Pat Kirkwood: 'Britain's Betty Grable'

Patricia Kirkwood, actress: born Manchester 24 February 1921; married first Jack Lister (marriage dissolved), second 1952 Spiro de Spero Gabriele (died 1954), third 1956 Hubert Gregg (marriage dissolved 1979), fourth 1981 Peter Knight; died Ilkley, North Yorkshire 25 December 2007

During the 1940s and 1950s, Pat Kirkwood starred in West End musicals and several films and she was first female to have her own television series on the BBC. In 1950, Noël Coward specifically requested that she star in his new musical, Ace Of Clubs, and Cole Porter allowed her to introduce the song "My Heart Belongs To Daddy" to British audiences. Kirkwood herself tired of journalists commenting on her looks and her shapely legs and especially on an alleged affair with the Duke of Edinburgh, which she strenuously denied.

Patricia Kirkwood was born, the daughter of a shipping clerk, in Pendleton, about three miles from Manchester's city centre, in 1921. Whilst on holiday with her parents in the Isle of Man, she took part in a talent contest and as a result, was asked to sing on the BBC's Children's Hour. In 1936, she played variety at the Hippodrome, Salford where she was billed as "The Schoolgirl Songstress". The following year, she played Dandini in Cinderella in a West End pantomime.

Kirkwood's potential was obvious to all: she could act, dance and sing; she spoke well; and she had a gorgeous figure. She appeared with success in the films Save A Little Sunshine (1937) and Me And My Pal (1938) and made her first record, "Hurry Home".

Her first prominent role was in 1939, alongside George Formby in his horse-racing comedy Come On, George! Formby's possessive and overbearing wife, Beryl, considered Kirkwood a threat and refused to let her sing with him. Kirkwood herself refused to perform a scene in which a wind machine would blow her skirt over her head, a controversial exploit which would have predated Marilyn Monroe's iconic pose by several years.

With the director Anthony Kimmins exercising little control, Beryl insisted that Kirkwood's hair be cropped, her make-up minimal, and her clothes dowdy. Even so, her beauty shone through and towards the end of the film, when Beryl was called away for a bogus telephone call, the director got Kirkwood to give Formby a long kiss. "Ayee! What a to-do," comments Formby, clearly mixing his character with real life.

The comedy duo Arthur Askey and Richard Murdoch were happy to allow Kirkwood to sing, look lovely and shine in their film of Band Waggon (1940). It led to her being described as Britain's Betty Grable but she hated references to her million-pound legs, "It did make me cross. They are simply things to walk around on. I never thought anything more of them than that."

In 1939, Kirkwood opened to tremendous reviews in the revue Black Velvet at the London Hippodrome; in the show she introduced British audiences to Cole Porter's "My Heart Belongs To Daddy". One critic called her personality "as inescapable as sheet lightning" and likened her voice to Deanna Durbin's.

She was the queen of a new universe in the London Palladium extravaganza Top Of The World in 1940, with Tommy Trinder and the Crazy Gang. The rehearsals took place while the Luftwaffe was bombing London and the director requested an audience of servicemen for the dress rehearsal. Mistakenly, the invitation went to the International YMCA so few of the audience could speak English and hence, laugh at the humour.

The show continued despite falling bombs. One evening Bud Flanagan took a taxi to the theatre, but fear overcame him and he told the cabbie to drive him to Blackpool instead. Kirkwood later recalled standing on the roof of the Palladium one night with buildings burning on all sides.

Kirkwood worked hard during the war. She was involved in making films, records, personal appearances and with her own radio series, A Date With Pat Kirkwood. She also appeared before George VI at a Command Performance at Windsor Castle.

In 1944, she was offered a contract, allegedly worth 250,000, with MGM in Hollywood. She and her mother flew to America shortly after the war ended and she appeared alongside Van Johnson in the romantic No Leave, No Love, (1946) directed by Charles Martin. She sang three songs in the film including "Love on a Greyhound Bus". The poor reviews plus the strict diet and fitness regime of the studio led to a breakdown and an attempted suicide, and she returned home.

Kirkwood had a West End hit with Starlight Roof in 1947 and some record success with one of its songs, "Make Mine Allegro". Noël Coward was impressed and wrote to his agent, "I should like to get Pat Kirkwood. You might make discreet enquiries about her." As a result she appeared in Coward's 1950 musical Ace Of Clubs, but it was an old-fashioned operetta that was lucky to make 250 performances. Encouraged by Coward, she also played a successful season at the Desert Inn, Las Vegas. She had further West End success in Leonard Bernstein's Wonderful Town (1955) with Shani Wallis and a musical comedy, Chrysanthemum (1958), which co-starred her then husband Hubert Gregg.

