Katherine Patricia Routledge was born on February 17, 1929 in Birkenhead (Merseyside), the daughter of Catherine (nee Perry) and Isaac Edgar Routledge. Her father was a haberdasher and the family, including brother Graham, lived behind the shop. Patricia says she was a much-loved, "cosseted" child, and every day when she came home from school, she would call to her father, who would come out and see her safely across the road. During the outbreak of War, her father built reinforced bunks in the basement of the shop and Patricia and her brother, Graham, would spend hours down there, doing their homework and playing monopoly. The family slept there for weeks on end. Patricia attended Birkenhead High School, where she admits she was a bit of a show-off, disrupting classes, telling jokes, and imitating people. "I was a plump girl with a loud voice. I used to ride my bike round the country lanes thinking great thoughts and spouting pieces of poetry." While at school, she sang in the Congregational Church Choir and ran the Sunday School, bringing the numbers of students up from four to ninety-four by "bribing kids with pictures for their attendance books and by telling them vivid Bible stories."
Although at this early date all the signs would seem to point to a performing career, Patricia read English at Liverpool University, with dreams of being an avant-garde headmistress and spending her summers having affairs in Europe. But her experiences with each end-of-term play began to be very important to her. "I was fully alive and it frightened me. I was in a tremendous turmoil about it." She finished her course and took a year off to think about her future direction, while working as an unpaid assistant stage manager at Liverpool Playhouse. Soon she was asked to join the company, and made her theatre debut as Hippolyta in A Midsummer Night's Dream in 1952, at the royal salary of £5 a week, from which she bought her mother a box of Meltis fruits every Saturday. She was still living at home.
Patricia finally moved out of her childhood bedroom at the age of 23 when she went to Bristol to attend the Old Vic Theatre School. She left behind not only her family but her wonderful singing teacher, Elizabeth Sleigh of Birkenhead, of whom Leonard Bernstein would some 20 years later say, "She did a good job!" She made her London debut in 1954 when she played Carlotta in Sheridan's The Duenna at the Westminster Theatre. She was only 28 and appearing at London's Saville Theatre in Zuleika when her mother died of a sudden heart attack. Patricia was very close to her family, especially her mother, and speaks with great affection of her parents and with gratitude for her loving and happy childhood. She draws constantly off her memories, saying, "You can cope if you know that as far back as you remember you were cherished."
In 1966, Patricia made her Broadway debut playing the roles of Violet, Nell, and Rover in How's the World Treating You, which transferred from the West End. She calls it the play that changed her life. Jule Styne saw her performance and the next year invited her back to star in his musical Darling of the Day, for which she won a Tony Award in 1968 for best actress in a musical. Vincent Price was her co-star. In 1972 she brought the house down with her performance in the revue, Cowardy Custard in London. Following this success, she recorded an album of her favourite songs, Presenting Patricia Routledge.
Patricia has had an impressive career on stage, has appeared on both the large and small screens, and has worked extensively in radio. Her film appearances include Clinty in To Sir with Love with Sydney Poitier; Miss Reese in The Bliss of Mrs Blossom with Shirley MacLaine; Mrs Featherstone in If It's Tuesday It Must Be Belgium; and Miss Beatty in Don't Raise the Bridge Lower the River with Jerry Lewis. Her radio work includes Noel Coward's Private Lives and Present Laughter with Paul Scofield; The Cherry Orchard; The Beggar's Opera; and the much-praised series Beachcomber by the Way. She has recorded several of the classics, with her exquisite readings of Wuthering Heights in its entirety; Alice in Wonderland; and some of the Beatrix Potter tales.
She has worked in television since 1952, in both comedic and dramatic roles, among them Victoria Regina for Granada in 1964; Kitty in Victoria Wood As Seen on TV from 1983-85 (in whom we see the forerunner of Hyacinth Bucket); Barbara Pym in Miss Pym's Day Out in 1991; and the Omnibus production, Hildegard of Bingen in 1994. She most recently received international acclaim with her portrayal of Hyacinth Bucket (pronounced Bou-quet) in Keeping Up Appearances (1990-95), which earned her the title of Top Television Comedy Actress for 1991. In the same year the Grand Order of Water Rats pronounced her Personality of the Year and in 1993 she was similarly honoured by the Variety Club of Great Britain. Patricia was awarded the OBE in the 1993 Queen's Birthday Honours List for services to the Performing Arts. Her most recent honour was to be voted Britain's all-time favourite actress in 1996. She is now preparing to do the third series of Hetty Wainthropp Investigates For BBC1.
