Joyce Grenfell was the best-loved female entertainer of her generation, perhaps of the twentieth century.
Her gifts as a writer and performer of comic monologues have never been surpassed, and by the time she retired as an entertainer in 1973 her audiences on four continents had included such admirers as King George VI, Maurice Chevalier and Igor Stravinsky, Above all, she had the unusual gift of making her audience feel that she loved them as much as they loved her.
Joyce always claimed to be just a housewife who had walked on stage, but her childhood had prepared her for the limelight. Her mother was Virginian-born Nora Langhorne, the youngest sister of Nancy Astor MP, and they both taught Joyce to mimic any accent.
Her father Paul Phipps, an architect, introduced her to the pleasure of observing people, especially on buses. Brought up in bohemian Chelsea, she went to smart private schools and was presented as a debutante at Court. A tall girl with horsey teeth and huge feet, she was often the wallflower at society balls, but at 19 she married Reggie Grenfell, a shy accountant.
As a young housewife living on the Asters’ estate at Cliveden in the 1930s, she ran the local Women’s Institute, wrote poetry for Punch magazine and helped to entertain her aunt Nancy’s guests. After one lunch, J L Garvin, the editor of the Observer newspaper, engaged her as the paper’s first radio critic. This led to a meeting with the theatre impresario Herbert Farjeon, who asked her to perform a monologue she had written about the WI. Much to the fury of the professionals in his Little Revue, Joyce’s Useful and Acceptable Gifts was an immediate success.
The Second World War brought more performing opportunities for Joyce. After a lunchtime concert at the National Gallery in 1942 she met Richard Addinsell, composer of the Warsaw Concerto. Together they wrote many successful sentimental ballads, including I’m Going to See You Today and Turn Back the Clock, which aptly caught the public mood.
In 1944 Joyce embarked with the pianist Viola Tunnard on two long ENSA tours across North Africa, the Middle East and India. For 11 months they performed three concerts a day; in Nissen huts and tented hospitals, to troops who were already familiar with her light, tuneful voice from the radio.
On leave in Cairo from this punishing schedule, she became the amorous target of Prince Aly Khan – a lover of racehorses, cards and women, and a deep disappointment to his father, the Aga Khan.
Already married to the daughter of an English peer, Prince Aly wooed Joyce with dozens of red roses and dancing by moonlight. She probably managed to fend him off, but she felt guilty all her life for even feeling tempted. Infidelity and its repercussions became a theme of many of her monologues: the musician’s wife in Life Story, for example, and the French lover in Dear Francois.
Back in London, Joyce wrote new songs and sketches such as Oh! Mr du Maurier and Travel Broadens the Mind and joined Noel Coward in the first post-war revue, Sigh No More.
“Noel was an actor who wanted to be an aristocrat and Joyce was the opposite, an aristocrat who wanted to be an actor,” commented actress Judy Campbell. “Both pulled it off rather well.”
In 1943 Joyce had tried straight acting; but soon realised that she could not act ‘sideways’ and anyway she preferred to have the audience all to herself. Thereafter she only performed other people’s material in films, such as The Belles of St Trinian’s and The Yellow Rolls-Royce. Even then, directors had to accept that she would rewrite her part. “This writer has obviously never met a real Duchess,” she proclaimed on the set of The Million Pound Note.
In the 1951 revue Penny Plain, for which Flanders and Swann wrote many of the songs, Joyce performed Joyful Noise – a pastiche of a Handel oratorio composed by Donald Swann – as Miss Clissold, Miss Truss and Ivy Trembly from Wembley, who sometimes sing in FFF and sometimes ppp.
After live theatre, Joyce’s favourite medium was radio. “It’s a one-to-one medium, and uses the imagination,” she said. In 1941 she wrote the first ever one-woman radio show, produced by Stephen Potter, the future author of Gamesmanship. Two years later they wrote and presented How to Talk to Children for the Home Service.
