Morrissey interviews long-time heroine Pat Phoenix, until
recently Coronation Street's Elsie Tanner.
Photographs by John Stoddart
she was never the Hollywood type; she says she's stopped reading the newspapers;
she loves science fiction; she loves Dynasty and Hill Street
Blues ("for comic relief"); she reads five novels per week;
she shrugs with exhausted compassion for Elsie Tanner, who clings like
an irksome relative.
Here in her agent's home overlooking the great charm of Alderley Edge,
Pat smokes and she drinks and she's all over the room. Her friends
love her and her love is returned. As the photographer lines up
another shot, Pat confronts the camera with precise professionalism.
No amount of evidence will make me believe that Pat Phoenix is 61 years
of age. It's impossible.
Born in St Mary's Hospital in Manchester in 1924, she hammered her way
through decades of theatre work until, in 1960, at the age of 36, she
found instantaneous worldwide stardom playing Elsie Tanner in Granada
Television's twice-weekly drama Coronation Street.
Elsie was the screen's first 'angry young woman'; a wised-up, tongue-lashing
cylindrical tempest, sewn into cheap and overstuffed dresses, harnessed
by severe poverty, staunchly defending her fatherless children, devouring
a blizzard of temporary husbands in dour Salford council dwellings.
It was the skill of Pat's acting that earned Elsie great distinction as
mother, sister and lover to millions.
Twenty years later, Pat left Coronation Street. Vanishing
with her sanity intact, she returned to her first love, the stage.
"Most people think of what they're about to lose," she would
claim, "but I always think of what I'm about to gain."
MORRISSEY: How did you get the role in
The L-Shaped Room (1962) and why did you accept it?
PAT PHOENIX: I was with Granada at the time and
there was a stipulation in my contract which said that I wasn't allowed
to do anything without their permission. So one day Bryan Forbes
range me up and said he had a part in a film for me, and I trekked off
and did the film in four days without telling anybody.
M: Were you bothered by the nature of
PP: No. If you bear in mind that I started
off in theatre all those years ago playing roles like Sadie Thompson.
No, it didn't bother me at all.
M: Film at that time, was in a very exciting
mood. Was it ever tempting to prolong your film career?
PP: While I was contractually tied to Granada,
there were seventeen film parts offered to me. But I couldn't take
them because they wanted me to work for long stretches.
M: In retrospect, would you gladly have
forfeited your life as a television star for that of a film star?
PP: Not really, because my world is the theatre.
I was brought up in the theatre and I made my own way. I was in
theatre for many years before I was in television. I never thought
that mine was the sort of face for either television or film. I
prefer theatre. You're on your own.
M: For an audience, television is intimate
whereas theatre isn't. On television you can clearly see the expressions
in an actor's eyes.
PP: In theatre you make your own close-ups.
Your close-ups are yours to command. Stage is most exhilarating.
you know when an audience loves you. You know when they are restless.
When an audience is with you, it's a wonderful feeling. You never
know on television.
M: How risque was it to take on the part
of Sadie Thompson?
PP: Oh well, that's a classic. I played her
hundreds of times in stock. I had my hair full of gold powder, you
M: Was that a very brazen thing to do?
PP: Not Sadie Thompson, but there was one which
was particularly brazen. I went out on the first of the Sex Crime
tours called A Girl Called Sadie; there are a few very naughty
photographs of me around, for those times. It was just, again,
a part, and the further the part is away from yourself the bigger the
challenge to play it, and that's where the excitement is. I played
everything. When I was twenty-two I played ninety-year-old women.
I don't know how convincingly I played them... It's always better
to play nasty parts than it is to play nice parts because there's more
meat on them.
M: Is there more scope for women than
men in theatre?
PP: Well, there used to be. But things are
all going to pot these days. In the 1940's they started writing
up men's parts for women, but I'm afraid the women have lost their hold
over the last ten to fifteen years. It needs to come back.
M: Wasn't that simply linked to the war, when
women had to take over traditionally male roles, and then were hammered
back into insignificance once the war was over?
PP: No. I think that the Americans were very
quick to assess the matriarchal society, and that women in the lead consequently
brought more women into the cinema, who in turn brought more women.
And that's really the same in the theatre. The vast majority of
theatre audiences are women. Terence Rattigan knew that years ago.
We need writers to write bigger and better parts for women again - once
writers stopped doing that, the cinema lost its audience.
M: What was it like to work for Joan
Littlewood's theatre company?
PP: She was... experimental.
M: How did she treat her players?
PP(laughs): Very harshly.
Nobody was beautifully paid. You barely had enough to exist on.
