I realised I had never seen a film starring Gracie Fields, so I watched Sing As We Go! (1934)
The story begins in the Lancashire mill town of Greybeck. The mill was working at capacity, but now it has to close down.
Assistant Manager Hugh Phillips thinks it will only be possible to reopen if they can transition to working with the new synthetic fabrics (“Unless we can find some new cheap process, the very big mills are finished”). In the mean time, everyone is laid off, and there’s no point continuing rehearsals for the firm’s musical revue.
GRACIE: If we can’t spin we can still sing. We’ll be able to practice while we’re all queueing up for t’dole.
Young Gracie Platt decides to leave Uncle Murgatroyd and Aunt Alice and set out on her bike to find work in Blackpool – just as well as she can’t stand uncle and his mate rolling in at night after closing time with a bag of tripe.
In Blackpool she gets work as a waitress/skivvy in a boarding house, but gets in trouble when she won’t take the sexual harassment from the regular guest Mr Parkinson.
MR PARKINSON: …I like a girl who likes a bit of fun.
Gracie doesn’t agree on the terms of “fun” and ends up throwing a bowl of rhubarb soup over the old lecher. That gets her the sack, though she did get some encouragement back below stairs from the downtrodden husband of the house mistress.
GRACE: Who is this Mr Parkinson?
MR CLOTTY: He comes here every year and he’s well-off.
GRACE: What is he?
MR CLOTTY [whispering]: I’ll tell you what he is. He’s a bloody nuisance.
The word “bloody” is actually silent as it was removed from the soundtrack, being too offensive for British cinema audiences in 1934.
So it’s a trip to the Labour Exchange for Grace.
Getting a chance to stay in another house with a palmist/clarivoyant as landlady, Grace also makes friends with posh girl Phyllis, up from London and also competing in the Bonniest Bathing Belles Competition. From one of her landlady’s clients Grace learns that there is work as a singer for a firm of songwriters, and so she gets a stint singing their latest work to a crowd who like the new hit sound and keep demanding it, until the human jukebox of singer and players are exhausted. But at least plenty of sheet music gets sold – that’s how the music industry will still operate for another 20 years.
Meanwhile Hugh has come to Blackpool looking for industrialist Sir William Upton in the hope of doing a deal to restart the mill working on his artificial silk and cotton. While watching Gracie he meets Phyllis and they discover they have a mutual friend… but are more attracted to each other, oddly enough. They have fun on the fairground rides and rollercoaster.
FUN FACT: Phyllis was played by Dorothy Hyson, who worked at Bletchley Park during World War Two, whilst Gracie was travelling the world entertaining the troops.
Meanwhile Uncle Murgatroyd is also in Blackpool, with his mates in the “Stag Hunters”.
The old boys have a grand old piss-up and then “Give Brother Higginbottom the salute”.
Gracie gets in some more scrapes working as “the Human Spider” and “the Vanishing Girl” in utterly dismal variety turns – though older audience members are still amazed at the superb illusionary arts.
WIFE: How do they do these things, Jim?
HUSBAND: Easy – electricity.
There’s a rather effective speeded-up chase sequence, but now it’s time for the Bonniest Bathing Belles. Uncle Murgatroyd is delighted to get along – “let’s get an eyeful of young women”.
Of course Phyllis wins for London, what did you expect.
Gracie has another stroke of luck encountering Sir William, and sending him on his way to meet up with Hugh. Meanwhile Phyllis gets awfully tipsy and misses some appointments which Gracie has to heroically fill in for.
Her song about being a young female who has decided to “get off the shelf” and get married (with no great enthusiasm) includes the lines “A book by Doctor Fife/ On how to be a perfect wife”, a reference unfortunately now lost in the mists.
Everyone gets together and it’s going to be ok when drunk Phyllis is put to bed on her own away from creepy old men, but at least the men have figured out a deal to modernise a small part of the textiles industry. Hugh and Phyllis are going to be together because of course he was never going to marry the factory girl, but she can come back as the Welfare Officer.
The alienated proletariat return to the chains of their exploitation with a spring in their step and a song in their hearts.
Over the years I have heard expressions of great loathing for Gracie, and I can see now where they might be coming from. She seems to be the template for every teethgrinding Gutsy Northern Woman, and there’s a big measure of her in Victoria Wood but the latter refined the raw material into something better. The haters must have her mixed up with her predecessor, like seeing Eric Morecambe as Max Miller.
Another modern Northern archetype in play here is Mr J.B.Priestley, the author hired here to draw some comic cartoon characters in a revue show to be toured around the country. He also wrote big serious novels that tried to capture what was going on in Modern Britain, as far as he could discern it. Here are the opening pages of They Walk In The City (1936) which seems to be pretty much giving us the back story of Greybeck, even though Haliford is located on the other side of the Yorks/Lancs border:
There’s also a later chapter about a British Fascist march, but let’s stop at the mills and the girls who work in them.