INTERVIEW: Patricia Routledge in Crown Matrimonial

PATRICIA Routledge famously starred as the appallingly snobbish Hyacinth in Keeping Up Appearances and in Hetty Wainthrop Investigates, as the elderly Lancashire sleuth.

Now she's touring the UK as Queen Mary in a revival of Royce Ryton's seventies hit play Crown Matrimonial.

It is inconceivable that the late Queen Mary, consort of George V and grandmother to the present monarch, received anything like "fan mail". Many respectful letters from loyal subjects, no doubt. But anything else, more familiar, would have been almost treasonable.

Patricia Routledge, however, does get fan mail. By the sack-load, and "from all over the world".

Millions have loved her in the BBC's Keeping Up Appearances – where she famously played the social-climbing mistress of her suburban house – and they also adored her as the canny sleuth Hetty Wainthrop, a lady of pensionable age who suddenly discovered that she was really rather good at solving crimes.

Now that both Hyacinth Bucket (pronounced Bouquet) and Hetty are no more, although all the series are being constantly repeated on some TV channel or other ("the repeat fees pay for a nice little case of wine every now and then" chuckles Patricia), Miss Routledge is returning to the stage to play a real-life woman who is about as different to her much-loved TV creations as it is possible to imagine.

Queen Mary is – along with King Edward VIII – one of the main characters of Royce Ryton's hit play Crown Matrimonial, which is a detailed exploration of the astonishing events that led up to the abdication crisis of 1936.

"It is", says Patricia Routledge, "that very rare thing, a 'well-made' play. It has a beginning, a middle and an end, it is very carefully plotted, and the way that it develops is quite astonishing.

"The first scene, for example. Queen Mary is having a conversation with Edward, the King who was never ever crowned, and they are talking about his recent European tour. Without you even realising it, you're given a whole picture of the politics of the day, and what is going on, in a remarkably short space of time. Hugely skilled – and very informative. Mr Ryton is a very interesting writer."

Edward's problem was that he had fallen head over heels in love with a married woman – Wallis Simpson. Born American, and by now married to a British businessman, she had previously been divorced.

The establishment could (just about) tolerate Edward's misdemeanours with a string of mistresses while he was Prince of Wales, but when he came to the throne, things had to change.

"So, when he obstinately refused to give up Mrs Simpson, matters slowly came to a head", says Patricia. "He was resolutely determined to marry this lady, his family were aghast, and Queen Mary, ramrod straight and ruled by her sense of duty to the crown and to the country and the Empire, couldn't understand him or his attitude at all.

"Mary was a fascinating woman in her own right. She came from a minor branch of royalty, the Tecks – from Denmark. Her father was a complete spendthrift, always in debt, and her mother was hugely overweight, and known as 'Fat Mary'.

"Her mother was adored by the public – but that's not much help when you are living in genteel poverty.

"They were a strange pair, the parents, always begging money from their relations, and constantly attempting to keep one step ahead of their creditors – of whom there were dozens!

"In fact, I discovered in my reading on Mary's background, that at one point the family were packed off to relations on the continent, so that they wouldn't end up being served with writs! They were living well above their means when their income was very limited.

"And that, you know, formed Mary's character in later life. She was determined to make a good marriage and to become completely respectable – and respected.

"Then, horror of horrors, after being shamelessly touted around the minor crowned heads of Europe, she was betrothed to the dreadful Prince Eddy, Duke of Clarence and Avondale, eldest son of Edward VII and grandson of Queen Victoria.

"He was, not to put too fine a point on it, weak-willed and completely dissolute. The marriage was arranged – and then he had the good sense to die. The best thing that ever happened to Mary, in my book.

"Not wishing to pass up on having a willing bride to hand, Victoria suggested that Mary marry the next son down the line and that happened to be the future George V – who was a fairly gruff old sort in his own right."

It has been a "completely fascinating" journey for Patricia and the rest of the cast – Rufus Wright plays Edward VIII.

"Christie Jennings, who is the wonderful assistant director to our meticulous and inspired director David Grindley, actually went to all the trouble of Googling every person who is mentioned in the play, and getting their background and their details.

"Now that has been wonderful source material for us all. And you know, I'm thrilled that our company, many of them far too young to know anything about the Queen's grandmother and her family, have enthusiastically absorbed and then perfectly interpreted everything."

She then laughs: "The thing is, I can remember the abdication crisis very, very, clearly – because it was something that all the adults talked about in hushed tones in front of us children.

"And, certainly where I then lived, which was in the north-west of England, Wallis Simpson was NOT a popular lady. I think that it is fair to say that if she had appeared on the streets of my home town, Birkenhead, she might well have been at worst lynched, and at best pelted with something nasty!"

And, says Patricia, "I actually did once see Queen Mary in person. She and George V came up to Merseyside in 1935 or 1936, just before his death, to open the Mersey Tunnel.

"That was just for VIPs, of course, but afterwards they came over to Birkenhead, to open a new civic library, and I was there, across the road, with my mother and my brother, and with my little flag in my hand, and waving it, as proud as punch!

"Even then I could observe that the Queen was very rigid, a firm backbone. Our own Queen today, I think, has some of her grandmother's qualities – and her devotion to duty is also legendary".

