26 November 1923
Fallowfield, Manchester, Lancashire, England, UK
|Died||17 September 1986
Stockport, England, UK
|Other names||Patricia Pilkington|
(1972–1979; his death)
(1986; her death)
Patricia Frederica "Pat" Phoenix (born Patricia Manfield; 26 November 1923 – 17 September 1986) was an English actress who became one of the first sex symbols of British television through her role as Elsie Tanner, an original cast member of Coronation Street.
Phoenix was born at St Mary's Hospital in Fallowfield, Manchester, to Anna Maria Josephine (née Noonan), originally of County Galway, Ireland, and Thomas "Tom" Manfield. Phoenix claimed that she had also been born in Galway, although she later stated that she was merely agreeing with something her elderly mother had already told the press.
When Phoenix was eight years old, her father was involved in a car accident; in court, it was revealed that his marriage was bigamous as he had never divorced his actual 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 that "I lost my safe, secure, normal world". Her mother later married Richard Pilkington.
Phoenix attended Fallowfield Central School. As a child, she nursed early theatrical ambitions, appearing regularly on the radio in Children's Hour at the age of 11, after having submitted a monologue. After leaving school, she worked as a filing clerk for the gas department of Manchester Corporation, performing in amateur dramatics in her spare time. She joined the Arts Theatre in Manchester and other Northern repertory companies.
Phoenix's big break came in 1948, when she played 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. Exposure led to more serious work with Joan Littlewood's Theatre Workshop at the Theatre Royal, Stratford East. She also worked as a writer for ventriloquist Terry Hall and comedian Harry Worth. Some undistinguished film work followed in 1958 (Blood of the Vampire and Jack the Ripper), and in 1960, she returned to Manchester with her ambition all but spent.
Phoenix's fortunes improved when she was given her best known role as Elsie Tanner, the devil-may-care divorcée who lived at No. 11 in Coronation Street. By this time, she had changed her name from Pilkington to Phoenix, after the mythological bird that rose from the ashes. She featured in the programme from 1960 to 1973, and again from 1976 to 1984. In 1972 she was invited to open a brand new speedway track at Ellesmere Port, and her character as Elsie Tanner helped to draw a record crowd of around 10,000 to the track at Thornton Road, Ellesmere Port, home of the "Gunners". Her character became known for her fiery red hair, and was described by Prime Minister James Callaghan as "the sexiest thing on television". During her periods of absence from the series, she failed in her attempts to find suitable alternative roles. She left the series for the final time in January 1984. In the story, her character moved to Portugal to meet up with an old flame until 2004 when the character died in a car crash (off screen).
Phoenix's popularity gained her a part in the 1963 British film The L-Shaped Room in which she played a prostitute, and which also featured her future husband Antony Booth in a small role. After her final departure from Coronation Street, she appeared in a one-act television play, Hidden Talents, in 1986. At this time, she was suffering from advanced lung cancer; in the play, she played a woman dying of cancer. She also starred in short-lived sitcom Constant Hot Water the same year, playing a Bridlington landlady. She was the subject of This Is Your Life in 1972 when she was surprised by Eamonn Andrews on the set of Coronation Street. In 1985, she was interviewed for a magazine by long-time fan, the singer Morrissey, who also featured her on the cover of one of the Smiths' singles, "Shakespeare's Sister".
Phoenix's love life was often fodder for tabloid stories. Her first marriage was to actor Peter Marsh, whom she married in Bradford Cathedral; the marriage lasted only a year. In 1972, she married her Coronation Street co-star Alan Browning, who had alcohol-related problems and died from liver failure in 1979. She later married actor Antony Booth, the father-in-law of future Prime Minister Tony Blair.
Phoenix wrote two volumes of autobiography: All My Burning Bridges (1974) and Love, Curiosity, Freckles and Doubt (1983). She was a lifelong supporter of the Labour Party, campaigning for her son-in-law Tony Blair in the 1983 General Election and helping him win his first seat in a landslide majority, and a practising Roman Catholic. She also owned the Navigation Inn, a pub in Buxworth.
Before her death, Phoenix, who smoked up to 60 cigarettes a day, was found to have lung cancer in March 1986 after collapsing at home. She continued to work following her diagnosis, hiding her illness from most people, including partner Antony Booth. In the summer of 1986, her condition deteriorated, forcing her to undergo more extensive treatment and confirming mild speculation in the press that she had health problems. It later leaked that she had just weeks to live and had been given her last rites.
Phoenix married Booth in Stockport in September 1986, attracting much media attention. Eight days later, she died in her sleep, aged 62. At her request, her funeral service at the Holy Name Church in Manchester featured a large brass band; according to Coronation Street histories written by show historian Daran Little, she wanted the event that marked her death to be as lively as her life. Tony Blair and his wife Cherie were among the mourners.
Since her death, Phoenix has been portrayed by Denise Black, Sue Johnston (who would later appear in Coronation Street as Gloria Price), Lynda Rooke and Jessie Wallace in various dramas depicting her life, both on stage and television. She is commemorated by a blue plaque outside Granada Studios, where she filmed most of her work on Coronation Street.