At the height of her fame in the sixties, Joan Turner was widely regarded as one of Britain’s greatest comic talents. With her soprano voice and biting wit, she was billed as ‘the voice of an angel – the wit of the devil’ and was regularly seen on top television shows, the London Palladium and nightclubs in New York and Las Vegas. She was set for long-term international star status, but with a combination of drink and gambling problems, she proved herself to be too erratic and undisciplined and her eventual decline was a sad one.
Born in Belfast on November 24, 1922 she won a talent competition at the age of 11 in South London doing impressions of Shirley Temple and Jessie Matthews. She made her professional debut at the Finsbury Empire as a singing comedienne, billed as ‘the wacky warbler’, and later played leading music halls around the country. For years she specialised in the title role of Aladdin in Lew Grade pantomimes
A headliner in variety, she was quickly snapped up by television and made regular appearances as a guest star on shows with Dickie Henderson and Harry Secombe and in 1954 appeared in the Royal Variety Performance. The same year she opened with Jimmy Edwards and Tony Hancock in the revue Talk of the Town at the Adelphi Theatre, which ran for a record-breaking 656 performances.
At the end of the fifties, she had written a hugely successful one-woman show in which she did more than 20 impressions. The show became her bread and butter for many years and she also did a shorter version for cabaret nightspots.
Her late night cabaret appearances, however, were often marred by heavy drinking bouts and public brawls, and she gained a reputation in showbusiness for being difficult. In the early seventies, she surprised everyone by giving an exceptional performance in the lead role in The Killing of Sister George, which toured the UK, and she made several best-selling comedy recordings. All this was not enough to support her lavish lifestyle and in 1977, she was declared bankrupt.
Sacked from the 1977 revival of Oliver! in which she played Widow Corney, she lasted for only four episodes in the C4 soap Brookside, leaving after a row with the director. She later moved to America to try and regain some of her former success, but failed after working in casino hotels.
A few variety dates followed in the eighties, but a chance appearance on the Michael Barrymore Show in ITV in 1995 showed her at the height of her comic powers. She stole the show but it was not enough to persuade showbusiness managements to employ her again. Her career was, in fact, over.
Undeterred, she returned to America to find work but in 2001 she was discovered living destitute at a homeless mission run by nuns in Los Angeles, her only possessions being a bag full of clothes and a video tape of the Michael Barrymore Show. Her daughters eventually paid for her return to Britain and from then on she lived in sheltered accommodation in Banstead, Surrey. For some years she had been working on an autobiography, which so far remains unpublished.
She died on March 1, 2009, aged 86, after suffering a heart attack. She is survived by her three daughters.
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