Comedy Chronicles

Joan Turner's many songs for Europe

Joan Turner

The Eurovision Song Contest (currently stuck on the shelf, as ABBA might put it, but soon to be repeating itself) has long been associated with unintentional comedy, whether it's relating to some of the more bizarre of the musical acts, the hopelessly deluded hosts, the painfully cheesy travelogue sequences or simply the absurdly bloated, slow-paced and antiquated structure of the thing in general. One of the most farcical, and unfairly neglected, incidents in Eurovision history, however, involved the British comedian Joan Turner - not in the programme itself but rather in one of its qualifying Song for Europe selection shows.

It happened in Denmark in 1981. A somewhat worse-for-wear Joan Turner, who was appearing as a guest rather than a competitor, decided that, as she was on a show about singing, she would sing, and sing, and sing. She basically hijacked a Song for Europe show, in Europe, by refusing to stop singing.

She threw the place into a frantic panic. It was a live show. It had specifically-timed sequences to see through. A succession of hopeful musical acts were waiting for the votes to be counted and possibly to be chosen to represent their country at the Eurovision Song Contest itself. Joan Turner, however, plunged all of those involved into an epic spell of confusion and chaos that many feared would never stop.

In order to appreciate properly the peculiar nature of this extraordinary incident before recounting it in greater detail, one needs to know much more about its instigator. Joan Turner, as they say, had history.

It is hard to describe her for audiences of these far more polite and micro-managed days. She was an unnervingly powerful force of nature, a wild and mischievous spirit, a performer who often appeared to have no awareness about guidelines or deadlines or, indeed, of anything outside of her 'moment' on the stage.

Born in Belfast in 1922 and brought up in London, she had started in show business at the age of fourteen. Described by one admiring critic as a woman with 'the voice of an angel and the wit of a devil', she was one of the most versatile performers of her generation. A precocious as well as prodigious talent, she excelled in a wide range of comic contexts, from stand-up to sitcoms, and could hold her own easily alongside any of the male comedians of the time.

Few of her fellow stars could match her impressive collection of crafts: she could tell jokes, do impersonations, improvisations, slapstick, sketches and straight acting, and was just as at home in sophisticated cabaret as she was in the noisy northern clubs. She was also a gifted singer, with a four-and-a-half octave range that she used to great effect for operatic arias, show tunes, contemporary chart hits and comedy skits, and for a time she was the highest-earning female recording artist in the country.

Indeed, from the mid-1950s to the end of the 1960s, it seemed as though Joan Turner could do no wrong. Loved by large sections of the public, lauded by the critics and a firm favourite of the Royal Family, she starred in her own shows on radio, television and the stage, and revelled in her immense good fortune. Then, when the 1970s arrived, it all started to unravel.

Now addicted to alcohol and gambling, she became increasingly unreliable and unpredictable as a performer, as well as hard to handle as a colleague, client and employee. Shows had to be cancelled, contracts torn up and countless long-standing relationships ended in acrimony. As the bad publicity piled up in the press, the repetitive message was that Joan Turner was now regarded as 'trouble'.

The label was both unfair and fair.

It was unfair because, as a woman working in a fiercely-competitive male-dominated profession, she had needed to defend herself, right from the start, against everything from seedy sexual harassment to routine institutional intolerance and inequality. She had needed to fight, and fight long and hard, to force her way into the spotlight and work her way up to the top, and, like other women in the same circumstances, she had been branded 'difficult' (and worse) by many of those bitter and resentful men she had crossed on the way.

Joan Turner. Copyright: Decca

Many decades before the #MeToo and Time's Up movements, Joan Turner possessed the self-belief and the courage to challenge all the patriarchal prejudices, to demand proper respect and to win the same opportunities to shine as her male contemporaries were being afforded. In this sense, yes, she was indeed 'difficult', and deserved nothing but respect and admiration for being perceived to be so.

