Joyce Grenfell

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Joyce Grenfell
Joyce Grenfell Allan Warren.jpg
Grenfell in 1972
Joyce Irene Phipps

(1910-02-10)10 February 1910
Died30 November 1979(1979-11-30) (aged 69)
London, England
OccupationActress, comedian, satirist, monologist
Years active1941–1979
Reggie Grenfell
(m. 1929; her death 1979)

Joyce Irene Grenfell OBE (née Phipps; 10 February 1910 – 30 November 1979) was an English comedian, singer, actress, monologist, scriptwriter and producer.[1] For her film appearances, she was cast in such roles as the gym mistress Miss Gossage in The Happiest Days of Your Life and Ruby Gates in the St Trinian's films.[2]

Early life[edit]

Born in Montpelier Square in Knightsbridge, London.[3] Grenfell was the daughter of American socialite Nora Langhorne (1889–1955), one of five daughters of Chiswell Langhorne, an American railway millionaire, and architect Paul Phipps (1880–1953), the grandson of Charles Paul Phipps and a second cousin of Ruth Draper. The Phipps family were wealthy clothiers, whose success gained them entry to the gentry of their native Wiltshire.[4] Nancy Astor (née Langhorne) was one of her maternal aunts,[1] who also married in England. Grenfell often visited her at Astor's home of Cliveden[5] and later lived in a cottage on the estate (Parr's), a mile from the main house, in the early years of her marriage.[2]:59

Joyce Phipps had an upper middle class London childhood. Among her friends was Virginia Graham, with whom she kept up a lifelong correspondence.[6] She attended the Francis Holland School in Central London, and the Claremont Fan Court School, in Esher, Surrey. She attended Mlle Ozanne's finishing school in Paris at the age of seventeen.

In 1927, she met Reginald Pascoe Grenfell (1903–1993), a mining executive and later a lieutenant colonel in the King's Royal Rifle Corps, grandson of the 4th Earl Grey, ninth Governor General of Canada.[7][8] They were married two years later at St Margaret's, Westminster and remained married until her death nearly 50 years later.[1] They were unable to have children of their own.[7]

She made her stage debut in 1939 in the Little Revue.[1] In 1942 she wrote what became her signature song, "I'm Going to See You Today".


During the Second World War, Grenfell toured North Africa, Southern Italy, the Middle East and India with her pianist Viola Tunnard, performing for British troops.[1] In 1989, her wartime journals were published under the title The Time of My Life: Entertaining the Troops. Her singing and comedic talents on stage led to offers to appear in film comedies. Although she performed in a number of films, she continued with her musical recording career, producing a number of humorous albums as well as books.

As a writer at the BBC during and just after the war, she collaborated with Stephen Potter in writing the "How" series of 30 satirical programmes from How to Talk to Children to How to Listen, the latter being the first programme broadcast on the BBC Third Programme, on 29 September 1946. During the 1950s, she made her name as a sidekick to such comedy greats as Alastair Sim and Margaret Rutherford in films such as The Happiest Days of Your Life (1950) and the St Trinian's series.[1] She was also a member of the influential Pilkington Committee on Broadcasting from 1960 to 1962. Her fame reached the United States and she appeared on The Ed Sullivan Show[1] alongside Elvis Presley.[9]

Grenfell is best remembered for her one-woman shows and monologues, in which she invented roles including a harassed nursery teacher with the catchphrase "George – don't do that". She gained attention as a result of her frequent appearances on the BBC's classical music quiz show, Face the Music.[1] Although her humour appeared light and frilly on the surface, there was often a serious point to be made: the song "Three Brothers", for example, appears to recount the happy, busy life of a spinster in lightweight terms, but it essentially describes her willing slavery to her male siblings and their families.[citation needed]

Much of the music for Grenfell's revues and shows was the result of a collaboration with the composers and pianists Richard Addinsell and William Blezard. From 1954 to 1974, Blezard composed Grenfell's songs and parodic operettas such as Freda and Eric. They performed on stage and television all over Britain, America and Australia. Grenfell's singing career is best remembered for her self-penned humorous songs; though other light works, such as Hilaire Belloc's Cautionary Tales for Children were also recorded; this last being released, in 1959, on Caedmon Records, TC1104. She also recorded standards such as Noël Coward songs "If Love Were All" and "The Party's Over Now".

