‘Colonel’ Joan Washington… Let me explain. A couple of decades ago, after a party, Joan suddenly woke me up at 2am, demanding: ‘Why doesn’t everyone just listen to what I say and do what I tell them to do?! I AM the Colonel.’
Hence the nickname.
Prince Charles came to see ‘The Colonel’ last month, sat beside her, took her hand and said, ‘It’s been an absolute honour to have known you, Joan’ to which she instantly quipped, ‘I’m STILL here.’ Which broke the ice and made all three of us cackle. Astonishingly, unlike me, she’s never been star struck and possessed the innate gift of speaking to everyone of any age or status as her equal.
Richard E Grant, pictured left, spent a wonderful 38 years with his wife Joan Washington, right, who sadly died last week
The couple met at the Actors Centre in Covent Garden in 1982 when he begged her for private voice lessons as he had an Eswatini accent – formerly Swaziland
Joan and Richard pictured with their daughter Olivia. Richard revealed he and his wife were talking and joking up until the moment she died
We met at the Actors Centre in Covent Garden in November 1982 and I begged her to give me private voice lessons, having recently emigrated from Eswatini (formerly Swaziland, South East Africa). Reluctantly, she agreed.
‘OK. £20 per hour.’
‘But I can only afford £12.’
She fixed me with her big monkey-eyes and said: ‘All right, but you’ll have to repay me if you ever ‘make it’.’
In January 1983, she asked me to dinner, in exchange for my putting a script on tape for an RSC production she was voice coaching on, requiring a Siswati speaker.
I met her seven-year-old son Tom, and happily agreed to read him a story and put him to bed, as his father was by then living with a make-up artist in Manchester.
Joan and I continued eating and yakking and I somehow managed to miss the midnight Tube back to my bedsit in Notting Hill from Richmond and so began our conversation which continued and lasted 38 years long, finally ending at 7.30 last Thursday evening, holding each other’s hands, telling her how much I loved her. Unaware that her next inhalation would be her earthly last.
Together: Their close knit family would often attend events together, such as the BAFTAs here in 2019 with Olivia, Richard and Joan
In her final days, I would read to her. I read out a complaint from a Dublin car mechanic. The customer claimed: ‘Ever since we fitted a new wing mirror, the driver’s seat will not move back or forward.’ The mechanic’s written response was: ‘Found dildo belonging to customer jammed in rails that the seat slides on. Unwilling to carry out repair due to hygiene concern.’
And a walloping invoice for €73!
Joan was heavily sedated to ease her breathing and just when I thought she hadn’t registered this titbit, she chuckled and murmured ‘Dildo’ in a pitch perfect Dublin accent.
When she told her Aberdonian mum that she had fallen in love with a Swazi, she delighted in her mum’s reaction.
‘Oooh no, Joan! What have you gone and done now?’
I adored her mother, who was outwardly nonplussed when I took her to a hardware shop in Twickenham to buy a replacement wooden loo seat, attempting to ‘part exchange’ it for the cracked and stained plastic one I’d brought with me.
It seemed perfectly logical and it was only when reported back to Joan who said, ‘What the hell did you think you were doing?’ that I realised it might have been slightly inappropriate. Especially as it was the first time I’d spent time with my future mother-in-law.
Mr and Mrs: Richard and Joan are pictured on their wedding day 35 years ago in a snap posted by the actor to mark their anniversary
Joan gave me a Delia Smith book — that basic one which taught you how to boil an egg. Initiating my domestication.
It’s been my pleasure to cook twice a day for her over the past eight months, except for Sundays when our pal Nigella (Lawson) cooked, baked and Uber-ed her favourites over to us. Generosity and friendship beyond measure.
When Joan’s dad died in late 1985, she went to Aberdeen to comfort her mum, and I returned to Swaziland for the first time since emigrating in 1982. We wrote five aerogrammes a day to each other, as being separated was so wrenching and phoning prohibitively expensive.
I resolved to risk asking her to marry me, despite her avowed intention never to do so again. She met me at Heathrow Arrivals at 6.30am and I knelt on the luggage trolley, took out a ring and proposed. Which to my amazement, she accepted. Thirty-five years ago this November.
Sad: Richard wrote: ‘To be truly known and seen by you, is your immeasurable gift. Do not forget us, sweet Monkee-mine’
One of her friends at our wedding took her aside and warned her that I was likely to be a gold-digging toy boy (no names — but if she reads this she’ll know who she is!) but Joan never doubted me and her unwavering love and faith sustained me when it seemed like I hadn’t a career hope in hell. She never spoke to that ‘friend’ ever again!
It’s an extraordinary phenomenon to be truly ‘seen’ and ‘known’ by another human, and in Joan, I found someone who innately did both.
To have loved one another for almost four decades has been the ride of my lifetime.
When hunting through junk shops and antique fairs, we always knew precisely what the other was going to want to buy. But she was much bolder and decisive, deploying a thick Aberdonian accent when bargaining. As only an incognito Colonel would.
If we got separated anywhere in public, we’d bird noise ‘to toot toot too’ until, like penguins, we were reunited.
Similarly if she was bored in company or wanted to leave somewhere, she’d stroke her nose. And if either of us repeated the same old stories too often, we only needed to say ‘BANANA’ to stop the anecdotals instantaneously.
Pet peeves? She loathed Aretha Franklin. ‘Why does she have to screech? And why are pop lyrics so repetitive? ‘I love you, I love you, shoo be do wah. Shoo be do waaaaah’. Utterly Pointless!’
Her gifts as a teacher were legion — making you believe that you COULD achieve the accent and characterisation that she was coaching, always pragmatic and clear. None of that ‘lay on the floor, spread your pelvis and think of a breeze in Finland’ claptrap.
Loved poetry and could quote Shakespeare, John Donne, T.S. Eliot and Robbie Burns at length. A brilliant and inventive cook, she adored custard, cheese and chocolate and deemed me a freak for loathing all three.
Richard thanked well-wishers for their support after the death of his wife Joan at the age of 71 – as he said grief had hit him ‘like a tsunami’
According to Richard: ‘Since her stage four lung cancer diagnosis two days before Christmas, she was accepting, clear sighted, sanguine and totally without self pity’
Despite multiple miscarriages and the premature death of our first daughter who only survived for half an hour, she was determined, despite medical advice to the contrary, to have another baby. Which is why Olivia’s safe delivery in 1989, felt like a miracle. Joan has loved her like a lioness.
Since her stage four lung cancer diagnosis two days before Christmas, she was accepting, clear sighted, sanguine and totally without self pity.
The oncology team at the Royal Marsden Hospital, NHS nurses, Price’s Mill Surgery and Longfield palliative carers have been beyond exemplary.
He wrote: ‘Olivia and I are profoundly grateful for everything that you’ve gifted us with, and we’re relieved that you no longer have to struggle for breath’
It’s been my privilege to be by your side, sharing our last eight months together, enabling us to say everything we possibly wanted and needed to, so that when you asked Olivia and me two weeks ago ‘to let me go’, we unequivocally said ‘yes’.
Olivia and I are profoundly grateful for everything that you’ve gifted us with, and we’re relieved that you no longer have to struggle for breath.
Our loss is incalculable.
Your love is immeasurable.
The depth of our grief is mirrored by the magnitude of our love.
Do not forget us.