In another sense, however, the 'difficult' charge was fair enough, because, once her career started to decline, she became her own worst enemy. Alcohol was the catalyst: it rotted away the parameters of her passions. The more that the drink took hold of her, the more that her natural inclination to challenge and fight her bona fide foes became less focused and more forced.

Beforehand it had just been the bosses. Now it was everyone from the bosses down to the temps in the box office. Liberty was replaced by licence: instead of continuing to defend her right to do what she was entitled to do, she now thought she had a right to do whatever she wanted to do - wherever and whenever she wanted to do it.

It showed most on the stage. Doing cabaret with her increasingly long and rambling one-woman show, she often seemed more interested in pleasing herself than in pleasing the audience. No matter that they might be bored or baffled by what she was doing each night: so long as she was enjoying herself she regarded the show as a success.

It was an attitude that lost her more and more allies as, thanks to her gambling losses, she was forced to accept increasingly uninspiring engagements, which in turn drove her to drink more, and argue more, and spiral ever further down into depression. Isolated within the industry, she plunged what money she had left on a succession of comebacks that each time ended up failing miserably.

In 1976, things went from bad to worse when, trailed every step of the way by the tabloids, she was forced to declare bankruptcy, owing about £20,000 to fifty-six different creditors. The following year, she was back in court begging not to be evicted from her London home. She then won a role in a new West End production of Oliver! only to be sacked from it a few months later after hurling empty wine bottles from her dressing-room window.

For the next decade onwards it was one long and deep descent into obscurity. Having alienated most of her old allies in England, she tried her luck in Europe and America, but without much real success. Time and again, her past achievements won her work, only for her current attitude to lose it all over again.

Back in Britain in 1991, she landed the role of Aunty Lou in the Liverpool-based soap Brookside, only to be sacked just a few weeks later for being repeatedly drunk on the set and rowing with the director. After several more years of setbacks and snubs, she set off to America again, this time to audition for the Fabulous Palm Springs Follies, a nostalgic dance and musical revue in California. When she failed at this task, she stayed on in the country illegally, holed out in a tiny apartment, gambling away what money she had left in the smaller and considerably less salubrious casinos of Las Vegas.

It was in the middle of this excruciatingly long and painful decline that the 'Eurovision Incident' happened. Once again, it was supposed to be part of another comeback; once again, it all ended in tears.

The only reason it came about at all was because Turner, during one of her short-lived spells of sobriety (having shared a drying-out clinic with George Best), had recently signed a new deal, at the start of the 1980s, with a busy and ambitious young British theatrical agent named Keith Whitall. One of Whitall's fresh enterprises at the time was a project involving bringing British light entertainment talent to the Scandinavian market, and he saw Turner, in spite of her now-blemished reputation at home, as the kind of big name, or at least once-big name, that he needed to kick-start the plan abroad.

'I'd known her for years,' Whitall would tell me, 'and had seen her in her heyday, when she'd been absolutely wonderful. So now that she was struggling somewhat, I wanted to help. You know, everyone deserves a second chance, and when you have her talent I think you deserve third and fourth and fifth chances, too. There had been some disturbed and disturbing incidents, yes, but there had also been occasions when she'd been like the "old" Joan, and been delightful, so there were still some people, like me, who were willing her on. So I'd said to her, "Let's give this a whirl and see how it goes..."'

Her current one-woman show, An Evening with Joan Turner, was intended to be the vehicle to take her, as she approached her sixties, back up to the heady heights of her old success. Whitall was confident that he could arrange for her to establish a residency at the Falkoner Theatre in Copenhagen, one of the major venues that he and his associates were looking to use for their productions. If that went well, he reasoned, all kinds of exciting ventures might follow.

