Halfway through The Pumpkin Eater, a picture of sublime beauty, the viewer is treated to a three-minute cameo that few could ever forget. Jo Armitage (Anne Bancroft) is accosted at the hair salon by a fellow customer, whose attitude describes an arc from cloying – ‘your eyes are much more beautiful than your photograph’ – to visceral anger – ‘ever had your skin clawed off?’
The name of this actress was Yootha Joyce, whose finest work always conveyed elements of frailty and rage. When she starred in Sartre’s La Putain Respectuse, Joan Littlewood referred to Joyce’s ‘dead-pan face, gently sinuous movement and cynical delivery’. And throughout Joyce’s career, leading and supporting players alike were wise to treat her characters with, if not precisely wariness, then a certain deference.
Yootha Joyce Needham was born on the 20th August 1927 and trained for the stage at RADA. After ENSA tours, she entered the lost world of British repertory theatre and by the late 1950s, the actress was a member of Littlewood’s Theatre Workshop. Alan Brien of The Spectator raved about her performance in Fings Ain’t What They Used To Be; ‘She looks like a leopardess – beautiful, intelligent and terrifying, all in one feline glance’.
Pre-George and Mildred and Man About The House, her roles tended towards the tart or harridan roles she’d often played on stage with Joan Littlewood’s theatre workshop, particularly in sitcoms like Me Mammy and Steptoe. However, she did a lot of Plays for Todays etc. too.
During the 1960s, Joyce’s career also encompassed major theatrical roles such as Robert Shaw’s play The Man in The Glass Booth – Time & Tide thought her performance ‘superb’ – and the near-obligatory appearances on filmed TV series. She was rather striking in The Avengers‘ episode Something Nasty in the Nursery and kept a commendably straight face in The Saint adventure The Russian Prisoner. Fortunately for our hero, Joyce’s fiendish Jovanka Milanova favours the “Useless Sidekicks R Us” agency, given that Antony Booth’s Pyotr spends a lot of time colliding with the balsa wood furniture.
Joyce’s film career commenced with the screen adaption of Sparrows Can’t Sing, and throughout the decade she essayed small but utterly telling roles in Kaleidoscope, Charlie Bubbles, and A Man For All Seasons. John Boorman made particularly good use of Joyce’s talents in his Catch Us If You Can, a melancholic British road film masquerading as a 1965-vintage pop musical. The urban runaways played by Dave Clark and the wonderful Barbara Ferris encounter the genteelly menacing “Nan” and her husband “Guy”, a middle-aged couple who collect kitsch antiques. Pauline Kael thought Joyce and her screen partner Robin Bailey suggested ‘the Almans- the horribly bickering pair from Wild Strawberries‘ in a film that felt ‘as if Pop art had discovered Chekhov’.
Those few scenes demonstrate how Joyce was one of a select group of actresses, including Ann Lynn, who did not easily fall into the rigid casting of British film and television. As Caroline observes:
‘Yootha played a variety of roles on stage and film which lacked the typecasting of the TV years, and although she may not have progressed to leads in movies, it was always a possibility given her powerful screen presence.’
One can indeed envisage Joyce as Elsa Fennan in The Deadly Affair, or even as Alice Aisgill in Room at The Top – she was only a year older than Laurence Harvey, yet the actress was curiously ageless. As Caroline notes ‘all those great British films had roles for her, the Rachel Roberts roles too’ – and the thought of Joyce in Saturday and Sunday Morning and especially This Sporting Life continues to fascinate.
It was 1973, that Joyce achieved stardom as Mildred Roper in Man About The House, and her screen partnership with Brian Murphy became one of the most joyous in all British television history. Three years later, the Ropers were granted their own series, and anyone who does not marvel at the comic timing of Joyce, Murphy, Norman Eshley, and Shelia Fearn should be condemned to watch Mrs. Brown’s Boys for the next fifty years. To re-watch George and Mildred is to appreciate how Brian Cooke and Johnnie Mortimer’s scripts are not so much polished as honed, and how the guest stars (especially Roy Kinnear) were splendid value.
At the heart of series, was a couple trapped in mutual dependency. There are definite shades of Séance of a Wet Afternoon in this corner of Teddington, but the key to George and Mildred is that she genuinely loves George as much he needs her. With fame came the attendant supermarket openings and guest appearances on panel shows, but these were not what Joyce, a shy woman, craved.
By 1980, there was an exceedingly sub-par film adaptation, with the notable exception of Dudley Sutton’s antique ton-up boy “Mr. Jacko” – ‘flaccid entertainment’ grumbled Monthly Film Bulletin. Thames planned a sixth and final series, but Joyce passed away on the 24th August of that year, with the obituaries referring to years of loneliness and alcoholism.
Today, the DVDs remind us, in Caroline’s words, ‘of an amazing comic and dramatic actress who needs more recognition’. And in The Pumpkin Eater, the viewer may witness one of the ‘best screen-acting miniatures one could hope to see’, to quote the film historian Neil Sinyard. He was right.
WITH THANKS TO: CAROLINE BURNS COOKE
Film Historian Andrew Roberts MA PhD FRSA