Another chance to see the 1977 Michael Parkinson interview with Sir John Betjeman and Gracie Fields.
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Evening and welcome.
Tonight is a very special occasion because I have
as my guests two very distinctive and distinguished people.
One is someone who is arguably the greatest entertainer
this country has ever produced and she is Gracie Fields.
The other, my first guest,
is also arguably the most entertainingly paradoxical figure
in Britain today. He was once described, and I quote,
as, "a popular poet who has the respect of unpopular poets."
He's a bestselling poet
in an age when poetry is not much bought or read,
a man who regrets much that has happened to the English way of life
and yet who's celebrated the nature
of the modern existence that he deplores.
As another poet once said of him, and I quote again,
"He's always been easy to underestimate."
Lately his career has entered new territory with a series of records
in which his verse is set to music.
The tunes are by Jim Parker,
the words and the performance are by our Poet Laureate,
Sir John Betjeman.
THEY PLAY IN A TRAD JAZZ STYLE
How straight it flew, how long it flew,
It clear'd the rutty track,
And soaring, disappeared from view
Beyond the bunker's back.
A glorious, sailing, bounding drive
That made me glad I was alive.
And down the fairway, straight and long
It glowed a lonely white
I played an iron sure and strong
And clipp'd it out of sight,
And spite of grassy banks between
I knew I'd find it on the green.
And so I did. It lay content
Two paces from the pin
A steady putt and then it went
Oh, most securely in
The very turf rejoiced to see
That quite unprecedented three.
Ah! Seaweed smells from sandy caves
And thyme and mist in whiffs,
Incoming tide, Atlantic waves
Slapping the sunny cliffs,
Larksong and sea sounds in the air
And splendour, splendour everywhere.
That was my first guest tonight, Sir John Betjeman.
As someone newly taken up golf myself I love that poem, actually.
Very kind of you. Smashing poem.
Are you much of a golfer yourself?
I used to be better than I am now but I was never really good.
Yes. And people, ahem, I hoped,
weren't looking when I did the bad shots.
They never were when I did the good ones.
Yes, I think every golfer could say that, Sir John, yes.
What about this fusion now, of your poetry and music?
You've had quite a staggering success, actually.
You're a best selling long-playing record artist now,
because I think Banana Blush, I think that sold about 20,000 copies,
which is very good indeed.
I wonder how easy you felt in this situation?
I was very pleased and delighted when Jim Parker,
whom I hadn't met but I met through the Barrow Poets,
wanted to do these, set these things to music.
And he's a very quiet, modest man.
And his music seemed to catch the mood of the verse.
I was staggered and delighted.
How musical are you, in fact?
Can't sing a note in tune.
I know about rhythm, I think, and the sound of words.
I'm not really musical,
and I was always told by my parents I wasn't musical because I couldn't
sing in tune. Was there any music in your family, though, at all?
Oh, I had forebears who were musical, yes.
There was an old thing called Gilbert Betjeman
who was a great friend of Grieg,
and was something to do with Covent Garden,
I think he was first violin,
and he introduced Wagner to Glasgow first.
And when the music started, the audience began to laugh.
So Gilbert Betjeman tapped his baton
on the whatever it is, and said,
"Are you going to listen to this music or are you not?
"Because if you don't, I shall go home and enjoy a whisky toddy."
And they stayed? They did, yes.
Are you an admirer of lyricists, of lyric writers?
Very much. And particularly... Who's your favourite?
Lorenz Hart is my favourite.
All-time favourite, I think.
Didn't he write My Heart Stood Still?
I think he did. "I took one look at you."
Oh, he's like Burns, he's frightfully good.
Yes. Do you think it stands up as poetry,
some of the best lyric writers? I'm sure it does.
And I think some of the best is Cole Porter. Yes.
Once described to me by another lyric writer as being both
Gilbert and Sullivan, because he wrote the music...
The music and the words, did he?
Yes. What's the difference, do you think, Sir John,
I mean, why did you never write a lyric for a song?
Because several other very good writers have done that.
PG Wodehouse, for instance, he wrote lyrics for songs, didn't he?
Did he? That was clever of him.
I can't, er, get the tune in my head
to write the words that'll go with it.
I'd have to write the words first and trust to luck,
as with Jim Parker, that the right tune had come along.
Tell me about writing poetry.
As you get older, is it easier or harder to write poetry?
Harder and slower.
A very kind question.
Why, why is it a kind question?
Because it doesn't get easier.
It doesn't? I find I do it,
and I find I only think of something in the morning when I wake up,
a line occurs.
Then if I've got a pencil near, I write it down,
and then I look at it at breakfast and it's awful.
And I hope for the best
and that it'll gradually be added to during the day.
Walking about, I find the best way of writing poetry.
Was it ever easy for you, though?
Yes. It was? I longed to do it all the time.
And I felt every time I didn't write a poem
when I had a bit of spare time I was wasting my time.
Really? And the words literally flowed in those days?
Yes. And nothing made time rush by quicker
than sitting down with a poem in mind and writing it out,
and part of the pleasure is writing it on the page,
and seeing how it looks.
And then reciting it again and again,
then trying it out on a friend, whom you can trust,
and then you can tell whether they like it or not.
If they cough, you know it's a bore. and it won't work.
And what do you do on those occasions?
