Yootha Joyce Needham was born in Wandsworth, London, the only child of musical parents Hurst Needham, a well-known singer, and Jessica Revitt, a concert pianist. Joyce was evacuated to Hampshire during World War 2. She left school at 15, then trained at RADA where Roger Moore was a fellow student and toured with Entertainments National Service Association (ENSA).
In 1958 Yootha married the actor Glynn Edwards, best known for playing Dave, landlord of the Winchester Club in Minder. It was through Edwards that she first came to prominence in the renowned Joan Littlewood Theatre Workshop, appearing at the Theatre Royal, Stratford East in Fings ain't what they used T'Be and going on to make her film debut in 1962 in Sparrers Can't Sing. Joyce and Edwards divorced in 1968.
In the 1960s and 1970s, she became a familiar face in many one-off sitcom roles and supporting parts in films, with her first main recurring role being Miss Argyll, frustrated girlfriend of the title star Milo O'Shea in three series of Me Mammy (1968–71). Prior to that, she played a cameo role in The Pumpkin Eater as a psychotic young woman opposite Anne Bancroft, delivering a performance that has been called one of the "best screen acting miniatures one could hope to see."
Her talent for comedy was also used to good effect in programmes such as Steptoe and Son and On The Buses. She made appearances in the movies Catch us if you can, A Man for all Seasons and Charlie Bubbles, as well as TV spin-off films Never mind the quality feel the width, Nearest and Dearest and Steptoe and Son Ride Again. She also appeared as a customer in the pilot episode of Open All Hours and in a 'dark' 1967 movie about a family of young children, entitled Our Mother's House, which starred Dirk Bogarde.
But it was not until 1973 that she acquired a starring role, when she was cast as man-hungry Mildred Roper, wife of landlord George, in the innovative sitcom Man About The House. This series, which starred Richard O'Sullivan, Paula Wilcox and Sally Thomsett, as well as Brian Murphy, as George Roper, ran until 1976 and told the story of two young women and a young man sharing the Ropers' upstairs flat, and the sexual tension and misunderstandings such living arrangements provide.
When the series reached a natural end, a spin-off was written for the Ropers, and George and Mildred was first broadcast in 1976. The couple were seen moving from the London house in Middleton Terrace which they had owned in the previous programme and into a newer suburban property in Peacock Crescent, Hampton Wick. Much of the new series centred on Mildred's desire to better herself in her new surroundings, but always being thwarted, usually unwittingly, by her lifeskills-lacking husband's desire for a quiet life.
The way Yootha Joyce portrayed the character of Mildred Roper, with such strong, resilient and dragon-like qualities, concealed the actress's real-life alcohol problem.
A feature film was made of George and Mildred in 1980, but this was to be Joyce's last work. Amidst growing concern over her health she was admitted to hospital in the summer of 1980. Yootha Joyce died, in hospital, of liver failure four days after her 53rd birthday on 24 August 1980. Her good friend, the actor Brian Murphy, who played her screen husband, George Roper, was at her bedside. She was cremated at Golders Green Crematorium.
At the inquest into her death, it was revealed that she had been drinking upwards of half a bottle of brandy a day for ten years, and that she had, in the words of her lawyer, Mario Uziell-Hamilton, become a victim of her own success and the thought of being typecast as Mildred Roper.
She made her last television appearance, shown after her death, on Max, Max Bygraves' variety show, on 14 January 1981. She sang The Carpenters song, "For all we know". At the end of this performance, she told Bygraves, "Thanks, I enjoyed that." The actor/comedian Kenneth Williams recorded in his diary that ...she looked as though she was crying... He also went on to mention her in a later entry in his diary (9 April 1988) that she was "a lady who made so many people happy and a lady who never complained".
In 1986, the British band The Smiths released a single "Ask" which was adorned with a photograph (both on the cover and reverse) in memory of Yootha Joyce.
In 2001, a tribute documentary entitled The Unforgettable Yootha Joyce was broadcast by ITV, which featured many of her co-stars and friends, including Sally Thomsett, Brian Murphy and Norman Eshley, talking about memories and their relationships with Yootha Joyce.