Despite a lifetime playing a certain kind of fragrant but formidable upper-class woman, she reminds me that her background is anything but. ‘You grow up by the Grimsby docks like I did, and you see a particularly rough side of life.’
The 74-year-old actor was born in Cleethorpes, the daughter of a local hotelier. ‘I had a Lincolnshire accent, which is flatter than a Northern accent, until I was sent to elocution lessons, which was quite common for children in those days. But I understand why people see me that way. I know how to play the upper class – and it’s fun because a lot of them are very eccentric, and I love eccentricity.’
A treasured possession is her OBE, presented in 2017 by the Queen for services to drama. Patricia dedicated it to her late husband, music publisher Peter Owen. The couple married in 1976 and hoped for many years to have children, finally becoming parents when Patricia was in her forties. For 23 years she lived her happiest life in the family home.
‘More than anything in the world I miss family life,’ she says. ‘Those years of bringing up children and being in a unit are magical. Life for me now is pretty good. I have all I need, but it’s very different from my married life. It’s not fun cooking for yourself.’
A longer version of this article appeared in the September 2021 issue of Saga Magazine: subscribe today
She has spent a year of on-off lockdowns reflecting on life without Peter. He was 85 when he died; she once said she wished she could say sorry to him for not saving him from dementia.
‘It’s a lingering guilt, and guilt is one of the most difficult things to deal with.’ She says towards the end of his life, she wasn’t sure if he recognised her as his wife ‘or whether he thought I was a carer’.
It was while she was making the world laugh as Penny in Miranda from 2009 to 2015 that she was privately going through that most painful period of her life following her husband’s diagnosis. She cared for him herself, then in the final three years he was in a care home.
‘That was the hardest part, making the decisions that you would not want to make in a million years. I was fortunate in that I had work to lose myself in, but I was forced into a situation where I had to make care arrangements in order to be able to work. There are many people caring for loved ones with dementia where it becomes their whole life.
‘It’s really important to have relief, otherwise you can drown in it. I always felt that the person drowning is the person suffering the illness. And a drowning person clings to the able person and almost lives through them. So the carer is living the lives of two people, and it’s very, very draining. You have to have support.’
Caring for a partner with dementia
Patricia made her West End debut almost 50 years ago in 1972 and her screen roles have included the QC Phyllida Erskine-Brown in Rumpole of the Bailey and the aristocratic Mrs Miranda Pelham in Downton Abbey. But it’s her role as Penny the aspirational mother with her ‘such fun’ catchphrase in Miranda Hart’s award-winning BBC comedy Miranda that brought her legions of new fans. ‘I think all of us thought it would be watched by ten of Miranda’s best friends and a dog. We had no idea how far it would reach,’ she says. ‘It brought a whole new generation of viewers, with children getting into a state when they saw me in the street and asking me to say, “Such fun!”’
She is now hoping to do the same in her latest TV role as the wealthy Mrs Pumphrey, besotted owner of pampered Pekingese Tricki Woo in series two of Channel 5’s All Creatures Great and Small. In the first series, the part was played by Dame Diana Rigg, who died of cancer last September. ‘My hesitancy was if they wanted me to be Diana Rigg mark two, which would have been impossible. I asked if they wanted me to take over that persona and they said, absolutely not. You become the Mrs Pumphrey the way you interpret her.’ So that’s what she has done, complete with the trademark red hair that earned her the nickname ‘Ginger Nob’ as a child.
‘I have a bad relationship with wigs – so I had my hair cut and set in a style to look more matronly.’
As for Tricki Woo, he has a love interest in this series – much to the bewilderment of Mrs Pumphrey. In real life he is a seasoned performer called Derek. ‘Derek is the most extraordinary dog I’ve ever worked with, and I’ve worked with quite a few. He loves being handled so much that he makes this noise akin to an incredibly loud purr, like snoring. Sometimes it was so loud we had to take him out of shot because you couldn’t hear anything. He’s adorable, so it wasn’t difficult for me to make him the love of my life.’
Rescuing a disabled dog
‘I do have fun, and I have wonderful friends, both male and female. But I have absolutely no anticipation or desire to share my life on a permanent basis with anybody. Dating is a young person’s activity. I don’t feel lonely. There have been moments, but I try to bat them away.
‘When you are left alone the one thing you can be is autocratic. One of the funniest things after my father died was that my mother suddenly said, “Well at least I can have a curry now!” as my father would never eat one. ‘It comes down to those little things you have to find the positive in. There is so much to be thankful for and enjoy.