JANE Horrocks was just 15 when Gracie Fields died.
So despite sharing Lancashire backgrounds, Jane told me that, growing up, she knew very little about the woman who was once the highest paid performer in the world.
We met at the Young Vic Theatre in London, where Jane is currently starring in a revival of the Irving Berlin musical Annie Get Your Gun.
You can see what the former Absolutely Fabulous star had to say in today’s MEN Pg 9 feature here.
Ahead of the first screening of BBC4 drama Gracie! at 9pm tonight.
For those who want to read more, here are a few extras from my round table chat with Jane:
“I would like to have known what my nan thought of her,” she said.
“My nan died in 1982 and that’s one of the sadnesses of a grandparent dying because I would have liked to have known how she felt about Gracie Fields.
“Especially coming from the area, because I’m sure she would love Gracie Fields.”
Jane and writer husband Nick Vivian took the idea to the BBC about three years ago.
“Originally I’d talked to another writer about doing it and that just fell by the wayside. And then Nick started to become very interested in Gracie Fields and so we both went to the BBC.
“We just chose what we thought was the most interesting part of her life, which was when she was in her early 40s, when she had to go into hospital because she had cervical cancer and then war broke out.
“She had this lovely relationship with Monty Banks, who was the Italian film director, her second husband.
“She wasn’t in love with Monty but she loved him dearly and they were like soul mates. He made her laugh, he amused her and they did have a really lovely relationship.
“But her relationship with the audience was very powerful. So the script is about that – can she let go of the audience and her public life and give herself over to Monty?”
Jane was surprised at just how much work Gracie did for the war effort – when she had been accused of deserting Britain.
“She and Marlene Dietrich did the most dangerous areas and I think that’s quite an interesting piece of information.
“We hopefully get that across, that she was trudging around muddy woods and getting stuck in cars, singing to troops in the middle of the wood, where the car had broken down.”
Jane said she did not try to impersonate Gracie.
“I’m doing my own version I read an interview that Michael Sheen had done and he said, which I thought was very wise, that he took an essence of himself that was similar to the character and expanded on that, which I think is a good way of going about it, rather than doing an out and out impersonation.”
Does she have a favourite Gracie song?
“I think the song when she came out of hospital – she sang it on a public broadcast to say thank you, which was I Love The Moon, which I didn’t know before. It’s a really gorgeous song and I’m glad we kept in in the film.”
Gracie’s feature films?
“Seeing how good the films were surprised me. People think black and white films are a bit boring, naff and cheaply done and all that. Not so. The stories, the depth of character and her acting ability on film was really marvellous.”
Where was Gracie! filmed?
“Hammersmith was Canada, Stanmore was Hollywood. There were no shots of Rochdale or Capri, sadly.”
Roy Hudd told a story in a TV documentary about Gracie’s later career, when she ended up performing in working men’s clubs.
“He said she was doing all these songs, when she was older – nothing, no response. And then she sang Those Were The Days, because it was No 1 in the hit parade, and she won the audience over because she just chose songs very, very well.
“And when she actually came back to perform at the Palladium after she’d been away raising money for the war effort, that was a very nerve-wracking experience for her, knowing what to sing to the public for her first performance home.
“She didn’t tell anybody – this is what Roy Hudd said – what she was going to sing. And she sang Take Me To Your Heart, which is just such a fabulous choice. People would have thought that she was going to sing Sally or one of her own well known songs, but she didn’t. I think she was very clever about choosing the right song for the right moment.”
Is there any modern day equivalent of her level of fame?
“No. I don’t think people have the training now that she had. She did all this vaudeville in her early days, she was touring all over the place doing vaudeville, as a family, with her brothers and her sisters.
“She was doing three performances in one evening. So she would just work like a real workaholic. I don’t think people have the stamina nowadays to do that amount of work.”
Amazing Gracie: Jane Horrocks