Daytime TV: Of loss and longing

No one on The X Factor compares to Gracie Fields, who brought her art to millions, says Gary Day

December 3, 2009

It's not often you see a cultural historian in a shirt and tie. They usually prefer jeans and a T-shirt. A leather jacket doesn't go amiss either. For they are the rebels of the academy, finding in the trivia of everyday life meanings every bit as significant as those found in established traditions of art or the solemn narratives of history. And that requires a different dress code from the rest of their colleagues in the humanities.

But since academics can get used to anything, cultural historians have decided to change their image. Leading the way is Professor Jeffrey Richards, looking extremely dapper as he was interviewed about Gracie Fields - "the greatest female performer of her time", according to Roy Hudd (Amazing Gracie: The Gracie Fields Story, BBC Four, Monday 23 November, 10.20pm). Jeffrey talked about her life; about her film persona - the "lovelorn clown" or "great survivor"; about her treatment by the press - they accused her of deserting the country when war broke, when in fact she was entertaining troops in some pretty dangerous places; about what Gracie meant to women, to the working class and to Britain.

She was born above a chip shop in Rochdale and used to "sing for coppers". Well, why shouldn't policemen like music? Gracie's aunt, who had obviously taken Noel Coward's warnings about putting your daughter on the stage to heart, was dead against her niece treading the boards. She should "go into the factory like we all do". In a way she did. But it was better paid and more glamorous.

Her mother was the driving force, entering Gracie for a singing competition when she was seven, even though the contestants had to be 14. At the age of ten, Gracie was working part-time in the cotton mill, presumably to Auntie's satisfaction, while also performing with a troupe called Hayley's Garden of Girls. It was not a happy time. She was bullied and, at the age of 12, sexually assaulted.

When she was 23, she married Archie Pitt, her manager and a man 20 years her senior. He was the first of three husbands. The one with whom she seemed to find most happiness was the second, Monty Banks, an Italian, who "was a bit of a villain". He had friends who could supply him with explosives. "She rather liked that," grinned a nephew. Photos showed her towering above him. He died of a heart attack when they were travelling on a train. He called out to her in Italian for his pills but she couldn't understand what he was saying. He died in her arms and they had to prise her from him.

Gracie never lost her Rochdale accent despite attempts to make her "speak properly". At a Royal Variety Performance, Queen Mary said she didn't like the comic songs. "Well, the people who have paid for their seats do," came the instant riposte.

She served a tough apprenticeship. Simon Cowell is a powder puff compared with Northern audiences. And it wasn't always easy in old age. When, aged 70, Gracie performed at Batley Variety Club near Leeds, she was given no quarter; as you may expect, with her being from Lancashire an' all.

She began with Sally, her signature tune. Roy Hudd was there. Impassive faces all round. OK. So they don't do sentiment in Yorkshire. How about something jolly then? Sing as We Go. Er, no. They don't do cheerful either. "It was going downhill," recalled Roy. So what did she do? She launched into Those Were the Days, a song that was riding high in the charts. "Once upon a time there was a tavern". That stony audience cracked and came to life. "She made them understand what the song was about," said Roy, almost wiping a tear from his eye.

People loved Gracie because she came from the same background as they did. She knew hardship, she knew the ache of sitting at a loom and she knew the value of the Co-op. She even sang a song about it. She wasn't a star; she was one of them. Of course she wasn't really. She was fabulously rich and lived in Capri, but it's the myth that matters.

"Come on," Gracie would call from the stage, "what's up with you? Let's hear you." Certain songs, such as The Biggest Aspidistra in the World, were deeply embedded in the working-class community. To sing them was to sing of shared experiences, of loss, of longing, of tragedy and triumph and sex. "Walter, Walter, lead me to the altar/And I'll show you where I'm tattooed".

Far richer than anything you can hear on The X Factor (ITV 1, Saturday 28 November, 8pm). None of the acts meets Roger Scruton's criterion of art; that it makes life worthwhile. Gracie does. She deserves the shirt and tie.

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