Just A Minute blog

A blog on the BBC radio programme Just A Minute

Location: Wellington, New Zealand

March 04, 2009

RIP Joan Turner

Joan Turner, who appeared on JAM once in 1970, has died at the age of 86.

She had an interesting life. The obituary from the Guardian is here,

and the Wikipedia entry is here

I've always thought her laugh possibly the best and heartiest ever heard on the show. Memorable for that reason!

I think the Guardian piece is worth copying...

Joan Turner, who has died at the age of 86, was an outstandingly versatile performer who was called "the women's answer to Harry Secombe". She could sing a pop or operatic song with her four-and-a-half-octave soprano voice, do an almost eerily convincing impersonation of Bette Davis, and then switch to a stand-up comic routine. The London Evening News once said that she had "the voice of an angel and the wit of a devil". Her agent, Janet Glass, thought that she never had an equal before her peak time or after it - and was apt to challenge any doubters to think of one.
Joan could hold her own with the unpredictable Crazy Gang at the Victoria Palace, and was perhaps the only female popular singer, impressionist and comedian of the last 50 years with a voice capable of conquering concert halls. It was a cruel reverse when alcohol and gambling reduced her, for several years in the 1990s, to the status of a bag lady walking the streets of Los Angeles and Las Vegas looking for work - an experience she ebulliently strove to present to friends as no more than an adventure.
Joan, a practising Catholic, was born in Belfast, the daughter of Leonard Turner, who became a London bus driver and subsequently taxi driver after serving with the British Army in Ireland, where he met Ellen Charlesson, the woman who would become his wife and the mother of Joan. Their bright daughter won a scholarship to the Sacred Heart convent in Victoria, and travelled there every day from their home miles away in Peckham. When, at 14, Joan told her teachers she wanted to leave for a theatrical career, the Mother Superior begged Ellen to persuade her to stay.
Persuasion was fruitless, and the girl appeared at a London music hall when still 14, the following year appearing in revue and after that featuring, in 1954, with the nihilistic Crazy Gang. Even against such opposition, she imposed herself sufficiently to appear that year at the Royal Command Performance, a forerunner of the one in 1963 when she topped a bill that also included the Beatles. Joan was to star at many royal events. She appeared at the Queen's Silver Jubilee performance in 1977 and was guest of honour at the Queen Mother's 90th birthday in 1990.
For many years it was as if she trod a golden road, becoming the highest-earning female singer in Britain, and the disc jockey of her own radio show. She was a recording artist for Decca and Pye, made a religious programme for radio about the saints, was chairman of the Catholic Stage Guild Ball for nine years, raising thousands for charities, and won the Manchester Evening News best supporting actress award for her role of Dolly in The Belle of Belfast City at the Contact Theatre. As a result of this, she got the role of Aunty Lou in Brookside for Channel 4 in 1991. In the West End she was in Call Me Madam and was Mrs Bumble in Oliver! In the 1970s, apart from being the star at the Talk of the Town in London, she took her own show, Joan Turner Unlimited, all over the country and then, in 1980, to the US - an experience that may well have inflamed her liking for champagne and vodka.
Two years previously, she had been fired from Oliver! after throwing empty wine bottles from the dressing-room window. She was later declared bankrupt, sacked from Brookside, and, in 1992, was the subject of a television documentary, The Comeback, showing an alcoholic and quarrelsome former star living squalidly in a Surrey flat. She probably saw the seven-year move to the US as her last throw in the game of success, but she returned to Britain virtually empty-handed. Her daughter Susanna Page always believed that "the best way to describe Mum is that she thought every day was Christmas". She was to discover painfully that it was not.
Called by one critic "the greatest of the old-time funny ladies", discretion was rarely her watchword. In her autobiography I Thought It Grew on Trees, due to appear in August, she recalls sleeping with Peter Sellers while he was engaged to Anne Howe, his first wife. It was on a sunny day in the 1960s when she and Sellers took a walk in some gardens. "Before I knew what was happening," she recalled, "he grabbed me and I found myself in the hedge with him." On the other hand a number of stars with whom she also allegedly dallied, including Tony Hancock and Terry-Thomas, all pleaded, when it came to the point, that they were too drunk to consummate. In the case of Hancock, she wrote that: "Tony and I began an affair together yet we never had full sex as he was always too inebriated to do it."
The tabloid press was restrained from presenting such tidings when the male parties were still alive (any suggestion of sexual incapacity being one of the best ways of increasing the business of lawyers), but her unpredictable behaviour was a different matter. In 2003 it did not cause absolute surprise when she arrived two hours late at her own annual Joan Turner Lunch at the Club for Acts and Actors, lurched into the room and barracked the speakers. Some of her colleagues walked out, but a crowd of elderly fans were waiting outside for her autograph and were overjoyed when they were allowed in. She still had good friends, including the writer Lynda La Plante, who, in 2004, offered to her what was intended as the comeback role of Mrs Sunnelly in The Commander, which ITV screened the following year.
Television had helped make Joan's reputation, and she appeared on it virtually to the last. She had made some of her first appearances on The Frankie Howerd Show in 1953, and featured in The Roy Hudd Show in 1969. A number of one-off appearances included The Bill in 1988 and Grange Hill in 1990, and, in 1995, she was Gran in the children's series I Hate This House, with Helen Lederer.
Joan married first Christopher Page, a Lincoln solicitor, in the 1940s, and then Leslie Cocks, a Pye record producer; both marriages ended in divorce. She is survived by three daughters, Susanna, Joanna and Amanda.


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