Pat Kirkwood (actress)
24 February 1921|
Pendleton, Salford, Lancashire, England, UK
|Died||25 December 2007
Ilkley, West Yorkshire, England, UK
|Cause of death||Alzheimer's disease|
|Occupation||Actress, singer, dancer, pantomimist|
|Spouse(s)||Peter Knight (last husband; widower)|
Pat Kirkwood (24 February 1921 – 25 December 2007) was a British stage actress who appeared in numerous performances of dramas, cabaret, revues, music hall, variety, and pantomimes. She also performed on radio, television, and movies. She was the first woman to have her own television series on the BBC.
Patricia Kirkwood was born in Pendleton, Salford, England to William and Norah Carr Kirkwood. Her father was a Scottish shipping clerk. She was educated at Levenshulme High School in Manchester. At the age of 14 she entered a talent contest at Ramsey, Isle of Man and was asked to sing on the BBC's Children's Hour. A few months later, in April 1936, she took part in a sketch, The Schoolgirl Songstress at the Hippodrome in Salford. Throughout 1936 Kirkwood appeared in a number of local variety shows including a pantomime, Jack and the Beanstalk, in which she played Princess Dorothy. During Christmastime 1937 she took the roll of Dandini at Shaftesbury Theatre, in the pantomime "Cinderella", along with Stanley Lupino. Over the next two years she worked in cabaret, variety shows, and pantomimes.
Stardom and war
During 1938-39 Kirkwood appeared in two films, Save a Little Sunshine and Me and My Pal along with the Scottish comedian Dave Willis where she sang 2 musical numbers. This led to her first recording success, "Hurry Home". However, it was at the start of World War II when her career started to take off. Just as the war started, Kirkwood, aged 18, played in Black Velvet at the London Hippodrome where she became famous for her rendition of Cole Porter's song "My Heart Belongs to Daddy". This led to her being dubbed 'Britain's first wartime star'.
In 1940 Kirkwood performed in Top of the World at the London Palladium while German bombs rained down on London. She later recalled in a 1945 Boston Globe interview: "... the sky was bright with searchlights ... [W]hen bombs fell near the theatre, the show went on. No one left, all stayed in their seats because the theatre was safer than the streets. The cast would make bets on who would be onstage when the bombs began to fall." Sometime during the show's run she went up to the roof of the London Palladium and watched the city burning. She later recalled: "My weirdest [war] experience was standing on my roof one night with my mother. On all sides of us, buildings were burning. We looked around--a sea of fire. Oddly, our building didn't burn, but we were marooned. No way out."
During 1939 and 1940 she took movie roles in Come on, George!, and Band Waggon (1940). It was in Band Waggon that comparisons were made between her and Betty Grable. Kirkwood continued to perform throughout the rest of the war in West End pantomimes and shows. She played in Lady Behave (1941), Let's Face It (1942), as Robin Goodfellow in Goody Two Shoes (Coliseum Theater, 1944), as the Princess in Aladdin (Theatre Royal, Nottingham), and was featured on radio in A Date with Pat Kirkwood.
American venture and breakdown
Towards the end of the war in 1944, Kirkwood received competing 7-year contract offers from both Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer and 20th Century Fox, allegedly for £250,000. She accepted the MGM contract but had to wait till the war was over to travel to America to start work on a feature film. During this time she featured in another film Flight from Folly. Three days after V-E Day, Kirkwood went to the United States.
Once in the U.S., Kirkwood spent a number of months waiting for MGM to start production on a film. The movie that she was to act in, No Leave, No Love, co-starring Van Johnson, required her to lose weight. The studio doctors reportedly had her on thyroid and pituitary capsules as well as a strict diet. The movie was a disappointment and the production took a toll on the actress' health. She spent eight months in a New York sanatorium due to a nervous breakdown after the film's unsuccessful release. The breakdown cost her the title role in a London stage production of the musical Annie Get Your Gun.
Revival and television
After returning to England, Kirkwood picked up where she left off with the revue Starlight Roof at the London Hippodrome (1947). She had some recording success with "Make Mine Allegro" during this period and continued to act in West End theaters in pantomimes and venues such as Little Miss Muffet (1949) and Austin Melford's Roundabout (1949). It was Noël Coward's casting of her as Pinkie Leroy in Ace of Clubs (Cambridge Theatre, 1950), written specifically for her, that put her back in the spotlight.
It was around this time that Kirkwood married for a second time to Greek shipowner, Spiro "Sparky" de Spero Gabriele, in 1952. However, he died two years later from a heart attack.
