Beryl May Jessie Toye (1917-2010)

The late Wendy Trewin wrote for The Guardian of 28 Feb 2010:

“As a dancer, Wendy Toye, who has died aged 92, was a child prodigy. Born in Hackney, east London, the daughter of a bristle merchant, she had made her first public appearance at the Royal Albert Hall by the age of four. Aged nine, she choreographed a ballet at the London Palladium and also won the women’s prize, dancing the Charleston, at a ball organised by the theatrical manager CB Cochran and judged by Fred Astaire and Florenz Ziegfeld among others. The men’s prize was won by Lew Grade.

She was always grateful for the advice she received from her tutors, including Ruby Ginner, Ninette de Valois and Anton Dolin, and regretted that when she reached the next stage of her career – choreography and direction – there were no teachers. She had to learn as she went along.

During the 1930s, she mixed dancing and acting. She appeared in the film Dance Pretty Lady, directed by Anthony Asquith; danced in The Miracle at the Lyceum (directed by Max Reinhardt, with choreography by Léonide Massine) in 1932; and joined De Valois’s Vic-Wells Ballet company. Having met Dolin in Ballerina at the Gaiety theatre, she went on tour with him and Alicia Markova, for whom she choreographed the ballet Aucassin and Nicolette.

Toye’s theatrical performances included Love and How to Cure It at the Globe in 1937. An enforced rest of several months after an operation for appendicitis ended her career as a ballet dancer, though not in other forms of dancing – such as tap and jazz – in which she had been trained. As a choreographer, she remained loyal to ballet and when she arranged the dances for These Foolish Things at the Palladium in 1938, she persuaded George Black to employ ballet dancers in the chorus line. Throughout the war, she continued to work on Black’s shows, dancing in some of them herself.

When she helped with a show for American troops called Soldiers in Skirts, the officer in charge was known as Captain George Brest; in civilian life he was George K Arthur, but she did not know that until later. Through Arthur, she went on to make her first film.

Cochran was responsible for her transition from choreographer to stage director. He had watched her progress ever since, with ticket number 66, she had won the prize at the ball in her youth. (He always called her Sixty-Six.) Cochran sent Toye the script of Big Ben, an operetta with book by AP Herbert and score by Vivian Ellis. She read it and replied that she could see no reason for dancing in it. Cochran agreed: he wanted her to direct it.

Opening at the Adelphi in July 1946, it was the first of three Herbert-Ellis musicals put on by Cochran and directed by Toye. The second and most successful, Bless the Bride, opened at the Adelphi on 26 April 1947. The French star Georges Guétary came over to play the lead. Four days later at Drury Lane, Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Oklahoma! burst upon the British public. There were bound to be comparisons. Oklahoma! was a smash hit, but Bless the Bride also did well and ran for three years. Soon after Bless the Bride opened, Toye joined the cast of Annie Get Your Gun and had a complicated dance as Winnie Tate. After the third Herbert-Ellis musical (Tough at the Top) failed, she formed the company Ballet-Hoo de Wendy Toye and went abroad. By 1950 she was in New York, co-directing Jean Arthur and Boris Karloff in Peter Pan.

She met George Arthur in the US and, when he came to England, she helped him with casting a film he wanted to make: The Stranger Left No Card. Toye suggested various well-known directors and Alan Badel in the lead. He followed her advice except that he wanted her to direct. She agreed and the thriller won the best short film award at Cannes in 1953. The result was an Alexander Korda contract, but he died soon after and her contract was turned over to Rank, for whom she made some films that were less interesting. Toye was one of only two prominent female film directors in the 50s – Muriel Box was the other – and as such inspired many women to enter the business.

She continued to be sought after in the theatre, and, in 1955, she directed a small-scale English musical, Wild Thyme, with decor by Ronald Searle. He and Toye worked well together and they became lifelong friends. Their first film collaboration, the Oscar-nominated On the Twelfth Day (1955), was based on the “12 days of Christmas” and alarmingly the studio was filled with animal and bird life. Their later collaboration, The King’s Breakfast, made at Shepperton, competed at Cannes in 1963. That year, she served on the jury at the Berlin film festival.

Toye was awarded the Silver Jubilee Medal in 1977. Her stage productions in that decade ranged from Showboat at the Adelphi to Stand and Deliver at the Roundhouse and Oh, Mr Porter at the Mermaid. Toye had an all-embracing career taking in every kind of entertainment, including opera (Orpheus in the Underworld) and Shakespeare. In 1981, with some reluctance, she remade The Stranger Left No Card for television, with Derek Jacobi. Among her more bizarre later engagements was to direct Kiss Me Kate in Danish in 1986.

An adviser for the Arts Council’s training scheme since 1978, Toye was always pleased to be asked to direct students and had an unerring eye for promising performers. Her production of Rodgers and Hart’s Babes in Arms at Lamda was highly praised. She was appointed CBE in 1992 and introduced a programme of her films at the National Film Theatre in London in 1995. A few years ago, she moved to Denville Hall, a care home for actors in north London.

Toye married Selwyn Sharp in 1940 and they divorced in 1950. She is survived by a nephew, Peter.”

2 thoughts on “Beryl May Jessie Toye (1917-2010)”

  1. Discovered in our family archives, in a little 1920 copy of the Rubaiyat of Omar Rhayyam, a calling card of Mrs J C Toye with a short note to a late aunt of mine then Mrs Walker. Mrs Toye’s address was then Ceud Failte, Upper Quinton, Stratford-on-Avon – Petworth 283 . “To Mrs Walker wish all good Christmas wishes from…” Online research revealed the J.C. to be Jessie Crichton and then gave some history of the Toye family, and to this website. How fascinating it always is when researching tiny scraps of information to discover such interesting ladies as Beryl. I have no idea how my aunt knew Jessie other than meeting in Stratford-on-Avon where both lived at one time.


    1. That is so interesting, Angela, thanks for sharing! Would be great to think that there is another chapter of the story yet to emerge…Best, Julia.


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