As usual, however, Turner's notoriously mercurial nature ensured that things did not quite go to plan. 'I did help to set up her show in Copenhagen,' Whitall told me, 'but by the time the performances actually started I was no longer involved with her'. Their professional association had lasted no more than a year. 'It was an amicable parting,' he said. 'There was no ill-feeling on my part, certainly - I was very still fond of her - but it was all rather sad. She was undoubtedly rather disturbed by that time, but it wasn't her fault, if you see what I mean. She was just troubled, and her behaviour became so erratic and irrational I just couldn't continue with her. I'd tried, I really had, but she became impossible - absolutely impossible.'

Now on her own in Denmark, Turner was still determined to push ahead, and it was at this point, in February 1981, that she received what seemed at the time like a wonderfully propitious piece of good fortune: an invitation to appear on peak time television as the guest star of the Dansk Melodi Grand Prix - the 13th Danish song contest - to choose the country's official entry for that year's Eurovision Song Contest.

Turner was delighted. It struck her as the perfect springboard for her Scandinavian adventure, introducing her immediately to a large part of the nation and boosting her chances of making her own show a long-lasting box office hit.

DR, the Danish state broadcaster, was delighted, too, because there were not too many 'international stars' available at that time to appear on such a show, and Turner, in spite of her domestic problems, still carried a certain cachet about her. She would lend the show some lustre.

Joan Turner

It certainly was a show that needed some lustre. Although Denmark had first entered Eurovision in 1957, it had declined to take part from 1966 to 1977 (on the grounds that its TV bosses did not rate the competition as high quality entertainment), and, even after it returned, there were still signs that some of its broadcasters remained deeply ambivalent about its value.

Dansk Melodi Grand Prix was not even granted the status of a stand-alone programme, and was merely slotted instead into a sprawling ragbag of a show entitled Lørdag lige nu (Saturday - Right Now). Transmitted from a restaurant-cum-cabaret called the Valencia-Varieteen in Copenhagen, it was a very low-budget production: the stage was small, with the audience limited to a few cramped rows of supper-club-style chairs and tables, and most of the music was pre-recorded.

Hosted by no fewer than three local celebrities - the dashing Eurovision stalwart Jørgen de Mylius, the younger Jarl Friis-Mikkelsen (making his Danish TV debut) and the slightly 'zany' Erling Bundgaard - the contestants included Debbie Cameron and Tommy Seebach, who were performing the bouncy Boney M-style disco number Krøller eller ej; a pair of Osmond-headed munchkins named Carsten Elmer and Jørgen Klubien, attempting the ersatz Californian soft pop track En Tragisk Komedie; the hyper-camp Brotherhood of Man-style quartet Hans Mosters Vovse, grinning and gurning their way through a quite awful burst of aural beige called King Kong Boogie; sunny-natured and preternaturally relaxed jazz trumpeter Theis Jensen (dressed for some unknown reason like a shop assistant from Screwfix), crooning a cloying Louis Armstrong tribute entitled Satchmo; and the hapless Anniqa (a former snake strangler-turned-singer) moving and miming in the manner of an anxious hostage to the horribly robotic Mae West homage Sikken Dejlig Dame.

It was quite a struggle to watch. The white-suited Jørgen de Mylius, who had all the comic timing of a sleep-deprived Richard Nixon, stumbled his way through several jokes about the Swedes ('Ha, ha, they are a bit strange over there,' he chuckled in a casual pot/kettle sort of way); the various dancers brought in to back the acts clod-hopped around in the cramped conditions without much sense of rhythm or routine; the songs themselves (with two out of the five being about dead people) were thoroughly uninspiring; and the occasional shots of the depressingly passive and bored-looking audience suggested that more than a few of them were comforting themselves by puffing on some fairly potent 'herbal' roll-ups.

Once the acts had been seen and heard, however, and the voting had commenced, it was time for that always-awkward segment of this kind of show when the gap needed to be filled between the end of the performances themselves and the start of the run-down of the results. This was the moment for the special musical guest - the moment, in this case, for Joan Turner.