You didn't publish the poem, or do you rewrite it, or what?
Well, I had a very kind publisher who I knew at Oxford.
I think everything is done by graft.
And, if I hadn't known this man I would never have been printed,
I don't expect. Mm, mm.
When in fact did you last write a poem,
or attempt to write a poem in recent weeks?
About three days ago I was trying to do one
on Peterborough Cathedral,
an un-regarded, beautiful building which has got in it
a chapel called St Sprite
and I imagine that's the Holy Spirit.
And it's such a nice name for a chapel,
I thought I'd try and do a thing about the Sprite
in Peterborough Cathedral.
I got the first words out, and have now lost them.
You've lost them. Mislaid them?
Mislaid them somewhere.
Can't you remember them? No.
So what are you going to do? Hope I'll find them again.
You're not going to sit down and rewrite them, no.
What, what, what moves you to write poetry nowadays?
What stirs you to write poetry?
Places, faces, eyes.
Why? I think people speak through their eyes.
And you can catch somebody's eye
and that's how you talk, very often.
I think they're our antennae.
So do you literally go round looking at people's eyes
and waiting for inspiration?
Well, not too pointedly, or you'll get into trouble.
Of course you've always been moved in your poetry to write about
You, of course, were many things before you were a poet, Sir John.
You've had some remarkable jobs.
You did all the things that James Thurber said he never did
before he became a writer.
You were once, you were what, a copywriter for Shell, weren't you?
Yes, indeed. I mean, how disastrous effect did that have on your spirit?
Or perhaps it didn't? I didn't like it very much.
I started, though, as a journalist.
As you did. Yes.
And it teaches one to write things simply and not like, um,
government department forms.
It's a very good training, it's a good training in economy, isn't it?
Now, still on the advertising, I mean,
advertising slogans and phrases and this sort of thing
have always been a part of your poetry, haven't they?
You've always stuck them in there. What's the fascination you have?
I think sitting in the underground seeing things like,
"Whatever her party, the sweet young thing,
"it's certain she'll vote for a Bravington ring."
"He was bashful, she was shy,
"a Bravington ring and the cloud passed by."
And, er, they didn't pay me - that suddenly occurred to me, that.
LAUGHTER AND APPLAUSE
Do they still exist?
Bravingtons? Yes. I think they do, yes, I think they do.
And was it Virol you used to...?
"Virol. Anaemic girls need it," do you know?
And iron jelloids.
Mazawattee Tea, all those things, I think they are most beautiful names.
Yes, Mazawattee Tea is beautiful, isn't it?
You really couldn't invent that as a writer, could you?
Which of all the jobs you did, Sir John,
on your way to becoming a poet, did you enjoy the most,
in the sense that it inspired the most poetry for you later on?
Undoubtedly being a schoolmaster.
Because it was being a single act on the stage,
having to keep everybody interested,
whatever their boredom was,
and you had to entertain and instruct.
And boys are very decent to talk to, young boys,
when they're sitting in a class. You can feel when they're bored.
You can feel when they respond.
And I think it's a splendid training, being a schoolmaster.
But you're talking as if... I mean, I can see,
what you explained to me, actually,
a splendid training for a performer, rather than a poet.
I see that now, as I've always admired music hall above everything
because there, the music hall artiste has to establish himself
in the first few seconds,
otherwise he's a flop.
Yes. What was the first poem you ever wrote?
Can you remember?
Yes, it was appallingly bad.
It was a crib of Up The Airy Mountain,
a thing we all had to learn,
"Down the rushy glen.
"When the moors are pink with heather,
"When the sky is as blue as the sea,
"Marching all together," that seemed all right,
then the last line is a complete failure.
"Come fairy folk so we."
It's not that bad for a first effort.
It's the last line that counts in every poem, I think.
The last line. Yes, the last line.
That's interesting. Like the last act in a variety,
or the last but one act, isn't it, in variety?
The last act has to be the one that they remember,
so must the last line be.
Yes, it's like the punchline at the end of the story.
You've also written an awful lot, and beautifully,
some of the most evocative of your poems are about your childhood.
Why is this? What kind of childhood was it?
Comfortable. I had kind parents, who, on the whole, let me alone.
But they sometimes left me with nannies who weren't all that jolly
and were rather alarming but I've always found I liked my own company
better than anyone else's, except the children next door in Highgate,
they were marvellous. You were a solitary child, were you?
On the whole, yes, I was an only child. Yes.
And it was an upper-middle-class upbringing that you had.
Yes, I suppose middle-class, more than upper-middle-class, yes.
We're talking of course about 60, 70 years ago, aren't we?
Talking about an Edwardian upbringing. Yes, I'm 71, yes.
Now, how strict was that upbringing?
Oh, getting to school in time,
running up West Hill, feeling sick with breakfast inside one,
..wondering what mood my father would be in,
or my mother,
Often having to eat things I didn't like at all, can you remember that?
Hating fish, I remember.
And finding it very chewy.
But the theory was that you ate what was put in front of you.
You weren't allowed to pick and choose. Oh, yeah, "Finish it up."
The most awful idea, isn't it? That's right, yes.
I came across a line of yours which interested me, actually,
about your childhood, which I'd like to talk to you about.
You're talking about, you used to go shooting.
Yes, with my father, yes.
And the line is, "How many times
"must I explain the way a boy should hold a gun?"
