The woman who brought music to the masses strikes a chord with Patricia
Patricia Routledge likes to be precise.
It may be because she spent years studying the finer points of the English language and harboured ambitions to be a teacher, or it may be just that her latest performance is particularly close to her heart.
In Admission: One Shilling she tells the story of Myra Hess, the concert pianist who during the Second World War brought music to the masses. With London’s music halls, theatres and museums closed in an attempt to avoid mass casualties in the event of German bombing raids, the capital was short on entertainment. It was a deficiency which Hess, who had made her professional debut on the piano as a teenager, was determined to remedy.
Something of a force of nature, she persuaded the National Gallery to reopen as a temporary concert hall and every Monday through Friday from October 1939, musicians who had been persuaded, cajoled and flattered by Hess took to the stage like clockwork. Even the Blitz failed to interrupt proceedings, and the concerts continued long after the war had ended. When the last note was finally played in April 1946, Hess had staged an impressive 1,700 concerts.
“It was actually 1,698,” says Patricia. She may not have become a teacher, but she has the school ma’am tone off to a tee. “Not only that, but she also went off round the country staging concerts, which was how as a schoolgirl in Liverpool that I came to hear her. She came to the city several times and I went along with my school music group. She was a simply fantastic woman who had a great story to tell. “Myra Hess could see that when Britain was at war, people needed spiritual nourishment more than ever. It was a distraction, an escape. This wasn’t about providing entertainment for the rich and famous, her concerts were open to anyone and the one shilling admission meant they were affordable.
“Music, I think is incredibly important for the soul. My family were very musical, my father and uncle were both in choirs and we would make music around the piano. It was always part of my life.”
The seeds of the show were sown when Patricia was invited along to the first Myra Hess Day at the National Gallery four years ago. It had been organised by Piers Lane, who she describes as a “brilliant pianist” and together with Hess’s great-nephew Nigel Hess, the trio decided to tell more of her story.
“Someone told Piers I was in the audience and that he should meet me because I looked like Myra. I don’t believe it for a minute, we’re not similar at all. Perhaps we are the same cut of woman, the same build, but it sparked something in Piers’ mind. We got together with Nigel, who is also a wonderful pianist, and decided to see what we could come up with.”
What followed was a series of workshops, where Patricia’s perfectionist streak came to the fore.
“Nigel produced a draft script and we went through it comma by comma, word by word to ensure we had it right. Those were wonderful sessions, full of merriment, but hard work. As an actor you are usually presented with a script, so it was a real treat to be part of the process from the beginning.
“We had a lot of material to work with, but the one thing I was clear right from the start was that I wasn’t going to be doing an impression of Myra. I’m there really to tell her story, the story of a woman who had great integrity, great strength and a commitment to her art. She realised she had a gift and she was determined to honour it the only way she knew how – by hard work.”
In that respect the two share something in common. Patricia is now 82 and since making her stage debut at the Liverpool Playhouse in the early 1950s, she has rarely been out of work. As a long-standing member of the Royal Shakespeare Company, she’s played opposite the likes of Anthony Sher, has become a regular in both the West End and Broadway and has turned her hand to everything from The Importance of Being Earnest to Carousel.
“I’ve done a lot more than I often realise. I was being interviewed on stage at a festival recently and they went back through my career. I was astonished, it really did sound like an awful lot of work.”
Patricia has every reason to be surprised at her journey over the last six decades, not least, because she never had any intention of stepping into the limelight. As a undergraduate at Liverpool University her sights were firmly set on teacher training.
“I really never had any ambition to be on the stage. I read English for four years at university and my plan was always to teach this great language which is so abused. However, now when I look back I realise that I was always performing even as a very young child. I was the girl who at primary school who was always chosen one minute before four o’clock to read a poem and I was the one who played Alice at the Mad Hatter’s tea party. At the time I just thought it was part of the wonder of education. I thought it was what everyone did when they went to school. Now, of course, I realise that’s not so.” It wasn’t until she was invited to audition for the Liverpool Playhouse that it even crossed her mind that acting could be anything other than a hobby. Even then it was more of a temporary diversion.
“My mother was a great encourager. She wanted me and my brother to have the space to find out exactly what it was we wanted to do. Acting was just an experiment, I never thought I’d get past the audition stage.”
In fact, Patricia sailed through and quietly became the safe pair of hands that directors dream off. Dozens of plays, musicals and television work followed, but it wasn’t until she performed in a series of Alan Bennett monologues in the early 1980s that she attracted the attention of the small screen audience. A few years later came the TV roles for which she is still best known, Hyacinth Bucket and Hetty Wainthropp.
“There are an awful lot of women around like Hyacinth Bucket around,” she says, with not a trace of her Liverpudlian roots. The Scouse accent was erased by elocution lessons at an early age, but it was not, she insists, a question of Bucket snobbery. “I wanted to learn how to enunciate, how to use the language, and my teacher Alice Mathers was one of my earliest inspirations. What she taught me really prepared me for a life on stage. Hyacinth and Hetty were both a delight to play and I still get letters from fans of the shows all over the world, particularly young boys who seem to love Keeping Up Apperances. It’s very nice that they take the time to tell me how much they enjoy it.”
A nicely-worded thank-you letter is just the kind of thing that pleases Patricia. She can’t abide rudeness – a few years ago she accused the BBC of being “run by 10-year-old children” after executives failed to tell her they wouldn’t be commissioning another series of Hetty Wainthropp Investigates. It’s now water under the bridge and, as she prepares to take Myra Hess on the road, she can’t help reflecting on her own career which had its roots in post-war Britain.
“It’s true there aren’t many great roles for older women these days, but I’m not sure there ever were. However, when I look back at my life and career I’m not sure I’m in any position to complain.”
Admission: One Shilling, Patricia Routledge and Piers Lane, Harrogate Theatre, June 15. 01423 502116, www.harrogatetheatre.co.uk.