Familiar to fans of British television as the bossy, pretentious Hyacinth Bucket (pronounced “bouquet,” of course) and as the frumpy detective Hetty Wainthropp, Patricia Routledge has had a long career on stage in straight drama and musical theater as well as on screen. In 1996 she was voted Great Britain’s all-time favorite television actress.
Born in Birkenhead, England, in 1929, Routledge received her education at Mersey Park Primary School, Birkenhead High School, and the University of Liverpool. After training at the Bristol Old Vic Theatre School, she made her stage debut in 1952 as Hippolyta in A Midsummer Night’s Dream at the Liverpool Playhouse. Two years later she made her London debut as Carlotta in The Duenna at the Westminster Theatre. In a 1956 musical production of A Comedy of Errors she played Adriana, and in 1962 she moved to center stage in the title role of the West End production of Little Mary Sunshine, an affectionate spoof on operetta and musical theater.
Though mostly active in Great Britain, Routledge visited the United States several times, first appearing on Broadway in the 1966 comedy How’s the World Treating You?, in which she and Peter Bayliss played several roles, reproducing their performances in the London production.
Her first Broadway musical was Darling of the Day (1968), in which she played opposite Vincent Price in his sole performance in a Broadway musical. Playing Alice Challice– a well-heeled Cockney widow who marries an admired painter who abandons his own identity and poses as his deceased butler– Routledge won the Tony Award® for Best Actress in a Musical.
In 1976 she returned to Broadway to play the presidential wives in Bernstein’s ill-fated musical 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, which folded after seven performances. A far happier fate awaited the Joseph Papp production of The Pirates of Penzance, which first played in the Delacorte Theatre in Central Park in 1980 and featured Kevin Kline and Linda Ronstadt. Routledge played Ruth, “a Piratical Maid of all work,” with classic G&S flair and perfect timing, though her other commitments prevented her from joining the Broadway and film casts.
Her work in Great Britain was steady, with numerous roles in Shakespeare’s plays, Restoration comedy, contemporary works, and television dramatizations. In 1983 she could be seen as Mrs. Peachum in a television production of The Beggar’s Opera, and she was also a familiar face in dramatizations of Dickens and Austen novels. Her work in musical theater in London included performances in Carousel and Candide.
In addition to her starring roles in the television series Keeping Up Appearances (as Hyacinth Bucket) and Hetty Wainthropp Investigates (as the title character), she played the novelist Barbara Pym in the series Miss Pym’s Day Out (1991) and the central figure in the documentary Hildegard of Bingen (1994), portraying the multifaceted medieval mystic.
For her work as a performer, she was honored with an OBE in 1993 and a CBE in 2004. She continues to perform.