I found Pat Phoenix’s grave along the far back wall of this graveyard. If I hadn’t had a photo showing the wall I would have struggled to find it. Here lies the bold, brassy, fruity, outspoken, larger-than-life “Elsie Tanner”, one of Coronations Street’s original cast members and one the first sex symbols of British television. The only reason I can remember seeing her is that I wondered why anyone would want hair that looks like a fire and that she used to adjust her bra strap quite regularly. I’m sure this was acting rather than a series of ill-fitting bras.
When Pat was sixteen her dad was involved in a car accident and when things went to court it emerged he was a bigamous as he had never been divorced from his real wife. This punctured Pat’s sense of security, things were never as good, normal family life was over and her mother later re-married. As a girl she wanted to be an actress so while working as a filing clerk in Manchester she started performing in amateur dramatics in her spare time. At some time she changed her surname to Phoenix after the mythological bird that rose from the ashes. She slogged away for years in various acting roles and as a writer for the comedian Harry Worth. She appeared in the 1963 The L-Shaped Room but parts were hard to find. She had almost given up on success when, up against 5000 others, she was cast as Elsie Tanner, the rum divorcee who lived at No. 11 Coronation Street.
Life was rum outside television. She married an actor but it only lasted for one year - then her Coronation Street co-star Alan Browning. This didn’t last long either as he was an alcoholic and died from liver failure
She was in the soap opera for 24 years often leaving temporarily to find other acting roles then left for good in January 1984. Perhaps she didn’t have to work as she owned a village pub, the Navigation Inn, in Buxworth, in the Peak District. She set up home with the actor Tony Booth (who now lives near me in Todmorden) becoming the mother-in-law to the then-unknown Tony Blair (good job - she was a staunch supporter of the Labour Party.)
She was a heavy smoker (60/day habit) and collapsed at home in 1986 with lung cancer. Ironically that year she played a woman dying of cancer in a television play Hidden Talents. She continued to work and kept her illness from most people including Tony Booth. However in 1986 things worsened steeply and news leaked out that she had only weeks left to live. She was a practising Roman Catholic and was given the Last Rites. On her deathbed she married her partner died in her sleep eight days later. In keeping with this fruity feisty lass the funeral was no morbid affair and included a Dixieland jazz band.
I had parked around the back of the church and was sat in the car having a coffee when a woman appeared. She knocked on the window and asked if the vicar was in. I hadn’t seen anyone. She was about 60, Irish, black hair and some teeth missing. She looked like a gypsy tarot/palm reader you’d see one the pier at Blackpool.
She said she’d come from Ireland off the ferry that morning to see her brother but they’d had an argument and she had nowhere to go, needed a bed for the night at the church. Yeah right, a likely story. At first she asked if I could run her into Southport then if I had some money so she could get a bed and breakfast for the night. When she asked my name she added it onto every sentence:
“Could I say a prayer for you tonight, John?”
“Have you ever been stuck in a situation and asked God to find a good Samaritan for you , John?”
“I’ve just a few possessions and not a place to lay my head tonight, John.”
I thought I’d make her work for her £2. I couldn’t pretend I had nothing. Beside me on the passenger seat were two Sat-Navs, two mobile phones, a pile of cash (never use wallets) and bank cards. I heard the story of how she had fallen out with her brother when a baby had been buried in a church plot that wasn’t Catholic, how she had avoid taking sides in the family and be ousted, how he had told her “you’re dead in my eyes from this day forward”, all that kind of thing.
When I handed her two pounds she shook my hand with bearings gold rings, “Oh thank you. I will pray for you tonight, John, and something good will happen to you tomorrow.”
I offered her a lift down into the centre of Crosby but she refused, “You’ve done enough, John. May God go with you even only you’ll let him.”
She was like a rent-a-cliche Irish actress for an amateur production. Why she was walking around the back of the church and was trying to find the priest (doubt it) I’ll never know. Please look at the photos of her striding into the centre of town. If she found five idiots like me to con £2 every hour from she could earn £10 per hour - tax-free.