Joy Nichols (1925-1992) – from the Tivoli to the West End

Joy Nichols at the height of her success in the British radio show Take It From Here, c1950. Fan card in the Author’s collection

The Five Second version
Born in Sydney on 17 February 1925, singer, impressionist and comedian Joy Nichols became a favourite on stage and radio in wartime Australia from a very young age. She made the transition to performing in postwar Britain with apparent ease, and is most often associated with the BBC’s long running radio show, Take It From Here. She seemed destined for stardom, but her 1953 Australian return show was a disaster. She scored some later success with the London season of The Pajama Game and in supporting roles on Broadway, but her later career was fitful and she might really be a case of an actor who reached her peak too early. She died in New York on 23 June 1992. She had appeared in several Australian and British films.

Looking back on her career in 1965, Joy Nichols admitted that she was “too young” to realise what was happening when she became such a quick success in England. She told Australia’s Bulletin magazine that in 1948 she “rather took if for granted and didn’t think much of what was going to happen in the years ahead.” It was remarkably candid, as she was acknowledging a 25 year career that seemed disjointed and ultimately may not have been very rewarding.

She was born Joy Eileen Nichols in Sydney on 17 February 1925, the youngest of four children of Cecil William “Bill” Nichols, a wholesale butcher, and Freda nee Cooke. Her brother George Nichols also pursued a career on the Australian stage with some success, but two older brothers had no such interest, and following their father’s footsteps became meat inspectors in New South Wales.

George and Joy Nichols photographed while performing on the Tivoli circuit, c 1945. Mitchell Library, State Library of New South Wales, Tivoli Theatre Collection. PXA 808, IE1050864.

On the basis of her early academic efforts, Joy was awarded a scholarship to Fort Street Girls High School in 1937 and while she apparently went on to excel academically, her appearances on radio and stage started at about the same time. Her name is found as a singer in various eisteddfods and as a comedian in charity concerts as early as 1935. Later accounts would claim she was encouraged in her interest in music and comedy by her mother and was performing from the age of 8. Her breakthrough seems to have been when she gained a regular place on the Macquarie radio network’s “Youth Show” in 1940. She was heralded as the program’s “outstanding radio discovery.”

15 year old Joy contributing to the war effort in 1940. Left – The Sun (Sydney) 2 June 1940. Right – Daily News (Sydney) 9 March 1940. Via National Library of Australia’s Trove.

In a world war where newspapers and radio were the only source of news and patriotic performances were vital to maintaining morale, Joy Nichols was soon in great demand. She was an entertaining and very accomplished singer. Her young age – she was only 15 years old, did not seem to effect her popularity or qualify in any way the language of journalists who enthused about her. In September 1941, the Brisbane Truth reported on her part in a show called Ballyhoo, running at the Cremorne Theatre: “When pretty Joy Nichols gets done up in khaki and sings her ‘Victory Vee’ number, we think any recruiting sergeant would get quite a few inquiries from enthusiastic males in Cremorne’s ‘Ballyhoo’ audiences.” Perhaps she hoped her first film role in Alf Goulding‘s A Yank in Australia (1942) would be received the same way. Unfortunately the film was never given a release and while it still exists today, is impossible to find outside the vaults of Australia’s National Film and Sound Archive.

Her wartime career brought her in close contact with other well known Australian performers. Evidence of this includes a surviving Rinso soap commercial made with Bill Kerr, for release in cinemas.


In early 1941, she appeared for the first time with 33 year old Dick Bentley, in an Australian Broadcasting Commission community concert. Bentley, a talented musician and comedian, had returned to Australia with several years of British radio experience under his belt. Eight years later, Joy would be teamed with him in Britain, in the very successful radio program, Take it from Here.

In 1943, Joy gained further positive publicity when she sang Jack O’Hagen‘s new song about a wartime romance between a US serviceman and an Australian girl – When a boy from Alabama meets a Girl from Gundagai.

In the midst of many stage and radio performances, she also promptly did just that herself – in late 1944 after a whirlwind courtship, she married Lieutenant Harry Dickel, a US serviceman then in Australia, who had some connection to the theatre. Like a number of such wartime romances, the relationship did not last.

In early 1946, Cinesound director Ken G Hall cast Joy in a supporting roll as Kay Sutton, an American girl, in Smithy (aka Pacific Adventure), his bio-pic about aviator Charles Kingsford-Smith. As the sound clips on this page suggest, a vaguely North American accent was something Joy had already been working on. One of her specialities was impressions of movie stars, and she was, she said, a great admirer of Bing Crosby. The film completed, Joy and brother George joined the great wave of Australian actors determined to try their luck overseas after the war. They arrived in England on the ship Dominion Monarch on 30 October, 1946.