Her spot was scheduled for two songs and a bit of light-hearted chat: eight to ten minutes, tops. Then the plan was for her to go off, the host to come back on, and the results announced.

That was the plan. The problem, however, was that nobody seemed to have told Turner.

Joan Turner, hovering in the makeshift wings, did not seem to know what she was supposed to do. She did not even seem to know what she wanted to do. As usual, in recent years, Joan Turner was just prepared to walk on and wing it.

Her band went on first. They sat there, cramped and cornered on one side of the set, looking like a set of tethered goats waiting for the predator to arrive.

Then Turner came on to the stage, waving and smiling as though she was starting a residency at Las Vegas rather than doing a one-off bit of time-filling in Copenhagen. Her hair was freshly-dyed a glossy golden blonde, and she was wearing what appeared to be a silver-white hospital gown posing as a party dress, framed with air-fluffed ostrich feathers, which made her look a bit like a fallen angel who had stumbled into a bar. She also seemed very, very, excited.

She started well enough, give or take a few wobbly high notes, and her patter, although failing to elicit much laughter, was delivered with plenty of confidence. The problem was that her pacing was so slow and leisurely that she ran well over her time before she had finished her couple of songs.

Then things went from bad to worse, because, once she had indeed finally completed her quota, she got plenty of polite applause. This should have been a good thing, a nice thing, because it was meant to signal the successful end of her allotted spot. The problem was that, as far as Joan Turner was concerned, the applause was interpreted as a heartfelt demand for an encore or more.

It triggered a massive rush of adrenaline inside of her, a huge surge of self-belief, and, after some soul-destroying years, a joyous vote of confidence. It was, she felt, a hard-won invitation to stay on the stage and star on live television.

So she simply kept on going - and going, and going. It was as if, for her and her alone, all of the clocks had stopped and she had slipped into a world all of her own.

The producer in the makeshift control room was by now in a greatly agitated state, shouting at various colleagues and rubbing his temples as he watched his own show creep more and more out of his control. He knew that they were trapped: it was a live outside broadcast, without another set to cut to, without any other space whatsoever to turn to, and so they had to keep showing Turner until they could remove her from view - and she was clearly in no mood to step away from the spotlight.

At the twenty minute point, she finished yet another song, and, as if in answer to many prayers, a twitchy-looking member of the production team - ordered on by his furious boss - invaded the stage and, with a pained expression, presented the star with a small bouquet of warm and wilting tulips. That appeared, at last, to be it.

Instead of taking this as a cue to get off the stage, however, Turner interpreted it as an invitation to launch into a very erratic but very loud rendition of the Barbra Streisand number, People: 'Peee-eee-eee-eee-eeeple...people who neeeeed people...are the laaaaaa-uuuuuckiest pee-eee-eeeple in the woooooooorld...'

Joan Turner

Everyone except Turner was in a state of confusion. Even her own band, who were trying to catch up with her, sounded as though they had no idea where this was heading.

Then, after the final notes had been warbled out and up into the ether, she stepped back, held up one hand like a boxing referee as the towel flies into the ring, and said, 'Good night, God bless you, and thank you!'

Was this it? Was this really it? After so many false-endings? Could this really be it?

It certainly looked that way. She was bowing. She was blowing kisses hither and thither. She was looking admiringly at her wilted tulips, and - to the wild excitement of those in the production booth - she actually turned her back to the camera and headed off towards the wings.

At last, they thought. At last.

Then, in the cruellest twist so far, she suddenly spun around, ran back to the front of the stage, and, with the smile of a child who thinks it is the start of playtime, she started singing again: 'Peeeeeeeeeeeeeeepaaaaaalll...'

The band, by this stage, was in a state of disintegration. Some were speeding up, some were slowing down, and some were simply staring at Turner as she continued her trilling: 'Peeeeepaal who need peeeepaaal, are the lu-u-uckiest peeeeeepaaal innnnnnnnnnn the woooooooooooorrrrrrlllld!'

