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Wednesday 24 Sep 2014

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Women We Loved: Jane Horrocks plays Gracie

Jane Horrocks plays Gracie

The story of Gracie Fields, singer and comedienne, who became one of the greatest stars of both cinema and music hall in the Thirties, will be told in a new 90-minute film for BBC Four as part of the Women We Loved season.

Jane Horrocks, the Golden Globe-nominated star of Little Voice, whose credits also include The Street, Absolutely Fabulous and The Amazing Mrs Pritchard, hopes this new film will set the record straight once and for all about Gracie Stansfield, the woman torn between love and duty, who was branded a traitor by the British public who once loved and adored her.

"I wasn't very interested in Gracie when I was living up north," says Jane, who was born in Rawtenstall in Lancashire, a short distance away from where Gracie was born in Rochdale.

"I was introduced to her by somebody I was at RADA with, he was a fan, and he gave me a Gracie Fields album. At a showcase at RADA for agents and casting directors, instead of doing [Shakespeare's] Juliet, I performed Fred Fanakapan [by Gracie Fields]. I had them all joining in at the end, which, I think some casting directors still remember, whether fondly or painfully," laughs Jane.

With a self-imposed break since completing the BBC drama The Amazing Mrs Pritchard, the opportunity to play Gracie Fields in a TV drama was a dream come true, says Jane.

"It was a lovely project to come back and do because I've not done anything for three years. It's been a passion for a long time to play Gracie Fields. I loved playing her. It was great.

"My fella Nick Vivian wrote it, he knew of my interest in her, and then he became interested in her. We got the project off the ground together. I didn't want to do a sprawling biopic.

"The middle section of her life when she was married to Monty Banks and during the war was definitely the most interesting time of her life. We really have homed in more on the positive side of her and what she had to go through.

"But I think there's quite a pressure when you're playing a real life person because of the people that do remember that person and their own feelings about them."

Getting transformed into Gracie on the make-up truck during filming proved to be a bit of an ordeal, however.

"They tortured me every morning by putting hot rods in my hair, which killed!" laughs Jane. "I've suffered for my art, but the effect was very good.

"I saw a dialect coach because there were lots of different influences in Gracie's accent. She had a mid-Atlantic thing going on because she'd worked in America quite a lot, and she was also quite RP [Received Pronunciation] at times, quite posh in a lot of the archive footage, then she'd suddenly break into the Rochdale but it would have a bit of an American twang – it was quite a challenge.

"I worked with the same singing teacher [Jo Thompson] who worked with me on Little Voice. Gracie's got such a fantastic soprano, so that was quite difficult for me. It's not quite a replica of her voice and some people may like that or not. We've taken artistic licence with it. I don't have the same range that she had; she could have been an opera singer. But I couldn't!" laughs Jane.

"I'm trying not to do an out and out impersonation of her... otherwise it just becomes a sketch show."

Jane's main objective is to capture "the spirit of her. The essence of her."

Jane explains why she believes Gracie was so hugely popular, and why she hopes this film will wipe the slate clean for the woman who worked tirelessly to raise funds for the war effort.

"I think it's because she had the common touch," says Jane, who is currently starring as Annie Oakley in the musical Annie Get Your Gun at the Young Vic.

"She was very accessible – a sort of inspiration for a lot of people, especially during the War. She was so optimistic. All her films and her songs were about positivity: Wish Me Luck, Sing As We Go, Looking At The Bright Side. They were all an injection of positivity and battling on through together – united. People responded to that, massively. It was hugely beneficial at that time.

"When you ask people nowadays of an older generation about Gracie Fields, they either get her mixed up with Vera Lynn, 'isn't she the one who sang We'll Meet Again?', or they say 'oh wasn't she the one who deserted during the War and ran off with her Italian husband?' [Monty Banks]. So this project is sort of redressing the balance, hopefully, for Gracie.

"Monty was an Italian and was going to be interned so they did go to Canada. Winston Churchill had organised for her to do a big tour. She then had to stay in Canada and finish this tour, so they separated and he went to America and then they were reunited.

"But the British press got from somewhere that she'd ran away from Britain, taking £10,000 with her, something like that, and all her jewellery, which wasn't the case.

"Obviously they had to take some money because they had to survive. All the money she was making out there was going to the war effort. She took, I think, a couple of years out to make a few films, and she did a few things for herself obviously; she had to make some money for herself. But she wasn't deserting in the way that they'd suggested. So that was hugely hurtful to her.

"Gracie had massive fondness for children; she did an awful lot for children's charities," continues the mother-of-two.

"I think she was very happy with Monty. They were soulmates. They kept each other going and made each other laugh, I think that compensated a little bit for not being able to have children.

"She got solace from performing to her public. I think she got a huge amount of healing from them. And our piece is sort of the conflict between that. Monty wanting her to be with him and her not being able to let go of her public.

"As an actress I thought she was marvellous. I've watched a few of her films and she's hilarious: Sing As We Go is just so funny and Sally In Her Alley, I'd love to do a remake of that."

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