Joan and I clashed because I thought she was a lot of sounding brass and
not enough violins, and violins are very important in the theatre.
She nursed the men - like Richard Harris and James Booth. But she
was very hard on the women - women like Yootha Joyce and Barbara Windsor.
M: How do you think theatre stands now.
Do people care?
PP: People would care if theatre became more localised
again. Theatre now is too damned expensive. In our biggest
theatres the cheapest seats are f7.50, and half our people are unemployed!
The average person in the street would love to see a good play.
But how can they at those prices?
M: Does that make it a terribly middle-class
PP: Oh, I hope not. I shall be going out
this week on a 20-week tour, and I hope the costs of the seats won't be
M: But do you have any control over that side
PP: No, I haven't. But since I don't ask
for an enormously sensational salary they don't have to charge extra to
see me. Art belongs to us all and art should be available to us
M: Do you think that people see theatres as
places which are being closed down, or turned into DIY centres, and therefore
a sphere which is dying?
PP: I've got a great deal of faith in the young.
And remember, everyone up to the age of 29 is a youngster to me.
I really believe that this generation is going to unspoil all the things
that my generation have spoiled.
M: How interested were you in politics
as a teenager?
PP: Not at all. I was very light-headed.
If you were in theatre then that was your life and you were totally dedicated.
Mine are the politics of morality - and I'm not talking about sex.
If you've any compassion at all - and most artists should if they're not
posing - then you care about people and you care about this planet, and
THAT'S what my politics are. I take the side of the underprivileged.
M: You recently met Royalty. What
were your impressions, if any?
PP(wry smile): I've met
quite a few of them. PA-wise, they do a good job. But I never
really think about it. Our kings for hundreds of years were elected,
they were not hereditary. William The Conqueror started this hereditary
line. But before that they were elected. And what a jolly
M: You are a Patron for Cruelty Against
PP: Cruelty against ANY animal. And if you're
going to ask me if I've got a fur coat the answer is YES. I've had
it for 25 years.
M: Is it real?
PP: Most of my modern coats are not real, but I
do have a fur coat that my mother gave to me and I have no intentions
of parting with it.
M: How much affinity do you feel with Ireland
PP: All of us who are half-Irish... who have the
basic Irish... are born with the celtic twilight in us. That moody
celt, the obvious rebel, stays within us all, and we never change, whatever
our loyalites to the place in which we live.
M: How do you feel about central Manchester
PP: You mean the 'rape' of Manchester. The
skyline of Manchester was totally Gothic at one time. And that can
never come again. The small houses that were pulled down could have
been saved and modernised.
M: Is there anything left to be preserved?
PP: There are things to save if they care to.
We call those Hulme flats 'the Inca dwellings'. Destroying even
the mills is destroying part of our essential history.
M: In a sense, do you feel that all is
PP: Yes. But I'm such a firm believer in
youth, and I don't think the young people are going to let it all be destroyed.
If anybody asks me who I'd like for Prime Minister I'd say David Bellamy.
M: Do you find that, as an artist, there's a
limit to the strength of the public statements you might make about politics?
PP: Yes I do.
M: What holds you back?
PP: I'm slightly headstrong. I don't want
to see a revolution in this country. I'd like to see a mental revolution.
I'd like to see the kids being given what really belongs to them.
How difficult is it to be in the situation where any strong
political comments you make would be front page news?
PP: Well, it has been, as you know. I had
a letter on Nightline the other night, someone wrote in and said, "as
for you, Pat Phoenix, you're nothing but a Communist supporting Tony Berin,
and a Luddite supporting Arthur Scargill" ... I'm not even
M: Do people write to Pat Phoenix or
to Elsie Tanner?
PP: To Pat Phoenix... now. Sometimes
women in the street will come up and say, "eeh, Elsie - oh sorry,
it's Pat, isn't it." But it's a great compliment. It's
not an insult.
M: Is there a point where The Street
and the whole discussion of Elsie becomes tiresome because you've moved
PP: Yes, yes, yes. Let's get the situation
clear. I earned my living for twenty years in Coronation Street.
For the first eight to fifteen years it was terribly exciting because
the character was expanding. Mea Culpa - the fault is mine.
After a time I thought there was no place Elsie could go; the character
was finished, as far as the scriptwriters were concerned. I personally
could see no place that she could go - barring the Salvation Army.
I was told that it was absolute madness to leave the programme at my age
because, quite frankly, I didn't know what was going to happen next or
where I should go. But I preferred to take my chance.
M: When you first left The Street the ratings
fell, and then you returned and the ratings soared. Did you feel
a magnificent responsibility to keep the ship afloat?
PP: No. I felt slightly embarrassed.
