Female comedians – you mustn’t use the term comediennes nowadays – have been with us a long time. As chairman of the Manchester Music Hall Association I sometimes get enquiries, mostly about ancestors who were once “on the Halls”. A few years ago I had a call from a young lady researcher from Granada T.V. looking for info for a proposed programme on comedians of the fair sex. Unfortunately she seemed to be of the impression that the genre started with Jo Brand. I soon put her right, mentioning Nellie Wallace, Gert & Daisy, Suzette Tarri, Revnell & West and so on besides, closer to home, Jill Summers, Sheila Sexton, and Tricia Bright. “Pat Mills” I said, and she’d never heard of her. So I told her to rummage in the archives at Granada where she might come across the documentary about her which the company made in the 1970s.A few years ago I was invited to a party in Manchester for the re-launch of a duo called Side by Side, and it was there that I met Pat Mills, surrounded by a coterie of young groupies. She looked absolutely awful. “I’m dying but I don’t care”, she declared. The dying bit was certainly true. For some inexplicable reason she took a shine to me, pressing me to go off with her to some nightspot or other, but no thank you !
Another tragic figure, better known, was Marti Caine. At a first viewing she seemed to be just another female singer – a good looker with a good voice. How things changed. It was September 1974 when I next saw her, at Hemingfield W.M.C., and the comedy spot she did blew me away. This was a star in the making, as so it proved, maybe with some shrewd support from agent Johnnie Peller. National fame came with a strong role introducing one of the best T.V. Talent Shows ever, then headlining her own show which toured nationally and abroad. And then cancer struck, ending the prospect of a dazzling career.
One who did beat the Big C, as she did the many set backs in her life, is Crissy Rock. She tells it in her book “This Heart Within Me Burns” and I defy anyone to read it without getting a lump in their throat. A childhood spent in poverty, in a family with complicated relationships, and dreadful experiences in school, she married a brute who nearly killed her, then a second husband – a nice guy who taught her to read and write properly, but became a serious alcoholic. Mates persuaded her to get up on stage. She didn’t want to, couldn’t do it she said – but was a success and began a career in the clubs. The same gang got together to obtain a ticket to London for her to enter “Opportunity Knocks”. She won all her heats and came second in the Final. Ken Loach was casting the film “Ladybird, Ladybird”, and spotted her. She said she couldn’t do it, knew nothing about acting, didn’t even know what improvisation was, but Ken Loach was a very persuasive man and encouraged her. The film was very well received and Crissie ended up being voted best actress at the Berlin Film Festival. And so it went on, films, a lot of T.V. parts, but still working the clubs, and then she went off to Benidorm to take up cabaret work there. Following which the hit programme ”Benidorm” went on the air with Crissie taking a major part. How I wish I’d known some of this when I was talking to her in Walkden Labour Club, though it did strike me that she was an honest, forthright person who certainly knew the score. But it would be another eleven years before the book came out.