Among the many artists mimicked by Jane Horrocks in her breakthrough film Little Voice (1998) was Gracie Fields, with a rousing rendition of ‘Sing As We Go’. Over ten years later, Horrocks performs a great deal more from Field’s oeuvre in this biopic, including ‘Sally’, ‘Wish Me Luck As You Wave Me Goodbye’ and the comical ‘Walter, Walter (Lead Me to the Altar)’. While fans of the Rochdale soprano will no doubt delight in this embarrassment of riches, others may conclude that the brevity of her impersonation in Little Voice proves that sometimes less is more.
Produced as part of a trio of BBC films on 'Women We Loved' (the other two being Enid Blyton and Margot Fonteyn) Gracie! focuses on the entertainer’s life during World War II. Ignoring doctor’s orders, Gracie tirelessly entertains the troops abroad with concert performances and impromptu sing-alongs. Yet Italy’s entry into the war threatens her Italian-born husband, Monty Banks, with interment. Her solution to raise funds overseas for Britain’s War effort is greeted by accusations of cowardice and treason, souring the beloved entertainer’s relationship with the British public.
Written by Horrocks’ husband Nick Vivian, Gracie! starts off well with an amusing scene that immediately establishes Field's ‘common touch’ and Monty’s comic credentials. It then annoyingly skips through several milestones via perfunctory newsreels till we unexpectedly find Gracie on her deathbed, threatening to make this one of the shortest biopic in history. However once WWII is declared, the film’s pace settles back down, allowing the leads to endearingly breathe life into the familiar trope of an entertainer being unable to say no to her fans.
These small-scale vignettes of Gracie interacting with a small number of troops on the roadside or in a pub are among the film’s best. Less successful are the stage performances. All too obvious budget constraints have the singer performing to disembodied voices in an empty theatre, the artifice of which robs these moments of their emotional potential.
Accordingly, while Horrocks’ high-pitched trilling may accurately represent Fields’ singing, it is her performance off-stage that more aptly explains the star’s appeal.
Gracie’s rapprochement with the British public occurred before her successful season at the London Palladium. Prior to the end of WWII, Gracie embarked on a 90-date tour of Britain’s factories, munitions works and ship-yards, which saw her singing to three million ecstatic fans.
Though opening with Monty Banks pursuing Gracie for his next film Queen of Hearts, there are no scene recreations in this biopic.