Wednesday, 12 December 2012

By 'Eck, She was a Grand Lass

A few weeks ago I had a little look at some George Formby films.  While thinking about George, I was reminded of his fellow Lancastrian, Gracie Fields.  There are a lot of similarities between the two.  Both are two of our earliest film stars, with what is perhaps Gracie’s most famous film ‘Sing as we Go’ dating from 1934.  I watched this film on You Tube, along with 1932’s ‘Looking on the Bright Side’.

Popular sing along style music make a big contribution to both Gracie and George’s films, along with down-to-earth Lancastrian humour.  I find it quite surprising that both stars became so popular nationally – going on today’s standards it is easy to imagine them as a regional, niche hit. But there wasn’t a wide variety of entertainment back then.  I don’t mean that in a derogatory way, (though, as a Yorkshirewoman, I am meant to feel some sort of rivalry with Lancastrians!  As a Sheffielder, the main rivalry that I’m aware of is with Leeds.  They think they’re it with their fancy Harvey Nichols ways.  But I digress.) just that mass entertainment was in its infancy.  I expect that the prospect of a good old sing-along was tempting, and regional variation a novelty which added something extra.  People didn’t expect as much as we do now.

Both George and Gracie can be an acquired taste – early cinema Marmite.  Some will have loved the cheery optimism, while the more cynical in the audience will have found that this grated on their nerves.  Especially in a recession like that experienced at the beginning of the 1930s.

Despite my lifelong love of Formby, I remember my Grandad being the polar opposite. He was very dismissive of him, and often talked of the time that he saw him in real life, standing on a barge somewhere.  Apparently, George was telling everyone to clear off out of it.  Grandad was disdainful of this seeming inability to deal with the trappings of fame.

But back to the cheery optimism in time of recession.  This is the thing that I find interesting about Gracie’s films.  They don’t ignore the depression, they face up to it and acknowledge the difficulties that ordinary people were facing.   In later times, recession era entertainment seems to have gone the other way – I’m thinking Glam Rock and the 1970s.  The theme then was to revel in escapism, to douse ourselves in sequins and big hair in an attempt to temporarily forget our troubles.  And look at Hollywood in the 1930s and its lavish musicals.  But in both of Gracie’s films that I watched, she is thrown out of work. ‘Sing as we Go’ is particularly interesting in this aspect. It shows the cotton mill where she works closing down, and Gracie literally getting on her bike and looking for work.  She lands in Blackpool and does all kinds of dead end jobs until, eventually, the mill re-opens.  I suspect that this happy ending was artistic licence and that this wasn’t the outcome that the vast majority of her viewers could rely on.  But it wouldn’t do for Gracie to have sad ending – she needs to give people hope and tell you that if you keep going and keep your chin up, surely things can only improve.

‘Sing as we Go’ is also brilliant viewing for anyone interested in the history of seaside resorts and fairground rides.  Many scenes take place on Blackpool Pleasure Beach.  As I have said before about ‘Brighton Rock’, it shows that our seaside requirements really have not changed over the decades.  I didn’t see anything and think to myself “Well, that’s a piece of history, you don’t see that anymore.”  It’s amazing how contemporary some scenes are.

It seems to me that Gracie is receding into obscurity now though. Where George remains famous – people are still making documentaries about him, and playing his songs on ukeleles- you hear little about her.  It’s a shame.  Look her up on You Tube and join her in a sing song.  We are in recession again after all!    

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