Obituary: Joyce Carey

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TO THOSE outside his tight-knit circle, Joyce Carey presented one of the last and most stalwart rings of defence, the most impenetrable of the castle walls Noel Coward erected around his private life, writes Philip Hoare (further to the obituary by Adam Benedick, 3 March).

As with his fellow stage-idol Ivor Novello, there was always speculation, amongst the unknowing, of when Coward would marry; there was even talk of him and Joyce Carey setting up home together. Far from being his lover, however, her role was much more important: she was his confidante, his adviser in times of professional or emotional crisis, a supporter, a chastiser and a woman with a lip at least as stiff as his.

In his accustomed manner, Coward redubbed Carey 'Joycie' - or even, in moments of sheer baby-talk, 'Doycie'. The relationship was very old-fashioned, in one sense: Carey was the lady on his arm at premieres, providing the heterosexual bluff that was necessary then. But, more than that, she proved herself, professionally, a perfect interpreter of Coward's world. She first met him when her mother was appearing in The Vortex in 1924. The first night of the play left her 'literally shaking with excitement'. Her first part in a Coward play came with Easy Virtue in 1925, although she did not appear in another until Alison Leggatt fell ill during the run of Tonight at 8.30 in 1936. But Carey was best known for her roles in Coward's films: a touching death scene in In Which We Serve, and the barmaid with pretensions in Brief Encounter. In the latter the producer Sir Anthony Havelock-Allan recalled one of the crew watching Joyce pour the tea daintily into the buffet cups. 'Not like that,' he told her, showing her the professional 'caff' method, swooshing the beverage across the cups without stopping.

Carey's twinkling eyes betrayed a sense of mischief, and a passionate nature. Her tremulous, aristocratic voice - a legacy of her mother's - took on a cockney twang easily; and her hauteur could take an equally swift dive into the vernacular, as she easily matched Coward in his predilection for well-chosen but extremely rude four-letter words.

It was important that Carey was present at the inception of such work as Blithe Spirit, when she and Coward escaped to Portmeirion in May 1941. Her constructive comments helped shape the play; they did again with Relative Values. In post-war years, when Coward's star faded a little, Carey remained loyally at his side. He proved his worth by supporting her financially, both before and after his death. His loss, within a week of Binkie Beaumont's, left her bereft, and she told friends that she too wished to die. But she survived, and continued to act on stage and on television up to the age of 90. She still enjoyed parties: recently, offered a glass of wine, she hissed to the young man beside her, 'Haven't they got anything stronger?' A large tumbler of vodka was produced, to Miss Carey's satisfaction.

(Photograph omitted)