If you’re a fan of the early Carry Ons, chances are you’re a fan of the St Trinian’s films too. Pre-dating ‘Carry On Sergeant’ by four years, the first St Trinian’s film pre-empts the subversive style that we all grew to love. Alastair Sim is in drag as the headmistress and the school girls are learning how to be gamblers, moonshiners and petty thieves. One or two faces that will be familiar to the Carry On fan appear in the 1950s films, including Joan Sims, Sid James, Irene Handl, Renee Houston, Eric Barker and Dilys Laye. Liz Fraser also appeared in one of them and in her autobiography she tells of how honoured she felt to be working with Joyce Grenfell.
Joyce is the St Trinian’s highlight for many – she featured in the first three films of the series as Policewoman Ruby Gates. She is quite a pathetic character, being engaged to a fellow officer who spends his time avoiding marrying her. She is sent to St Trinian’s for undercover work and has a terrible time of it. There are shades of ‘Carry on Constable’ and ‘Carry on Teacher’ here!
But there was a lot more to Joyce than her 1950s film appearances. She loved music and worked for ENSA in World War Two; singing to wounded servicemen. Also, she was queen of the monologue – most famously as a nursery school teacher wrestling with an imaginary class of tiny delinquents. She was well known for this type of performance in the revues of the 1950s. June Whitfield worked alongside her on one of these and, like Liz Fraser, remembers her fondly. Joyce invited June to her flat for tea one afternoon, and true to expectations served her cucumber sandwiches.
As television developed in popularity, Joyce was in demand for her monologues and songs and she transferred to the small screen well. She became a firm fixture in our national consciousness and an influence on many women in the entertainment business. Most famously, Victoria Wood adapted Joyce’s style in her stand-up comedy routines. Victoria’s girl with the yellow beret and orange mac is probably the best example of this. One of my favourite of Joyce’s lines:
"They don't applaud in church but you can tell when they like it. They breathe heavy."
Could have easily come from the much missed Victoria too!
Joyce Grenfell died in 1979, aged 69. ‘Carry on Columbus’ actress Maureen Lipman helped to keep the memory of her work alive with her biographical show called ‘Re Joyce’. And while the memory of many of her contemporaries fades, those of Joyce remain strong and there is a great deal of love for her. The reaction to tweets from my tribute Twitter account (@callmesossidge) shows her lines to be as fresh, relevant and funny as ever. Her work has influenced me in my creative writing and I have recently published a collection of short stories called ‘Joyce to the World’. Each story is about a person whose life is touched in some way by a piece of her work – a song, a monologue or a film role. The stories follow the span of her career from the 1930s to the 1970s, and they reflect the times that they come from.
You can get it on Kindle or paperback here
Sarah Miller Walters is also on Twitter here