Patricia Phoenix (26th November 1923 - 17th September 1986) was born Patricia Frederica Manfield in St Mary's Hospital, Manchester. Her parents were Thomas Manfield and Anna Maria Josephine Noonan, the latter who originally came from County Galway in Ireland where Phoenix later claimed she had also been born, although she stated some time after that that she was merely agreeing with something her elderly mother had already told the press. Her parents had been married for sixteen years and Pat was eight when her father was involved in a road accident and in court it was revealed that his marriage was in fact bigamous as he had never been divorced from his real wife who was living some miles away and who he had been paying maintenance to for many years. She later described this period in her life as a, "nightmare" saying, "I lost my safe, secure, normal world."
Pat's mother later married a painter and decorator named Richard Pilkington and it was her hatred for her stepfather which led to her becoming an actress as he laughed at her efforts when, aged 11, she submitted a monologue to the BBC and got regular employment on Children's Hour. She attended Chorlton Central High School for Girls in Manchester where she acted in a play, The Death of Tintageles with fellow pupil Betty Alberge who joined Coronation Street with Pat in December 1960. Her presentiment school report stated, "Patricia is not exactly a model pupil, but on stage she is just marvellous." She spent many an hour in the "gods" at the Palace Theatre in Manchester watching performances by Laurence Olivier, Sybil Thorndyke, Ralph Richardson and Emlyn Williams and when she left school worked as a filing clerk for Manchester Corporation's gas department while spending her evening in amateur dramatics. Still determined to become a professional, she joined the Arts Theatre in Manchester and many other repertory companies. Credited as "Patricia Pilkington", she gained a role in the local 1948 film Cup Tie Honeymoon opposite star Sandy Powell and alongside future Street co-star Bernard Youens. A summer season in Happy Days at Blackpool followed with Thora Hird who gave Pat a bottle of champagne to mark her success, however the determined girl refused to drink it, stating that she had not yet "made it" and would only open the present when she had done so.
In 1953 she married fellow actor Peter Marsh but they were only together for twelve months and were divorced in 1961. In the meantime she gained a small but notable success when she appeared in the 1955 play A Girl Called Sadie with her red hair dyed blonde and opposite actor Anthony Booth. The story, daring for its time, gained Pat some notoriety and a brief fling with Booth but real success eluded her. She later recalled times of near-starvation in a basement flat in London and an attempted suicide attempt which failed when the gas ran out and she hadn't any more money for the meter. She had a forgotten sideline as a writer of sketches for television ventriloquist Terry Hall and his puppet Lenny the Lion but she still hankered after acting success and was disappointed to miss out on a role in the 1958 film Room at the Top. At the end of the 1950s, she returned to Manchester, with her surname changed again to "Phoenix" from the book Phoenix Rising by Marguerite Steen but considered that her ambitions of stardom were probably now dead.
Stardom at lastEdit
In the Autumn of 1960, she attended an audition for a part in a new serial by Granada Television named Florizel Street. She later recounted how she was in a foul and/or nervous mood on arrival (later accounts by her differ) and clashed with the production team when she read for them, refusing to take off her coat to show off her figure and telling them that they would have to "just bloody well guess". The combination of her personal manner and acting talent convinced the team that she was absolutely perfect for the part of single-mother firebrand Elsie Tanner and she was contracted to appear in the dry runs, the first of which was recorded on 18th November 1960. She was an instant hit in the part and once the programme began and ascended the viewing charts throughout 1961 she was the one person more than anyone else in the show who relished the fame and fortune that the "sex-symbol" role gave her. Pat enthusiastically joined in with any publicity for the programme, on one occasion saddling the parsimonious Granada with a huge bill when she visited an army barracks, stood up on a table and shouted out to the squaddies who were preparing for an overseas tour, "Boys, the drinks are on me!"
The press concentrated most of their stories on two actors in the programme: the hugely popular Violet Carson, who nevertheless held them sometimes at arm's length, and Pat Phoenix who opened the doors of her house and life to them (receiving brickbats in 1966 when her ostentatious home in Manchester for TV Times was described as "tasteless" by readers who wrote to the magazine) and writing a column entitled Tanner's Worth for the same publication which ran for some three years from 1962 onwards. Off set she gained a legendary name for her charm with her fans but in studio and rehearsal room she also had a reputation for being difficult, argumentative and holding grudges way beyond what most people would call their natural shelf-life: an early dispute between Phoenix and the normally mild-mannered Roache in the early 1960s when she tried to scene-steal an episode ending from him in contravention of the script led to the two not talking for two years. When her screen son (and up to that point, close friend) Philip Lowrie handed in his resignation in early 1968, she refused to talk to him unless their work demanded she do so, resulting in the two never speaking on informal terms ever again and throughout Jean Alexander's time on the programme she treated the actress with total disdain only warming to her once, on the occasion of her second marriage to fellow Street star Alan Browning in December 1972, when Alexander bought her an expensive wedding present. In a 1995 interview for The South Bank Show, former director Mike Newell claimed he had claimed he learned more about his job from having to direct a hungover and bad-tempered Phoenix than any other experience of his career while fellow director Michael Apted has stated that his primary memory of working on the programme was trying to keep Phoenix and the equally forthright Violet Carson from coming to blows. Countering this are stories from Julie Goodyear, Bill Kenwright and Veronica Doran about the way that Phoenix went out of her way to help them when they first appeared on the programme.
