Saturday, June 06, 2020

Dear Yootha..., by Paul Curran

This is a 2014 biography of the actress Yootha Joyce (1927-80), best known as alpha-cougar Mildred Roper in the 1970s sitcoms Man About the House and spin-off George and Mildred. As a fan, Curran has sieved through a wealth of material and spoken to what feels like anyone who ever knew or worked with Joyce. The result is exhaustive.

I was especially interested in Joyce's early life and career to see if I could overlap anything with that of David Whitaker (1928-80) - writer and story editor of significant bits of 1960s Doctor Who, whose life I'm slowly piecing together. In a 1986 interview, Whitaker's first wife June Barry (who sadly died last month after long illness) claimed that Whitaker had been "almost engaged" to Joyce.

Joyce and Whitaker were born a year apart and both grew up in London - but she was in Hampstead, Clapham and then Croydon, while he was in Barnes and then Kensington. Joyce attended RADA (in the same class as Roger Moore), while Whitaker went into accountancy, where he did amateur dramatics through Sedos. In the early 1950s, Joyce and Whitaker were both in professional repertory with the Harry Hanson Court Players - but for different companies, in different parts of the country. Joyce met Glynn Edwards in the summer of 1955 and married him the following year, so if she and Whitaker were ever together it must have before then - but as Curran says in the book we don't know much about this time in her personal life. (He's also been kind enough to respond to my inquiries and say that nobody he's spoken to about Joyce ever mentioned Whitaker's name.)

Even if this connection remains a mystery, Curran is good on the kind of theatrical world Joyce and Whitaker were both part of at that time. There's the glamour of showbiz:
“Whatever their background, Harry Hanson was known to pressure his actors to always appear glamorous, on and off stage. This filtered through to the other associated Harry Hanson companies.” (p. 28)
There's the pretensions of the material performed twice-nightly for six nights a week:
[From an interview with Dudley Sutton] “But up until [Joan] Littlewood’s appearance, the English theatre was completely middle-class. It was run by the officers, and when an ordinary man or woman come onto the stage, they’d always have to be stupid, comic or both." (p. 34)
And all of this under the condescension of the state:
[From an interview with Glynn Edwards]: “Of course you had the Lord Chamberlain’s rulings, where you were only allowed to say ‘bloody’ twice.” (p. 30)
There's a horrible irony in what follows. Joyce escaped this kind of safe, sentimental theatre for bolder, more experimental stuff that dared to base itself in lived experience and to get political and sexy. Curran underlines the breadth of the work she was doing in the 1960s, from Littlewood's abrasive theatre to episodes of The Avengers and The Saint. Indeed, Mildred Roper is a bold character for her time - sexually assertive, frustrated, real, and immediately connecting to the audience. But the role overshadowed her life, and limited her options in an age of type-casting.

The last section of the book, detailing her sudden decline and death from alcoholism at 53, is hard going not least because there's a sense that it's the success of Mildred that killed the woman who played her. But Curran is shrewd in closing with a poignant last appearance, on Max Bygraves' show Max, screened after her death, where Joyce performed a song that seems to reveal something of what she was feeling in those last days. As Curran says, that made an impression on Kenneth Williams, who was haunted by it ever after:
"Years later, on 9th April 1988, not long before his own death, he added [to his diary] 'can't get Yootha Joyce out of my head - and the time she sang 'For All We Know', there was almost a break in the voice when she got to [the line] tomorrow may never come, but she carried on. She died shortly after [recording it]. A lady who made so many people happy and a lady who never complained." (p. 164)
It's as if, I thought, even after death she could produce the goods: a role that was moving, surprising and real.

(You might like to know that Joyce's co-star Brian Murphy was in a Doctor Who story I wrote, released last year.)

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