Obituary: Joan Kemp-Welch

Click to follow
The Independent Culture
AS ACTRESS, director and producer, Joan Kemp-Welch worked in every branch of the entertainment industry, from 1927 onwards. She once said: "I never gave up until I found out for myself that a thing just couldn't be done, and, sometimes without realising it, I even achieved the so-called impossible."

She was born Glory Vincent Green in Wimbledon, south-west London, in 1906. Her mother (my grandmother), being of a biblical bent, named her other girls Mercy, Charity and Joy. At school at Roedean she found "Glory" a liability and, as something of a tomboy, was nicknamed Jo, after the character in Louisa M. Alcott's book Little Women; she spelt it "Joe" - spelling was never her strong suit. However, after receiving replies to her letters to would-be theatre employers saying that they had enough leading men, this became Joan. Kemp-Welch was her mother's maiden name.

After her parents divorced, money was short, so she had to leave school. She did a course at the Froebel Institute and a spell as matron at a private school. But the theatre was where her passions lay and in 1926 she made her debut at the "Q" Theatre, Kew Green, in a career that was to span 70 years. For the next 12 years she played a multitude of parts in both theatre and films, once being strangled in the first act of Silent Witness, then leaping into a cab to have her throat cut in the last act of Traffic.

In 1939 she decided she wanted to direct. She approached the theatrical impresario Harry Hanson, whose response was "We have enough trouble in the theatre without women producers", but with the Second World War came a shortage of male directors and he took her on.

This was the start of 10 years of theatre production, at Colchester, then with the Wilson Barratt company, where she directed some 250 plays in four years, followed by spells in various theatres in the provinces and the West End, and a tour of India. A favourite memory of hers was in her production of Little Women, where for realism she decided to have real rabbits nibbling on a grassy bank. On the first night, excited by the lights, the rabbits scampered about in a wild frenzy, leaping off the rocks and copulating all over the place, to the huge delight of the audience and the horror of the cast.

During this period she met Peter Moffatt, a young actor some years her junior, who, after 12 years of his persistent persuasion, became her husband and her happiness. He also became a successful television director.

It was in 1955, with the setting up of Associated-Rediffusion, that Joan Kemp-Welch's television career began. Those were the days of live television, when mistakes stood; there were no retakes, no cutting, and precious few females in the control room. Her output was prodigious and incredibly varied - drama, documentaries, Light Entertainment and musicals, from Pinter to the Dickie Valentine show, Coward to the coverage of the wedding of Princess Alexandra.

She continued to work in television for the next 28 years where she collected the highest awards that the industry can bestow, including a TV Oscar in 1958 for Cool for Cats, a forerunner to Top of the Pops, and the Prix Italia in 1963 for a startlingly sensual production of Harold Pinter's play The Lover - who could forget the rasp of black-stockinged legs rubbing together? In the same year, Joan Kemp-Welch was also the first woman to receive the Desmond Davis Award for creative work in television. Her major productions included Laudes Evangelii, Leonide Massine's ballet of the life of Christ, a Greek Electra and A Midsummer Night's Dream, with Benny Hill as Bottom.

She was no intellectual, rarely ever read, except for the plays she was to produce and the poems of Robert Frost. Her talents lay in a great visual sense combined with a dedication to detail. She instinctively knew what was right and though she often drove actors and crew mad, changing her mind after weeks of rehearsal, she adored them and understood as only a fellow actor can their problems and insecurities, so they inevitably ended up adoring her.

In the 1970s she returned to the theatre both in Britain and abroad. She directed Romeo and Juliet and On the Razzle for the National Theatre of Western Australia, and Shades of Brown in New York and Cincinnati, and worked in Vienna, Frankfurt, South Africa and Germany.

She consistently lied about her age, to the extent of falsifying her passport by 10 years. "Darling, no one would employ me if they knew how old I was!" Her last production was Lettice and Lovage in Washington when she was 87.

As a little girl, I remember her as a wildly glamorous, larger-than-life lady whom I adored, full of fun and laughter, nurturing my first faltering steps into the theatre; and that impression never changed. She remained almost to the end wonderfully voluptuous and vibrant, delighted with life. Her home was always filled with friends from all over the world aged 18 to 80. She was a woman who always took what she did seriously, but never herself.

Sally Nesbitt

Glory Vincent Green (Joan Kemp-Welch), actress, theatre director and television producer: born London 23 September 1906; married 1936 Ben H. Wright (marriage dissolved), 1959 Peter Moffatt; died London 5 July 1999.

Comments