PP: Because I always believe that a team is a team
is a team. I don't know what 'star' means. I only know I'm
a working actress.
M: Was there never the feeling that, with being
the anchor of The Street and also its public face, it all fell on your
PP: No. All actors are real, live human beings.
The satisfaction for me was when one' s colleagues came up and said, "damn
good effort, Pat", but never to believe that you did it all yourself,
because you didn't.
M: Who did you most admire in The Street?
PP: Arthur Lowe was a very good friend, and also
Diana Davis, who is now with Emmerdale Farm. It isn't a
question of admiring talents. What you really admire is people
as human beings.
M: Do you think Granada are very conscious
of your comments now?
PP: They shouldn't be. I don't make comments
about the programme now. I'm in no position to. I've always
been totally loyal. I'm too close to it to make any judgement.
I can only ay that I was bored with what they were doing with Elsie.
In earlier days, when Tony Warren and Jack Rosenthal wrote the scripts,
the programme was alive and it was vital.
M: Were the scripts ever wrong for Elsie?
PP: I often thought so.
M: Could you tell who was writing the script
by the mode of the storyline?
PP: In the old days, very easily! But we
only have five basic stories in the whole of the world. And these
are what we had to work on. So, in Coronation Street, stories
were repeated with different variations on theme. I had had enough.
While I was bored I was not doing my best.
M: What was Violet Carson (Ena Sharples)
like to work with?
PP: Somebody said of Violet that going into the
Street was the worst thing that ever happened to her. She had done
Shakespeare and was going into the very straight side of things.
She did have her crotchety moments.
M: Off camera as well as on?
PP: Yes. She would get highly irritated by
changes in the programme, and rightly so.
M: Can you comment on incidents when, as with
Peter Adamson (Len Fairclough) and Peter Dudley (Bert
Tilsley) for instance, actors' lives become very public with national
PP: It's very depressing. There's always
much more to these things than people see. None of us are infallible.
We are all subject to some slight or big sin, whatever it is. I
do think that around that time the newspapers were deliberately battering
M: Why would you say the newspapers wanted
to see the Street on its knees?
PP: Well, don't you find that, throughout history,
people build something on a great pedestal, and then the fun is in pulling
it down? At a certain time a Coronation Street exclusive
would guarantee huge newspaper sales.
M: How did you feel when Peter Adamson sold
his stories to the press, making his private life with the cast of The
Street very public?
PP: He won't be the first and he won't be the last.
I was one who was hurt by all that. But there are two sides to his
stories, and I honestly believe that he needed the money.
M: In The Street, did the 'part' ever
crush the 'person'? With cases like Peter Dudley and Frank Pemberton
(Frank Barlow), did their demise within the Street crush them
PP(evasively): I was
only Elsie Tanner. The character had overtones of me in it, and
overtones of my mother. Next season I play a zany English woman,
and while I'm playing it I'll probably be a zany English woman.
But I lose it when I'm finished with it. It's gone with Sadie Thompson,
Blanche Dubois, Katherine Hernshawe, all the parts of my youth.
M: How difficult was it to be pinned to an image
of a woman with mountainous sexuality?
M: But was it funny?
PP: Sometimes it was bloody awful.
M: What were the expectations?
PP: Everybody was having bets as to how they were
going to maul Elsie Tanner. Absolutely horrifying in some cases.
I've never been a promiscuous woman. When you add it all up, I loved
for love's sake and never for money or what I could gain. Usually,
I lost. Elsie was acting. Let's face it, I've never
been a great beauty. I've always been slightly over-weight.
With Bette Davis, who was attractive but never beautiful, when she said
onscreen, "I am Jezebel and I am beautiful," you believed
it, and that's acting.
M: Do you think it will take a new formidable
television role for you to escape the Elsie harness?
PP: Yes. I hope Elsie will always be remembered
with affection in the nation's history. But I want to move on.
I want to take up all roles, whether it's a 90 year-old hunchback
or a faded Mae West.
M: What do you look for in a new script?
Is sexuality important?
PP: What is sexuality? Very often warmth
and compassion are mistaken for sexuality. I often wonder.
Oh yes, I could thrust the thigh and fling the left boob, but that's an
actress' equipment and you must use it. Recently in a play a young
man and I were talking and he accidentally hit me in the chest and I said,
"It's perfectly alright, just acclimatise yourself with the props."
Anna Magnani had what I would call 'sexuality', in the very force
of her passion, and I mean passion about LIFE. She was alive and
she was living and you felt you could rush into her bosom and she would
embrace you. I don't know what Page Three sexuality is; I never
M: What kind of role would be wrong for you?