She admits: "What scared me about the play, initially, was that I had to pare away every emotional response to the situation. Her general bearing is one of complete and utter containment, and that shows in the way that you carry yourself. She has a stillness of the face, and nothing, absolutely nothing, bubbles to the surface.

"But, oh, can you imagine what is going on underneath? It's like the proverbial swan, isn't it? Serene on the surface, but the little legs going away 50 to the dozen under the water."

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Another remarkable thing about Crown Matrimonial, says Routledge, "is that it was, in fact, the very first play to portray (then) living members of the royal family on a live stage.

"The Queen Mother was still with us (in the play she is still Duchess of York) and Mrs Simpson was still around when it first appeared in London, with Wendy Hiller as Mary and the late Peter Barkworth (a wonderful man and an inspirational teacher) played Edward.

"I saw one of the first performances in the initial run, and it impressed me then, and it impresses me now. You know the strangest thing? A lesser dramatist would have invented a scene where Queen Mary met Wallis Simpson, and they had a confrontational scene.

"Great drama, of course. But Ryton sticks to the truth, avoids that trap, and makes the structure even better – now that's what I call good writing!"

Patricia has met the Queen herself – and also the late Queen Mother, and one of the occasions sticks happily in her memory.

"I'd been asked to go and do one of my little talks for the Sandringham Women's Institute and, of course, both the ladies are (and were) members of that august institution. It seemed to go down pretty well – I do remember chatting to the Queen afterwards about the consistency of the scones."

She chuckles: "I don't think that I can recall her bringing a home-made flan down from the big house, however!"

Patricia's love of the theatre started at a very early age. "My father was a 'High class gentleman's outfitter and haberdasher' – everything was 'High Class' in those days if you had a reputable shop.

"And every week he'd discretely display the playbills for the show at the old Argyle Music Hall in Birkenhead in is window. In return for that, he'd receive a pair of tickets for the first house on a Monday evening, and each week he would either go with a pal, or my mother would go with a favourite uncle.

"And on the Saturday, at a regular family gathering at my grandmother's home, there would be a discussion about the merits (or not) of the turns that they'd all seen.

"I went a few times – I saw people like Rob Wilton and Norman Evans…and, well, I think that the Argyle has to take a lot of responsibility for what happened subsequently in my life.

"I do know that I was always putting on shows at home, and selling chocolates to the family in the interval. A concert party of my own at the age of 10 – imagine.

"Most of my ideas were culled from a joke book that my other Granny had compiled. My brother (who also played the violin) also took part, and he was always complaining that I had impressively high standards, when it came to rehearsals.

"He would always feed me the lines, so I made sure that I had the best material. But he also made me be his own second in command when he played soldiers, so I suppose that, in the long term, we were quits."

She says: "Strangely, I never felt that I was 'stage struck'. Nor am I now. I've always believed that I've been carried kicking and screaming to meet my destiny.

"My first professional role? At the Liverpool Playhouse. I was unpaid assistant stage manager for about three months before I got a speaking part, and then a wage packet which was, I recall, all of five pounds."

An impressive career gathered momentum. Patricia Routledge has conquered Broadway and the West End, and she's been constantly in demand for everything from musicals (Cowardy Custard and Carousel) to monologues especially written for her by Alan Bennett ("Now, what an honour that is!") to Shakespeare.

Her Queen Margaret in the RSC's Wars of the Roses epic is still talked about with admiration today. But you cannot deny that the role that brought her to the public's attention was Hyacinth.

She still gets recognised. "Oh yes, all the time, and people are still wonderfully generous and complimentary – and if by doing something like that I've brought some pleasure and happiness into their lives, then that's pretty wonderful, isn't it? Mind you, I've lost track of the number of times that I've got into a cab and the driver has said: 'You're not going to tell me how to drive, are you?'"

Clive Swift, who played Hyacinth's long-suffering husband Richard, still has Patricia's fullest admiration. "In the beginning, there was very little for him to say. There wasn't much on then page. But oh, that man, he's an incredible actor. He built that part into something very, very special. That takes a lot of skill, you know."

She also loved recording Radio 4's Ladies of Letters, in which she and Prunella Scales play a pair of friends who corresponded at first by letter and now, in later series, by e-mail.

"I think that the material is just hilarious", she says, "but let me tell you a secret – Pru and I, after the first series, have never ever been in the same studio together. She records her pieces, I record mine – and some clever engineer and the producer edit it them together.

"We discovered that when she could get into the studio, I was off away somewhere, and when I could get in, it was she who had commitments. It just seemed sensible and practical to manage it the way that we do."

She is probably one of the most honest and direct performers that we have in the UK. She hates "people who undertake to do things, and then make a mess of it. Slapdash efforts. And bad manners. That really gets up my nose. Do I have a motto? I suppose that I do – 'Be kind'.

"I try, I really do, but, to my shame, I am not 100 per cent of the time. But, you see, I am a perfectionist. For which I make no apology at all."

Crown Matrimonial is at Theatre Royal Brighton from July 14 to 19. Tickets are 17 to 27 from the box office on 08700 606650, groups hotline 08700 606617, access bookings 0871 2975477 or click here


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