by Eleanor Dugan
When 18-year-old singing sensation Pat Kirkwood was signed
to appear in Let George Do It, she assumed she'd have a solo or
two. "No," she was told. Well, her agent insisted, at least
a duet with George? Again, "No."
This was just the beginning. Although Miss Kirkwood had already appeared
in two films, Beryl Formby insisted that her long hair had to be cropped,
her glamorous makeup subdued, and her wardrobe confined to "country
jumble sale" rejects. Not knowing about Beryl's jealousy, she attributed
George Formby's reticence on the set to her "frightening" appearance.
Despite these less than ideal working conditions, Patricia (as her husband,
Peter Knight, prefers to call her) sparkles as "Ann Johnson,"
granddaughter of a country constable, worshipped by jockey George. Her
mellifluous speaking voice would sooth the most skittish steed or suitor,
and her modest frocks, however dowdy in real life, set off her splendid
dancer's figure a treat.
A Lancashire lass, Patricia Kirkwood was born February 24, 1921 in Pendleton,
Manchester ("at the Seedley Terrace Nursing Home"), daughter
of William and Norah Carr Kirkwood. When she was 14, an amateur night
performance at a Ramsey, Isle of Man summer resort led to her first professional
appearance on a BBC children's radio show--sounding "more like 40
than 14," as one of her brother's friends put it. Five months later,
in April 1936, she made her first stage appearance in Salford, billed
as "The Schoolgirl Songstress." Her London debut, Christmas
1937, was as Dandini in Cinderella with Stanley Lupino.
In 1938, she made two films--Save A Little Sunshine in which she
musical numbers and Me And My Gal--and cut her first record, "Hurry
Home." (Being a very proper young lady, she was invariably chaperoned
by her mother.)
Then Patricia's agent rang to say she was being offered a role opposite
George Formby. "How thrilled mother and I were," she recalls.
Despite being denied a song and losing her beautiful hair, she insists,
"I never had anything but respect for this great man! He was always
happy and cheered up the whole company when he appeared, although
he was obviously afraid of talking to me!"
Her next film, The Band Waggon (1939) with Arthur Askey, was a
experience for her. She had two songs, lovely clothes, a sympathetic director
(Marcel Varnel), and the environment on the set was relaxed and friendly.
"Arthur always had the gift of making his colleagues happy..."
1939 was a pivotal year. One night she opened at the London Hippodrome
in Black Velvet. The next morning she was a star. Patricia introduced
Cole Porter's "My Heart Belongs to Daddy" to Britain, and won
acclaim for "Oh, Johnny" (a song she secretly loathed). One
critic called her, "Britain's first war time star...with a personality
as inescapable as sheet lightning and a voice vibrant as a dynamo and
as soft as Deanna Durbin's."
Through World War II, she went from one stage success to another. There
was Top Of The World in 1940. (During rehearsals, Bud Flanagan
of Flanagan and Allan was so unnerved by frequent air raids that he reportedly
hailed a taxi, told the driver "Blackpool," and disappeared
for three days.) "When [the show] opened," she recalled in a
1945 Boston Globe interview, "the sky was bright with searchlights"--ironically
anti-aircraft searchlights, not the Hollywood kind. "When bombs fell
near the theatre, the show went on. No one left, all stayed in their seats
because the theatre was safer than the streets. The cast would make bets
on who would be onstage when the bombs began to fall."
"My weirdest [war] experience was standing on my roof one night with
my mother. On all sides of us, buildings were burning. We looked around--a
sea of fire. Oddly, our building didn't burn, but we were marooned. No
Lady Behave in 1941 and Let's Face It in 1942 followed.
In between were pantomimes, cabaret appearances, recordings, another film,
and a radio show called "A Date with Pat Kirkwood." Also a Royal
Command Performance before King George VI and Queen Elizabeth, now the
Queen Mother, and the two Princesses at Windsor Castle.
In 1944, Patricia was simultaneously offered 7-year Hollywood contracts
by MGM and Twentieth Century Fox. Her agent recommended MGM, and she signed.
One newspaper reported, "Pat Kirkwood Signs Up for £250,000"--all
"tarradiddle" she says. She was merely "on option"
which meant steady raises IF the studio kept her. But despite their enthusiasm,
MGM had to wait for her arrival until the war ended. Finally, three days
after VE Day, Patricia and her mother flew to America.
Typically, MGM, which had frequently indicated they could not survive
without her, now had nothing for her to do. After 8 months, she was told
her first film would be No Leave, No Love, and her co-star the
very popular U.S. star Van Johnson. (She had never heard of him.)
MGM now demanded that she lose 10 pounds, and the studio doctor put her
on a highly dangerous regime of salads plus thyroid and pituitary capsules.
Van Johnson was all kindness. "Don't worry," he told her on
the first day of shooting. "This picture is going to be a real stinker,
so we might as well have a few laughs and forget it." He was right,
though Patricia had three big numbers including the bouncy "Love
on a Greyhound Bus."
She got through the film, then suffered a physical collapse that nearly
killed her. MGM wanted her to stay another year, but had no immediate
project for her. Her old friend Ben Lyon, now an executive at Twentieth
Century Fox, renewed their contract offer. However, she decided she'd
had quite enough of Hollywood.