Starting in 1953, Kirkwood began her work on television, appearing in Our Marie (as music hall star Marie Lloyd - 1953) and as a panelist on What's My Line (1953). In 1954 The Pat Kirkwood Show began on BBC Television. She would start to take greater roles in television from this time, taking part in My Patricia (1956), Pygmalion (1956), and From Me to You (1957). Many of these roles included her new husband actor, playwright and composer Hubert Gregg.
By the late 1950s Kirkwood had returned to the stage, performing in Chrysanthemum (Prince of Wales and Apollo), Jack and the Beanstalk (a pantomime), Philip Kings' Pools Paradise (1961), Villa Sleep Four (1961), and Robin Hood (Aberdeen, a pantomime).
Duke of Edinburgh scandal
During a performance at the London Hippodrome in 1948, after her return to England, the Duke of Edinburgh was introduced to Kirkwood in her dressing room. Later that evening they went to dinner at Les Ambassadeurs restaurant in Mayfair. Kirkwood reported later that: "He was so full of life and energy. I suspect he felt trapped and rarely got a chance to be himself. I think I got off on the right foot because I made him laugh." Reporters recalled that the pair danced and had breakfast the next day together.
Peter Knight recalled in a private memoir: "At the amazing spectacle of the royal consort escorting the leading musical star of the epoch, and in the palpable hush that had descended upon the restaurant, the rumor mills began to grind." Rumours of an affair between Prince Phillip and Kirkwood were printed in the daily newspapers. King George VI was said by courtiers to be furious when he was told about the circulating gossip.
Rumour had it that there was an invitation to go to the 'Sweethearts and Wives' ball with the Prince at the Royal Naval College, Greenwich as well as talk of her receiving a Rolls Royce. Such rumours of an affair with the Prince continued for many years.
Pat Kirkwood always denied that there was any affair. In 1994 she and her husband, Peter Knight, went to meet Prince Philip's aide, Brian McGrath, asking to send a message to the Queen that she was upset about the continuing tales, and that they were untrue. Philip later stated in a personal letter that the allegations were the "mythology of the press". To which Patricia complained "A lady is not normally expected to defend her honour publicly. It is the gentleman who should do that."
From 1970 to 1973, Kirkwood came out of her declared retirement to Portugal to perform again in a number of venues and tours including taking the part of Judith Bliss in Noël Coward's Hay Fever (1970), Lady Frederick (1971), Babes in the Woods (1971 - pantomime), A Chorus Murder (1972), Move Over Mrs. Markham (in the title role, 1973). Her last pantomime performance was in Aladdin in Newcastle upon Tyne (pantomime). In 1976 she played Mrs. Gay Lustre in Pinero’s The Cabinet Minister.
During this time she separated from Gregg in 1979 and remarried in 1981 to retired lawyer Peter Knight, her last husband. His comfortable financial position meant that she could leave show business behind although she would appear sporadically in a few appearances in the 1980s. In the early 1990s Kirkwood decided to come back and perform once again. In 1992 she sang "There's No Business Like Show Business" at the London Palladium in A Glamorous Night with Evelyn Laye and Friends. In 1993 she performed to sold-out crowds at Wimbledon Theatre in Glamorous Nights of Music.
Her last public appearance was in Noel/Cole: Let's Do It at the Chichester Festival Theatre in 1994. Earlier that year she had been a subject of This Is Your Life, when she was surprised by Michael Aspel at London's Prince of Wales Theatre.
In 1999 Kirkwood published her autobiography, The Time of My Life.
Kirkwood was diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease. There was a family history of the disease as her mother Norah had the same illness. She died at Kitwood House Nursing home in Ilkley, West Yorkshire on Christmas Day 2007, aged 86. During her last days it was reported that she refused food, which ultimately led to her death. She was survived by her husband Peter Knight. She had no children.
- Save a Little Sunshine (1938)
- Come On George! (1939)
- Band Waggon (1940)
- Flight from Folly (1945)
- No Leave, No Love (1946)
- Once a Sinner (1950)
- Stars in Your Eyes (1956)
- After the Ball (1957)
- Obituary, The Times accessed 28 December 2007
- Kirkwood at GeorgeFormby.co.uk accessed 28 December 2007
- Obituary, The Independent accessed 1 January 2008
- BBC NEWS | Entertainment | Actress Pat Kirkwood dies at 86
- Prince and the Showgirl, Express.co.uk
- Pat Kirkwood, last survivor of the great pre-war British musical stars, dies age 86 | the Daily Mail
- The Royalist - Prince's 'Showgirl' Pat Kirkwood Dies