Pillaton WI Report - September 2014

Joyce Grenfell

This month the WI were treated to an evening with Joyce Grenfell and how interesting and amusing it was. Yvonne Toms regaled us with an all round impression of Joyce – her life story and a flavour of some of the monologues and poems that she so wonderfully wrote.

We heard that Joyce Irene Phipps was born on 10 Feb 1910 and was three quarters American. Her mother, who was the sister of Nancy Astor, knew from when Joyce was very young that she was going to be funny. For instance, at the age of three they were on a transatlantic voyage when Joyce, in the middle of a tea dance, got up and danced all alone with her eyes closed. The audience laughed and applauded. Joyce remembered keeping her eyes closed and the feeling which she liked and never forgot.

At 10 she was enrolled in the Frances Holland School in Chelsea. This was followed by a boarding school at 13 and finishing school at 17. Her parents had hoped she would learn how to find a rich husband! Although she enjoyed dancing she became too tall for this so persuaded her parents to send her to RADA. By 18 she was engaged to five men all at the same time and none knew about the others! However, none were the love of her life until she met Reggie Grenfell.

In 1928 she was a debutante and ‘came out’. In 1929 she and Reggie were married at St Margaret’s Church, Westminster – a very big event. They were very happy as a couple but did not have any children. Joyce by this time was a writer and became the radio critic for the Observer and a writer of light verse for Punch. She collaborated with Stephen Potter and developed her impersonation skills. Stephen heard her impersonate a WI speaker (!) and paid her the princely sum of £10 to perform this.

During WW2 when Reggie was in the army she worked for ENSA and entertained troops in 14 countries. She worked very hard and at one point gave 155 concerts in 9 weeks – an average of three per day. For this work she was awarded an OBE. This all led to her having her own shows on the radio and developing her acting career. She was in 25 films including ‘St Trinians’. Her aunt, Nancy Astor, however would not accept that she was an actress until she appeared in ‘The Million Pound Note’ with Gregory Peck!

In addition to all of this she could draw, compose and sing in perfect pitch and just loved words and music. She was very much a people watcher and took note of remarks on buses, in queues, etc. to give her material for her work. She apparently saw beauty where others didn’t and was never unkind or cruel. A friend once said of her that she did not have an ounce of malice and saw goodness in all and that this was due to the presence of God. She apparently had three ‘columns’ that held her life together – her faith as a Christian Scientist, her marriage and her work.

She retired after losing the sight in one eye due to cancer in an optic nerve. Unfortunately this spread into her spine. On 19 Nov 1979 she received a letter from 10 Downing St. advising her that she was to be awarded the DBE – Dame Commander of the British Empire -in the New Years honours list. However, rather sadly she died on 30 November 1979, 12 days before her Golden Wedding anniversary. She was cremated at Golders Green and this was attended only by Reggie.

She sounds as though she was a wonderful woman in her personal life, as well as through all the monologues and poems that some of us know so well.

To give us a flavour of these, Yvonne impersonated Joyce and recited several. One of which was ‘A Terrible Worrier’. This is about a lady having ‘done wrong’ by buying raffle tickets with the first prize being a cruise to ‘Madeiria’. Unfortunately it is too long to quote here so if you have the chance and want a laugh then do look it up and be prepared to giggle. We also heard that old favourite song ‘Stately as a Galleon’.

Yvonne concluded with (and how could she not) one of the ‘George- don’t do that!’ poems called Story Time. It was so funny and perhaps rang bells for anyone who has had anything to do with young children.

So overall a very enjoyable and amusing evening with Noreen Symons giving a heartfelt vote of thanks.

Pam Lowther

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Last updated: 18 October 2014 Contact Us