Dame Gracie Fields, DBE (born Grace Stansfield, 9 January 1898 – 27 September 1979), was an English-born, later Italian-based actress, singer and comedienne and star of both cinema and music hall.
Grace Stansfield was born over a fish and chip shop owned by her grandmother, Sarah Bamford, in Molesworth Street, Rochdale, Lancashire. She made her first stage appearance as a child in 1905, joining children's repertory theatre groups such as 'Haley's Garden of Girls' and the 'Nine Dainty Dots'. Her two sisters, Edith and Betty and brother, Tommy, all went on to appear on stage, but Gracie was the most successful. Her professional debut in variety took place at the Rochdale Hippodrome theatre in 1910 and she soon gave up her job in the local cotton mill, where she was a half-timer, spending half a week in the mill and the other half at school.
She met comedian and impresario Archie Pitt and they began working together. Pitt gave Fields champagne on her 18th birthday, and wrote in an autograph book to her that he would make her a star. Pitt would come to serve as her manager and the two married in 1923 at Clapham Registry Office. Their first revue in 1915 was called Yes I Think So and the two continued to tour Britain together until 1924 in the revue Mr Tower of London, with other reviews including By Request, It's A Bargain and The Show's The Thing.
Archie Pitt was the brother of Bert Aza, founder of the Aza agency, who were responsible for many talents of the day including the actor and comedian Stanley Holloway, who was introduced to Aza by Fields. Fields and Holloway first worked together on her film Sing As We Go in 1934 and the two remained close friends for the rest of their lives.
She began to work less, but still toured the UK under the management of Harold Fielding, manager of top artists of the day such as Tommy Steele and Max Bygraves. Her UK tours proved popular, and in the mid 1960s she performed farewell tours in Australia, Canada and America - the latter performance was recorded and released years later.
In 1956, Fields played Miss Marple in a US TV production of Agatha Christie's A Murder is Announced. The production featured Jessica Tandy and Roger Moore, and predates the Margaret Rutherford films by some five years. She also starred in television productions of A Tale of Two Cities, The Old Lady Shows Her Medals, - for which she won a TV Award, and Mrs 'Aris Goes to Paris, which was remade years later with Angela Lansbury as Mrs Harris, a charwoman in search of a fur coat. (A Chanel dress in Lansbury's case.)
In 1957, her single, "Around the World" peaked at #8 in the UK Singles Chart, with her recording of "Little Donkey" reaching #20 in November 1959.
Fields regularly performed in TV appearances, being the first entertainer to perform on Val Parnell's Sunday Night at the London Palladium. Fields had two Christmas TV specials in 1960 and 1961, singing her old favourites and new songs in front of a studio audience. 1971 saw A Gift For Gracie, another TV special presented by Fields and Bruce Forsythe. This followed on from her popularity of Jess Yates's Stars on Sunday religious programme, UK ITV's rival to the BBC's Songs of Praise, in which celebrities sang religious hymns and read Bible readings. Fields was the most requested artist on the show.
In 1968, Fields headlined a two week Christmas stint at Yorkshire's prestigious Batley Variety Club. "I was born over a fish and chip shop - I never thought I'd be singing in one!" claimed Fields during the performance recorded by the BBC.
In 1975, her album, The Golden Years, reached #48 in the UK Albums Chart.
In 1978, she opened the Gracie Fields Theatre, located next to Oulder Hill Community School, in her native Rochdale, performing a concert there recorded by the BBC to open the show. Fields appeared in ten Royal Variety Performances from 1928 onwards, her last being in 1978 at the age of 80 when she appeared as a surprise guest in the finale, in which she appeared and sang her theme song, "Sally".
Her final TV appearance came in January 1979 when she appeared in a special octogenarian edition of The Merv Griffin Show in America, in which she sang the song she popularised in America, "The Biggest Aspidistra In The World". Fields was notified by her confidante John Taylor while she was in America that she had the invitation to become a Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire, to which she replied: "Yes I'll accept, yes I can kneel - but I might need help getting back up, and yes I'll attend - as long as they don't call Boris, Buttons."
Fields' health declined in July 1979, when she contracted pneumonia after performing an open air concert on the Royal Yacht which was docked in Capri's harbour. After a spell in hospital, she seemed to be recovering, but died on 27 September 1979. The press reported she died holding her husband's hand, but in reality he was at their Anacapri home at the time, while Gracie was home with the housekeeper, Irena. She is buried in the non-Catholic cemetery on Capri; the Protestant Cemetery. in a white marble tomb. Her coffin was carried by staff from her restaurant. Her husband Boris died in 1984.
Fields on the island of Capri, by Allan Warren, in 1973
|Born||January 9, 1898|
Rochdale, Lancashire, England
|Died||September 27, 1979 (aged 81)|
Il Canzone Del Mare, Capri, Italy