There was much unwanted publicity when it was suggested that Kirkwood had had an affair with the Duke of Edinburgh. She had met him in 1948 and reporters had seen them dancing and having breakfast. She totally denied any impropriety but said, "He was so full of life and energy. I suspect he felt trapped and rarely got a chance to be himself. I think I got off on the right foot because I made him laugh."

She became the first female to have her own television series with The Pat Kirkwood Show in 1954 and also appeared in various TV plays. In Our Marie (1953) she played the music hall star Marie Lloyd; she also appeared in Pygmalion (1956) and The Great Little Tilley (1956) as another music hall star, Vesta Tilley, which was directed by Hubert Gregg and subsequently became the film After The Ball (1957). In 1953, she was reunited with George Formby on the panel of What's My Line but was seen on screen feeding Formby questions to ask the contestants.

In the 1960s, Kirkwood and Gregg moved to Portugal and she told reporters, "I never play my old records or look at my cuttings. I've retired." She was to write her autobiography, The Time Of My Life, in 1999.

Kirkwood made several stage appearances in the 1970s, often in pantomime, and she had success in a revival of Pal Joey at the Edinburgh Festival in 1976 and touring in The Cabinet Minister with Dulcie Gray and Michael Denison in 1978. She married for the fourth time in 1981 and settled down to a life in Yorkshire. Occasionally, she performed her one woman show, An Evening With Pat Kirkwood, and appeared in revivals of Noël Coward and Cole Porter's works.

Spencer Leigh

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA year of political gossip, levity and intrigue from the sharpest pen in Westminster
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Tradewind Recruitment: English Teacher

Negotiable: Tradewind Recruitment: This post arises as a result of the need to...

Tradewind Recruitment: Class Teacher Required ASAP In Uminster

£120 - £150 per annum: Tradewind Recruitment: I am recruiting on instruction o...

Ashdown Group: Head of Finance - Financial Director - London - £70,000

£70000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Head of Finance - Financial Controller - Fina...

Ashdown Group: Marketing Executive - Wimbledon, SW London

£24000 - £28000 per annum + benefits: Ashdown Group: Marketing Executive - Wim...

Day In a Page

Greece elections: In times like these, the EU has far more dangerous adversaries than Syriza

Greece elections

In times like these, the EU has far more dangerous adversaries than Syriza, says Patrick Cockburn
Holocaust Memorial Day: Nazi victims remembered as spectre of prejudice reappears

Holocaust Memorial Day

Nazi victims remembered as spectre of prejudice reappears over Europe
Fortitude and the Arctic attraction: Our fascination with the last great wilderness

Magnetic north

The Arctic has always exerted a pull, from Greek myth to new thriller Fortitude. Gerard Gilbert considers what's behind our fascination with the last great wilderness
Homeless Veterans appeal: Homeless in Wales can find inspiration from Daniel’s story

Homeless Veterans appeal

Homeless in Wales can find inspiration from Daniel’s story
Front National family feud? Marine Le Pen and her relatives clash over French far-right party's response to Paris terror attacks

Front National family feud?

Marine Le Pen and her relatives clash over French far-right party's response to Paris terror attacks
Pot of gold: tasting the world’s most expensive tea

Pot of gold

Tasting the world’s most expensive tea
10 best wildlife-watching experiences: From hen harriers to porpoises

From hen harriers to porpoises: 10 best wildlife-watching experiences

While many of Britain's birds have flown south for the winter, it's still a great time to get outside for a spot of twitching
Nick Easter: 'I don’t want just to hold tackle bags, I want to be out there'

'I don’t want just to hold tackle bags, I want to be out there'

Nick Easter targeting World Cup place after England recall
DSK, Dodo the Pimp, and the Carlton Hotel

The inside track on France's trial of the year

Dominique Strauss-Kahn, Dodo the Pimp, and the Carlton Hotel:
As provocative now as they ever were

Sarah Kane season

Why her plays are as provocative now as when they were written
Murder of Japanese hostage has grim echoes of a killing in Iraq 11 years ago

Murder of Japanese hostage has grim echoes of another killing

Japanese mood was against what was seen as irresponsible trips to a vicious war zone
Syria crisis: Celebrities call on David Cameron to take more refugees as one young mother tells of torture by Assad regime

Celebrities call on David Cameron to take more Syrian refugees

One young mother tells of torture by Assad regime
The enemy within: People who hear voices in their heads are being encouraged to talk back – with promising results

The enemy within

People who hear voices in their heads are being encouraged to talk back
'In Auschwitz you got used to anything'

'In Auschwitz you got used to anything'

Survivors of the Nazi concentration camp remember its horror, 70 years on
Autumn/winter menswear 2015: The uniforms that make up modern life come to the fore

Autumn/winter menswear 2015

The uniforms that make up modern life come to the fore