She finished it. She finally finished it. It was over. She even started bowing again.

The sense of relief was palpable. The audience, out of a desire to hurry her off rather than stop and show their respect, launched into another bout of applause. Her own drummer was so excited that he even burst into a mini-drum solo.

'You've been wonderful!' Turner told the crowd, before revealing, to the surprise of no one, that 'it's getting very late'. Most people in the audience, and backstage, took this observation as a sign that this time, at long last, she really had finally realised that it was time to leave the stage.

Turner herself, however, had other ideas. 'Can you wait for one more?' she suddenly asked the terrified-looking audience. Up in the production booth, upon hearing these words, they looked at each other in stunned disbelief: this nightmare, they realised, was going to continue.

Turner announced that she was going 'to sing a little opera for you now' - Brindisi (The Drinking Song) from Verdi's La traviata. As if this was not enough to horrify the production team, she kept delaying starting it with the kind of meandering comic patter whose puns and humour were hopelessly lost in translation (e.g. 'It means in English: "Don't put your cat into the washing machine, mother - you might get a sock in the puss"'), until, ominously, she said that she needed a glass of wine for this particular performance and promptly pinched one from a woman in the front row.

'We say in England: "Cheers!"' she said, holding the glass of red up high. Then, with the band still repeating the opening bars of the aria like some fiendish mitteleuropean oom-pah-pah machine, she decided that this was the right time to dawdle and say a few thank yous:

'We wish you great fortune and good luck. And a big thank you to this wonderful orchestra, and Jack my pianist, and all the technicians and everyone who made it such a success tonight. Because I think it has been, ladies and gentlemen, yes?' There was a smattering of nervous applause. 'Yes, it's been wonderful! And all these lovely young people, and their songs. It's been great. So I give you a toast: Skol! Skol! God bless you all!'

Then at last she started singing: 'Libiamo, libiamo ne' lieti calici, che la bellezza infiora...' Seemingly in a race with her band as to who could finish first, she leapt over a few of the lyrics to beat them to it with a triumphantly high-pitched 'la-la-la-laaaaaaaaaaaaaaa!'

This, as it turned out, was merely a prelude to a spot of audience participation. Glugging the red wine before returning the empty glass to the sad-faced woman on the front row, Turner, adopting the unique shouty English that her fellow tourists reserved for non-English-speaking foreigners, announced: 'YOU ALL JOIN IN THE SECOND CHORUS, YES?'

Sensing some resistance, she rashly elected to win them over with yet more ill-judged humour: 'You all know the words to La traviata, don't you? If you don't know, it doesn't matter. You can la-la-la. Or you can whistle. Or you can hum. On second thoughts, don't hum. If you do hum, there's a new deodorant. A marvellous deodorant - you spray it on, you disappear, and everyone wonders where the smell's coming from!'

The audience, utterly baffled by this Anglocentric comic waffle, was staring at her in silence, but Turner, giggling to herself as if in a Beano comic strip, merely glanced over at her band and declared: 'They just about got that!' Not even the band laughed, so she sniggered to herself once again.

Then, as if to wake everyone up, she suddenly shouted 'GOODNIGHT!' This certainly caused plenty of desperate ears to prick up, but it did nothing to clear any of the confusion, as she reverted once again to some patter ('Mind how you go home if you're driving. Remember: ninety per cent of the people are caused by accidents'), and then she was off again: 'La-la-laaaaaa, la-la-la-la-la-la-la-la-laaaaaaaaaa...'

There were three drag queens in the audience, for no particular reason, who were finding all of this quite hilarious. Everybody else, however, sat there like discarded mannequins in an almost tearful daze. 'Come on,' Turner shouted at them menacingly, holding her microphone out to encourage their contributions, but, getting nothing, she carried on singing alone: 'La-la-la-la-la-laaaaaaaaaaaaaa...'