Their astute social satire, mockery of contemporary etiquette and imaginative use of the medium pushed radio comedy forward by a decade. From this emerged the exasperated nursery school teacher, with Joyce’s most memorable line “‘George, don’t do that.”
The How series ran for 12 years, using, among others, the voices of Celia Johnson and Roy Plomley In How to Listen (and How Not To).
Joyce was the first woman to speak on the BBC’s Third Programme when it opened in 1946. She played nine different parts including ‘Jean Gledding ATS of Bexley Heath’ and a Mayfair flapper with a wireless-cum-cocktail cabinet fitted with a ‘supersonic incessor switch and hypertonic two-way mega-cycle baffles’.
Over the next 30 years Joyce wrote more radio material than any other woman in the twentieth century. She also secured the highest fees, rising from eight guineas in 1939 to 250 guineas in 1963 for The Billy Cotton Band Show.
Fifteen years after she first went on stage, her first major solo show, Joyce Grenfell Requests the Pleasure, was launched in 1954, her songs and monologues backed by three dancers. After two provincial tours and a year in the West End it sold out for eight weeks on Broadway. In future shows, Joyce toured her shows with neither orchestra nor dancers:, relying on the piano skills of William Blezard and the jewel-coloured costumes designed for her by Victor Stiebl.
Her success came from a combination of talent, observation and sheer hard work. She wrote over a hundred roles for herself, covering an enormous range: from the Scandinavian visitor at a cocktail party – “I sink is so nice to say hello and goodbye quick and to have little sings for eating is so gay’ to Shirley’s cockney girlfriend talking about her boyfriend Norm “‘You know, the one that drives the lorry with the big ears.”
Sometime she portrayed herself, as in Unsuitable, sung by a ‘hat and gloves and pearls type’ woman. “I go jazzy when I hear the beat. I swing and sway in a groovy way.”
The role she most enjoyed (in Eng Lit) was the wife of an Oxbridge university vice-chancellor inspired by Sir Alec Douglas-Home’s mother-in-law. A woman with strong values, she apologises for “the regrettable absence of essential stationery from the visitor’s closet.”
Joyce was able to laugh at people without malice, and her perfectly formed short stories contained a tiny but revealing slice of their lives. Each monologue took anything up to five years to write, yet lasted only two to eight minutes. It took her months of preparation before she could perform them as if she’d just wandered out from the kitchen and thought of an amusing anecdote. “‘I do not improvise,” she said, “but I do recreate the story every night.”
While 1960s humour was dominated by Beyond the Fringe and the atom bomb, Joyce’s characters were still concerned with everyday problems such as finding the perfect picnic spot or disposing of a dead rabbit.
The critics said Joyce was ‘too domestic and apolitical’ but her shows continued to sell out everywhere from Dover to San Francisco, from Glasgow to Sydney. When meeting fans in the street, however, she was always disappointed that they saw her as gawky games mistress Miss Gossage (“Call me Sausage”) from The Happiest Days of Your Life rather than as an elegant actress.
Joyce’s zest for living came from her faith in Christian Science. She talked often on the radio and in churches about her belief that goodness was all around and that if pain, evil and disease were ignored they would melt away.
Apart from opening countless fetes and bazaars, she kept her enormous generosity secret. Young writers such as Clive James and Jeffrey Bernard and his brother Oliver received clothes, books and cheques. During the six freezing winter of 1962, my widowed mother was taken to hospital and Joyce arrived with steaming casseroles. She would put a pinny over her Chanel suits, whip a pair of Marigolds out of her crocodile handbag and whisk round the kitchen as she reminded us to do our homework. It wasn’t until she sent us tickets to her solo show at the Haymarket that I discovered she had an evening job.
Her last live performance was at Windsor Castle for the Queen’s Waterloo Dinner in 1973. Soon afterwards she lost her sight in one eye, but continued to appear on the BBC TV’s Face the Music and give charity talks around the country. She died of cancer in November 1979, just a month before she would have been appointed a Dame of the British Empire. More than two thousand people attended her memorial service in Westminster Abbey, and many more waited outside.