AS SILENT PARTNER to the comic genius of Joyce Grenfell, Reginald Grenfell - whom she was married to for 50 years, and loved without exception - was not quite the shadow he might have seemed.
Staying with Marmaduke Hussey (husband of Reginald's niece, Susan), Joyce would 'scribble away at her sketches', and read them out loud. 'No, don't like that,' barked Reggie, in a voice which has been described as that of a kindly sergeant-major; or 'Yes, that's good.' Maureen Lipman, whose revival of Joyce Grenfell's monologues and verse did so much to enliven Reginald Grenfell's later years, recalled that he could 'make you feel you were brilliant. Tall and avuncular, he was a man of few words, but they were well chosen. He had massive sincerity, and an apple- cheeked bonhomie.' To James Roose- Evans, writer of the Re: Joyce revival and editor of Grenfell's letters and diaries, Reginald Grenfell was almost a caricature of an English gentleman in a tweed suit, who 'hid behind stock phrases', rewarding Lipman's 'impersonation' of Joyce Grenfell with a 'Well done, old gel', as though he were a character from one of his wife's acutely observed monologues.
Grenfell was the elder son of Arthur Grenfell and his first wife, Victoria, the eldest child of the fourth Earl Grey, who died when Reginald was five. He met Joyce Phipps when she was 17, and they married in 1929. The early years of their marriage were fraught with financial worries, and each often had to resort to their respective families for help. They were unable to have children, and friends were important to them, and included Edith Evans, Celia Johnson and her husband Peter Fleming, and Noel Coward (although Joyce remained ambivalent about Coward, having an inherent distrust of the theatre and 'queers'). In 1936 they settled in a cottage on the Cliveden estate, in the shadow of Joyce's aunt Nancy Astor, where royal balls and summonses to impromptu fancy dress parties were vicariously enjoyed by the couple, country cousins who yet harboured an incisive wit in Mrs Grenfell. In 1939, Joyce was working as radio critic for the Observer, and Reginald was commuting to London when the advent of the drama critic Herbert Farjeon into Joyce's life suddenly propelled her into theatre proper.
As Joyce became increasingly involved in what she queasily saw as 'show business', Reginald stayed in the background - 'almost out of the room', as Maureen Lipman recalls. Having trained as a chartered accountant, Grenfell worked most of his life for mining companies in the City, joining Oliver Lyttelton (later Viscount Chandos) at British Non-Ferrous Metals in 1939. He failed his war medical because of varicose veins but, determined to follow the heroic example of his Grenfell cousins' sacrifice in the Great War, had the condition seen to and joined the King's Royal Rifle Corps, later working in the War Office. After the war, he became a director of Messina (Transvaal), a South African copper company.
But Reggie Grenfell's main role in life was as an adjunct to his wife's talent. 'He had no problem basking in someone else's limelight,' Lipman observes. Not only did Grenfell look after his wife's financial and business affairs, but his encouragement provided the sort of support for her which recalled, as Roose-Evans noted, the French nickname for the Queen Mother when she was Queen - le soutien-gorge.
'He was a New Man before they had been thought of,' Lipman notes. 'He really did love women.' He was not religious - 'goodness came easily to him; some of us have to fight for it' - and he did not subscribe to his wife's belief in Christian Science: it was he who insisted that Joyce, in her final illness, overcome her religious principles and consult a doctor about the cancer that eventually killed her in 1979.
After her death, Grenfell was necessarily lonely, made more so by the passing of Virginia Graham, Joyce's best friend. However, he kept up appearances, tending his wife's memory and assembling her letters - from Coward, Britten or Betjeman - in carefully notated boxes. Maureen Lipman recalls his always being 'proper' when she came to research Re: Joyce, ever the gentleman. Once, James Roose-Evans remembers Reginald mistook his call on the intercom for that of Lipman's and was surprised to hear Mr Grenfell call out, 'Come on up, darling]'; a comic episode his wife would surely have enjoyed.