Dame Gracie Fields (1898-1979), one of Britain’s most successful and best loved performers, is honoured with a blue plaque at 72a Upper Street, Islington, where she lived during the years 1926 to 1929.
It was while living here – in a maisonette above a sweet shop – with her parents, Fred and Jenny Stansfield, and her first husband Archie Pitt that she performed almost continuously in London and consolidated her reputation as one of the country’s most popular music hall stars.
These years also saw her record for the first time and appear before King George V and Queen Mary at the Royal Variety Performance.
Grace Stansfield was born and brought up in Rochdale and never lost her distinctive Lancashire accent. She started singing in public at an early age, encouraged and coached by her stage-struck mother, and by the time of her first professional performance she was billed as “Young Grace Stansfield, Rochdale’s own girl vocalist”.
At the age of 14 she joined a Blackpool troupe of young performers and used the name Gracie Fields for the first time.
In 1915, Fields met the comedian and theatrical agent Archie Pitt while performing in a revue called Yes, I Think So and joined his company the following year.
Between 1916 and 1918 she appeared in more than 4,000 performances of It’s a Bargain, a revue written by Pitt that showed off her talents as a comedian as well as a singer.
It was Pitt’s next show, however, that proved the turning point in Fields’ career, for the six years from 1918 to 1924 she spent touring in Mr Tower of London made her into a music hall star.
In April 1923, she married Archie and a few months later made her West End debut alongside her sisters and brother when Mr Tower was booked for a week at the Alhambra Theatre in Leicester Square; her performances were greeted with rapturous reviews when the show returned in February 1924.
Over the next few years Fields took on a phenomenal workload, appearing in stage plays, music hall performances and late night cabaret bookings at the Café Royal.
She became very wealthy and together she and Pitt built a 28-room mansion in The Bishop’s Avenue, Hampstead named ’Tower‘, in honour of the show that had made her famous.
In 1928 Fields – by now affectionately known as ‘our Gracie’ – made her first of ten appearances at the Royal Variety Performance.
Capitalising on her stage success, she became a regular performer on the BBC and recorded many of her popular songs including ‘Sally’, ‘The Biggest Aspidistra in the World’ and ‘Wish Me Luck as You Wave Me Goodbye’; by 1933, she had cut four million discs.
Fields also started her film career; her starring role in Sally in our Alley (1931) proved a great hit and won her lucrative contracts to make ten further films over the next eight years, including Sing as We Go (1934), The Show Goes On (1937) and Shipyard Sally (1939).
She became the biggest box office star in British cinema and in 1937 signed a £200,000 contract with Twentieth Century Fox that was billed “as the highest salary ever paid to a human being”.
The following year Fields became the first female variety artist to receive the CBE, and was also awarded the freedom of Rochdale.
Gracie Fields was at the pinnacle of her career, but her private life was far from straightforward; having separated from Pitt, she had an affair with the artist John Flanagan for several years and in 1935 she met the Italian-born film director Monty Banks, who directed her in four movies and became her second husband in 1940.
In 1939 her career was unexpectedly halted as she was diagnosed with cervical cancer; hundreds of thousands of fans sent her letters and telegrams and she was overwhelmed by their support.
Told by her doctors to take two years off, Fields returned to work after only a few months, determined to contribute to the war effort.
She performed to troops around the world but in Britain she was accused of betraying her country as she moved to United States in 1940, fearing Italian-born Monty would be interned as an alien.
Living in Capri
After the war, Fields settled on the Italian island of Capri, but she retuned to Britain to record and give concerts, including her triumphant return to the London Palladium in 1947. In the same year her radio show, Gracie’s Working Party, was broadcast from factories across Britain.
After Monty’s death in 1950, she married Boris Alperovici in 1952, whom she had met in Capri. She spent most of her time at her villa Canzone del Mare and was feted by many fans who had chosen to holiday in Capri to catch a glimpse of her.
Fields made her final appearance on the London stage in 1978 when she ended the Royal Variety Performance with a rousing rendition of ‘Sally’.
She was made a Dame Commander of the British Empire in 1979, only a few months before she died in Capri aged 81.