The much-loved comedy actress Patsy Rowlands, who died on January 22, aged 71, was known to millions of cinemagoers for her appearances in the Carry On films, in which she usually played dowdy wives or lusty housekeepers. Between 1969 and 1975 she made a total of nine films with the Carry On team, all directed by Gerald Thomas. Widely respected for her unique comic talent by many major directors, her other film credits included Little Lord Fauntleroy for Jack Gold, Tess for Roman Polanski and Tom Jones, Joseph Andrews and A Kind of Loving for Tony Richardson.
An ex-convent schoolgirl, Rowlands was born on January 19, 1934 in Palmers Green, London. After winning a scholarship to the Guildhall School of Music and Drama she began her professional career as an actress in 1951 at the Saville Theatre in Sandy Wilson’s classic musical Valmouth.
She went on to become a long-standing member of the Players Theatre Company appearing on traditional music hall bills with performers such as Hattie Jacques and Clive Dunn. In 1961 she appeared in the Saville Theatre with Laurence Olivier in David Turner’s Semi-Detached under the direction of Richardson.
She broke into films in the early sixties playing a variety of both comic and straight roles and on television she was seen in series such as Danger Man, The Avengers and the BBC production of the Vaclav Havel play The Memorandum (1967).
The Carry On films made Rowlands a star in Britain virtually overnight and when the series was later released on video and DVD she became something of a cult figure with younger audiences.
She made her Carry On debut as Miss Fosdick in Carry on Again Doctor in 1969 and went on to play such memorable comic characters Miss Dempsey, Kennenth Williams’ femme fatale housekeeper in Carry on Loving (1970), Mildred Bumble in Carry on Girls (1973) and the gloriously named Linda Upmore in Carry on Behind (1975).
Attempts to lure Rowlands back to the Carry On series in later years proved fruitless. “The Carry Ons have become a cult because of the way they were done and the people who were in them,” she said. “We couldn’t recapture that sort of spirit. These days we’ve got alternative comedy and it’s a completely different type of humour. That’s progress and I wouldn’t want to stop it. But it wouldn’t suit the Carry Ons.”
She worked regularly in television enjoying success with Bless this House with Sid James, Hallelujah with Thora Hird and the children’s comedy Supergran, which also featured cameos by Carry On co-stars Barbara Windsor and Charles Hawtrey. Other credits included The Alchemist, directed by Peter Wood, and The Cazalets and Vanity Fair for the BBC.
Rowlands’ range as a stage actress was broad and among her most notable apparances were as Jack’s mother in Stephen Sondheim’s Into the Woods at the Phoenix Theatre, the Duchess in Mike Ockrent’s production of Me and My Girl and a long run in Sam Mendes’ production of OIliver! at the London Palladium. Seasons at the National Theatre included The March on Russia, for Lindsay Anderson, and The Pied Piper and The Wind in the Willows, directed by Nick Hynter.
Rowlands was diagnosed with breast cancer while she was appearing as Mrs Pearce in the recent Theatre Royal, Drury Lane revival of My Fair Lady but she continued to appear in the show without telling her fellow performers. She is survived by her son.