That's your father talking to you.
"I recollect my father's pain at such a milksop of a son."
That's right. He wanted me to be open air, with nice, greased hair,
and a happy smile, and very keen on sport.
I was no good at any of it.
Did you try hard?
To fulfil his ambition in those respects?
Not very. I think shooting, I couldn't bear.
I didn't like killing the things,
and then I was always missing, and wounding the unfortunate bird.
Yes. Or rabbit.
Ooh, it was horrible. Yes.
What about the sort of moralistic attitudes prevalent in those days?
Because in Edwardian times things were proper, weren't they?
And I wasn't, I thought... I didn't know anything about sex.
You didn't? No, I thought it was...
I didn't know what it was.
Really? I mean, what age are we talking about now?
Up until what age didn't you know about it?
I don't think I found out about it until I went to my public school.
I used to be told vague things about plants,
and didn't know what they were talking about.
And, er, then I thought that it was something very wicked
when I found out about it.
I thought if there was a sin against the Holy Ghost then it was sex.
Really? I really thought that.
Yes. And what about, I mean,
did you have crushes, though, when you were...?
Oh, Lord, yes. Endless crushes.
The purest love of one's life is before one's had any sex.
And when one doesn't know what it is, this passion, outgoing passion,
I'd do anything for the person I loved.
It didn't matter whether it was girl or boy.
My first people I noticed were girls.
And it moved on, of course.
I don't believe that one's indifferent to either sex.
Yes, yes, but you were more strongly towards the girls, were you?
I did, yes, on the whole. In the end, you got it sorted out.
I'm delighted about that, Sir John.
Did you, in fact, did you, when you had these crushes,
did it move you to write poetry?
Deeper feelings than I've ever felt,
never felt so sick with love as when I was in my teens.
And indeed at the age of about seven, I think,
was the first love I felt. Really? The most beautiful girl,
with gold hair, called Peggy Purey-Cust.
Called Peggy...? Purey-Cust.
She lived in West Hill, Highgate, and she had blue eyes and gold hair,
and a slightly turned-up nose, and a sort of down over her cheeks,
so that ever since then,
people I've loved have had to look slightly like Peggy Purey-Cust.
Amazing. And everyone you've met like that
have you fallen in love with and written a poem about?
Generally, yes. LAUGHTER
You've written, of course, there's a specific kind of Betjeman woman,
isn't there, you've celebrated it in your poems?
I mean, she's been on the whole, is she not,
a rather strapping-thighed lady?
I like athletic girls, yes.
There's a lovely poem of yours, The Licorice Fields of Pontefract.
Oh, yes, I remember who she was, too.
Who was she?
LAUGHTER Well, she was a Berkshire girl
with red hair and brown eyes and freckles,
and a rather sulky expression.
Oh, she was beautiful. Really? Still is, yes.
And still is, I see.
Did they respond to your...?
Well, that was that talking with the eyes,
I never said anything in that instance -
I just hoped, but nothing happened.
Let's talk now about another aspect of your life, Sir John,
this thing you touched on before,
the thing about loving all things music hall and this sort of thing.
When did that date from, your love of the theatre?
I think when we lived in Chelsea,
and I used to go to the Chelsea Palace,
and they had Lew Lake on then,
and old-fashioned comedians,
and then there was a marvellous time when I was taken to the Palladium
and saw Marie Lloyd, and heard her sing,
"I'm one of the ruins that Cromwell knocked about a bit," and she was
very old then, but I could see, even then here was somebody,
a huge personality.
Yes. Who are your favourites at that time,
who were the ones you really went out of your way to go and see?
Still I'd go miles, if he were alive, to see Max Miller.
I think he was funnier than anyone I ever saw.
Though George Robey made me cry with laughter, and so did...
Why, there were so many. Wilkie Bard, do you remember?
"I want to sing in opera, I've got that kind of voice.
"Yes, yes. Signor Caruso told me I ought to do so."
Awfully good words, I wonder who wrote them.
I don't know, somebody we've never heard of, possibly.
Yes. Why, why this particular regard that you have for comedians?
For blue-nosed comedians, too, I mean, let's face it, Max Miller,
I mean, a cheeky chappie. Oh, he was wonderful.
Was he? Oh, my goodness, the timing.
That record, Max at the Met,
and incidentally it was the favourite record of TS Eliot,
He adored it, yes.
How do you know that? Because he played it to me.
The thought of TS Eliot playing Max Miller at the Met to you, I mean,
that's absolutely mind-blowing.
How extraordinary. What did Eliot like about him?
Oh, he liked the timing and the words.
And that's to do with the poet's sense of rhythm,
of meter and this sort of thing?
Yes, and his being in touch with the audience was a lovely thing.
You can tell when people are listening,
you can tell when they're bored, by a sort of feel.
Yes. And Max had it superbly.
The Met at Edgware Road, do you remember it?
It was wonderful. No.
Oh, there was a swish of the bar doors at the back
when it was a boring bit.
Yes. That kind of life,
that kind of theatre's gone now, sadly, hasn't it?
Oh, it's so sad, it was wonderful.
Isn't it still going on in the north?
I believe it is. It is, but in clubs, and not in theatres.
I've never been to a club.
Oh, you must go along, you'd enjoy it, actually.
It's not the same kind of thing at all.
