FIELDS, Dame Gracie (1898-1979)
Plaque erected in 2011 by English Heritage at 72A Upper Street, London N1 0NY, London Borough of Islington
Singer and Entertainer
Theatre and Film
GRACIE FIELDS 1898-1979 Singer and Entertainer lived here
Dame Gracie Fields was a highly successful singer, comedian and actress, most famous for her song ‘Sally’ and the film Sally in our Alley. While living at 72a Upper Street in Islington in the 1920s she performed in London almost continuously and consolidated her reputation as one of the era’s greatest stars.
RISE TO FAME
Grace Stansfield was born and brought up in Rochdale and never lost her distinctive Lancashire accent. She joined the acting company of theatrical agent Archie Pitt in 1916 and became a music hall star through his show Mr Tower of London, which she appeared in for six years from 1918. She married Pitt in 1923 and made her West End début the following year at the Alhambra Theatre in Leicester Square.
Fields lived at 72a Upper Street, Islington from 1926 until 1929. While living here, in a maisonette above a sweet shop with Pitt and her parents, she performed in London almost non-stop and achieved widespread fame.
In 1928 Fields – by now affectionately known as ‘our Gracie’ – made her first of ten appearances in 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.
BOX OFFICE STAR
By about 1929, Fields and Pitt were wealthy enough to build a 28-room mansion in the Bishop’s Avenue, Hampstead, named ‘Tower’ – in honour of the show that had made her famous. She went on to star in several films, including Sally in our Alley (1931), Sing as we Go (1934) and The Show Goes On (1937). By now the biggest box office star in British cinema, in 1937 she 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.
WAR AND ITALY
In 1939 Fields was diagnosed with cervical cancer and advised by her doctors to take two years off. However she returned to work after only a few months. Determined to contribute to the war effort, she performed to troops around the world. By now married to her second husband, the Italian-born film director Monty Banks, she feared for his safety in Europe and moved to the United States in 1940. After the war, they settled on the Italian island of Capri.
Fields periodically travelled back to Britain to perform, making a triumphant return to the London Palladium in 1947 with her radio show, Gracie’s Working Party, which was broadcast from factories across Britain. She 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 in 1979, only a few months before she died in Capri aged 81.