Her moon-shaped face, framed by a fiery cascade of red hair, was like a cosmic punchline waiting to happen. Whether playing frumpy maidens, wretched housewives or crusty shrews, Patsy Rowlands, with a delightful blend of humour and grace, could have the audience in stitches while balancing a stack of invisible teacups on her nose. Unwavering poise? More like ‘poise on a unicycle during an earthquake.’ Truly a comedic tightrope walker, she entertained audiences from the late 1950s until the early 2000’s and during the course of her career became a national treasure.
Patricia Amy Rowlands was born on 19 January 1931 in Palmers Green, north London and was educated at the Sacred Heart convent in Whetstone. While attending, a teacher spotted her potential and encouraged her to pursue a career in acting, and at the age of 15 she won a scholarship to the Guildhall School of Music and Drama. The following year she made her television debut as Patricia Rowlands in a BBC adaptation of Toad of Toad Hall. Among the cast were Kenneth More and Jon Pertwee.
Patsy’s first professional stage appearance was in the chorus for the touring version of Annie Get Your Gun (1951), followed by a summer season in Torquay. She went on to become a member of the Players Theatre Company, appearing on music hall bills with performers such as Hattie Jacques and Clive Dunn.
One of her earliest notices was recorded in The Stage on 18 September 1958, reviewing Valmouth - a musical comedy play starring Fenella Fielding, Aubrey Woods and Doris Hare at the New Shakespeare, Liverpool, the critic wrote: ‘Patsy Rowlands, who possesses a pleasingly controlled singing voice, makes a convincing figure of a love-lorn who is always trying to drown herself.’ On 27 January 1959, the play opened at the Saville Theatre Hammersmith. She went on to appear with Laurence Olivier in David Turner's Semi-Detatched (1961), which was directed by Tony Richardson.
Later on that year, Patsy landed her first substantial television role as Bonnie, in Elsie and Doris Waters’ comedy vehicle Gert and Daisy. Although the sisters had been a great success as music-hall artistes, they found it difficult to put across comedy created by other writers and the series was not successful. Despite the disappointment of her first sitcom, Patsy found herself in demand as a guest star on a number of early sixties drama shows such as Danger Man, Knight Errant Limited, and in 1962 she played a cashier at a butcher's shop in the Norman Wisdom comedy A Stitch in Time, which was quite apt as her father was a butcher in real life. In 1963 she had a part in the Albert Finney/Susannah York film Tom Jones.
In 1964, Patsy went to the Edinburgh Festival appearing in Chaganog, a late-night review by various writers. The Stage again picked her out for special mention: ‘Patsy Rowlands is both a surprise and a delight, jollying her way through her numbers with deadpan expression and pin-pointing the essence of the situation at once. Her "Dame au Caramel", a bejewelled demimondaine gorging herself on sweets while half-heartedly accepting the lascivious approaches of her military lover, is one of the funniest things in the show, but everything she does is touched by the artistry of a true comedienne.'
With her stock rising, Patsy found herself more in demand, both on stage and television where she appeared in episodes of Out of the Unknown, Public Eye, The Avengers and Z-Cars. She also appeared as the storyteller in Jackanory in 1970, and made some short public-information films such as A Letter from Liz, a film promoting cheque books and bank accounts for women, and was a tea-lady in a PIF about the importance of fire doors and how they can save lives.
In 1968, Patsy received co-star billing opposite Roy Kinnear in the sitcom Inside George Webley. George thinks it is his duty to bore everyone rigid, including his long-suffering wife, Rosemary. The series lasted for two years and the extra exposure led to her being offered the first of what would be nine appearances in a Carry On film. Her first film was as Kenneth Williams’ long suffering secretary Miss Fosdick in Carry On Again, Doctor and in 1971 she landed another plum television role as Sid James’ and Diana Coupland’s neighbour in Bless This House.
Tottering Towers was a wacky children’s sitcom from 1971 to 1973 in which Patsy played the part of Miss Twitty in all 13 episodes and The Squirrels was a successful sitcom based in the accounting office of International Rentals, a television hire company, written by Rising Damp creator Eric Chappell. The cast included Bernard Hepton (Colditz) and Ken Jones (Porridge) and featured guest appearances from Maureen O'Brian (Doctor Who), Alun Armstrong (New Tricks) and Philip Madoc (A Mind to Kill).
In the 1980s, Patsy continued to appear in comedy, drama and on stage. She ‘guested’ on sitcoms George & Mildred, Robin’s Nest and Never the Twain and on dramas Juliet Bravo, Break in the Sun and A Little Princess, was the Duchess in Me and My Girl at the Adelphi and was in March on Russia at the National.
Patsy also starred in a number of sitcoms that had varying levels of disappointment and success. The Nesbitts Are Coming was not a success but Hallelujah! starring Thora Hird, in which she played Sister Alice Meredith, was. Whether the source material was good or not, Patsy always put in a brilliant performance.
In the 1990s, she played the housekeeper in Cameron Mackintosh’s revival of Oliver! at the London Palladium and was Mrs Potts in the stage version of Walt Disney’s Beauty and the Beast. In 2002 she appeared in Mackintosh’s revival of My Fair Lady. During this period she also appeared in The Bill, Vanity Fair, Peak Practice and starred alongside Hugh Bonneville and Lesley Manville in The Cazalets.
It was whilst appearing in My Fair Lady that Patsy was diagnosed with breast cancer. She played down her illness to friends and colleagues to spare their feelings. She had been ill for over four years, but had continued to work until a few months before her death, when she abandoned her plans to become a teacher of acting and publicly retired. She died of the disease in an East Sussex hospice, three days after her 74th birthday.
Forever imprinted on the hearts of those who had the privilege of witnessing her talent, Patsy Rowlands was a beacon of laughter and joy who left an unmistakable mark on British television, cinema and stage. But it wasn't just Patsy's talent that made her a cherished figure in the hearts of the British public. It was her warmth, humility, and genuine love for her craft that endeared her to fans and colleagues alike. Patsy had an extraordinary gift for making everyone around her feel valued and appreciated. Her infectious spirit brightened even the gloomiest of sets, creating a welcoming environment wherever she went. Her ability to bring happiness to our lives through her performances is a testament to her remarkable talent, and the immeasurable joy she brought us.
Published on February 11th, 2024. Written by Alma Eva for Television Heaven.