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Sunday, June 06, 2010

Joyce Grenfell

My tastes in comedy are fairly broad, from Radio 4 shows like The News Quiz to live stand-up. What's missing nowadays seems to be the gentle monologues of someone like Joyce Grenfell, who was doing observational comedy long before the term was invented. Of course, the life Joyce Grenfell was observing around her in the days before World War II was very different to what life is like today but her work wears incredibly well and some of her most famous sketches were recreated by Maureen Lipman on stage in around 1990 and last year on TV. The only modern comedienne I can think of who comes close to Grenfell's performance style is Victoria Wood, whose monologues, character-driven sketches and songs echo Grenfell's work.

Joyce Grenfell was born Joyce Irene Phipps, in London on 10 February 1910, the daughter of Paul Phipps and his wife Nora (nee Langhorne). Her mother was American, the sister of Nancy Astor, her father an architect working for Edward Lutyens. Educated in London and at a finishing school in Paris, Joyce, stagestruck since childhood, attended the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art but last only one term. She married Reginald Pascoe Grenfell in 1929.

A keen listener to radio, she became the radio critic for The Observer as well as earning money producing poster and card art and selling verse to Punch. She met Herbert Farjeon at a luncheon and was persuaded by her host, Stephen Potter, to perform a comic rendition based on a talk she had heard at a Women's Institute. Farjeon invited her to give the talk in his upcoming revue, which opened in 1939.

Warmly reviewed, Joyce continued to create monologues and write songs, performing them on long tours, covering 14 countries, for the Entertainments National Service Association during WW2, for which she was awarded the OBE in 1946. She also appeared in numerous revues, radio shows and movies in the UK in the 1940s and 1950s, including her most famous role as a police constable in the St. Trinian's series.

Although she retired from the stage in the early 1970s, she continued to be a popular star on TV and she also turned to writing, her two volumes of autobiography—Joyce Grenfell Requests the Pleasure and In Pleasant Places—becoming bestsellers.

She died on 30 November 1979 at her home in Chelsea, London, from cancer.

Nanny Says, as recalled by Sir Hugh Casson and Joyce Grenfell, edited by Diana, Lady Avebury (London, Dobson, 1972)

Joyce Grenfell Requests the Pleasure (London, Macmillan, 1976)
Futura 7571, 1977. Cover: photo

George, Don't Do That—  (London, Macmillan, 1977)
Futura 1479, 1978. Cover: photo

'Stately as a galleon', and other songs and sketches, illus. John Ward (London, Macmillan, 1978)
Futura 1631, 1979. Cover: photo

In Pleasant Places (London, Macmillan, 1979)
Futura 1906, 1980. Cover: photo

Joyce, by herself and her friends, ed. Reggie Grenfell & Richard Garnett (London, Macmillan, 1980)
Futura 2078, 1981. Cover: photo
Futura 4761, 1991. Cover: photo

An Invisible Friendship: An exchange of letters 1957-1979, with Katharine Moore (London, Macmillan, 1981)
Futura 2219, 1982. Cover: photo

Turn Back the Clock. Her best monologues and songs (London, Macmillan, 1983)
Futura 2602, 1983. Cover: photo

Darling Ma: Letters to Her Mother, 1932-1944 (London, Hodder & Stoughton, 1988)
Coronet 50238, 1989. Cover: design
Sceptre 70736, 1997. Cover: photo

The Time of My Life: Entertaining the Troops 1944-1945, edited and introduced by James Roose-Evans (London, Hodder & Stoughton, 1989)
Coronet 0340-52813-3, 1990, 392pp, £4.99. Cover: design

Joyce and Ginne. The letters of Joyce Grenfell and Virginia Graham, ed. Janie Hampton (London, Hodder & Stoughton, 1997)

Hats Off: Poems and Drawings, compiled and introduced by Janie Hampton (London, John Murray, 2000)

 Joyce Grenfell by Janie Hampton (London, John Murray, 2002)
John Murray 6490, 2003. Cover: photo

Letters from Aldeburgh, ed. Janie Hampton (Crawborough, Day Books, 2006)


  1. Pam Ayres - currently undergoing a revival - while not in the same league as Victoria Wood - is rather reminiscent of Joyce Grenfall. Joyce was a regular panellist on Face The Music on BBC2 in the late60's/early 70's with Robin Ray. It was hosted by Joe Cooper (?) with his famous dummy keyboard.

  2. True, regards Pam Ayres, but I think Victoria Wood touches more of the same bases.