Joyce Grenfell made her West End starring debut at the age of 43, but once on the stage there was no stopping her.
Requests The Pleasure,
Philips SL 5186,
For better or worse, British humour has long been obsessed with class. Be it the aspiring middle-class Basil Fawlty shamelessly sucking up to the aristocracy, the pretentious upper class refinement of Noël Coward, or the ribald music hall comedians revelling in their passionate working class support, it has always been there.
The truly upper class very rarely make it into comedy though. They probably have better things to do, like managing a grouse moor, drinking ludicrously overpriced cocktails, or running the country on our behalf. In classic British comedy, the upper classes were represented by the smooth lupine habits of Terry-Thomas and Leslie Philips, as they cruised the streets in their open top sports cars, picking up young attractive women, armed with nothing more than an oleaginous leer and a well-pressed cravat. Or maybe, it was the likes of Joyce Grenfell, ever thwarted in love but always humiliated and degraded by the grubby anarchic urchins of St Trinians.
Leslie Philips and Terry-Thomas though were not bona fide upper class twits by any stretch of the imagination. They were both solid working class twits, their rough cockney tones smoothed by acting classes, elocution and a desire to elevate themselves socially. Even Noël Coward, who perfected the sycophantic art of ingratiating himself with the absolute highest echelons of society, was born the son of a suburban piano salesman. Joyce Grenfell was though most definitely the genuine article, socialising regularly with Dukes and Duchesses, upper class certainly but definitely no twit.
Born in London in 1910, Joyce was the daughter of English architect Paul Phipps and American socialite Nora Langhorne. They were very different people. Joyce’s father was the epitome of restrained British reserve; fond of wit, puns and quiet humour. Her mother was more outgoing, often outrageous, loud and extravagant. Their marriage did not last long but both sides left an impression on the young Joyce. Her mother’s sister Nancy married Waldorf Astor, 2nd Viscount Astor, afterwards becoming Nancy Astor, the first woman to sit as an MP in the Houses of Parliament.
It took Joyce Grenfell a while to establish herself as one of the nation’s most cherished comedians. She had what I suppose may be called a mild curiosity towards showbiz. She managed to get into RADA in 1927 but had no real ambition or desire to act, and so was quite happy to leave in 1929 when she married her husband Reggie Grenfell. A job offer that the young couple were relying on to pay their way fell through and the Grenfells moved in to a cottage on the estate at the Astors’ stately home Cliveden.
It was in the privileged cloistered environs of Cliveden that Joyce Grenfell would gradually leave her world of tranquil domesticity behind, and instead take to the stage and, much to aunt Nancy Astor’s continued horror, a career in showbusiness.
In 1937 over a luncheon, Joyce Grenfell met The Observer’s editor JL Garvin who was impressed by Joyce’s passion and knowledge of BBC radio broadcasts. He made her the Observer’s first radio critic, responsible for reviewing and critiquing the output on what was still a young and experimental medium. With her review of a children’s concert and a production of The Cherry Orchard, Joyce Grenfell was on her way and a jobbing professional writer.
In 1938 after reviewing a programme called A Guide To The Thames, written and produced by the BBC’s Stephen Potter, she became friends with Potter and his wife and went to dinner with them. After the meal, Grenfell found herself relating a Women’s Institute lecture that she had heard at Cliveden earlier that month. Wholly improvised and peppered with Joyce Grenfell’s wonderful imaginings and inventions, Potter was suitably impressed. At yet another party, he introduced Grenfell to Herbert Farjeon, an established writer who was looking to stage a new revue. When Joyce Grenfell was encouraged to perform her WI lecture again, she impressed Farjeon just as she had Potter. He immediately decided that Grenfell’s lecture would make a splendid addition to his planned West End show The Little Revue. The show made it to the West End in April 1939, and Joyce’s contribution soon became an integral part of the it.
With the Second World War intervening just after her professional debut, it was not until many years later that Grenfell would grace the West End with her own production. Kept busy through the war years by concerts for troops in London and Cliveden, and later by tours with ENSA, she would hone her comic talents, her stage persona and her impressive writing talents to perfection. At last, in 1953, Joyce Grenfell would request the pleasure of addressing a West End audience in a revue of her own devising.
With the exception of the Flanders and Swann number Folk Song, and a selection of traditional American songs inspired by her mother, Requests The Pleasure is wholly the work of Joyce Grenfell and her music collaborator Richard Addinsell. And what a curious delight the show is too; a measured well-mannered celebration and reflection of a world that was fast disappearing after the tumult of the war.
There are songs such as Hostess and Mrs. Mendlicote which describe elegant dinner parties being held in polite society, but they are both tinged with a slight and delicate touch of melancholy. Mrs Mendlicote for instance has been left by her husband but carries on with her regular hostess duties smiling through it all despite intrigue, gossip and pity. The mother in Hostess giving a dinner for twelve is stressed by her duties and chooses to rest all day. Instead the work is done by a veritable domestic army of helpers. Florist, cook, kitchen maid, scullery girl, butler, parlour maid, pantry boy, nanny and children, all are enlisted so that mama may live a life of restful leisure and elegance.
Melancholy is particularly present in Three Brothers which tells of a girl living a thwarted unfulfilled life doting and waiting without thanks on her three ungrateful brothers and then, after their marriage, on their equally unappreciative and contemptuous children.
Other songs are sheer delightful whimsy. Palais Dancers for instance, tells of some cockney girls ‘mad on dancing’ who are singularly inept but incredibly keen. The same accent is deployed on the monologue Shirley’s Girl Friend which tells of another cockney girl drifting through life in an unfulfilled relationship, being wooed (without realising) by a refined and urbane sophisticate.
More whimsy comes in The Music’s Message which tells of a toothy much posher dancer, attending lessons and receiving instructions on how to dance ‘the natural nature way’. Sadly, even though she is relaxed and receptive, the only message the music tells her is to be a horse. An unrefined horse, galloping, galloping, galloping!
The revue Requests The Pleasure made a star of Joyce Grenfell and she continued to enthral audiences with her measured monologues and songs until her death in 1979. Requests The Pleasure is a clever sophisticated entertainment, all the more remarkable for being a debut West End hit, almost completely reliant on one woman starring in and writing the whole jolly old shebang. It has many subtle observations to offer on England in the 1950s, as well as musings on notions of class , sophistication, manners and repression. Delve into it, I urge you.