Just as people who weren’t born when the Pythons began, all know “You were lucky” from the Four Yorkshire-men Sketch, say the name Joyce Grenfell and the instant reply is “George…don’t do that.” It’s rather sad that such a multi-talented lady should now be remembered for only one of her pieces, and not the best at that.
It is said that our legacy to the world is what people remember about us, so I am not going to resort to Wikipedia, but tell you what I remember about an entertainer who figured as prominently in my childhood as Morcambe and Wise with equal comedy awards in my book.
Although appearing in the black and white St. Trinian’s films with Alastair Simm and George Cole where she played the love-lorn WPC Ruby Gates, Joyce Grenfell was the first to admit that she was not an actress. Her forte and passion was mimicry. Despite coming from a very wealthy, genteel family (her mother being American and her father a diplomat) she managed to change from the strangulated Upper Class vowels of her breeding through most regions and estates of British womanhood. Her Middle England pretentious woman, giving a talk to the Women’s Institute on “Inexpensive and Useful Gifts, the Creating of” is a masterpiece in observation. Just by changing headgear she changed persona. Tie a headscarf on and she was the charlady whose son had swallowed a conker. Give her a large, flowered concoction and she was the pillar of the Church, worried that she has left the gas on and communicating her anxiety to her neighbour through the singing of a hymn.
Miss. Grenfell was never cruel or mocking but her understated representations of her people-watching skills were fabulous. While she portrayed herself as a large, clumsy overgrown Hockey Captain, she could also become the Northern lady hungry for a male partner for her ballroom dancing lessons, and showed off her graceful moves in “Stately as a Galleon”. She was equally gracious in person. I was very disappointed when she had a book-signing in Oxford Street but I was in the middle of a production and couldn’t get away. I desperately wanted a copy of her autobiography “Joyce Grenfell requests the pleasure” for my mother’s birthday present. A dear friend came to the rescue and trotted around the corner during her lunch break. Miss Grenfell took an interest, asking for the dedication, making sure she spelt my mother’s name correctly (Norah with an H) and writing a charming dedication with her own and my birthday wishes. She asked my friend’s name and how we knew each other and was delighted when told that we had met at drama college. She did not have to do that. She was a people person par excellence…I just hoped that neither my friend nor I would appear in her show in the future as new characters.
I am moderately irritated when people vaguely remember her and say “Oh yes, she was a bit like Miranda Hart.” No! Miranda Hart is admirable but Miss. Grenfell came first and if anyone is like anyone else, it is the other way around. I would not be a bit surprised if Miranda Hart had been inspired by The Grenfell Monologues.
So finally, for your enjoyment – the lady herself performing THAT sketch, “Nursery School”. If you want to hear more, there are lots of clips of You Tube