'Altogether now!' she shrieked, but again to no avail. 'Come on, for gawd's sake,' she shouted, 'stick a fork in yourselves!' There was still no response, and so, at long last, she stopped. 'You've been wonderful,' she said. 'Goodnight, God bless you!'

Pointing out for a second time that 'it's getting very late,' she then declared: 'It's been such an excitement for me, thanks ever so much for making me so welcome in Copenhagen. Good night!'

The immensely relieved-looking audience started clapping. They thought it was all over. It wasn't.

Unbelievably, chillingly, she started singing again. In fact, she looked and sounded ominously as though she was more than ready to sing on, and on, and on, long into the night.

The audience sat there looking stunned as they were plunged yet again into what now must have felt like a Nietzschean loop of terror. 'La-laaaaa-la-la-la-la-la-la-laaaaaaaaaaa', she chirruped, as she skipped gaily around the stage clapping her hands.

The reaction in the production booth, by this stage, ranged from those who simply slumped down in their chairs and sank their heads into their hands, and those who leapt up in anger and exasperation. No one knew quite what to do, but something had to be done, now, to get her off the stage once and for all.

Conflicting orders were barked frantically into the earpieces of the beleaguered team on the studio floor. Mixed messages were conveyed to the staff backstage. People were running backwards and forwards, bumping into each other, arguing and gesticulating with a look of desperation on their faces. Everyone was in a crazed state of chaos. Unless they found a way to stop this, quickly, they feared that it might go on for ever.

Turner, meanwhile, was still trilling away, soaring to decibels that threatened to shatter all of the empty wine glasses on the front row. She was also moving in increasingly strange and swift zig-zaggy ways, as if she was trying to dodge a suspected sniper. 'La-laaaaa', she kept singing, 'la-la-la-la-la-la-laaaaaaaaaaa...'

Eventually, the white-knuckled, scarlet-faced, sweat-drenched producer decided to dispatch the youngest and most expendable member of the presenting trio, Jarl Friis-Mikkelsen, to go on to the stage and, if necessary, physically drag Joan Turner off the show. 'I was informed via my earpiece,' he later explained. '"GET HER DOWN!" was all I was told'.

He was, by his own admission, terrified of his task. He could tell that she was dangerously deluded as to how well her long day's journey into night was going. 'How,' he wondered to himself, 'do you get a woman, who has the audience, or thinks she has the audience, down?'

Joan Turner

With a cold sweat trickling down his back and his heart thudding away in his chest, and his producer still barking in his ear to hurry up and get the deed done, the desperate presenter, having scanned the set in search of anything that might pass as a suitable prop, spied something vaguely suitable at the corner of the stage. 'There was this very large fern. I thought, "Just give her that, she won't be able to lift that..."'

Sure enough, he suddenly appeared in front of the audience, picked up the huge fern (which was about half of Joan Turner's height, and resembled the decapitated and moss-encrusted head of Sideshow Bob), leapt on to the stage and, while Turner was still 'la-la-laaaa-ing', waited his moment and then thrust it into the startled singer's hands, and then walked back off the stage.

Now semi-hidden behind the heavy and undulating green plant that was pressing into her chest, and with the band - reacting to some fierce finger pointing from the belatedly bold floor manager - switching hurriedly to some jaunty winding-up music, Turner had no choice but to force a smile, blow some kisses and then, stooping under the weight of all the unwanted greenery, stagger reluctantly off stage.

Once again, it was poor Friis-Mikkelsen who was left alone to face the star in the wings as she hurled down the fern and erupted with rage at how she had been treated. 'She was very angry,' he later confirmed with considerable understatement and something of a shiver.