Patricia is well known for her work in her good friend, Alan Bennett's plays, A Woman of No Importance (1982) and A Lady of Letters (1988), both of which he wrote especially for her. Her one-woman show Come for the Ride premiered in her hometown of Birkenhead in 1988 and has played in venues throughout the UK. Also in 1988, Patricia played the Old Lady in Jonathan Miller's production of Bernstein's Candide, for which she won an Olivier Award. She had first worked with Bernstein in 1976, playing the presidents' wives in Alan Lerner's 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue on Broadway. Bernstein wrote the solos especially for her, the very moving 'Take Care of This House' and the tour de force 'Duet for One'. In 1992, she played Nettie Fowler in Nicholas Hytner's revival of Carousel at the National Theatre and in 1994 she played the definitive Mrs Malaprop in Sheridan's The Rivals at the Chichester Festival Theatre, transferring to the West End. Her most recent theatrical role was as Beatrix Potter in the one-woman show, Beatrix.
Acting is her whole life as she says, "There is nothing like that audience response when it's working with you – nothing." She speaks with awe of Alastair Sim, her idol, with whom she worked in Chichester in Pinero's The Magistrate and in London in Dandy Dick. "To be on stage with him was an education. When he reached that pitch of obsession with a situation, however absurd, there was nothing he could not do with those staring eyes, that jabbing finger, the swoops and wobbles of his voice. Playing opposite him taught me so much." Anyone who has seen her perform can see that Sim was indeed an excellent teacher as Patricia plays his style to perfection.
Patricia has never married, admitting her expectation of marriage has been too high to allow her to make that commitment and she couldn't have borne not to give her children the complete love and attention she'd been given as a child. "People have always pitied spinsters," she says. "We have been derided, as if we had missed out on life. Well, we need not miss out on anything today!" she says with a sparkle in her eye. She has been in love and speaks of a bittersweet grand passion that broke her heart when she was young, when she fell in love with a married man. Not too many years ago, feeling entirely at peace with her single status, she unexpectedly found love once again. But sadly, the love of her life died suddenly of a heart attack. She's not revealing any names, but says that a corner of her heart has been taken once again by a very special person.
Patricia leads a quiet private life, living alone in her lovely Kensington home she bought in 1969. She also has a cottage in Surrey. She says she appreciates rather a lot of her own company while still enjoying her many friends. She likes doing practical things, washing clothes, cleaning, and polishing wood. She also likes cooking and having friends to dinner. She admits to being a very emotional person "but I keep the clamps on it – you cannot go round being emotional. It can be channeled." Most easily into acting. "The life of the imagination becomes a very strong relief. I want the theatre not to give me escape but to take me out on the uplands and make me realize that life in spite of setbacks and pain and evil can go on at its best and most enjoyable; above all (and this embraces the tragi-comical condition of mankind) that the human spirit will triumph." She says she is both an optimist and a realist. Her religion is important to her and she believes in prayer. "I don't think you can go it alone. There is a positive force for good outside oneself, call it God if you like, that has the strength to turn darkness into light." She is a patron of St. Richard's Hospice in Worcester and president of Claire House, Merseyside.
Patricia's father died in 1986 and her brother, who was canon residential at St. Paul's Cathedral, in 1989. She says, "I don't believe in eliciting spirits of people who have passed on, but there are times when I physically feel one of them taking over. I can be doing some quite ordinary things like ironing or getting hold of a pan of sprouts and something in my head will say, 'That is exactly how your father or brother would have dealt with that.'" Thinking further on the subject she says, "When I approach the pearly gates, I'd like to hear a champagne cork popping, an orchestra tuning up, and the sound of my mother laughing."
But Patricia has no plans to leave us for a long time yet – and no plans to retire. "I just want to do good work with good people in good places. And as for retirement, I can hardly spell the word. I'm driven, really. The demons won't lie down." Which her fans are very happy to hear. We look forward to seeing Patricia Routledge in many more wonderful roles and to enjoying the pleasure of her company for years to come.