Wednesday 27 January 2016

Joyce Grenfell by Janie Hampton

Joyce Grenfell with her cook Rene Easden, 1938
The writer and entertainer Joyce Grenfell was born 106 years ago this month. By the time she retired in 1973, she had performed on four continents, in front of King George VI, Maurice Chevalier and Igor Stravinsky. She always claimed to be ‘just a housewife’ who happened to walk onto a stage. But while researching her biography, I found that 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 accents. Her father Paul Phipps, an architect,taught her to observe 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 huge feet, she was often the wallflower at society balls. At nineteen she married Reggie Grenfell, a shy accountant.
As a young housewife living on the Astors' estate at Cliveden in the 1930s, she ran the local Women's Institute, wrote poetry for Punch and helped to entertain her aunt Nancy's guests. After one lunch, J.L. Garvin, the editor The Observer, engaged her as the paper's first radio critic. This led to meeting the theatre impresario Herbert Farjeon, who asked her to perform her monologue about the W.I.  Much to the fury of the professionals in his ‘Little Revue’, Useful and Acceptable Gifts was an immediate success.
Joyce and her ENSA pianist Viola Tunnard, c. 1945.
The Second World War brought Joyce more opportunities to perform. 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, which 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.
Arriving in Cairo for some leave, she was targeted by Prince Aly Khan - a lover of race-horses, cards and women.  He wooed Joyce with red roses and dancing by moonlit and although I think she fended him off, she felt guilty all her life for feeling tempted. Infidelity 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 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,' the actress Judy Campbell told me. 'Both pulled it off rather well.'
In 1943 Joyce tried straight acting but soon realised that she could not act 'sideways' and anyway, she preferred to have an audience to herself. After that she only performed other people's material in films, such as The Belles of St Trinian's and The Yellow Rolls-Royce, but directors had to accept that she would probably not stick to the script. 'This writer has obviously never met a real Duchess,' she proclaimed on the set of The Million Pound Note.
Donald Swann wrote the music for Joyful Noise, a fake Haydn oratorio sung by Joyce as Miss Clissold, Miss Truss and Ivy Trembly from Wembley, 'who sometimes sings in FFF and sometimes ppp' for the revue Penny Plain in 1951.

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 BBC Home Service. Their astute social satire, mockery of contemporary etiquette and imaginative use of radio pushed forward radio comedy by a decade. From this emerged the exasperated nursery school teacher and  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 Third Programme's opening day  in 1946. She played nine different parts including 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 20th century. She also secured the highest fees, rising from 8 guineas in 1939 to 250 guineas in 1963 for The Billy Cotton Band Show.
After the 1954 success of Joyce Grenfell Requests The Pleasure in two provincial tours, the West End and on Broadway, Joyce relied simply on her talented pianist William Blezard and the jewel-coloured costumes designed for her by Victor Stiebel. She combined talent, observation and sheer hard work.  She wrote over a hundred roles for herself, 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, 'You know, Norm’s the one that drives the lorry with the big ears.' Unsuitable, might have been herself – ‘a hat and gloves and pearls type'  singing 'I go jazzy when I hear the beat. I swing and sway in a groovy way'.
Her favourite role was inspired by Sir Alec Douglas-Home's mother-in-law - the wife of an Oxbridge vice- chancellor in Eng. Lit..  A woman with strong values, she apologised for 'the regrettable absence of essential stationary in the visitor's closet.' Joyce’s perfectly-formed short stories contained tiny but revealing slices of people’s lives. Each monologue took anything up to five years to write, yet lasted only two to eight minutes.  ‘I do not improvise, but I do re-create the story every night,’ she said. While 1960s humour was dominated by Beyond the Fringe, 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. She made her audience feel that she loved them, as much as they loved her.
Joyce with her friends Benjamin Britten & Peter Pears, 1967.
Her beloved Reggie always encouraged her, while never allowing her to perform anything that was not up to scratch. They both disliked celebrity parties and their hobbies included bird watching and wild flowers. 
Joyce had a strong faith in Christian Science and believed that Goodness was all around, and pain, evil or disease would melt away if ignored. Apart from opening countless fetes, she kept her enormous generosity secret. Young writers such as Clive James and Jeffrey Bernard received clothes and cheques. During the freezing winter of 1962, my widowed mother was taken to hospital and Joyce arrived with steaming casseroles. She would 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 show at the Haymarket that I discovered she had an evening job.

Soon after her last live performance at Windsor Castle in 1973, she lost the sight of one eye, but continued to appear on the BBC's Face the Music.  After she died of cancer in November 1979, over 2,000 people attended her memorial service in Westminster Abbey.  As one of those, I had no idea that 20 years later I would be reading her letters and diaries as I researched her biography.   Books about Joyce Grenfell:

Joyce and Ginnie, the letters of Joyce Grenfell and Virginia Graham, edited by Janie Hampton, Hodder & Stoughton, 1997. Hats Off! Joyce Grenfell's poetry & drawings, edited by Janie Hampton, John Murray, 2001. Joyce Grenfell, the biography, Janie Hampton, John Murray , 2002. My Kind of Magic, a Joyce Grenfell Scrapbook, edited by Janie Hampton, John Murray,  2003. Letters from Aldeburgh by Joyce Grenfell, edited by Janie Hampton, Day Books,  2006.


Sally Zigmond said...

Wonderful Joyce Grenfell. I love her monologues and her songs. My mother and I still quote them. Her nursery school teacher sketches remain spot on. And her song about women dancing together is hilarious - "Stately as two galleons we sail across the floor/doing the Military Two-Step as in the days of yore..." not to mention the line about dancing "bust to bust"!

Unknown said...

My mother was a huge fan of Joyce Grenfell and loved your biography of her. She still has it in her bedroom for reference!