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Classic TV Revisited: Joyce Grenfell

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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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Kick-Ass TV Heroines: Xena – Warrior Princess

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Xena Warrior Princess

What was not to love about Xena? As Lucy Lawless says: “Xena is a bad-ass, kick-ass, pre-Mycenaean girl.” Evildoers, clearly, must stand down, but not only bad guys (and girls) have Xena-phobia. Even heroes quake when she swings her broadsword.

Originally created as a syndicated complement to Kevin Sorbo’s Hercules: The Legendary Journeys, Xena pretty much kicked Herc to the curb. It was like when the Bionic Woman made us lose interest in the Six Million Dollar Man–only more so.

Unlike Lindsay Wagner’s early half-woman, half-machine, Xena wasn’t prone to frailty. Nor did she need robot parts. In fact, the Warrior Princess never lost. If she’s down, it’s not for long.

Plus, she was in touch with the dark side: This big-boned bruiser had definite moments of blood lust, as well as lust of some other varieties. Garbed in a leather miniskirt and armed with her trademark razor-edged, boomerang-action chakram, we watched Xena single-leggedly kick down entire platoons of Roman soldiers.

Sure, there were murmurings about Xena and her softer female sidekick, Gabrielle (actress Renée O’Connor). So what if they liked to conserve bathwater by doubling up? And what’s wrong with close friends frenching once in a while?

Then again, maybe it was true–and there’s anything wrong with that.

Actress: Lucy Lawless
Show: Xena: Warrior Princess
Character: Xena

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Classic TV Revisited: McMillan And Wife

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McMillan And Wife

Starring Rock Hudson and Susan Saint James, McMillan and Wife was a super cute crime-solving saga from the 1970s made for the NBC’s Mystery Movie series.

Who were they?
Hubby was the debonair San Francisco police commissioner Stewart McMillan.

And wifey?
Sally was a foxy, rather scatterbrained dame with a knack for finding corpses.

Worked down the morgue did she?
Hardly. Sally’s finds were usually in some glitzy mansion which the couple were frequenting for a weekend cocktail party. She also had a habit of getting her life threatened or being kidnapped.

Who was in it?
Tragic Hollywood star Rock Hudson no less. He took on Stewart McMillan in his first TV role, after years as a matinee idol with movies such as Giant.

Tragedy?
Fans of the lantern-jawed star were dismayed when he went public about having Aids. He had long kept his homosexuality secret. He carried on working in ’80s glam drama Dynasty, but make-up could not disguise the deterioration of this once-statuesque man. He died in 1985, aged 59.

What about Sally?
That role fell to raven-locked Susan Saint James. The Ali MacGraw lookalike was previously in shows such as Alias Smith And Jones and The Name of the Game.

Other characters
A vital ingredient to McMillan And Wife was sharp-tongued housekeeper Mildred, played by Nancy Walker. Somebody needed to keep the place tidy while they gallivanted about solving crime.

Famous guest stars?
Kim Basinger

The couple’s conception?
Like Hart To Hart, the idea was borrowed from Dashiell Hammett’s Thin Man books of the ’30s.

Gritty crime drama?
Hardly. These were cosy whodunnit cases, where the brutality of murder was never portrayed. The show was more about the interplay between McMillan and Sally.

Had viewers arrested?
Certainly in the US. It was the fifth highest-rated show in 1972 and 1973.

Fate of the golden couple?
Susan Saint James quit in 1976 over a contractual dispute. Nancy Walker also packed away her duster as housekeeper Mildred.

The dame’s exit was a fatal blow?
Certainly for the character of Sally – she was killed off in a plane crash. But Rock soldiered on with new assistant Sgt Steve DiMaggio (Richard Gilliland). The show became McMillan.

A winner?
Audiences dwindled and the plug was pulled.

Distinguishing features?
Cosy pillow talk, cocktail parties, Rock Hudson, pyjamas and numerous corpses.

Do say
Let’s go to bed. Turn the light out, darling.

Don’t say
Must you eat toast in bed, darling. Apologies, but I’ve got terrible flatulence. Separate bedrooms.

Not to be confused with
My Wife Next Door, Harold Macmillan, The Merry Wives Of Windsor and Mr And Mrs.

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Classic TV Revisited: The Royal

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The Royal

The Royal was an ITV drama commission and was inspired by its sister programme Heartbeat.

The lowdown: This nostalgic family drama is set in the swinging 1960s and centres on the staff of a cottage hospital in Yorkshire. Newly qualified doctor David Cheriton (Julian Ovenden) is determined to make a difference to the world and arrives at St Aidan’s Royal Free Hospital in Elinsby full of big ideas. But he clashes with the hospital’s secretary TJ Middleditch (Ian Carmichael) who is determined to run things his way. Then there is the Matron (Wendy Craig) who rules her nurses with a rod of iron and tries in vain to stop them being distracted by the handsome arrival.

Memorable moments: Watch out for former Heartbeat favourite Bill Maynard who crosses dramas and continents as Claude Jeremiah Greengrass. Greengrass has returned from a Caribbean holiday with a mystery illness but that doesn’t stop him trying to earn a fast buck. It doesn’t take long before Claude attracts Matron’s ire.

Trivia: The Royal is a family affair for real life husband and wife Robert Daws (Ormerod) and Amy Robbins (Weatherill). No fewer than seven members of their clan have appeared in the series including their daughters and stepson.

Michelle Hardwick, who played receptionist Lizzie, says her favourite moment in the whole series didn’t come on screen but in the actors’ green room. She says: “I was sitting in there with Wendy Craig and Honor Blackman and we were having a lovely conversation. I sat back and thought ‘Wow, this is great, I can’t wait to tell my gran’.”

A modern day set version called The Royal Today aired 7 January – 14 March 2008.

First broadcast: 2003

Starred: Wendy Craig, Ian Carmichael, Michael Starke, Robert Daws and Julian Ovenden

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