Pa­tri­cia Rout­ledge

Donal O’Donoghue talks to the leg­endary ac­tress, as she heads for the Dublin stage with her one-wo­man show

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“Ihave Ir­ish blood in me,” says Pa­tri­cia Rout­ledge to­wards the end of a joy­ful con­ver­sa­tion that cov­ers an event­ful life on stage and screen. In her 90th year, the much gar­landed ac­tress, who had roles writ­ten for her by Alan Ben­nett and was made a Dame last year, is prob­a­bly best known for two iconic TV roles, Hy­acinth Bucket and Hetty Wainthropp. But there is also a life­time in mu­si­cal the­atre as well as char­ity work from this all-round good egg. “My grandmother, Cather­ine, was from Galway and I give thanks for that legacy,” she says. “We adored her when we were grow­ing up. She used to tell my brother and I won­der­ful sto­ries about a cou­ple called Pat and Mick.”

No airs or graces, the voice is in­stantly recog­nis­able, as it chirrups down the phone line: “Hello there, it’s Pa­tri­cia here!” Con­jur­ing up Hy­acinth and Hetty, it is also so fresh that it be­lies the speaker’s years. “So Pa­tri­cia,” I be­gin, “what is your se­cret that you’re still go­ing at one mil­lion miles an hour?” “Oh I’m not,” she counters with a chuckle, be­fore telling of a hec­tic week of Ar­mistice cer­e­monies that ar­gues the op­po­site. “I was pa­tron of the whole ca­boo­dle,” she says of the events that cen­tred round the life and work of the war poet Wil­fred Owen, who lived for seven years in her own stamp­ing ground of Birken­head, across the Mersey from Liver­pool. Rout­ledge grew up in the sub­urb of Tran­mere, a happy child­hood with her fa­ther, Isaac, a hab­er­dasher and her in­spi­ra­tional mother, Cather­ine, guid­ing her and her brother. “I was just think­ing about my mother this morn­ing as I started to worry about some work I have to do. A voice just came into my head say­ing ‘Su cient unto the day is the evil thereof.’ In other words, just keep to the present and don’t be anx­ious about things in the fu­ture. My mother was prac­ti­cal, she was imag­i­na­tive, she was pos­i­tive and she was al­ways en­cour­ag­ing to my brother and me. She wanted us to nd out what we could do and to do it with all our might and to en­joy it.” A life-long love of the writ­ten word (she stud­ied English at Liver­pool Univer­sity) has in­formed Rout­ledge’s ca­reer on stage and screen. “My brother and I learned to read be­fore go­ing to school,” she says. “I can hear again my mother’s voice read­ing us fairy sto­ries and then when we learned to read we learned to en­joy com­po­si­tion, mak­ing up lit­tle sto­ries. Later I would learn the power of the spo­ken word when we were given great chunks of poetry and prose to learn at school. It was a great bless­ing. It horri es me to go into posh homes and nd that there isn’t a book on the wall. I can’t be­lieve it but it’s the ter­ri­ble ‘watch­ing so­ci­ety’ now, isn’t it?” For a long time, she has only in­vested in projects that she be­lieves in (“Do I want to burn up my en­ergy on this?”). Ad­mis­sion: One Shilling, which comes to Dún Laoghaire in De­cem­ber, ts squarely into that bracket: a piece of mu­si­cal the­atre (with pi­anist Piers Lane) that tells the story of Myra Hess, the great in­ter­na­tional pi­anist who played 1600 con­certs, many in bl­itzed Lon­don, dur­ing the Sec­ond World War and be­yond. “I saw Myra my­self as a school­girl at the Liver­pool Phil­har­monic Hall on a Satur­day a er­noon,” she says. “I can still see her now, not only her great gi s, but some­one who was al­ways in the ser­vice of the mu­sic. ere was no show­ing o . I don’t im­per­son­ate her; I read from let­ters, re­ported in­ter­views and so on.”

