Monday, September 14, 2015

Joyce Grenfell (1910-1979)

Birth name: Joyce Irene Phipps
Birthdate: Thursday, February 10th, 1910
Location: London, UK

Died: Friday, November 30th, 1979
Location: London, UK
Cause of death: Eye cancer

Best known for: Much-loved comedy actress and writer who was something of a pioneer in the UK for performing her own comedy songs and monologues, something Victoria Wood would popularise in the 1980s and 90s. Joyce's best known acting work is for her role as Ruby Gates in the St Trinian's series of British comedy films. She was awarded an OBE in 1946.

After being such a mainstay of British comedy films in the 1950s and 60s, it's somewhat surprising to learn that Joyce's final acting credit was actually a whole 15 years before she died. In 1964 she played Hortense Astor in The Yellow Rolls-Royce, a Golden Globe-winning film starring Ingrid Bergman and Rex Harrison. Joyce's role was modest, but at the age of just 54, she had so much more to offer which the acting profession ultimately missed out on.

In The Yellow Rolls-Royce, aged 54
Four years later, in January 1968, Joyce took up storytelling duties on the children's BBC series Jackanory reading the adventures of Pippi Longstocking, and returned to the storytelling chair 12 months later to narrate five Beatrix Potter tales for the programme. Her final installment was The Tale of Mrs Tittlemouse on January 24th, 1969.

There were only a handful of personal appearances throughout the next decade - an appearance on The Dick Cavett Show in the US in October 1970, a couple of turns on The David Frost Show the same year, as well as a performance at a birthday gala tribute to Noel Coward. Intermittently throughout the 1970s Joyce had appeared as a panellist on the BBC classical music quiz show Face the Music, making her final appearance on Christmas Day 1979 - a month after her death.

A 68-year-old Joyce looked
unwell on the cover of her
latest LP in 1978
So what led to this paucity of screen appearances in the 1970s? Well, Joyce was working, but just not on TV or in film. She toured the UK, America and Australia with her comedy routines and spoof operettas written by Richard Addinsell and William Blezard, which led to her appearances on US chat shows such as Cavett and Frost. She also made original recordings of her monologues, including Joyce Grenfell Requests the Pleasure (1976) and George, Don't Do That (1977).

However, in 1973 - shortly after a comedy performance at Windsor Castle for Queen Elizabeth II - Joyce was taken ill with an eye infection which resulted in the partial loss of sight in her left eye. The eye began to shrivel but she refused surgery, preferring an uncomfortable glass cosmetic contact.

In 1979, upon the request of her husband Reggie, Joyce sought treatment for the rheumatic pains she was suffering in her eye. It was discovered that the eye was now cancerous, and that the cancer had spread to her spine. Reggie was told his wife had less than a year to live. Years later, Janie Hampton - who as a child had benefited from Joyce's philanthropy and altruism - said: "She never knew she had cancer. She was not interested in medical diagnosis. She bought new clothes, had a new eye fitted, and accepted invitations to preach in churches the following year."

A portrait of Joyce in
later years, by Allan
However, the operation was not successful, and in October 1979 Joyce became seriously ill. Ten days after celebrating her 50th wedding anniversary to Reggie, she slipped into a coma, passing away on November 30th, aged 69. She was cremated at Golders Green on Tuesday, December 4th and her ashes placed in the Garden of Remembrance. In February 1980 a memorial service was held for Joyce at Westminster Abbey, the first time such an honour had ever been afforded a comedian (only Les Dawson and Ronnie Barker have had that honour since).

It was revealed that Joyce was due to be awarded a damehood in the 1980 New Year Honours List for her services to entertainment, to be added to the OBE she received 34 years previously for the same reason.

Before her death Joyce had been interviewed for the Southern Television documentary Chaos Supersedes ENSA, about the Entertainments National Service Association which entertained the troops during World War Two. Joyce's posthumous appearance was broadcast on August 27th, 1980.

For a reminder of just how clever a writer and performer Joyce was, here's a routine called "Eng Lit" she performed for the BBC...

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