Saturday, August 11, 2012

Review: Colonel Moseley reviews "Gracie!" from 24.11.2009

This piece is taken from my reviewblog in 2009

BBC 4's trio of biographical plays about "women we loved" from the last century continued with "Gracie!" with Jane Horrocks playing Gracie Fields.

The play was well-written by Nick Vivian, husband of la Horrocks. The overall effect was much warmer and more cheerful than the previous play centred on the formidable Enid Blyton. This is not to say that our Gracie wasn't formidable. She certainly was, but in all the right ways. The play celebrates an international star and a genuinely nice and unselfish woman. Until the war Gracie truly was loved by her public.

An accomplished performer and effervescent personality in her own right, Jane Horrocks recreates Gracie Fields as a hugely talented and utterly irrepressible entertainer: a singer, comedienne and for a time the highest paid film actress in the world.

It was interesting to watch Andrew Marr's documentary regarding the 1930's a day or so later with its confirmation of her amazing fame and the role this quirky Lancastrian seemed to have played in helping the British endure such hard and strange times. Marr also expressed bewilderment over the plot of "Sing as we go" which for him, it seems, fell a long way short of Bergman and Fellini and he described as the worst film he had ever seen.

Jane Horrocks performance as Gracie Fields is multi-faceted and entirely authentic. Clutching a silk scarf, she captures her style and mannerisms in songs ranging from the romantic and sentimental to the comic and patriotic. Her Gracie is unbending yet fragile, brash yet shy and forever giving, particularly when it came to "our lads."

The Gracie we see is a gifted force of nature, but grounded and sane. She is clearly the daughter of her working class parents. Her mother once put the amiable but Italian Monty Banks in his place with the memorable phase "We don't do that in Rochdale."

Her father tellingly looks back to Gracie's days as a youngster in Lancashire, dangerously running to keep up with the ever-speeding tram. Until some semblance of a happier private life emerged, this helter skelter charge seemed to sum up Gracie's existence: "I was running for my life. I couldn't stop." More could perhaps have been made of this as the motif of her career.

Our Gracie faces up to the tribulations of life like one of her mill-girl-made-good film characters. She was completely and sincerely devoted to the idea of doing her bit to cheer up the troops.

She overcomes cervical cancer and a radical hysterectomy and puts exhaustion to one side to go on tour as soon as war is declared to entertain our soldiers. In return they adore her and take advantage of her good-natured willingness to perform until she drops. This repeatedly takes it toll on her relationship with Monty Banks.

This play is rather more an ensemble piece than "Enid", although everything revolves around Gracie. Tom Hollander plays Monty Banks the Italian film director and former Keystone Cop, who would eventually become her husband.

His twinkly-eyed performance combines humour and wit with an inner sadness that captures the delicate position of the partner of a great star whose motives are always under suspicion.

Banks is seen with Gracie on tour endlessly trying to stop her harming herself by giving too much to her public. The humiliations of his role are presented early in the piece as he is forced to sit outside whilst Gracie talks over touring arrangements with Basil Dean, the director of several of her successful films and now heading ENSA.

Clearly no love is lost between Dean and Banks. Banks does not think much of Dean's skills as a director and cheekily interrupts the meeting and succeeds in puncturing Dean's rather pompous balloon and announcing his continued presence. Gracie is much amused by Monty's intervention and clearly appreciated his genuine concern for her welfare. Later after many confrontations, when Monty has come second to the needs of British servicemen, Gracie admits tearfully that it is he who keeps her going and make her laugh. He helps her function.

One of the other excellent characters in a strong cast is Gracie's accompanist, Harry Parr Jones. A martyr to constipation, we have the running joke of graphic daily reports on the success or other wise of his "motions." More poignantly, it is obvious to everyone other than Gracie that the curmudgeonly Welshman Harry, who leaves the excellent piano available to him in the Irish Guards to accompany her on what turns into an exhausting world tour, is in fact in love with her, but too reticent to admit it. He plays down his role with superb poignancy.

Much of the melodrama of the play stems from the venomous press vilification that follows the alleged desertion of Gracie and her Italian husband at the beginning of the war. He is branded a fascist and laughably even a member of Al Capone's Gang as well as being accused of taking the huge sum of £100,000 out of he country with a fortune in jewelry. We see a frenzied press pack, antagonistic audiences booing her rendition of "There'll always be an England" and even a young boy spitting at her to express public loathing.

At the end of an exhausting tour, which entertained the troops and raised a great deal of money, Gracie says with simple dignity on the newsreel that it is good to be back home.

We then cut to her post-war appearance at the London Palladium. With Monty in the wings, Gracie sings meaningfully Piaf's "La vie en rose" in its English form,"Take me to your heart again" and is rewarded by warm applause and box office records.

In reality however, Gracie Field's reputation never really recovered with the British public. Gracie and Monty lived quietly in Capri and within two years he had died of an heart attack.

Nick Vivian's play succeeded. It presented a hugely talented performer who was not only a star but genuinely concerned to do her bit and, as she put it, "not to let my country down." She could "not forget all the love" her public gave her.

Her desire to cheer up the lads was genuine and selfless and it is deeply saddening that sections of the press found it necessary to traduce her good name in such a vile and enduring manner. Given her sincere desire to entertain during the war at whatever risk - as evidenced by the fact that the Germans bombed the hotel where she had stayed in Arras only shortly after her departure - it is difficult to imagine a more hurtful and slanderous interpretation of her conduct and motives. Happily this entertaining and rounded account helps redress the balance´╗┐

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