George and Joy soon appeared successfully as a double act on tour together in the UK, but George found the going tough. By April 1949 he was back home in Australia. “The BBC’s audition list is very long” he said, by way of advice to aspiring Australian actors. For Joy, there seem to have been nothing but more work on offer. Bob Hope reportedly chose her for a lightning tour of US bases in Europe in 1947, while back in England there were roles in pantomimes, and touring shows like Follow The Girls.

Above: Joy Nichols in the stage revue Take it from Here, based on the radio program, at the Winter Gardens Pavilion, Blackpool 1950. Photos from a George Black Ltd brochure, author’s collection.

Theatre Historian Eric Midwinter has provided the most succinct account of the origins of the BBC radio show Take It from Here. It emerged in 1948 – partly born of previous radio programs and combining Joy and Dick Bentley (now back in Britain) with popular British comedian Jimmy Edwards, and with Wallas Eaton in a supporting role. Producer Charles Maxwell brought in writers Frank Muir and Denis Norden – and a success was born. As surviving broadcasts show, the 30 minute program had a three part format, musical numbers (sung very well by Joy and Dick and reasonably well by Jimmy) separating the three main comedy sketches, that were often built around current events. The program was remarkable in that while topical for British listeners, it was equally popular when broadcast in countries like Australia. This was in part thanks to Muir and Norden’s writing, which went on to influence a new generation of British comedy.

Joy can be heard in the following clip with Dick Bentley, playing the very silly Miss Arundel, whose deep giggle and references to boyfriend Gilbert were a regular feature. After Joy left the show in mid 1953 she was replaced by June Whitfield. Whitfield played “Eth” in The Glums, an ongoing sketch in the show by late 1953 (the character often mistaken for one of Joy’s).

Joy as Miss Arundel, giggling and telling Detective Dick Bentley about her boyfriend Gilbert. Via the Internet Archive. Joy also gives this trademark throaty giggle here in a 1950 Radio awards ceremony – at 6.15 (click to follow link)
The cast of Take it from Here appeared in a live review at the London Adelphi in 1950-51. The show ran for 570 performances. Program in the author’s collection

Frank Muir’s entertaining autobiography, A Kentish Lad, recalls an anecdote from Take It From Here, that gives some insight into her sense of humour and the wicked Australian banter that went on behind the scenes. He describes Joy chatting before one show with Jimmy Edwards, Dick Bentley and Wallas Eaton, and turning to a recent gynecological exam she had endured, describing the event to the others in such “candid detail,” that bachelor Wallas Eaton began to “turn green.” Dick Bentley then threw in “you poor thing. And my (dog’s) got diarrhoea …”

In 1949, Joy married US actor-singer Wally Peterson, one of the principals of the London cast of Oklahoma! and later South Pacific. At the same time, her professional life remained very busy, it included a live theatre spin-off of Take It From Here, appearances at Royal Command Variety Performances and a Max Bygraves revue, all the while appearing on radio. But, in the midst of all this success, she, Wally and their 16 month old daughter packed up and left England for Australia. She was engaged to appear in her own show on the Tivoli circuit in September 1953, but the trip seems primarily to have been to see her family. The story that Wally wanted to leave England because he could not get work is wrong – like Joy he was a well established broadcaster, actor and singer and was regularly in demand – he was also a popular recording artist for the Decca and Parlophone labels.

Photos of Joy relaxing and in rehearsal in Australia appeared in the Australian Women’s Weekly, 14 October 1953. But by the time these were published she had already withdrawn from the show. Via National Library of Australia’s Trove.

Unfortunately, although the anticipation created by Joy’s return to Sydney was great and the initial reviews were positive, the 1953 Tivoli show entitled Take It From Me turned out to be a disaster. She managed a few performances, but then suffered a nervous breakdown. Her mother Freda wanted to reassure audiences, and told the Sydney Sun that Joy was just “overwhelmed by the wonderful reception” Australians had given her. In language so typical of the era, she added; “Joy is a very highly strung girl and a good sleep will soon fix her up.” But it didn’t. She spent two weeks in hospital, and rested for another three months before departing by air for the US, in December 1953, to spend time with Wally’s family in Boston.

One of Joy’s greatest successes came in London again, in 1955, when she took a role in The Pajama Game. Comparing it to the often modest British musicals, The Guardian newspaper described the play as the latest “clumping great Broadway musical”. Most reviewers welcomed Joy’s return to the West End, and The Stage reported she played the part of Babe Williams with “humanity and real charm.” It hit a spot with London audiences, running for 580 performances. She also appeared in a few films at this time – most notably a cameo role, singing, in Charlie Chaplin’s A King in New York (1957). After she and Wally had finally settled in New York in the late 1950s, she also appeared in a few roles on Broadway, most notably in the musical Fiorello!


Joy in Not So Dusty (1956) – a British B film about two dustmen (garbage collectors) featuring Bill Owen and Leslie Dwyer. This screen grab from a clip on Youtube.

