Tony Warren conceived us all. That young boy… there he was, about 22 years old, slim, blond, looking like a gazelle or something. And he spawned myself, Ena Sharples, and Annie Walker. Can you believe it? — Patricia Phoenix on Parkinson, 1975
They called her “the working man’s Raquel Welch”.
She wasn’t a film star, but she was the sex symbol of a great British soap opera for many a year. British actress Patricia Phoenix was the Street siren who became inseparable from her alter ego, the fabulous firebrand that was Elsie Tanner, who somehow is the only woman who ever made a beige trench coat look fantastic.
Born Patricia Frederica Manfield in Manchester one hundred years ago, on 26 November 1923, Pat Phoenix was one of the original cast members of the ITV soap, famed for her fiery portrayal of Elsie. Flame-haired, full-lipped and oh-so busty, the much-married Elsie was the Liz Taylor of Lancashire: where Beverly Hills met Salford, and the show’s most successful good-time girl with charisma to burn. In cliched parlance, the requisite tart with a heart who chalked up a string of lovers while living at No. 11, on a little row of terraced houses in Weatherfield from 1960 to 1984.
For the millions of viewers who made Coronation Street UK TV’s undisputed most popular show, Elsie was the queen of the cobbles, one of the most iconic characters in British television, back when Corrie really was worth watching.
It has to be said, Pat’s acting ability wasn’t quite up there with your Judi Denches or your Maggie Smiths, but what she lacked in versatility she made up for in blousy charisma, in spades. Indeed, such was her incredible stage presence and ample glamour it was inevitable she would become the first queen of British soap opera.
History doesn’t record exactly when I first became aware of this blousy, impossibly glamorous creature but in its 1970s Bill Podmore-produced heyday we were most certainly a Corrie family.
The thing I really remember, imprinted on my mind as if it was yesterday, was after Sarah Jane Smith had been dropped off by The Doctor’s Tardis for the last time (or so we thought), by the 1980s Elsie was absolutely my favourite female on the tellybox, and such was her popularity that the colourful and charismatic actress was described as “the sexiest woman on television” by then Prime Minister James Callaghan.
In the summer of 1983, I was having breakfast with my mother in Ibiza Town when I caught sight of a fellow tourist reading a red-top British tabloid. The front page screamed the shock news
ELSIE QUITS THE STREET
I was aghast. “No! She’s my favourite,” I exclaimed to Mum. I had only just turned 14, and not more than a fortnight before had lost my virginity to a girl at school, so clearly I had absolutely no idea of the sexuality that lay ahead for me, yet I didn’t think it was odd in the slightest that a 60-year-old woman would be my favourite character.
Indeed, Pat Phoenix had a presence on the screen which you saw quite a lot of in those days — Violet Carson as the hag in a hairnet Ena Sharples, and Doris Speed as the imperious Annie Walker are the other obvious examples. There isn’t a character or actor in any soap today who commands the same respect and attention that those three did, a tasty triumvirate all created by a gay man of course, the brilliant Tony Warren.
Why do I love Pat Phoenix? Ah, now there‘s a question!
That surreal love-in with Morrissey for starters. Mancunian Mozzer was such a Corrie fanatic that had even submitted a script to the programme in the late 1970s.
It goes without saying that the telly Satan rejected his ode.
And if you look in the gatefold sleeve of The Smiths’ 1986 album The Queen Is Dead, you’ll see the four band members stood outside Salford Lads’ Club, a building which sits at the end of the very real life Coronation Street situated on the edge of the Orsdall area.
In fact, about half a mile away from the club used to be an Archie Street, which was demolished in the early 1970s to make way for a new monolithic housing scheme. This particular little set of terraced homes with a shop at one end was the inspiration for Corrie… and even stood in for its fictional counterpart in the opening titles of the show.
But most bizarre of all was the time Moz interviewed Pat for Blitz magazine in 1985. He’d already put Elsie’s portrait on a Smiths single, Shakespeare’s Sister, earlier that year, but the magazine exchange was really something else.
Oh, and what about that fabulous flame hair — together with her smouldering persona, this was as red as it can get without singeing the curtains.
Then there was Constant Hot Water, really the only notable telly thing she did after Corrie, where she channelled the landlady who took Gail and Suzy in back in the seventies. Mum, sister Stella and I watched it as it was broadcast, which means it was probably a Friday evening when my father would have been down the boozer.
The sitcom was panned by the critics, but I remember laughing out loud as Pat’s character Phyllis feigned a collapse onto a chaise longue at one point. It had its moments and as the forever risen Phoenix proudly told Terry Wogan on his show, it was beating Joan Collins’ Dynasty in the ratings.
Then there was her tempestuous relationship with the actor Anthony Booth, ie Cherie’s dad and the father-in-law of future Prime Minister Tony Blair.
When news that Pat had married* Booth on her death bed emerged in September 1986, we were on route to another family holiday, this time the four of us to a little hilly hamlet called Beer in Devon, where, my sister-in-law, loves to remind me, I was sporting a pretty horrendous plastic pair of ”Deirdre Barlow spectacles.”
But by this point I was at college and trying damn hard to suppress and self-deny my sexuality, so much so that in this strange period I was devoid of emotion and wouldn’t allow myself to get upset at her demise.
Eight days after the hospital ceremony, Pat Phoenix died of lung cancer, aged 62. Her remains were buried in the grounds of the St Peter and Paul Catholic Church on Liverpool Road in Crosby, on the same plot as the “Scouse git” Tony Booth’s parents. It was a curious coincidence seeing as my father started life on Liverpool, Road, with his father Cyril being born five minutes away in Seaforth.
At some point in the mid to late ’90s, Cyril‘s widow, my grandmother Dolly walked in on me watching a rerun of Classic Coronation Street on Granada Plus one dreary afternoon in Kilburn*. By this point she was approaching her own nineties in age and had started to become a trifle forgetful, particularly over things like pop star’s names and so forth. Mick Jagger was “the man with the funny mouth”, while she even struggled with Michael Jackson and one of her favourites, Elvis Presley, by this point, offering helpfully:
“He was the man who was black and then he turned white and married the daughter of the one they called The King.”
When a vision of flame-haired fabulousness wafted across the screen I asked Gran if she knew who that woman was. Quick as a flash, the answer came back:
Now that’s what I call real star quality.
They really really don’t make ’em like that any more. Ta-ra, chuck.
*In 2009, I found myself being buddies with a fellow blogger by the name Jeremy Browning, who had lived near me in West Hampstead Kilburn, and loved to email vinyl recommendations among the NW6 reminisces. I once congratulated him on his past with a “And fancy having Pat Phoenix as your mum-in-law – very cool indeedy…” The curt response?
”As for the cool mum-in-law, well – it was *interesting*…”
If you hadn’t worked it out, Jezza was the son of the actor Alan Browning, who has the distinction of, as Alan Howard, not only becoming Elsie Tanner‘s third husband in an episode of the show in 1970, but in Corrie’s most notable example of art imitating life married Pat Phoenix for real two years later.
Though separated, they were still wed when Howard died of alcoholism in 1979 aged just 53. When I asked ”What was her reason for not showing at your dad’s funeral, if you don’t mind my asking?” he chose not to engage, so whether that, it has to be said, bizarre non-appearance has coloured his memories of ”Wicked Stepmother”…. well, drawn your own conclusions.