PP: You can't say that ever. My next part
might be an alcoholic old tramp molesting young men in the street.
This is what we're about, playing other people. Most actors get
rid of so many inhibitions by playing other people.
M: Do feminist ideals ever register with you
when considering your next manoeuvre?
PP: I've always been liberated. A woman who
has always earned her own living, who has never had anyone to support
her - apart from my mother - and who has had to go in like a man and be
as good as a man and be better than a man. I was the first of the
anti-heroines; not particularly good-looking, and no better than I should
be. Oh yes, the casting couch exists - for men as well as women.
And I know that with many feminists when you're trying to force a point
you sometimes have to go over the top. But it will take another
two centuries to truly liberate women, because men are so hopelessly brainwashed.
M: How do you see your books, in retrospect?
PP: Certainly no threat to Shakespeare. I
am in my books as I am on the stage, an entertainer. I don't think
I'm a 'great' writer.
M: You once christened yourself Patricia Dean
after James Dean, didn't you?
PP: My stepfather's name was Pilkington, and so
I had to use Pilkington to keep peace in the family. I used it in
the theatre until one theatre manager said to me, "Bloody awful name
you've got there, love. Are you any connection wtih Lady Helena
of the glassworks?" and I said, "No, I'm not", and he said,
"Well you can't go around with a name like bloody Pilkington, can
you?", and so he suggested I change it to Dean after James Dean.
M: In earlier days you lived in Finsbury
Park. Could you easily acclimatise yourself to London?
PP: London is a place for when you are rich and
famous. When I lived there I lived in abject poverty. Our
window overlooked the railway. It was very depressing because I
was totally unknown.
M: Could you ever live there?
PP: No, I don't think so.
M: Are you chained to the North?
PP: Not chained. I would move to Cornwall
M: Do you like travelling abroad?
PP: I'm a Sagittarian. We love to travel
but we hate to arrive.
M: Of your collection of paintings, which
is your most valuable and which is your most treasured?
PP: I haven't any valuable paintings at all.
Most of them have emotional value. I haven't any masters.
Or mistresses for that matter.
M: Do you care about modern art?
PP: I like anything I can understand. It's
a gut feeling. Some paintings make me cry.
M: What about modern music?
PP: Some of it excites me. I think a lot
of modern music is taken - perhaps without knowing it - from classical
music. So much of it has symphonic overtones.
M: If you could choose your next stage
role, what would it be?
PP: I'd like to do Catherine the Great. She
was such a glorious pig (laughs).
M: How do you feel about television plays?
PP: I think there's been a sway away from kitchen
sink. People are struggling now, going without heat and light.
They should be able to watch plays that entertain and transport.
It is most essential that people are transported.
M: Have people changed in their needs and desires?
PP: Oh yes. We had the era of the angry young
man. But we're all angry now. Not just some of us. In
my generation Terence Rattigan was the person spoke for everybody.
M: As a person who was the voice of Manchester
council dwellers, what do you feel for that situation now?
PP: I have not honestly seen a two-up-and-two-down
that was not a little palace.
M: What about high-rise?
PP: I hate to look at them from the outside.
I despair of that whole thing because England is not a place for skyscrapers.
We're used to living in houses, not up in the air. It's the wrong
psychological image for England.
M: Do you think this is why so many people
are unhappy now?
PP: Yes I do. There are so many places where
we can still build houses and people can still have a little plot of land.
Space is so important for people. We all need space, however poor
M: Do more bad things happen in life than good
PP(gravely): Aw no, no,
no, no, no, no! I think we all must have our share. But I'm
a great reincarnationist. Life is a lesson and we all must learn,
and the next time you'll have the same set of problems but you'll know
how to deal with them. I don't believe you come back once; I believe
you come back hundreds of times. Yes, bad things happen in life.
But a lot of life is what you bring to yourself. I believe
in good vibrations. If you're with someone who puts out bad, depressive
feelings, then you should try to help, and then move away.
I've talked to millions of people who feel that they have no hope for
the future, and I just want to put my arms around all of them. The
miners' wives who have the soup kitchen going are so dedicated, and I'd
say to them, "Is it ever going to be the same when the men go back
to work?" and they'd say, "Oh no, we're a community now!"
And see, even in the face of hunger they had found something.
You're always very sad when you're young. I've known this since
my first very weak attempt at suicide. But now, I could fall down
tomorrow and break my neck, but that's OK, that's all part of it.
I am now 61. And I don't believe it. I still wanna throw my
bonnet over the windmill and I still wanna do mad things and rush into
the sea at midnight.
article was originally published in the May, 1985 issue of Blitz.
Reprinted without permission for personal use only.