Absolutely Fabulous star Jane Horrocks is set to return to TV playing comedian, singer and big star of the Thirties, Gracie Fields. Here. she talks to What’s On TV about playing her heroine.

Has Gracie always been a heroine of yours?
“I knew very little about Gracie Fields as I was growing up. Then when I went to RADA, someone I was at drama school with said: ‘Oh, you should listen to Gracie Fields, her songs are really hilarious.’ So he bought me an album. From then on, it was an ongoing ambition to play her at some point, and people would say ‘Oh yes, that’s a perfect idea,’ but nothing ever came of it. And then finally we managed to get it done.”

Your husband, Nick Vivian, wrote the script – how did he get involved?
“Originally, I’d talked to another writer about doing it and that just fell by the wayside. Then Nick started to become very interested in Gracie Fields and so we both went to the BBC with the idea about three years ago. Then it sort of slowly happened from there.”

Which part of Gracie’s life does the drama cover?
“We just chose what we think is the most interesting part of her life – when she was in her early 40s and she had to go into hospital because she had cervical cancer. Then war broke out and she did this massive amount of work for the war effort. Her husband had to flee the country because he was Italian and the British people turned their back on Gracie because of that, because they thought that she’d deserted them. So in a way this drama is setting Gracie’s record straight, because she didn’t run away from Britain. She raised an enormous amount of money for ammunition, Spitfire planes and so on. She was very unfairly treated.”

Does it deal with her love life, too?
“She had this lovely marriage to Italian film director, Monty Banks. She loved him dearly and they were sort of soul mates. He made her laugh, he amused her and they did have a really lovely relationship. But there was this tie between Gracie and her audience which was very powerful.”

What do you think it was about her that captured the nation’s hearts in the Thirties?
“People could relate to her, she was ordinary, that’s what people liked about her. It is extraordinary that such an ordinary person reached that level of fame. In the Thirties, she was the highest paid and most famous actress in the world. If she could do it being a factory girl then it was possible for other people to reach that height of fame, not that they had that obsession with fame as they do now.”

Are you doing an impersonation of her or are you playing your own version of Gracie?
“I’m sort of doing my own version of her. Michael Sheen, who’s played real people on film like Tony Blair and David Frost, said he took an essence of himself that was similar to the character and expanded on that. That’s what I’ve tried to do, too.”

Did you have a coach to get Gracie’s voice just right?
“I did have a dialect coach, just because her speaking voice is very interesting. It had such an American influence even at that time in her early 40s. So it did have a bit of a mid-Atlantic twang about it mixed with Rochdale and also, when she did her public appearances, it had that sort of 1930s, standard English sound to it. So it’s a real mish mash of a lot of different things.”

Gracie! is on BBC Four, Monday 23 November at 9pm.