In 1965 she returned to Australia again, to show off her 3 year old twins to the family and perform in the musical, Instant Marriage at the Tivoli. This time, there was much less publicity – although Joy did her best to stir up interest. “I want to make people laugh like I do” she said. But variety theatre like the Tivoli had struggled to maintain audiences against the challenge of television, and this play, “about a girl trying to find a marriage bureau and mistakenly getting involved with a strip joint,” was hardly sophisticated fare, even with the imported addition of Wallas Eaton in the cast. The show flopped. Theatre historian Frank Van Straten describes it as “a frantic, unfunny farce without a single singable song.”

It is rare for an actor to pose with their entire family for the press. But on 21 July 1965, during Joy’s final visit to Australia, The Australian Women’s Weekly ran this photo of the entire Nichols family together. Via National Library of Australia’s Trove.

Joy continued to appear in occasional supporting roles on the New York stage, but fate and circumstance seemed against her. In 1969 it was announced she would appear in an expensive new London musical, Two Cities. But she didn’t – only a few weeks before opening night she walked out on rehearsals, reportedly after disagreements with leading actor Edward Woodward. She was replaced by Nicolette Roeg.

Above: Joy advertised as appearing in the musical Two Cities. But soon after this advertisement appeared in The Observer on 2 Feb 1969, she was replaced by Nicolette Roeg. Via Newspapers.com.

Joy’s marriage to Wally came to an end in 1977, and she subsequently moved back to England again. She took out a large advertisement in The Stage in March 1979 to announce that she was back and looking for work. But sadly, there wasn’t very much work for her. She was in her mid-50s, and had well and truly lost her currency. She finally turned to fairly mundane retail work, being spotted working in a Mothercare store in Oxford St. This sort of riches to rags story, as always, attracted some media attention – but Joy simply said she needed the money.

Joy succumbed to cancer, aged only 66 in 1992. In a lifetime of moving around, she had moved back to New York at the end. Her obituaries reminded readers of the great pleasure Joy had brought listeners in post-war Britain, then a time of austerity and recovery.

Only a year after Joy’s 1965 visit, Jimmy Edwards came to Australia to feature in the Tivoli circuit’s final shows in Sydney and Melbourne. His shows brought large-scale variety theatre to a close in Australia.

Wallas Eaton, who had turned green when hearing Joy’s gynecological story, moved to Australia in 1975, where he continued acting. He died in Sydney in 1995. Dick Bentley died in England the same year.

Joy at the height of her fame on a British “Turf” cigarette box. c1950 Author’s collection.

Nick Murphy
September 2020


Further Reading

Audio

Film

Text

  • Eric Midwinter (undated) Take It From Here. Britishmusichallsociety.com
  • Frank Muir (1997) A Kentish Lad. The Autobiography of Frank Muir. Bantam Press.
  • Frank Van Straten (2003 ) Tivoli. Thomas C. Lothian
  • J.P Wearing (2014) The London Stage, 1950-1959, A Calendar of Productions, Performers, and Personnel. Rowman & Littlefield Publishers

British Newspaper Archive

  • The Stage, 10 July 1947
  • The Stage, 4 Dec 1947
  • The Scotsman, 24 Dec 1947
  • The Daily Mirror, 30 Dec 1947
  • Manchester evening News 16 March 1948
  • The Stage, October 20, 1955
  • Illustrated London News, 29 October 1955
  • Daily Herald, 1 June 1962
  • The Stage, 19 August 1965
  • The Stage, 29 March 1979
  • The Stage, 15 October 1992

National Library of Australia’s Trove

  • The Australian Women’s Weekly, 22 June 1940
  • Mudgee Guardian & North Western Representative, 15 July 1940
  • The Australian Women’s Weekly, 20 July 1940
  • The Argus (Melb), 25 Oct 1943
  • The Age (Melb), 2 Sept 1949
  • The Age (Melb), 29 July 1953
  • The Sydney Morning Herald, 3 Sept 1953
  • Sun (Syd), 11 Sept 1953
  • Daily Telegraph (Syd), 17 Sept, 1953
  • The Australian Women’s Weekly, 14 Oct 1953
  • The Australian Women’s Weekly, 14 Sept, 1960
  • The Bulletin, 17 July 1965, Vol 87, No 4455
  • The Australian Women’s Weekly, 21 July 1965
  • The Bulletin, 14 Aug 1965, Vol 87 No 4459

Newspapers.com

  • The Sydney Morning Herald, 31 Aug 1954
  • The Sydney Morning Herald, 4 Nov 1965
  • The Sydney Morning Herald, 23 Jan 1969
  • The Observer, 2 Feb 1969
  • The Age (Melb), 2 July 1992
  • The Guardian, 3 July 1992

The Independent

  • June Averill, Joy Nichols Obituary 7 July 1992

Variety

  • Wally Peterson Obituary, April 3, 2011

The Times

  • Joy Nichols Obituary 29 June 1992

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