Celebrating one of Britain’s Great Dames – Patricia Routledge

Patricia Routledge has recently become a Dame for her work in the Theatre and for charity. Her theatrical career has spanned seventy years however, she is now best known as the terrible snob Mrs Bucket (pronounced BU KAY) in the successful television series Keeping up Appearances.

But here we remember Dame Patricia’s Musical Theatre career for that is where she originally made her name and made her a star both in the UK and the United States. Blessed with perfect comic timing and a golden voice her career has brought many awards including a Tony for Best Actress in a Musical.

Patricia Routledge was born 17 February 1929 in Birkenhead, the famed town overlooking Liverpool across the water. Her early career was in repertory – first in Liverpool and then the Bristol Old Vic during the time that Julian Slade was writing incidental music for plays and beginning to write full length pieces. Her early career was very much built on Julian’s work. She was in the cast of his version of The Duenna in which she made her London debut in 1954. She also appeared in his adaptation of A Comedy of Errors (1956). Upon leaving Bristol she played Aunt Mabel in Zuleika and Henrietta in the Love Doctor – both shows were outstanding flops.

Julian Slade’s adaptation of his own Christmas in King Street, retitled Follow That Girl for London had her perfectly cast in the comic role of the girl’s mother (she tended to play older characters than her actual age). This was modestly successful and led to her winning the title starring role in the off-Broadway import of Little Mary Sunshine – which like the way of virtually all Off-Broadway transfers to London was another flop. But it had her noticed and she was on her way to stardom.

Dame Patricia was equally at ease in the legitimate theatre as she was on the musical stage. Her television success came late in her life and the big screen had offered little to remember. But as a loyal member of the Royal Shakespeare Company she proved her worth and successfully build a powerful stage career.

The British musicals and revues she starred in were Virtue in Danger, A Nightingale Sang and Cowardy Custard. Her remarkable vocal range earned her the title role in La Grande-Duchesse de Gerolstein and the old lady in Candide for which she won the Olivier Award in 1988. In 1993 she played Nettie Fowler in the National’s production of Carousel.

However, it was in the States that the most interesting roles appeared. She first appeared on Broadway in 1966 in the comedy How’s the World Treating You? which had opened at the Nuffield Theatre in Southampton, before a brief outing in London’s West End ahead of its Broadway transfer.

It led to her being offered the co-lead in Darling of the Day with Vincent Price. It was a short lived flop but it earned her the Tony.

The Broadway heading Love Match (a Queen Victoria musical) managed an out-of-town tour and then closed. In 1976 Leonard Bernstein chose her to play the American First Ladies in 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. Although it managed to get to Broadway it was not to become the expected hit. There was a hit however with Joseph Papp’s Central Park production of Pirates of Penzance. The show transferred to Broadway but she chose not to go with it her replacement being Estelle Parsons. It was filmed in the Park and so she can be seen in that role on DVD.

The reason she did not transfer was because she had been offered the star role of Mary Colle Chace in the musicalisation of the play (and film) Harvey retitled Say Hello to Harvey. It closed in Toronto (1981).

Patricia Routledge returned to the UK and built a solid television career with the odd return to the theatre. She performed her one woman show at the Playhouse in London and has recently been seen around the country talking about her career.

RSB                                                                  Illustrations from the Overtures Archive