March 3, 2022 Rhiannon Ingle

Q&A: Testament of Yootha

Hello and welcome to this brand new Q&A series where we ask the weirdest, wildest and most wonderful questions to the brilliant people behind some of the fabulous shows going on here at The Edge.

This week, we were honoured to have a lovely chat with actress and writer Caroline Burns Cooke, the genius mind behind Testament of Yootha – a look into the life of glamorous sitcom legend Yootha Joyce from her inauspicious birth on Wandsworth Common all the way through to her fantastic theatrical career and, eventually, her death at the young age of 53.

So, before anything else, what inspired you to write Testament of Yootha?

After my previous solo pieces, namely Suffer Little Children which centres around the notorious Myra Hindley, the Rope which looks at the scandal of the Kerry babies in Eire and Proxy which deals with a Munchausen by proxy murder story from the Southern states – I felt that both myself and the audiences were in need of a break!

I’d loved the flamboyance and toughness of Yootha as Mildred Roper, but knew there was tragedy in those eyes at the heart of the story and I was the one to find it!

How did you go about developing the larger-than-life character of Yootha Joyce?

I read the facts of her life and came to my own conclusions. She died at 53 of liver failure having drunk a bottle of brandy a day for 10 years, which is exactly how long Man about the House and George and Mildred ran. If that doesn’t say “fame killed her” I don’t know what does.

I also related strongly to her stage fright and loneliness and stopped drinking 20 years ago myself. These were the aspects I chose to focus on but balanced with the fantastically witty personality and confidence she exuded when performing.

What is so special about Yootha Joyce and why should we all know about her?

Yootha was a direct product of war and typecasting! Sent back prematurely from evacuation, little thought of by her parents, shunted in various boarding schools while her parents scraped a living touring – it’s fair to say she lived a hardscrabble life.

She fell into playing “tarts and whores” in Rep and not much improved when she joined the lauded Theatre Workshop, run by Joan Littlewood at Theatre Royal, Stratford East. Eventually, TV fame took her away from a promising theatre and film career.

But the role she played in the sitcom was hugely appreciated by audiences who loved her wit, sensuality, wicked put-downs and feminine power. However, it was Yootha’s vulnerability that attracted me the most.

She was a powerful but lonely figure of an independent woman, hamstrung by the times and perceptions of a changing world.

How did you balance the relationship between tragedy and humour in the play?

There is a lot of humour in the play but so much poignancy too. The sad clown is a cliché but bawdy humour and sharp wit have got many a woman, very much myself included, through hardship and emotional turmoil and Yootha is right up there with us.

She lacked the support she needed and was fiercely private but was full of charm and light. There was always vulnerability in those flashing eyes, off stage and on. The balance is hard to achieve and audience responses differ so much, but when the comedy and darkness turn on a sixpence – it’s magic.

What is the best piece of advice that Yootha could give to us?

At the close of the play, Yootha exhorts the audience to “shine bright” like she did which, while rather new-agey, is some good advice to take.

Secretly, I think she thought “do it, and damn the consequences” which she certainly did and remains dearly missed to this day.

Caroline will be coming to The Edge in exactly one week’s time with her third show, Testament of Yootha, Thursday 10th March kicking off at 7:30 pm, so be sure to get yourself some tickets and learn all about the legacy, glory and demise of this British icon.

Think tragic tale, but with a hint of nostalgia and glamour…


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