Joyce Grenfell

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About Joyce Grenfell

b. Joyce Irene Phipps, 10 February 1910, London, England, d. 30 November 1979, London, England. An actress, singer and author, and a brilliant exponent of the monologue and witty song. The daughter of American parents - her mother’s sister was Nancy Astor - Joyce Phipps used to describe herself as ‘three fourths American’. She became interested in the theatre at an early age, and spent a term at RADA before marrying Reginald Grenfell in 1929. Subsequently, she worked for a time in commercial art, contributed to Punch and Country Life, and spent over three years as radio critic for the Observer. After impressing the humorist Steven Potter with her own charming recollection of a lecture that she had recently attended at a Women’s Institute, she was engaged by the theatrical producer Herbert Farjeon for The Little Revue (1939). In the early 40s she appeared in other Farjeon revues, Diversion, Diversion No. 2 and Light And Shade, and then, in 1944, toured extensively with ENSA, in the Near and Far East, and in India, entertaining the troops in British forces’ hospitals, with comic monologues and songs. Two years later she was awarded the OBE. In Sigh No More (1945), at London’s Piccadilly Theatre, Grenfell dressed as a schoolgirl for Noël Coward’s witty ‘That Is The End Of The News’, and, in the same show, introduced ‘Du Maurier’, a song she had written with composer Richard Addinsell. They collaborated again on material for the revues, Tuppence Coloured (1947) and Penny Plain (1951), in which Grenfell also appeared. It was the beginning of a significant and enduring professional relationship. By the late 40s and early 50s, Grenfell was working more and more in radio - as a panellist on We Beg To Differ, and as the British host of Transatlantic Quiz. She made a couple of propaganda films during the war, but her movie career proper began in 1943 with a comedy, The Demi-Paradise, which starred Laurence Olivier and Margaret Rutherford. Grenfell appeared with Rutherford again, in The Happiest Days Of Your Life (1949), which also starred the lugubrious Alastair Sim. He and Grenfell managed to emerge unscathed from the St. Trinians film series. during the late 50s. Grenfell’s other film roles, some of them highly telling cameos, included appearances in Here Comes The Bride, The Galloping Major, Pickwick Papers, The Million Pound Note and The Americanization Of Emily It was on stage, however, that she really came into her own. In 1954 she wrote the book and lyrics, with Addinsell’s music, for Joyce Grenfell Requests The Pleasure, which ran for nearly a year in London before transferring to Broadway in the following year. In America, Grenfell developed her one-woman show, toured US cities, and appeared on the Ed Sullivan Show several times in the late 50s. One Sullivan date saw her on the same bill with Elvis Presley (‘a pasty-faced plump boy’, as she recalled). She presented her solo effort in London for the first time in 1957, at the Lyric theatre, under the title of Joyce Grenfell - A Miscellany, and later took the show to Australia where it was called Meet Joyce Grenfell. Throughout the 60s she continued to tour extensively at home and abroad, and went back to Australia three times. In the early 70s she lost the sight in one eye and retired from the stage. During the next six years she published two volumes of autobiography, Joyce Grenfell Requests The Pleasure and In Pleasant Places, before cancer affected her other eye, and she died in 1979. Always an effective broadcaster, from 1966 Grenfell was an essential panel-member on television’s Face The Music, a general knowledge quiz about music, and had her own television series on UK’s BBC2 for a time. As a performer she was unique, and impossible to pigeonhole. Despite her ‘terribly English’ image, she was incredibly popular around the world, particularly in America. With the gentle ‘I’m Going To See You Today’, which became her theme, the pomp of ‘Stately As A Galleon’, and many other favourites such as ‘Maude’, ‘Nursery School’, ‘A Terrible Worrier’, ‘Time’, ‘Three Brothers’, ‘It’s Almost Tomorrow’, and two recorded duets with Norman Wisdom, ‘Narcissus’ and ‘I Don’t ’Arf Love You’, she presented a refined, humorous, perceptive, yet never unkind, view of society. One of her best-remembered pieces is ‘I Like Life’, which accords with her own philosophy: ‘I am not interested in the pursuit of happiness, but only in the discovery of joy’. Her companion on that journey, Reginald Grenfell, who edited some of her books, died in 1993. In 1988, the revue Re: Joyce!, ‘a diverting and engaging mixture of anecdotal biography and quintessential sketch material’, starring Maureen Lipman with Denis King, opened in London and continued to be presented at intervals into the 90s.

Montpelier Square, London, England
February 10, 1910

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