I mean, you don't have the promenade at the back,
you don't have the bar at the back,
and the drinks are there in the audience, you know? Yes.
And the likelihood is that the audience gets drunk
more quickly that way, but it still happens there,
and you still get very, very big audiences there.
Do people stop talking to one another, if the act is good?
It depends how good the act is. I mean, they can get nasty,
I mean, as it was, I think, I imagine,
in the days of music hall when you were there.
In the old music hall, I do remember people getting the bird,
but only twice, I think.
And then it was very painful, awful, agonising.
Yes, yes. Sir John, can we now talk a little bit more just about
your poetry? Because you're going to read another poem for us
that you've set to music, or Jim Parker set to music,
and this is called A Russell Flint.
Now, what's the story behind A Russell Flint?
I wanted a secretary,
and I put in an advertisement when I was with a paper called
Time and Tide, edited by Lady Rhondda.
I once worked for that.
Did you? Yes, I work for that, but a long time after Lady Rhondda,
when it was run by a very nice man called John Thompson,
was the editor of the time.
Oh, well, you know how those things are very intimate.
I used to write under assumed names,
because I was working for another paper at the time.
I had two names, it's true, I was blacklegging.
When I wrote about the North, I was called Jack Braithwaite...
..and when I sent stuff from abroad, I was called Warren Brady, Jr.
Jack or Warren, how marvellous!
I'm sorry, I interrupted you. No, no, I'd forgotten about it!
You were talking about, you were working on Time and Tide,
and you wanted a secretary. I wanted a secretary,
and somebody came and replied to an advertisement,
and she was so staggeringly beautiful, like Peggy Purey-Cust...
..that I was rather worried, for there I was, a married man,
and happily married, and I thought,
"I'd better not employ her,"
the temptations to touch and kiss were too great.
And I went to Lady Rhondda, and said,
"What do you think I ought to do?" And she said,
"Oh, always have the good-looking ones, they're much nicer
"than anybody else, because people have been nice to them."
That's a lovely thing to say, isn't it?
And it was very good advice, it was a great success.
It was a great success, was it?
Yes, and now she's married and has children.
She lives in Stratford-on-Avon.
We have in fact a photograph of her, don't we?
Have we got...? There she is, look, she is beautiful too, isn't she?
Freckly Jill, yes.
In fact, then, this poem, then, that we're going to hear now,
is about that lady, it's called A Russell Flint, as I said,
and it's Sir John Betjeman reading it,
and the music put to the words is by Jim Parker.
THEY PLAY REFLECTIVE MUSIC
I could not speak for amazement at your beauty,
As you came down the Garrick stair,
Grey-green eyes like the turbulent Atlantic,
And floppy schoolgirl hair.
I could see you in a Sussex teashop,
Dressed in peasant weave and brogues,
Turning over as firelight shone on brassware,
Last year's tea-stained Vogues.
I could see you as a large-eyed student,
Frowning as you tried to learn,
Or head flung back, the confident girl prefect,
Thrillingly kind and stern.
I could not speak for amazement at your beauty,
Yet when you spoke to me,
You were calm and gentle as a rock pool,
Waiting, warm, for the sea.
Wave on wave, I plunged in them to meet you,
In wave on wave I drown,
Calm rock pool, on the shore of my security,
Hold me when the tide goes down.
STEEL GUITAR PLAYS
And that's from a second LP you made, called Late Flowering Love.
You're getting quite a recording star, you know, Sir John,
you really are. Oh, thank you very much.
You'll be on Top Of The Pops next! LAUGHTER
Sir John Betjeman, for the moment, thank you very much indeed.
Sir John Betjeman.
Well, my next guest is one of the legendary figures
of British show business.
She was born above a fish and chip shop in Rochdale,
went on to become the nation's sweetheart on stage, on record,
in films and radio.
Indeed, Parliament once adjourned because she was about to broadcast.
She was once described as
the greatest entertainer this country has ever produced,
and if that assessment causes a few raised eyebrows,
all I can say is that her doubters
never saw and heard Grace Stansfield of Rochdale,
who became to millions simply "Our Gracie", in movies like this.
# Sing as we go and let the world go by
# Singing a song, we march along the highway
# Say goodbye to sorrow
# There's always tomorrow to think of today
# Sing as we go although the skies are grey
# Beggar or king, you've got to sing a gay tune
# A song and a smile make it right worthwhile
# So sing
# As we go along. #
Hey, who are you shoving?!
Ladies and gentlemen, Gracie Fields.
I know I'm not Peggy.
You're not the type, are you, love?
You don't know! No, that's for sure, yeah.
I tell you what, you're a remarkable lady, you really are.
You're 79 now, aren't you? Pushing 80.
Pushing 80, yeah, amazing. Just about three months off, isn't it?
It's ridiculous. It's too long, you shouldn't live that long, I think...
Just watching that there, I was talking to Sir John, actually,
about that clip we saw there,
it was the most extraordinary voice you had,
wasn't it? It was a really remarkable instrument.
I know, excuse me taking this off, I put it on for swank, so I'll just...
You're stopping, are you? Yeah, I decided to stop.
Very good. Thank you very much.
Yeah. Well, I did have, I realise, I was playing a few of my old records.
You know, I was making them so many years and years ago,
and working so hard, in the theatre all the time,
doing charity shows in the daytime, I never listened to a record.
