Chichester's Patricia Routledge in London today to become a dame

Dame Patricia Routledge
Dame Patricia Routledge
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As the city-based star is invested a dame today, she reflects on her long career...

The New Year’s Honours saw Chichester gain its very own Dame with a DBE for Patricia Routledge – an honour met with a chorus of “quite right!” and “about time too!” across the city.

For Dame Patricia, born in 1929, it has proved a moment to reflect on those near and dear to her: “I just wish my parents were here and my brother and my mentors, the people who found a seed in me and nourished it and encouraged it and quietly believed in me.”

The result has been a glittering career on stage and screen, stage triumphs mixing with huge success on television including Keeping Up Appearances and Hetty Wainthropp Investigates.

As she looks back, inevitably it’s her parents Dame Patricia thinks of: “They would have been very pleased. I had a very, very happy childhood (in Birkenhead). My father had a modest emporium. It was a gentleman’s outfitters and haberdashers in Higher Tranmere, as opposed to Lower Tranmere! My father (who died in 1985) was such a wonderful man, slightly Victorian, but wonderful. He was a great character.

“My mother died far too early in 1957. It was a heart problem. It was her third coronary that claimed her, and she was a wonderful woman. Both of them were extraordinary. They were both orphans and had to leave school at 14, but my mother was one of the most intelligent and one of the most well read people I have ever met – quite remarkable.

“They both wanted my brother and myself to find out what we could so and to do it to the best of our ability and enjoy it. Although it was very unusual that they should have somebody in the family who was wanting to go on the wicked stage, they were right behind me.

“I was acting all the time as a child. I was never stage struck, and I am not stage struck now! I know too much about it. When I was eight, I was taken to read to five-year-olds. I always seemed to be chosen for Alice in Wonderland, the Mad Hatter’s Tea Party or I was Columbus discovering America. Then, when I went to the girls’ school, which was never officially associated with the boys’ school, I played all the men’s parts, and I am eternally grateful for that because the girls’ parts were so pale in comparison. I was Sergeant Buzzfuzz in The Pickwick Papers. I was Crichton in The Admirable Crichton. The girls school encouraged the arts a lot, and I had a wonderful English teacher. When I was eight, I wondered why other boys and girls were not chosen for the plum parts. I thought they were lazy or not interested. The girls’ school kept winning prizes for performance, but I thought it was just all part of education.

“But my ambition was to be a teacher. I wanted to teach this wonderful language of English. I went to university and I read English language and English literature, but at the end of every term, I poured all my energies into rehearsing and performing a play with the dramatic society or preparing a concert or an operatic piece with the music society. I found it just so fulfilling intellectually and emotionally. It absorbed me. I suppose I felt that I was finally expressing myself… which sounds funny when you are trying to be someone else.

“But I am a great believer in spotting the signs. There was a wonderful repertory company in Liverpool, doing three-weekly rep. They used to come and see the student productions, and quite a few of them just took it for granted that I was going to go into the theatre. In my final two years in the English department, the professors and lecturers decided that I ought to write my thesis on a piece of drama, which was indicative…”

But it was Dame Patricia’s brother’s intervention which was to prove crucial.

“The director of the Liverpool Playhouse made it clear that I could go and audition for them if I wished to. It took me a year to wrestle with the idea of doing that. I was miserable. I was frightened to bits really. There was the safety net of having a degree and I had a family that would have caught me. My parents just watched and waited sensibly… But I remember my mother said I should not be wasting the year, so I took a secretarial course which was quite amusing!

“But it was my brother Graham who decided it for me. He was called up. He had graduated in law from the University of Liverpool with a first-class degree and he then did two years conscription for national service. He was stationed at some time in Andover in Hampshire, and sometimes, if he had a weekend, he would go up to London. One weekend when he went up to London, he took the trouble to go to RADA and picked up a brochure. In his weekly letter home to his parents, he put at the bottom of the letter ‘PS Tell Pat this is what she should do.”

Graham was a brilliant lawyer and was heading for parliament, Dame Patricia recalls. However, he became a priest instead, becoming canon residentiary at St Paul’s Cathedral before his death “far too early” in 1989.

In a sense, Dame Patricia’s career is perhaps his greatest legacy. With that simple postscript, he decided her.

“It meant a great deal to me. I thought if he thinks I am alright…”

Dame Patricia will offer one of the highlights of this year’s Festival of Chichester on Monday, June 26, 7.30pm. Treading The Boards (Assembly Room, North Street, Chichester, PO19 1LQ) will see Dame Patricia recall Sixty Five Years on the Wicked Stage. She will be in conversation with Paul Rogerson chatting about her long theatrical career, remembering some of her many experiences in the theatre and celebrating her love of her adopted home of Chichester. Followed by refreshments relating to Chichester’s twinnings with Chartres, Ravenna and Valletta. Tickets £10. Disabled access.

The Festival runs from Saturday, June 17 to Sunday, July 16. Tickets: Chichester Box Office, The Novium, Tower Street, Chichester, PO19 1QH. Tel: 01243 816525 or 775888. Website:www.thenovium.org/boxoffice. Email:boxoffice@chichester.gov.uk. The festival programme will be announced on April 6.

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