While the hapless Friis-Mikkelsen thus served as a makeshift punch bag and noise muffler, the rest of the show - now running over twenty-five minutes late - finally went on. A somewhat dishevelled and strained-looking Jørgen de Mylius walked back out on stage, apologised for how late it was, and, clutching a sweat-softened card in his slightly shaking hand, he proceeded to read out the results of the half-forgotten song contest (Debbie Cameron and Tommy Seebach won it with Krøller eller ej), and the 1981 song for Denmark was, at long last, celebrated.

Then the credits rolled. It was finally over. Everyone was free to go home.

Backstage, however, there was still only chaos. Voices were raised, fists were clenched, threats were expressed. Danish people were storming away from Joan Turner. Joan Turner was storming away from Danish people. They vowed never again to work with her. She vowed never again to work with them. There was much shouting and screaming and slamming of doors.

That was the end of Joan Turner's Scandinavian adventure. It was also the end of her experience with Eurovision.

What lessons were learned? Denmark's TV producers learned to do their homework far more assiduously when it came to choosing any special guests, and have clear and coherent plans in place to prevent anything like 'The Joan Turner Incident' from ever happening again.

Joan Turner, however, learned no lessons at all. She simply went on, lost in her own little world, unwittingly but all-too effectively self-sabotaging each one of her own supposed comebacks.

By the mid-1990s, broke and alone, she was reduced to living as a bag lady on the streets of Las Vegas and Los Angeles (her only possessions being a black plastic sack full of clothes and a video tape of an old but well-received appearance on one of Michael Barrymore's ITV shows). Once the UK tabloids belatedly discovered her plight in 2001, they dispatched reporters to interview her for what they planned would be some pitying 'How the mighty have fallen' showbiz stories, only to be astonished by her dogged defiance: 'I still want to make it here,' she insisted. 'I have seen and experienced the most terrible things, but it's been a great adventure. I don't like to give up without a fight'. Eventually, however, her three daughters persuaded her to let them pay for her return to Britain, and from then on she lived modestly but securely in sheltered accommodation in Banstead, Surrey.

She would still get the odd engagement, but Joan Turner still contrived to find ways to wreck any chance she had to claw her way back into a stable career. In 2003, for example, looking very much the worse for wear, she arrived two hours late for her own 'Joan Turner Lunch' at London's Club for Acts and Actors, lurching into the room and barracking the speakers acidulously until many of the guests walked out in disgust ('Fuck off, you arseholes,' she shouted after them. 'I'm a STAR!').

In 2005 there was an equally shambolic, expletive-studded cabaret performance at the Jermyn Street Theatre, which, after a succession of songs had either been abandoned out of boredom or else subjected to a spontaneous mash-up, descended even deeper into farce when her own long-suffering pianist (who had been gulping Guinness to steady his nerves) eventually cracked - mid-song - and walked off the stage and straight out of the auditorium. The exasperated theatre manager eventually turned off Turner's microphone, leaving her to alternate between shouting out songs and screaming out insults (someone present described her as being 'like Joan Rivers on acid').

Even then, she still had supporters, who remembered how good, funny, clever, creative and kind-hearted she had been before the booze and the betting took over. Tony Hancock, one of her old friends and lovers, had written shortly before taking his own life: 'Things just seemed to go too wrong too many times.' The same had become true for Joan Turner, except that she kept on living, and so the public memory of her many achievements kept on receding.

She deserved better. In spite of all the nonsense, she had more talent - albeit less discipline - than many of those who followed her, and proved in her prime that female comics could be just as good, and do just as well, as their male counterparts.

She died of respiratory failure and chronic pulmonary disease at St Helier Hospital in Carshalton on 1 March 2009, aged eighty-six. Even right up to the end, however, she still had a small but fiercely loyal band of fans, still received the occasional offer of work, and still dreamed of making a comeback. 'She thought every day was Christmas,' one of her daughters would say, and, no matter how many days, weeks, months and years there were when events seemed designed to disabuse her of that belief, she simply refused to think otherwise.

Nothing ever stopped Joan Turner. Except, of course, a very big fern in Denmark.

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