Only when I just passed it,
when I made it, they'd say, "Is that all right?"
"That's all right, I've done it," and I'd out the place.
And I wouldn't listen to 'em.
And recently I was listening to some with my husband,
who was re-recording them and trying to bring out the sound of today,
and I says, "You know, I was a bit extraordinary,
"I've never heard a voice like that!"
I was really, I couldn't believe it, that I'd made those noises,
it was just incredible. It was an operatic voice, wasn't it?
I mean, you could have been an opera singer. It was, absolutely, yes.
You never wanted to be an opera singer? Well, my mother
wanted me to be an opera singer but we couldn't afford it.
No. It cost money to have lessons and we needed the brass.
Yes. So I did whatever we could do,
I was doing high kicks and acrobats and what have you.
But was it, really, I mean we're talking about 79 years ago now,
in Rochdale, which in those days was...
A mill town.
A mill town.
I mean, was it really a sort of clogs and shawl existence?
Oh, yes, I've got the marks today on me ankles
where me clogs used to just catch me ankles.
You haven't? Yes, I have.
Where? I'll show you, there's lines round there...
You just wanted to look at me legs!
Sir John wanted to have a look, too.
Yeah! Yeah, I wore clogs and shawls.
It used to be awful in the winter time when it was snowing,
because my mother sent me to the factory.
I was on the stage, the first time, when I was seven years old,
singing a singing competition.
My mother always tried to find a house,
if we didn't have one big enough,
or we were rich enough to have one big enough to rent a couple of rooms
to the theatricals that came to the old circus in Rochdale of that time.
And she'd find another house that would face a house
where they did take in professionals,
and I used to sing up a little alleyway
just by the side of our house.
So this lady heard me singing, one of them, a woman called Lily Turner,
and she said, "I want to put Grace into this singing competition."
So she taught me to sing the song.
I remember it, half of it, today, but anyway.
What was the song? I was very...
It was called What Makes Me Love You As I Do.
What Makes Me Love You As I Do.
But I couldn't say "what".
I would sing...
# Wot makes me love you as I do
# Wot makes me think you're so divine, wot makes me long to...? #
She said, "You must say, 'What, what!'"
# Wot makes me love you as I do...? #
And this went on till she was going crazy.
So she said, "You must sing 'q-what.'"
So I sang, # Q-what makes me love you as I do,
# Q-what makes me think you're so divine,
# Q-what makes me long to...? #
And my q-whats won the competition, dear.
Then you went to work with Lily Turner, this same woman, didn't you?
Yeah, I went to sing to her a song from the gallery.
She used to wear sort of short velvet short pants,
with sort of a manly coat,
it was a funny sort of dress, now you think of it back.
She used to sing this song with such feeling, and I was singing it,
again in a chorus, from the gallery.
While I was singing it there was an old lady one time got very annoyed.
She wanted to listen to the lady down on the stage and this child was
singing this chorus, was annoying her,
so she started to bash me with her umbrella.
Well, I started crying
and all that, so she wondered what was happening.
So after then she put me on the stage to sing it.
Yes. And then slowly I started doing a little single act around Rochdale,
Castleton, Norden, any type of party that was going on, I was going.
What kind of, what kind of venues were you playing, Gracie,
in those days? Were they clubs or musicals, or what?
No, no, no, they were sort of little charity shows
that people were putting on all around Rochdale.
I called myself the tuppenny pie queen because they used to pay me
in tuppenny pies, meat pies they used to sell for tuppence.
They're about ten and tuppence now, I think!
I ate so many tuppenny pies and took 'em home in me umbrella,
where I could pinch a few,
and took 'em home to the family so we all had tuppenny pies to death
when there was another concert on somewhere.
What about school at this time?
My mother didn't think school was necessary.
She's probably right, what a very wise woman.
She kept me home and she said, "Oh, you'll find out when you grow up,
"it'll all happen to you".
But she had to go to school because they paid two pennies a week,
which must have been very expensive when she was a child.
But she didn't think it was necessary as far as I was concerned.
I used to stay home while Mother used to go out and take laundry in
or go and do a day's work at somebody's fine house.
After I'd finished school, sometimes, I'd go from my school,
find out where she'd gone and eat all the leftover rice puddings
and things in the fine house and that kind of thing.
But of course, you did go to school, didn't you?
A little, yes. And you didn't much like it, did you?
A bit. I loved school when I did go.
When I joined a juvenile troupe, where there was six...
The first juvenile troupe was the Nine Dainty Dots.
They didn't bother with me going to school - or if I did go to school,
each school in another town
couldn't be bothered to teach this one child by herself,
so they'd sit me on the side, on a seat, and give me a book,
which I couldn't read -
but I had to sit there until it was time to break loose
and then get running back to my digs,
to go and join the kids at night.
I mean, the more you tell me about that,
the more extraordinary it is that you became what you became.
I mean, as I said, the biggest star in this country,
I mean a superstar, the first, well, you were.
Well, you never think of yourself as anything else but what you are.
I never think of myself as a star.
I know, I suppose - I know I have been around,
but I never think of myself...
I'm just the same as I've always been.
But I wondered how it happened.
How that girl from Rochdale eventually went to London,
took London by storm, and then took the nation by storm?
