Just like Elsie Tanner, the much-loved character she played on Coronation Street for 21 years, Pat Phoenix was larger than life in so many ways.
Married three times, the hard-smoking actress from Fallowfield was described as the working man’s Raquel Welch. Prime Minister James Callaghan called her the ‘sexiest thing on television’.
Off screen she met heads of state, went to glamorous gala parties and mixed with the celebrities of the day.
On screen, divorcee Elsie’s private life was the talk of the Street, especially when moral-minded Ena Sharples sounded off in the snug of the Rovers Return.
Millions of viewers enjoyed their classic set-tos down the years, with local Mission caretaker Ena, played by Ancoats actress Violet Carson, lecturing Elsie on her latest romantic liaison.
From the very first episode of Coronation Street, filmed in Granada studios in December 1960, Elsie’s life was packed with drama as she lurched from one man to another, never quite finding happiness.
Combative but with a heart of gold, she found herself continuously getting hurt while desperately trying to keep up her glamorous façade doing a series of dead-end jobs.
Elsie’s plight captivated the nation. Little wonder then that actresses have queued up to play her and Pat Phoenix down the years.
They include Kym Marsh, Denise Black and Sue Johnston who all appeared on the Street themselves, as well as EastEnders star Jessie Wallace.
Born at St Mary’s Hospital, Fallowfield, in November 1923, Phoenix was only eight years old when a shock revelation rocked her young world.
Her father Tom Manfield’s marriage to her mother Annie, nee Noonan, was declared bigamous. Manfield was still married to his first wife who lived some distance away.
Phoenix later described this period of her life as a nightmare, saying that she had suddenly lost her ‘safe, secure normal world’.
Annie later married Richard Pilkington and her daughter pursued her theatrical ambitions appearing on the radio programme Children’s Hour and joining the arts theatre in Manchester.
After landing a part in the Mancunian Film studios’ movie Cup-tie Honeymoon in 1948, Phoenix appeared in the films Blood of the Vampire in 1958 and Jack the Ripper in 1959.
She then returned to Manchester to play Elsie Tanner in Tony Warren’s exciting new soap opera based on real life in Salford – Coronation Street.
By this time Phoenix had been married and divorced to actor Peter Marsh, the first of her three husbands.
She’d also changed her name from Pilkington to Phoenix as she thought her career, like the mythical bird, was rising from the ashes.
In 1972, Phoenix married her Street co-star Alan Browning – Elsie’s on-screen husband Alan Howard – in Broadbottom, Tameside.The marriage lasted seven years until Browning died of alcohol-related liver problems in 1979.
Her third husband was Till Death Us Do Part actor Tony Booth, whom she married in Stockport eight days before her death in September 1986. The couple had been together for some years.
Phoenix’s relationship with Booth was featured in the 1998 TV drama The Things You Do for Love: Against the Odds, directed by Bill Pryde.
The young Phoenix was played by Denise Black and the older version by Brookside and Royle Family star Sue Johnston.
Black portrayed hairdresser Denise Osborne on the Street from 1992 to 1997. She dated Ken Barlow (William Roache) and became pregnant. Her son Daniel returned to the soap as an adult and is now played by Manchester actor Rob Mallard.
Johnston came into the Street in September 2012 as Gloria Price, mother of Rovers’ landlady Stella (Michelle Collins). She left in February 2014.
EastEnders star Jessie Wallace played Elsie in the BBC Four drama The Road to Coronation Street in December 2010. The 75-minute programme told the story of the soap’s creator Tony Warren.
The young Elsie was also portrayed by Kym Marsh – Michelle Connor on the Street from 2006 to 2019 – in the short-lived musical production Street of Dreams in 2012. Jodie Prenger played Elsie in her prime.
The show, which also starred Street regulars Julie Goodyear, William Roache, Kevin Kennedy, Katy Cavanagh and Brian Capron, was postponed after just two performances.
Actress Josie Walker was Elsie in Jonathan Harvey’s comedy Corrie! at the Lowry theatre in 2010. The 50th anniversary production relived classic moments from five decades of the Street.
Five actors in a variety of wigs managed to play every Coronation Street character in Corrie! Walker was joined by Leanne Best, Simon Chadwick, Katherine Dow Blyton and Matthew Wait.
*Unmissable images of Manchester and the North West feature in Clive Hardy’s latest hardback book, The Home Front – Britain 1939-45. It’s on sale at £14.99 including UK postage and packing.
Just go to inostalgia.co.uk/shop to order your copy or call the order hotline on 01928 503777.