As soon as Rout­ledge read the pi­lot script for Keep­ing Up Ap­pear­ances,

I’m for­tu­nate enough to be able to live com­fort­ably and one should share one’s good for­tune with peo­ple who are less for­tu­nate

she recog­nised the po­ten­tial of the lead­ing lady, Hy­acinth Bucket (‘It’s Bou­quet!’), an in­cor­ri­gi­ble snob with no­tions. “The char­ac­ter just leapt from the page,” she says of the wo­man she fondly calls “the Dread­ful Mrs B.” “I thought to my­self, ‘I know this wo­man and I think I can knit her up.’” Clive Swift played Bucket’s long-suf­fer­ing hus­band. “They were the most per­fect cou­ple,” she says. “You look at this pair and know why they are mar­ried to each other. He loved to be dom­i­nated, his shirts were al­ways ironed, his meals were al­ways on the ta­ble.”

Rout­ledge’s other great TV role is that of the ti­tle char­ac­ter in the BBC se­ries, Hetty Wainthropp In­ves­ti­gates. “I LOVED Hetty, who was a com­plete con­trast to Hy­acinth,” she says. “I also knew her, hav­ing grown up in the north of Eng­land. I knew those won­der­ful ladies at the bus stops in their fussy hats, prac­ti­cal, down-to-earth and no-non­sense char­ac­ters.” The se­ries was axed un­cer­e­mo­ni­ously by the BBC in 1998, some­thing that still ran­kles with Rout­ledge. “We were in­vited to do a fifth sea­son but the BBC didn’t have the cour­tesy to tell us that they weren’t do­ing any more. Some re­place­ment per­son called in our won­der­ful pro­ducer and said ‘Would you please tell Miss Rout­ledge?’ And she said. ‘No, I won’t tell Miss Rout­ledge! You tell her your­self.’”

Pa­tri­cia doesn’t watch her­self on TV any more. “I only watched when the shows were be­ing made so that I could see what I was per­pe­trat­ing,” she says. But she does have the box sets and is thrilled that Keep­ing Up Ap­pear­ances is still be­ing shown around the world. And the fan mail still ar­rives, which she and her agent do their best to an­swer. “I’ve come to the con­clu­sion that there’s no such thing as a stan­dard fan let­ter,” she says. “I got one from a lady who told me that her hus­band had died six months pre­vi­ously. She had just got back from the hos­pi­tal with the bad news, turned on the tele­vi­sion and as she said, ‘ There you were!’ and that helped her. That was very touch­ing. To lift peo­ple’s spir­its makes it all worth­while.”

Rout­ledge was made a Dame last year. ‘Not be­fore time’ was the cry of many, not least the man who gave her the gong, Prince Charles (she was awarded an OBE in 1993 and a CBE in 2004). “I’m still try­ing to get used to it when peo­ple call me Dame Pa­tri­cia,” she says. She keeps her medal in a drawer, while her other awards in­clud­ing a Tony (from 1968 for Dar­ling of the Day) and Olivier (from 1988 for Can­dide) have pride of place on a shelf on her study. “I’m not one of those hor­rors who say things like ‘My mother uses it as a doorstop!’” she says. “Those awards mean a very great deal to me. To go to Broad­way and win a Tony Award for a mu­si­cal, I can’t think of any­thing more ex­cit­ing!”

Her dame­hood was for ser­vices to char­ity as well as the­atre. “I’m for­tu­nate enough to be able to live com­fort­ably and one should share one’s good for­tune with peo­ple who are less for­tu­nate,” she says sim­ply. Next Fe­bru­ary, Pa­tri­cia cel­e­brates her 90th birth­day, so I ask her if there are any unfulfilled am­bi­tions? She laughs. “Just to keep healthy,” she says. “I’m very lucky when I look around and see my friends who are not well. That is sad but I do have won­der­ful mem­o­ries. I re­mem­ber a dear old lady who told me when I was a school­girl, ‘God gave us me­mory that we might have roses in De­cem­ber.’ That line keeps com­ing back to me.”

Ad­mis­sion: One Shilling with Pa­tri­cia Rout­ledge and Piers Lane is at the Pavil­ion The­atre, Dún Laoghaire on De­cem­ber 5 at 8pm. pavil­ionthe­atre.ie

Keep­ing Up Ap­pear­ances

Hy­acinth Bucket

Hetty Wainthropp In­ves­ti­gates, above and right

Pa­tri­cia was made a Dame last year

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