Because I was interested in other people on the stage, don't forget.
I saw the different stars we worked with,
and my mother used to write to me.
She knew all about them, because she was stage-mad.
She used to take in the performer and the stage, the papers,
the theatre papers, and she'd write to me,
"Next week you're on the stage with Gertie Gitana,
"so don't forget to learn all her songs!"
And I had to learn them,
because I daren't go home if I didn't know them.
So I had to get very friendly with the stage manager,
if he would be kind enough and let me stand on the side of the stage,
because they only allowed the children to stand on the stage,
a few, one at a time and no more.
So then I got friendly with the man who pulled up the curtains,
up on the top of the lofts, and I used to go up there,
"Please can I come up here?
"I have got to learn Gertie Gitana's songs".
So I'm up in the top,
watching them pull the thing up and listen to her singing...
# My sweet Iola
# Iola, list to me...
# Da, da, da... # I forgot the words!
You can expect it at 80 - who cares?!
Nellie Dean... You were a fan of Gertie Gitana?
Oh, yes. Yes. I remember her singing Nellie Dean.
# By the old stream
# By the stream, Nellie Dean... #
Yes, she used to sing all those.
You know, I had a very sad experience, for me,
because I thought that she was the biggest star in the world
when I was a child.
I used to listen to her,
even from the man who gets in the orchestra pit underneath the stage,
I used to ask him, "Please can I keep your door open
so I can learn her songs?"
And... When I...
went to a charity concert in Chelsea,
it must have been about 25 years or 30 years ago,
and I hear someone singing one of my songs,
and it was Gertie Gitana mimicking me.
I cried. I said, "Oh, that's not right, she's such a big star."
Because to me she was still that big star
and she shouldn't be mimicking me -
I'm just Gracie Fields from Rochdale,
but I couldn't feel...
Amazing. It just upset me, really.
You started off taking her off
and she ended up taking you off. That's right,
and she ended up sort of taking me off, it's very funny. Yeah.
What did you feel like when you came down,
this raw girl from Rochdale into London?
I mean, it must've been a bit of a problem.
Did you feel socially uneasy, in the world of London...? No -
I don't think I ever bothered about anything at all.
I'd been when I was a child in the juvenile troupes,
and every time if I could go to a matinee and see a big star...
Mother used to write and tell me to go and see Shirley Kellogg
and different actresses and singers in London when I could get a chance,
and I was always looking for somebody important.
So she was really ramming all this stuff down my neck,
and...give her an idea, so I was actually mimicking everybody.
Yes. You also, at this time, 1928 or so,
I mean, you cracked the London stage as well, didn't you?
There must have been...
you met Sir Gerald du Maurier, for instance, who employed you...
Well... That must have been a certain amount of conflict there,
between this sort of high-bred, rather posh fellow and you?
Well, we were different people.
We were ordinary people in heart, the same, you know what I mean?
It didn't bother me.
I said, "Oh, well, you..." When I went to the St James Theatre,
the first thing I did was take my gramophone.
I remember when I first bought my first gramophone,
I was in Nottingham and I got to know the girl in a gramophone shop.
So I said, "Would you give me some very good records?
"I want classical ones."
So she gave me a bunch of Caruso, Galli-Curci and different people.
Well, I took those records home and I was in a dream,
listening to this... wonderful voices.
And I used to mimic them, I used to sing
all these things that Caruso used to sing.
STRIDENT OPERA SINGING
You know, I'd get the voice out.
It reminds me, just before I came here,
on Sunday, when we started off from Naples...
..we had a taxi man.
So he was very puzzled at Boris sitting next to him
and a friend of mine who plays the piano for me -
Teddy Holmes, you must know him...
Yes. ..he was sitting next to me, and the driver was talking to Boris,
we come to... "These people are speaking English behind here
"and you're speaking the dialect of Naples."
So he must have said something, "Oh, well, she sings," or something.
So I started...
# Vide'o mare quant'e bello
# Spira tantu sentimento
# Comme tu a chi tiene mente... #
and this man started going mad, "Ah, wonderful!"
He forgot to drive and he started to conduct...
LAUGHTER ..all the way to the station.
Teddy and Boris were scared to death!
But I finished it outright to the end when I got to the station.
Gracie, of course, lives abroad now all the time.
Could you do that, could you live abroad, anywhere else? I don't know,
I only like living in England.
But why's that? I can't understand the language anywhere else.
I don't, it's all right, I just get through, you know?
It's Lancashire Italian.
But I get all I want. If I want to know what's going on in the kitchen,
I always say I'm either starring or charring, I can't keep still,
so I do a bit of cooking one day, I do a bit of fiddling around,
cleaning and playing in the garden.
I find so many things to do.
But you'd just feel totally an alien then, would you?
Yes, I very much like Italian people,
they're very kind and very good with children
and very cheerful, but, oh, the noise they make!
You prefer more quiet?
I like things quiet, yes.
What about - you've lived all your life, of course, down here,
haven't you, in the south? Yes.
I say down here like it was a southern state of America
or something, but there is, we all know,
this north and south divide in Britain, still.
In fact, you've not discovered the north until recently, have you?
Quite lately, yes.
And you like it, don't you? Very much indeed - and the Isle of Man.
The Isle of Man you like. Very fond of that.
I've never been there. Oh, it's nice.
