, February 2008
For people of my generation there were two key introductions to the wit and personality of the late, great Joyce Grenfell. Firstly, there were her performances as Sergeant Ruby Gates in the first three St Trinian's films. The poor old stick could never tie down her fiancé of some 20 years, Chief Inspector Samuel Kemp-Bird – or Sammy when she was off duty. And secondly, those of us who recall ‘Children’s Favourites’ with Uncle Mac before it became ‘Junior Choice’ will remember regular airings of Joyce’s famous recitation ‘George, don't do that!’ Grenfell’s last years were to see appearances on ‘Jackanory’ and a much more serious role in ‘The Americanization of Emily.’ However, the present CD is concerned with an earlier part of her career.
Born in London in 1910, she was the daughter of the architect Paul Phipps and an American mother, Nora Langthorne. This eccentric lady was related to the Astor family.
Joyce’s first appearance on the London stage was in 1939 in The Little Revue. We are fortunate to have a ‘number’ from this work on the present CD – Useful and Acceptable Gifts. It was an early example of the monologue that was to make her a household name.
The CD opens with two lovely songs – sung ‘straight’ – which are both romantic and sentimental. But so what! In 1942 she wrote the words to what would be her signature tune – ‘I’m going to see you today.’ Interestingly the music was composed by Richard Addinsell who, alas, is remembered today for only one work –The Warsaw Concerto. Addinsell also collaborated with Grenfell on ‘There is nothing new to tell you’. I guess that to all alive and involved during the ‘last’ war, the former song must have been the cause of many tears.
The remainder of the CD is taken up with a variety of hard-to-find recordings of songs and recitations made between 1939 and 1954.
Three names dominate the material – we have mentioned Richard Addinsell. He wrote the music for nine of the eighteen tracks here. Then there is Flanders & Swann with their ‘Folk Song (A song of the Weather)’. However, notice Joyce’s bowdlerisation of the words ‘Dear old January again’ -the original words would probably cause my review to be blocked by the email server! This song came from the Revue ‘Joyce Grenfell Requests the Pleasure’. There were some twenty-seven items making up the programme and fortunately Naxos has been able to present seven of them here. The rest of the musical numbers were written and composed by Grenfell and Addinsell respectively. Interestingly the orchestra was conducted by William Blezard who is also known as a fine English composer of weightier matter.
The third name to appear is the irrepressible Noël Coward. A number of songs from his revue ‘Words and Music’ are presented here including the famous ‘Mad about the Boy’ and ‘Children of the Blitz’.Yet perhaps the one that made me laugh the most was the mischievous ‘We must all be kind to Aunt Jessie’.
A few other songs are included from shows by Max Adrian and Joyce’s cousin Nicolas Phipps who wrote Penny Plain. Look out for ‘Maud (A moment with Tennyson)’.
I do wonder what the ‘modern’ generation makes of this stuff. I recently watched Noël Coward ‘singing’ Nina and Mad Dogs and Englishmen and I laughed my socks off. I wondered what ‘rap’ and ‘Gamesboy’ kids would make of it? How much more would the gentler and supremely middle-class musings of Joyce be a closed book to them? Yet never forget that Miss Grenfell could just as easily slip into a cockney charwoman’s persona as play a Lady of high rank. And there is the ever-present sense of fun and wistfulness that surely transcends the generation gap.
I highly recommend this CD to all enthusiasts of Joyce Grenfell – naturally. But especially to those, who like me know her later material but not the revues of the forties and early fifties. It is compulsive listening and also very, very funny.