Personal life[edit]

Like her maternal aunt, Lady Astor, Grenfell was a member of the Church of Christ, Scientist, a religious organisation based on Christianity and spiritual healing.

Death and legacy[edit]

Grenfell was taken ill in 1973 with an eye infection, which was subsequently diagnosed as cancer, although she was not told. Her eye was removed and replaced with an artificial eye. No one except those close to her was ever advised of this. She continued to perform and to appear on the BBC2 programme Face the Music. In October 1979, she became seriously ill and died a month later, on 30 November 1979, just before her golden wedding anniversary. She was cremated at Golders Green Crematorium on 4 December and her ashes placed in section 4–D of the Garden of Remembrance.Find a grave states however her ashes were scattered in section 3 - D

In February 1980, a memorial service was held at Westminster Abbey, the first time such an honour had been granted to a comedian. Only Les Dawson, Ronnie Barker and Ronnie Corbett have been similarly honoured since.

Grenfell was created an Officer of the Order of the British Empire (OBE) in 1946. It was confirmed after her death that she would have been made a Dame Commander (DBE) in the 1980 New Year Honours List. In 1998, the Royal Mail memorialised Grenfell with her image on a postage stamp as part of a series of stamps celebrating Heroes of Comedy.

Her widower husband, Reggie Grenfell, died in Kensington and Chelsea, London, in 1993, aged 89.[10]

In 2002, her friend and author Janie Hampton published the book Joyce Grenfell. In a 2005 poll to find the Comedians' Comedian, she was voted amongst the top 50 comedy acts ever by fellow comedians and comedy insiders.

Maureen Lipman has often toured with the one-woman show Re: Joyce!, which she co-wrote with James Roose-Evans.[1] In it she recreates some of Grenfell's best-known sketches. Lipman also presented the radio programme Choice Grenfell, compiled from Grenfell's writings.[11] Roose-Evans also edited Darling Ma, a 1997 collection of Grenfell's letters to her mother.

Stage performances[edit]

  • The Little Revue – Little Theatre, London (1939-40)
  • Diversion – Wyndham’s Theatre, London (1940-1)
  • Light and Shade – Ambassador’s Theatre, London (1942)
  • ENSA tours of UK (1942)
  • ENSA tour of North Africa with Viola Tunnard (1944)
  • ENSA tour of the Middle East and India with Viola Tunnard (1944-5)
  • Sigh No More – Piccadilly Theatre, London (1945-6)
  • Tuppence Coloured – UK tour, followed by Lyric Theatre, Hammersmith and Globe Theatre, London (1947-8)
  • Penny Plain – St Martin's Theatre, London and UK tour (1951–2)
  • Six-week tour for British troops in Libya and Egypt with Viola Tunnard (1952)
  • Joyce Grenfell Requests the Pleasure – UK tour, then Fortune Theatre and St Martin's Theatre, London, then another UK tour (1954-5)
  • Joyce Grenfell Requests the Pleasure – Bijou Theatre, New York City (1955)
  • Joyce Grenfell at Home – tour of Canada, Washington DC and Lyceum Theatre, New York City, with George Bauer (1956)
  • Tour of Northern Rhodesia with Viola Tunnard (1956)
  • Joyce Grenfell at Home – tour of Dublin and the UK, then Lyric Theatre, Hammersmith (1957)
  • Joyce Grenfell Bids You Good Evening – tour of Canada and North America, with George Bauer (1958)
  • Meet Joyce Grenfell – Philip Street Theatre, Sydney, with William Blezard (1959)
  • Meet Joyce Grenfell – tour of UK with William Blezard (1960)
  • Joyce Grenfell – Haymarket Theatre, London, followed by UK tour with William Blezard (1962)
  • Joyce Grenfell – tour of Australia with William Blezard (1963)
  • Tours of Canada, Switzerland and Hong Kong with William Blezard (1964)
  • Tours of UK, Australia and New Zealand with William Blezard (1966)
  • Tours of UK, Hong Kong, USA and Canada with William Blezard (1967)
  • Tour of UK with William Blezard (1968)
  • Tour of Australia and New Zealand with William Blezard (1969)
  • Tours of UK and USA with William Blezard (1970)
  • Tour of UK with William Blezard (1972)
  • Waterloo Dinner, Windsor Castle (1973)

