Patricia 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).
Patricia 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”.
Before her death, Patricia 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 her lover 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.
- November, 26, 1923
- United Kingdom
- Fallowfield, Manchester, Lancashire, England
- September, 17, 1986
- United Kingdom
- Stockport, England
Cause of Death
- lung cancer
- St Peter and St Paul Churchyard
- Crosby, Merseyside, England
- United Kingdom