This opposite side to her character came to the fore in Australia in the Spring of 1966 when she, Doris Speed, Arthur Leslie, executive producer H.V. Kershaw and publicist Norman Frisby visited the country on a hugely successful promotional tour. Phoenix and her fellow actors charmed the normally tough Australian journalists and garnered massive crowds wherever they appeared. On one occasion related by Kershaw in his 1981 book The Street Where I Live, Phoenix was signing an autograph for a woman who wanted it for her sick and bedridden old mother. Finding out that she only lived a short distance away, Phoenix insisted that her chauffeur-driven limousine take her and the astonished woman back to her home where her old mother was equally astounded to see none other than Elsie Tanner come into her bedroom saying, "Eeh, I hear you're poorly, chuck!" and staying half an hour for a cup of tea and a chat.
Phoenix could sometimes confuse the reality of her life and the storylines for Elsie, none more so than in 1967 when the production team devised the storyline of the marriage of the Street-siren to American Army Sergeant Steve Tanner. New producer Jack Rosenthal, who personally hated the storyline he had inherited, was astonished to receive a visit from a Manchester jeweller, invited to Granada by Phoenix, with a selection of real wedding rings and he had to question his own sanity when on the day of recording he had to coax Phoenix out of her dressing room with compliments on her looks as she had had an attack of nerves on her "wedding day". The on-screen marriage didn't last long and in December 1969 Elsie's new love interest arrived - businessman Alan Howard, played by Alan Browning who had been selected by Phoenix herself for the role in an effort to pacify her after she stated her opposition to another marriage within the programme. The actors themselves fell in love and the tabloids were delighted when they married on 23rd December 1972, driving away from the registry office in fine style and in front of huge crowds.
Ten months later, Phoenix suddenly departed the programme, claiming that she was bored to tears with the role and was returning to the stage where her real ambitions had always been. While it is true that she was, in the opinion of theatre impressario Bill Kenwright, the biggest draw in the provinces, likewise once she disappeared from the screen lucrative advertising contracts and good money dried up. At the start of 1976, tentative enquiries were made of Granada as to whether they would be willing for her to return. Their agreement was guarded as she had trodden on too many toes in her previous thirteen years on the programme but nevertheless they recognised that she was a star draw and in April 1976, Elsie was seen on screen again with Phoenix agreeing to tone down Elsie's glamour in an effort at realism - an agreement that she broke immediately she set foot before the cameras on her first day of filming. Appearing regularly on screen, she nevertheless gained agreement from the producers for lengthy periods away when she could appear on stage - something that was not granted in the 1960s and although she appeared to have tempered her attitude to a degree with her fellow actors, she could be just as difficult with the production team in the late 1970s and early 1980s as he had been previously, refusing to accept that her advancing years made requested storylines for Elsie to have affairs with young, good-looking men seem ridiculous. Whereas Kershaw and the other writers saw an aging Elsie as being a "saloon bar philosopher", Phoenix was determined that the character she had worked hard to create would not be watered down and in the Autumn of 1983 she again handed in her notice, last appearing in Episode 2375 (4th January 1984).
This time round, other television roles were forthcoming and she starred in a sitcom for Central Television, Constant Hot Water with Prunella Gee, and a play by Lynda La Plante titled Hidden Talents, recorded shortly before the public announcement on 29th August that she was suffering from terminal lung cancer. Phoenix was a lifelong smoker and had appeared with a cigarette in her hand in countless Street episodes. Some years before, her marriage to Browning had failed due to his alcoholism and she had met up again with Tony Booth and set up home with him in 1980. When Pat's condition deteriorated, she returned to the Catholic religion of her youth and she married Booth in her hospital bed just seven days before she died, aged 62, at 8.45am on Wednesday 17th September 1986 and only a few days after she had made her last public appearance, frail in a wheelchair with accompanying flowers and teddy bears and saying "Thank you very much, luvs and ta-ra" to the waiting pressmen. That evening, Granada broadcast a half-hour programme, A Tribute to Pat Phoenix, immediately after that night's edition of the Street. At closedown that night, announcer Jim Pope who had been encouraged in his own career by Phoenix, paid his own tribute to the actress and told viewers that the atmosphere in the Quay Street studios studios that day had been "subdued and thoughtful".
Her funeral on 23rd September, attended by Street stars, a jazz band and watched by huge crowds, was held at the Holy Name Church in Manchester, after which she was cremated and her ashes scattered. When her will was read, the generous side of Pat's nature was revealed when it was shown that she had given away most of her wealth in her lifetime. She wrote two volumes of autobiography: All My Burning Bridges (1974) and Love, Curiosity, Freckles and Doubt (1983). Hidden Talents was given a posthumous transmission on 15th November 1986.