Back in England, she concentrated on the stage. From Starlight Roof
(1947) she recorded the enchanting "Make Mine Allegro."
Other big hits included Ace Of Clubs, written for her by NŲel Coward
(1951), Wonderful Town (1955) by Leonard Bernstein, and her greatest
triumph, Chrysanthemum (1958). More than a dozen productions followed,
most recently Noel/Cole in 1994.
Her many television appearances, from 1939 to 1994, include Our Marie
(with Patricia as music hall artist Marie Lloyd, 1953), The Pat Kirkwood
Show (1954), Pygmalion (1956), The Great Little Tilley
(as Vesta Tilley, 1956), directed by her husband Hubert Gregg and turned
into the 1957 film, After The Ball, and Pat (a 1968 series).
But there were rough spots too. It is a sad comment on human nature that
an irreproachable private life cannot protect a celebrity from undeserved
scandal. One evening in 1948 she was introduced to and danced with Prince
Philip. A week later, her mother overheard two women gossiping about how
Pat Kirkwood was the Prince's mistress! At first she laughed at the absurdity,
but the ludicrous rumour persisted for decades and even appeared as fact
in a 1996 biography of the Queen.
In the years after WWII, her private life brought her both immense joy
and sorrow. A youthful marriage to John Lister, manager of a theatre in
Blackpool, had ended unhappily, and Patricia determined to remain single--until
nine years later when she met "Sparky"--Spiro de Spero Gabriele,
a Greek-Russian emigrť businessman. After a 4-year engagement, they were
married on February 22, 1952. Tragically, just a month after the death
of her father and a few days short of her second wedding anniversary,
her beloved Sparky died in her arms of a coronary.
In 1956 she married the multitalented Hubert Gregg--producer, writer,
composer (including "Maybe It's Because I'm a Londoner"), prolific
broadcaster, and performer. The rewarding personal and professional partnership
lasted more than 20 years, but eventually faded due to frequent separations.
Though determined to remain single, Patricia then met Peter Knight, a
retired lawyer and President of the Bradford & Bingley Building Society.
The couple married in 1981, and now live happily in Yorkshire.
26 December 2007 - It is reported that Pat has passed away.
set of Come On George in 1939, bewildered Pat Kirkwood endured
the usual Formby leading lady treatment: "no communication from George
Formby--not even a cup of tea or a 'good-morning.'" She was soon
told why. "Our director, a great fellow called Anthony Kimmins, and
his assistant Basil Dearden, later a notable director himself, assured
me that George Formby had probably been warned off me by his wife Beryl,
who was apparently very jealous of George and still madly in love with
him. I felt rather sorry for her in spite of her making me look like a
scarecrow, because she must have suffered a lot of pain.
"The final close-up of the film was to be a kiss between George and
me, but in order to achieve this we had to see that Beryl was off the
set. [The director] solved the problem. Someone would leave the studio
and telephone Beryl. 'Telephone call for you, Mrs Formby,' floated through
the set. All was ready to go, and I was instructed by Tony to 'Grab him
and let him have it and don't break till I say "cut".' As I
was so utterly fed up with all these capers, together with losing my locks,
looks, and entire persona, I decided to do just that."
And so the leading lady plants a big kiss slightly west of the Formby
mouth, but that is more than enough for George: "Ayee! What a to-do!"
he whoops gleefully. And every man in the audience fervently wishes he
could have beaten George to the finish line and been the lucky recipient
of Pat Kirkwood's victory kiss.
1939 - Black Velvet (age 18) *
1940 - The Top of the World
1941 - Lady Behave
1942 - Let's Face It
1943 - Happidrome
1943 - Humpty Dumpty (pantomime)
1944 - Goody Two Shoes (pantomime)
1947 - Starlight Roof (revue) **
1948 - Humpty Dumpty (pantomime)
1949 - Roundabout
1949 - Little Miss Muffet (pantomime)
1950 - Ace of Clubs (written for her by NoŽl Coward)
1951 - Fancy Free (revue)
1954 - American cabaret debut, Desert Inn, Las Vegas ****
1955 - Wonderful Town
1957 - Jack and the Beanstalk (panto)
1958 - Chrysanthemum
1961 - Pool's Paradise
1961 - Villa Sleep Four
1961 - Robin Hood (panto)
1970 - Hay Fever (Newcastle)
1971 - Lady Frederick (tour)
1971 - Babes in the Woods (panto)
1972 - A Chorus Murder
1973 - Move Over, Mrs. Markham (tour)
1973 - Aladdin (panto)
1976 - Pal Joey (revival, Edinburh Festival)
1977 - The Cabinet Minister (tour)
1983 - An Evening with Pat Kirkwood
1989 - A Talent to Amuse
1993 - Glamourous Nights of Music
1994 - NoŽl/Cole - Let's Do It, Chichester Festival ***
* "It ran for 2 years at the London Hippodrome, twice nightly plus
** Ran 22 months.
*** Ran 3 months.
**** Ran 3 months.
1938 - Save a Little Sunshine
1938 - Me and My Pal
1939 - Come On George
1939 - Band Waggon with Arthur Askey
1944 - Flight from Folly (Palmer says 1945)
1946 - No Leave, No Love
1950 - Once a Sinner
1956 - Stars in Your Eyes
1957 - After the Ball
1977 - To See Such Fun