War II, the proceeds of which went towards the war effort.  It is intended as a corrective to the vilification that she had suffered at the hands of the press during the war, where she was accused of deserting her country, taking her millions with her to America and forgetting her loyal fans.

In its attempt to rehabilitate Gracie’s reputation, then, the film’s version is remarkably close to the cheerful, hardy, stoic personality that might be familiar to viewers who have seen any of Fields’s films, suggesting (unlike Enid), that she was really all she seemed.

The on-stage and off-stage person are one, as emphasised persistently in the dialogue.  When Basil Dean (Alastair Petrie) is trying to persuade Gracie to join ENSA , he tells her that the public “think you’re one of them”, to which she retorts “I AM one of them!”.  When she promises Monty that she will give up being ‘Gracie Fields’ to become Mrs Bianchi (his real surname), he  reminds her “this is who we are, this is what we do”.

Gracie! 2009It’s curious that the film’s take on Gracie is that her identity and her career as performer are inextricably intertwined, because the thrust of the narrative, really, is about whether Gracie can give up her career and be a better wife to Monty.  This is summarised in the passage of a postcard between them – the image on the front is a publicity photograph bearing the caption ‘Our Gracie’.  Looking at it disapprovingly, Monty says wanly “I should have known you’d never be my Gracie”.  Gracie duly adds a ‘Y’ to the beginning, as a means of promising herself more fully to him.

As I’ve written about in great detail elsewhere (forthcoming, Journal of Popular Television), casting native Lancastrian Jane Horrocks to play her was an important step in making this version of Gracie seem authentic, as the women’s shared northern heritage is one that is associated with ‘realness’, simplicity, and honesty. Put simply, there is no edge to this Gracie – you are to take her as she comes.

It seems that Horrocks had been keen to play Fields for some time, and the project was initiated by her.  The screenplay is written by her partner, Nick Vivian, which lends its emphasis on the story of the put-upon non-famous husband to a popular  star something of a frisson.  If Horrocks saw something of herself in Gracie, what might Vivian have seen in Monty?

Because the storyline of the film is fairly thin, there is also a lot of emphasis on sequences of on-stage performance.  These have two functions.  The first, and most straightforward is as a showcase for Horrocks’s really excellent imitation of Fields’s singing.  This had already had a well-known public outing in Little Voice (Mark Herman, 1998)

These impersonations help to reiterate the closeness between actress and character, to seemingly authenticate the portrayal of Fields.

The second function of the performance sequences, though, is a dramatic one.  Because the overall argument of the film is that Fields was more or less the same person on stage as off, the performance sequences allow us equal insight into Gracie’s state of mind than off-screen sequences.  Indeed, it is in performance sequences that Gracie’s emotions are actually most visible to the audience.

Jane Horrocks Gracie Fields

Made tiny in the frame and with patriotic paraphernalia surrounding her, Gracie performs to a hostile audience.

Jane Horrocks Gracie Fields

Stoically ploughing through the song through the chants of ‘Traitor, traitor’, Gracie is visibly shaken.

Jane Horrocks Gracie Fields

Close up of Gracie’s eyes show them widening in fear and hurt.

Towards the end of the film, Gracie is booed while she sings ‘There’ll Always Be an England’ to audiences in America.  They have clearly been reading the newspapers, and view her performance as a hypocritically patriotic one.  The selection of the overtly nationalistic song, obviously, is meant to be ironic, but it also works both lyrically and in its marching rhythm, to emphasise Gracie’s stoicism – she continues singing despite the emotional difficulties she is experiencing, but she is visibly and audibly shaken by the process.  Her eyes widen with fear, and the smile with which she usually performs contorts into a grimace.

The film concludes with Gracie returning to England to perform at the Palladium. She sings ‘Take me To your Heart Again’ – as the real-life Gracie did – a version of La Vie En Rose with new English Lyrics. The sentimental lyrics and music here provide the film with an ending of heightened emotion.  As before, Horrocks performs Gracie’s emotion on stage –

In these performance sequences we can see the film using melodramatic techniques, allowing music and facial gesture in particular to carry meaning.  Horrocks’s talent as an impersonator is expedient for making the performances enjoyable and recognisably ‘Gracie’, but its her talent as an actor that make Gracie feel believable, even where I think the character is disappointingly one-dimensional for a portrayal of a real-life individual.

Gracie! is available on DVD.  For those of you in the UK, it is also regularly shown on the UKTV Drama Channel.

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