Complete filmography[edit]

Year Title Role Notes
1941 A Letter from Home American Mother Short
1943 The Demi-Paradise Sybil Paulson
The Lamp Still Burns Dr. Barrett
1947 While the Sun Shines Daphne
1949 Alice in Wonderland Ugly Duchess / Dormouse
Poet's Pub Miss Horsefell-Hughes
Tuppence Coloured TV movie
A Run for Your Money Mrs. Pargiet
1950 Stage Fright 'Lovely Ducks'
The Happiest Days of Your Life Miss Gossage
1951 The Galloping Major Maggie the Waitress
Laughter in Paradise Elizabeth Robson
The Magic Box Mrs. Claire
1952 Penny Plain TV movie
The Pickwick Papers Mrs. Leo Hunter
1953 Genevieve Hotel Proprietress
The Million Pound Note Duchess of Cromarty
1954 Forbidden Cargo Lady Flavia Queensway
The Belles of St Trinian's P.W. Sgt. Ruby Gates
1957 The Good Companions Lady Parlitt
Blue Murder at St Trinian's Sergeant Ruby Gates
1958 Happy Is the Bride Aunt Florence
1960 The Pure Hell of St Trinian's Sergeant Ruby Gates
1963 The Old Dark House Agatha Femm
1964 The Americanization of Emily Mrs. Barham
The Yellow Rolls-Royce Hortense Astor

Other works[edit]

  • Grenfell, Joyce (1976). Joyce Grenfell Requests the Pleasure. London: Macmillan. ISBN 0-333-19428-4.
  • Grenfell, Joyce (1977). George, Don't Do That. London: Macmillan. ISBN 0-333-22080-3.
  • Grenfell, Joyce (1979). In Pleasant Places. London: Macmillan. ISBN 0-333-27288-9.
  • Grenfell, Joyce (1988). James Roose-Evans (ed.). Darling Ma. London: Hodder & Stoughton. ISBN 0-340-42368-4. Letters to her Mother, 1932–1944
  • Grenfell, Joyce (1989). James Roose-Evans (ed.). The Time of My Life: Entertaining the Troops: Her Wartime Journals. London: Hodder & Stoughton. ISBN 0-340-50283-5.
  • Grenfell, Joyce; Compiled and introduced by Janie Hampton (2000). Hats Off: Poems and drawings. London: John Murray. ISBN 0-7195-6152-3.


  1. ^ a b c d e f g h i Colin Larkin, ed. (2002). The Virgin Encyclopedia of Fifties Music (Third ed.). Virgin Books. p. 179. ISBN 1-85227-937-0.
  2. ^ a b Hampton, Janie Joyce Grenfell, John Murray, 2002. ISBN 978-0-7195-6143-6
  3. ^ Grenfell, Joyce (1976). Joyce Grenfell requests the pleasure (autobiography). Macmillan. p. 13.
  4. ^ A Genealogical and Heraldic History of the Commoners of Great Britain and Ireland, vol. IV, 1838, pp. 509–510, "Phipps of Leighton House" pedigree.
  5. ^ National Trust Magazine, Spring 2010, p. 11
  6. ^ Joyce & Ginnie: the letters of Joyce Grenfell and Virginia Graham, edited by Janie Hampton, 1997.
  7. ^ a b Obituary: Reginald Grenfell, The Independent, 3 April 1993.
  8. ^ Victoria Crosses on the Western Front August 1914–April 1915: Mons to Hill 60, Peter Oldfield, Pen and Sword Books Ltd, 2014.
  9. ^ BBC4 Documentary The Real Joyce Grenfell (broadcast Monday 2 July 2007, 20:00 BST)
  10. ^ "Deaths England and Wales 1984–2006".
  11. ^ "Choice Grenfell Series 2". Radio Times. BBC. Retrieved 31 May 2014.

External links[edit]