You don't say! The one place I've never been, to the Isle of Man.
Oh, it's beautiful. Yes.
What do you like, specifically, about the North?
People speak directly - and Coronation Street.
What, do you like...?! You like Coronation Street?
Yes, it's my favourite programme.
LAUGHTER Is it really?!
I enjoyed it, I saw it this week
and I haven't seen it for such a long time,
and it takes me right back to Rochdale.
How marvellous. It's a lovely feeling
of everybody knows everybody,
we all interfere with everybody's business,
we all want to know everything -
but I find that Capri people are the same in Capri.
All the Capresi, they all know everything,
they all want to know the tittle-tattle about everybody,
but they're one family,
and I feel that the Lancashire people are like that,
Yorkshire people up north are very much together.
Much closer than they are down south.
That's typical. What do you like -
who's your favourite character in Coronation Street?
I'm hard put to it to say.
I'm very fond of Mrs Walker, and...
Oh, I think Doris Speed, the actress who plays her, is fantastic.
Yes. I think really incredible.
..and Stan Ogden and his wife, Hilda...
You like the curlers, do you? ..I'm very fond of -
and I like Ken Barlow, as a cultivated contrast,
and I'm very fond of that very...
..pushy one that is going to do very well in business, Mike Baldwin.
Oh, yes. Who lately appeared.
What about Albert Tatlock?
He's wonderful. He is wonderful, isn't he?
He must have been on the holes.
I don't know if he was, actually.
You know he lives in the Midland Hotel in Manchester?
I heard that, very nice.
Now, you know that Ena Sharples speaks posh, don't you?
Does she? Mm. Well, not posh, but, I mean, it's sort of...
POSH ACCENT: But she's refined. Yes! Really?
Oh, well, we can all be refined, you know, just the same.
That's right, yes.
You were talking earlier, Gracie, about filming.
I mean, you had a spectacular film career.
You were, in the '30s here, you were the biggest film star in Britain.
You also went to Hollywood, too, didn't you?
Yeah. But didn't like it.
Well, I didn't like making films at all in the beginning. You didn't.
I couldn't stand it, cos you're waiting around
and doing nothing and when you do say something
you've said, "Good morning, George" all day and it drives you crazy -
and then when they lock the gate when they've got you in,
I always felt I was imprisoned and I can't get out of this place.
Yes. But I could get out of a theatre, I never thought of that -
I mean, I got through the stage door.
Yes. That's always open, I always felt, morning, noon and night...
Yes. ..but the film studio, I'd see them close that gate,
"They've got me, I'm stuck now for the day."
Yes...but you must have met - when you were in Hollywood,
you must have met some extraordinary people,
people who you admired on the screen? Oh, yes, quite a lot.
I did one or two good films.
You did, I remember them. But not much.
Do you? Yes, I was a film critic in those days.
Oh, you were. Did you review Gracie?
I think probably, yes.
Yes? I remember that one we saw...
what was the song in it? Well...
I remember... Sing As We Go. Sing As We Go.
Sing As We Go, that's it. That was done in England. Yes.
But most of those stories
were kind of written around me for some reason -
they weren't real stories to start off with.
The first film I ever made was Sally. Oh, yes.
Now, that was written properly as a play, and it was a very good play.
Well, you had something to play with.
The others were all stitched up around five or six songs.
"Get six songs ready, Grace,
"because you're going to make a film,"
and then it was just stitched up.
Now, when I went to Hollywood and I did the one by Arnold Bennett,
Buried Alive it was called, the book, it was called...
What was it called?
Holy Matrimony. Holy Matrimony, that's right, yes.
It was a joy to do that without a song in it
because you'd real words to say that the author enjoyed writing...
Mm. ..and then you enjoyed saying them,
and it was something to do -
but when they stitched around you, you know,
they don't come up quite the same, the stories were not good.
Of course, in fact JB Priestley wrote a couple of films for you,
didn't he? Yeah - well, he did the Sing As We Go.
That's right, yes. You met him, did you?
Yes, oh, yes. Well, you obviously did.
He came, yes, he came with Basil Dean.
They talked about the story and doing these things.
I said, "Well, I think it's going to be a kind of a popular thing
"and it might make money and be all that."
He says, "Well, we don't like to think about money."
I said, "Well, what are we working for?"
That was Priestley said that? Yeah. "We don't like to think of money"?
Yes. You've never been afflicted by that, have you, Sir John,
the thought that art should not make money? No. No.
No, I think not, no.
It always amazed me if it ever has.
But it's a nice end product if it does?
I think it's an extra, kindly supplied by the management.
Can I ask you, finally, the two of you
who've lived long and many years in this country,
what's disturbed you coming from what you did,
from an Edwardian background into the present time?
Motorcars, I think, have made things much worse.
That's another thing, yes.
I think people go mad when they get inside motorcars
and become quite like fiends.
I know I do myself.
LAUGHTER People forget to walk.
Yes. I got rid of my car when I was 70.
I said, "I'm going to walk!"
Up those hills in Rochdale, very steep!
Up those hills, in Capri, too!
Of course, you know Rochdale, don't you?
Yes. Lovely place.
Rochdale, we had a great-grandfather who lived until he was 103
and when he was 100 they gave him some special prizes
and they said... So he had free tram rides,
so he killed himself, my father said,
by having free tram rides,
he never walked after he got that prize!
