Dear Yootha… The Life of Yootha Joyce is a thorough and absorbing biography of the actor best known for her portrayal of Mildred in the hit 1970s sitcoms Man About the House and George and Mildred. Yootha died young, right at the height of her fame, leaving behind an enigma.
Paul Curran’s biography of Yootha Joyce unpicks some of the mysteries and seeming contradictions that have surrounded her since her untimely death. What impresses us about the book is how warm it is, whilst remaining objective. It’s clearly a labour of love, and despite the author’s evident fascination with his subject matter, Dear Yootha… has been commendably researched and is full of in-depth quotations from those who knew her best, as well as an admirable amount of detail about her personal life and career.
Yootha Joyce worked with Joan Littlewood, the well-known theatre maverick, right at the start of her career, and the sections on her time with Theatre Workshop are excellent. It’s remarkable the number of prominent British sitcom stars who developed their careers under Littlewood (both Brian Murphy and Yootha Joyce from George and Mildred, Harry H. Corbett from Steptoe and Son and Robert Gillespie from Keep It In The Family). It’s Dudley Sutton and Barbara Windsor whose contributions are most illuminating on Yootha’s time with Theatre Workshop, with the feeling being that Yootha was underused and underrated, and perhaps even intimidated by Littlewood. Those with an interest in British theatre history will find these sections illuminating.
There’s a contribution describing Yootha’s time at RADA from her classmate Roger Moore, who has stronger memories of that time than of working with her later on The Saint. Although he was at RADA some years after Yootha, Robert Gillespie’s recollections of Sir Kenneth Barnes, the principal during both their times, are hilarious and insightful.
It is, of course, Brian Murphy, Yootha’s Man About the House and George and Mildred co-star whose remembrances are the most invaluable. Murphy recalls with great affection the friendship and close working relationship he developed with Yootha. Curran also does an excellent job of bringing pertinent memories out of Joy Jameson, Yootha’s long-time agent; and actor Glynn Edwards, the husband Yootha later divorced.
As the book develops, so too does the problem that brought Yootha’s life to a premature end – her alcoholism. Whilst this makes for at times painful reading, the account of a much-loved woman’s self-destruction is nevertheless a compulsive and moving read, and Murphy and Jameson’s regrets that they couldn’t do more to help her are especially poignant. Whilst Curran modestly says that he doesn’t entirely pin down the personality of Yootha, he makes a strong case for a vulnerable woman who didn’t have the domestic stability to prevent herself from a decline into dependency. His secondary focus on Yootha’s charitable work, and her love for animals and pets, is also well-developed, and offers a welcome view of Yootha outside of the acting world.
Dear Yootha… The Life of Yootha Joyce is a fantastic read. It’s an essential tome for admirers of the late actor’s career. It will also be of interest to anyone with a strong affection for classic British sitcoms, illuminating how television was made in the 1970s. It’s full of contributions from surviving big names in the industry, and is a valuable addition to the universal story of the pressure of fame and the traps that success inevitably brings.
Overall, the style is very good, with the combination between prose and quotations neatly balanced. The author keeps himself in the background for the most part, but his occasional first person interruptions reveal only a long-standing affection for his subject, the result of which is endearing. There are a few grammatical errors and typos that have crept in without the vigilance of an editor, but this is made up for by some rare photographs that occur in three sections throughout the book.
Never salacious, nor uncritical of its subject, Dear Yootha… achieves what a good biography ought to do: it paints a human picture of its subject matter.