By SUSAN BUDD
Patricia Routledge has suffered the price of fame in being identified with the irritating and pretentious Hyacinth Bucket, a role she played in the television sitcom Keeping Up Appearances.
It is five years since the last episode was filmed and Routledge prefers it remain history. She would rather talk about Lady Bracknell, the formidable grande dame of Oscar Wilde's The Importance of Being Earnest.
"I turned down the role for 20 years, partly through cowardice. It is a classic role and I knew the audience would be full of people who know how it should be done," she laughs.
Routledge quickly modifies her mock-modest reply, saying the right director never came along. "You have to have a director to honour the play and have the humility not to impose gimmicky interpretations," she states firmly.
And in Christopher Morahan, veteran of London's National Theatre and a multitude of quality television productions, she feels she has found a director of tremendous integrity with a sense of period and style.
Though a traditionalist herself, she understands the need of young directors to do something different after what might seem to be a thousand productions of a play. She cites a production of A Midsummer Night's Dream in which sections were illuminated for her by modernisation. She observes that although some areas were "too vulgar" or nonsensical, Shakespeare is indestructible.
In her decided manner of resolute common sense and intelligence, Routledge resembles her earliest ambition, which was to be "a very avant-garde headmistress with a red sports car and romances all over Europe."
That was soon superseded by the desire to become a singer. "I was a big bouncing girl with a big bouncing voice and I loved music," she says, still not quite sure what went wrong. Musicianship was lacking, perhaps, and she was busy studying English at university and involved in student activities.
Surprising for one who appears so confident, she admits to being terrified when she had to sing and present herself as herself. But she has always embraced the opportunity to take on another persona.
"I look back and it was always going to happen," she says. "I was always the person asked to play Christopher Columbus at the age of 8 - I wondered why the other boys and girls were not chosen and I decided that they were lazy."
She lived across Liverpool's Mersey River in Birkenhead, where one of the most important family gatherings of the week was to visit the Argylle Theatre, a famous music hall. There she saw some of the great solo performers who took 30 years to perfect their acts and who so inspired her that she used to put on concerts with her brother.
He played the violin and she would sing and tell jokes from a book given to her by her Irish grandmother. A stage career was inevitable for the girl who loved being up there showing off.
Apart from classic Shakespeare, Wilde and Chekhov roles, Routledge has played and won awards for parts in musicals and on television. Her roles in some of Alan Bennett's plays are particularly memorable.
His first monologue, A Woman of No Importance, the poignant story of a lonely spinster, was written specially for Routledge in 1982. "I said that it could not be done and that I could not do it," she says. "I said they would turn off in their thousands." But Bennett persuaded her so she took a big breath, got on with it and won an award.
Five years later, he wrote Talking Heads, monologues for his favourite actresses and himself. "I did the woman who writes letters and finally has to go to prison for it. It is an amazing piece," she says. "When he said to me that he was writing another piece for me, I said, 'Oh Alan, don't you realise I have played Lear already.'
"But he promised a happy ending for the tale of a woman who learns how to love humanity and herself."
Beatrix Potter, the creator of Peter Rabbit and the Flopsy Bunnies, is possibly her favourite role. After absorbing everything she could find, Routledge wrote the script for a solo show. "That old girl took over. She is so fascinating, someone who had such an emotionally barren childhood and fulfilled herself.
"She became a successful hill farmer and was respected by tough old male-chauvinist Cumbrian farmers." Her father, bigheaded, full of character and of Cumbrian stock, strongly influenced her performance, says Routledge.
She was asked to bring Beatrix to the Antipodes, but decided against it. "I thought that if all the people were expecting someone nicely dressed and well spoken like Hyacinth it would be too much to ask to find an old biddy in a grey wig with sheep dung on her shoes," she says. And it is an intimate piece for a small theatre, which does not make money for the management.
"Theatre is the test," says Routledge. "It is the exchange of an imaginative experience in the immediacy of the moment. There is nothing like it in the world. Orators and politicians know it - sharing with the audience and the manipulation, too."
But while the moments she remembers of great performances are in theatre rather than television, television is the most significant means of communication today. And that, she says, is something every actor has to accept.
*Patricia Routledge stars in The Importance of Being Earnest at the Civic from Wednesday, September 27.