LAUGHTER AND APPLAUSE
"He died of goodwill" should be the epitaph for that gentleman!
Now, we're going to,
you're not going to go away without singing for us,
and you're going to sing, I hope... do you remember Grace's comic ones?
What about the Aspidistra one?
The Biggest Aspidistra. Oh, no!
You must be sick of singing that one!
I'm sick of singing it, sick of hearing it!
Are you? Yeah!
But if you want it... What was the story about it, Gracie,
the sort of background to it?
Well, just a man who brought all these songs to me for many years,
he brought one along -
but when I went to America
I remember we were doing a very big...
a three-hour marathon radio show for charity,
so I was on this show doing three songs, which I did, and...
Bob Hope was the MC.
He said, "We're ten minutes short, have you got another song?"
I said, "Yes, but they wouldn't understand it."
He says, "What is it?" I says, "The Aspidistra."
He says, "What's that?"
He'd forgotten because he'd been in America too long.
He says, "Well, never mind, sing it."
Well, when I sang it I really caused a sensation,
because the aspidistra has a different meaning to the Americans
than it has for us.
It's got a different meaning for me
than I suspect it does for you, but...
Well, it always meant a plant,
the aspidistra plant, and all up north
I think everybody has an aspidistra plant.
I know my grandmother used to have one, my mother had one,
my grandmother used to put paper flowers in between them.
Well, our MV Mr Harry Stoneham is waiting over there, Gracie.
Oh, well. So if you want to cross there.
Gracie Fields. # Put your shoes on, Lucy... #
Well, well, well.
We've got the music, we hope for the best.
I hope I remember it.
# For years we had an aspidistra in a flowerpot
# On the whatnot near the hatstand in the hall
# Well, it didn't seem to grow till one day our brother Joe
# Had a notion that he'd make it strong and tall
# So he crossed it with an acorn from an oak tree
# And he planted it against the garden wall
# Well, it shot up like a rocket till it nearly reached the sky
# It's the biggest aspidistra in the world.
# We couldn't see the top of it it got so blooming high
# It's the biggest aspidistra in the world
# When father's had a snootful at his pub, The Bunch Of Grapes
# He doesn't go all fighting mad and getting into scrapes
# You'll find him in his bearskin playing Tarzan Of The Apes
# Up the biggest aspidistra in the world
# The pussycats and their sweethearts
# Love to spend their evenings out
# Up the biggest aspidistra in the world
# They all begin meowing when the buds begin to sprout
# From the biggest aspidistra in the world
# The dogs all come around for miles, a lovely sight to see
# They sniff around for hours and hours and wag their tails with glee
# So I've had to put a notice up to say it's not a tree
# It's the biggest aspidistra in the world. #
# I could have danced all night. #
Did you enjoy that, Sir John?
Oh, I did, every moment.
You liked the lyric? Yes.
Who wrote it?
It was Bill Haynes... Clever man.
..and somebody else. There were always three or four names,
because they used to join in.
I don't know how much they put in in each one,
but there were always three or four names it,
but Bill Haynes had this little music shop,
and he was a consul, too, for Haiti.
He was really a funny Cockney, a real Cockney.
He used to say, "Grace, I've got a lovely number for you now.
"This is the best you've ever had. Now I'll sing it for you."
He says, "Wait a minute, I'll get up," and he'd say, "Now....
"Walter and me, we've been courting for years,
"but he's never asked me to wed.
"When leap year comes round I'll give three hearty cheers,
"hooray, because I do the asking instead."
And he used to go on with that.
And then another time he came and he said he got this Sally
which I was talking about, and I wondered where he got it,
but we found out, and it worked out fine.
That was by Haynes, was it?
Yes, he was part of the Sally song.
He might well become our favourite lyricist
after Cole Porter and Lorenz Hart. Yes.
Bill Haynes. Yes.
I thought he was going to write one for Peggy, you see.
He should have done, shouldn't he?
Mm. I mean... He should have written that one, yes.
He should have written a love song for Peggy, yes.
# Isn't it bliss
# How we're a pair?
# Me here at last on the ground
# You in midair... #
SHE HUMS THE MELODY
That's Stephen Sondheim.
# Where are the clowns...? #
Did you see that show?
No. Send In The Clowns.
Yes, of course. A Little Night Music, the show is called.
A Little Night Music, yes. Written by a man called Stephen Sondheim.
Lovely. The one thing that discernible from people like you,
great stars, the one thing that separates you from the rest,
actually, is your energy, your boundless, boundless energy.
Well, you can't keep me still.
I got that from my mother, I guess.
It's God-given, anyway. Gracie Fields, you're still a great star,
and thank you very much for being our guest tonight.
Thank you very much for asking me. I enjoyed it immensely.
Bless you. Nice to meet you.
Sir John, as always, a pleasure to have you on my show.
Thank you very much indeed. I think he's lovely.
I wish I'd been his Elsie.
I'm six years older than Doris, but I don't even look older.
He's only 71! He is only 71.
Well, thank you, Warren. Warren!
I'll give you Warren.
Thank you, both of you.
Till same time... Thank you, Christopher Robin.
That's right. Till the same time next week, goodnight.
Another chance to see the 1977 Michael Parkinson interview with Sir John Betjeman and Gracie Fields.