Pat PHOENIX (1923-1986)
Born in Manchester Pat spent her early career working with various Northern repertory companies. Her break came in 1948, playing Sandy Powell's wife in the Mancunian Film Studios' film Cup-tie Honeymoon, followed by a summer season in Blackpool with Thora Hird in the show Happy Days.
She is undoubtedly best known for creating the role of Elsie Tanner, the devil-may-care divorcee who lived at No 11 Coronation Street in ITV’s long running television soap opera. With her fiery red hair and story lines to match, Elsie was described by Prime Minister James Callaghan as “the sexiest thing on television”.
Pat recalls her experience of This Is Your Life in her autobiography All My Burning Bridges...
Something very odd was going on in our house. Alan was getting mysterious telephone calls and whenever I came into the room he hung up. Once I heard him say: “I can’t talk now. She’s coming in.”
Now I’m not jealous by nature but I was beginning to get a bit suspicious – but then my birthday was coming up – and knowing Alan, he could be planning a surprise. He was going out more frequently, too. When I asked him where he was going he would say airily: “just popping over to Stockport to see my mother.”
Now, Alan is very fond of his mother and visits her often – but four times in one week!
Alan and Elsie Howard were supposed to be having a big night out in the script. It entailed night shooting on the outside set of the Street.
“Wear one of your own dresses for the scene,” said producer, Eric Prytherch.
“Thank you very much,” I retorted indignantly. Was he suggesting you couldn’t tell the difference between our evening gowns and the dresses more suited to Elsie?
“Well, it’s a very special occasion for her,” he hedged.
“Alan is taking her out and she would have spent a lot of money.”
“Elsie Tanner would not spend that amount on an evening dress. She could not afford it, you Welsh nitwit,” I scolded.
I couldn’t figure it out. Here he was urging me to wear something fancy when usually he was complaining I spent too much. He made a fuss about what I wore, too.
“Something with a bit of cleavage, you know,” he kept suggesting.
It was winter and I had a cold. I wasn’t too keen on hanging around outside in an evening dress freezing to death: in fact I was playing hell about it.
“You’re trying to kill me off, aren’t you?” I complained.
“You can put your mink coat round your shoulders,” said Taff.
“What!” I cried. “For the take! You must be out of your mind. A posh dress is one thing, but you can’t put Elsie in a mink.”
Taff looked confused.
“Oh, I was forgetting,” he said lamely.
Peter, Alan and I were just getting ready for the take – I was moaning bitterly about the cold and couldn’t understand why Peter and Alan kept grinning – when I heard those four little words that must have struck a chill into most who hear them.
“Patricia Phoenix. This is you life.”
And there was Eamonn Andrews.
It seems that friend Keith McDonald, a journalist on the Manchester Evening News, overhearing a conversation in a television studio about the next This Is Your Life subject, suggested Pat Phoenix.
“We can’t get her,” they said. “She is working in Manchester.” Keith suggested they do it live and the whole of Granada Television co-operated. That is how Eamonn Andrews came to be wandering down Coronation Street with a red book in his hand with my name on the cover. When I realised what was happening, I panicked.
“Taff, I’ll bloody kill you,” I said to our luckless producer. They had all been involved in the plot. I think everyone’s first instinct must be to run away. I know I was frightened to death.
I backed away trying to escape through a door of anonymity but Peter, Alan and Eamonn held on like grim death.
My confrontation with Eamonn had to go out live. Apart from the fact that I rarely visit London, Alan and I were sitting watching This Is Your Life one night when the subject had been conned into going to a dinner at a television centre. I said to Alan: “Nobody would ever catch me with one of those lunches or dinners.”
So they rigged it on the set instead.
After meeting Eamonn and composing myself, they took me to a hotel in Manchester where the rest of the programme was filmed. All I could think of was that whoever came on the floor I must instantly recognise them whether I really did or not. I need not have been so anxious. I knew them all at once. As anyone who has been on This Is Your Life knows, it is a very genuinely emotional thing. My brain was going thud, thud, thud with the effort to think who would come on next and I was so busy worrying about them that I didn’t have time to worry about myself.
All my mates from Coronation Street were there. It had struck me when I came into the studio earlier that the cast were all dressed up like dog’s dinners for some reason. It even occurred to me they might be snubbing me and had all arranged to go somewhere without me.
The day before I was moaning to Doris about my dreadful cold and having to do an outside shot feeling the way I did.
“Well, I’m just not going to turn up,” I told her. She rushed off to Alan in a panic.
“Alan, Alan, Pat says she’s not turning up tomorrow.”
“Now, you know what she’s like,” soothed Alan. “Pat’s just blowing off. She’ll be there.”
And I was. So were many dear faces from my years in rep, like lovely Charles Simon and Marilyn Thomas. Sandy Powell, with whom I made Cup Tie Honeymoon all those years ago, came along and one of my best-loved teachers from central school days and many, many other dear and familiar faces. And, most important of all, my beloved Aunt Kit flew in from Canada.
When it was all over I suddenly thought of something extraordinary. That my best friends, all of whom I thought I knew so well, had turned out without exception to be the most accomplished and practised liars. And so had Alan! Visiting his mother, indeed.
We had a steaming row about it.
“My God!” I raged at him. “You’ve got a marvellous talent for lying.”
“Ah, well,” I heard him tell a friend later, “I told you what she’d say when they said ‘Patricia Phoenix. This is your life.’ She’ll say, ‘Alan Browning. This is my fist.’”
Scriptwriter Roy Bottomley recalls the experience of this particular edition of This Is Your Life in his book This Is Your Life: The Story of Television's Famous Big Red Book...
Pat Phoenix was the Street’s first Life subject. In the late afternoon of 15 November 1972, there was a knock on the door of Number 11, Elsie Tanner’s Coronation Street address.
She had just played a scene with Len Fairclough (Peter Adamson) expressing annoyance that her screen husband (later her real-life husband, Alan Browning) was late and they had to go to a party.
He came around the corner and Elsie slammed the door in his face. He banged on the door.
‘Elsie, love, don’t make matters worse. Get this flamin’ door open.’
The door is flung open. Angrily Elsie blurts open, ‘I treat myself to a new frock, new hairdo…’
Then it dawned. Her ‘husband’ had swapped places with a stranger in the Street – Eamonn Andrews. He walked the still-stunned Pat to another Granada studio, from where we made the programme. By this time, Pat had already been a Street resident for twelve years. She was in the very first episode, on 9 December 1960.
Pat Pilkington was her real name and when she hit hard times as a struggling young actress in London, working on a market stall and sharing one pair of stockings with her flat mate, she decided to change her name.
Staring into the fire one night she said, ‘I’m going to change my name to Phoenix. It’s a bird that rises from the ashes.’
It was to prove prophetic. She went to Manchester to read for a part in a new six-week series called Florizel Street. When its creator, Tony Warren, heard her read his words, that was it. Said Tony: ‘I knew I had found my Elsie Tanner.’
on the guest list...