Classic TV Revisited: Joyce Grenfell

What was it all about?
An occasional series featuring the celebrated monologues and humorous songs of the quintessentially English comedienne Joyce Grenfell.

When was it on?
She made six ‘Joyce Grenfell’ programmes between 1946 and 1953, two in 1964, one in 1968, one in 1969 and a series of four in 1972. She also starred in a four-part 1956 series, ‘Joyce Grenfell Requests The Pleasure’, a TV adaptation of her hit stage revue.

How did it come about?
The niece of Nancy Astor, Grenfell was working as a radio critic for the Observer in 1938 when she encountered humorist Stephen Potter at a dinner party. Potter recalled: ‘Joyce had heard that morning a woman speaking at a Village Institute, one of those nice bright people whose advice is so helpful, but yet whose cheerfulness casts a chill. Joyce described the woman, and then suddenly and naturally became the woman.’

Potter was so taken by Grenfell’s powers of observation that he introduced her to theatrical impresario Herbert Farjeon who immediately put her into his show, The Little Revue. The revue was a success and during the war Grenfell reunited with Potter for the How series of radio instructional talks.

The How series began as factual documentaries but then Potter decided to add satire to the scripts and, with Grenfell’s help, the result became how not to do something. Examples included ‘How to make a speech’, ‘How to apply for a job’ and ‘How to perform ballet’. The ballet sketch transferred to television for a ten-minute show in 1946.

The mock instructional style suited Grenfell so well that she adopted it for many of her monologues which covered such topics as ‘Travel Broadens the Mind’ and ‘Useful and Acceptable Gifts’. In others she introduced characters like the understanding mother worried about her 16-year-old daughter’s infatuation for a middle-aged Portuguese conjuror, the monstrous wife of an Oxbridge vice-chancellor and the haughty Fern Brixton (no relation to Fern Britton).

Grenfell became a star of film, theatre and radio. It was only a matter of time before television snapped her up.

What were her most famous monologues?
The nursery school teacher. The harassed teacher and her invisible four-year-old tormentor Sydney originated in the radio programme ‘How to Talk to Children’. Grenfell got the idea from a wartime radio programme for children on which a teacher divided her young class into Red Bunnies, Blue Bunnies and Brown Bunnies and ordered them ‘to go hoppity to the music all over the room, and then go flop when the music stopped.’

The sketch saw the teacher desperately trying to reason with Sydney; berating George for doing what he shouldn’t; lamenting the fact that Hazel had got her finger stuck in the keyhole; demanding to know: ‘Who is making that buzzing noise?; and despairing: ‘I saw you deliberately put that paintbrush up Dolores’ nostril.

Any real-life reasonance?
After performing the nursery school teacher routine in Toronto, Grenfell was accosted backstage by a child-care expert who told her that her teaching methods were out of date and informed her: ‘You’ll never get anywhere with children if you go on running your class like that.’

Who watched it?
Although her style was considered a trifle dated by the Seventies, Grenfell still had a loyal following. One of her biggest fans was Maureen Lipman who, following Grenfell’s death in 1979, mounted a stage tribute to the star entitled ‘Re-Joyce’.

Any catchphrases?
‘George…don’t do that’ from the nursery school teacher.

Wasn’t Joyce Grenfell in the St. Trinian’s films?
Yes, she played unrequited policewoman Ruby Gates in three of the series. She specialised in what she termed ‘gawky overgrown schoolgirl types’. When she appeared in the 1953 film comedy ‘Genevieve’, one critic wrote that she had a set of teeth ‘only a horse could envy’.

Any distant cousins?
Victoria Wood has that same eye for characterisation and for observing the minutiae of daily life. And like Grenfell she does comic songs.

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