Tuesday, 10 August 2010
A Corrie Legend
Honor Margaret Rozelle Santoi Fuller became one of Britain’s most famous grannies – but few of her devoted TV fans had any inkling of her colourful professional past. For Jill Summers, best known as Coronation Street’s Phyllis Pearce, the sandpaper-voiced old lady with the blue rinse, was once known for jokes that were as blue as her hair.
The diminutive Eccles-born actress came from a famous family of travelling players and was practically born in a stage trunk – her mother, Mary Power, only just made it home after a performance in time to give birth. Mary, stage name Marie Santoi, toured for many years with her own theatre company – one of the first women to succeed in what was definitely a man’s business at the end of the 19th century. She and Jill’s father, who was a wire walker, performed in variety staging romantic musical scenes with titles such as ‘A Night in Japan’, ‘Egypt’ and ‘Pearl of The Orient’.
Coming from such a richly theatrical family it is no surprise that the young Jill, or Honor as she was really called, should enter the profession. She chose her stage name by the way after her favourite time of year, summer, and the measurement of drink, a gill. Jill recalled later: ‘Life hadn’t always been easy for my mother but if a show fell on difficult times she would sell her furs and jewellery to keep the company going. The older members of the family soon joined her but I was too young.’
Jill’s half-brother, Tom F. Moss, was soon roped into the family firm and started out working in the orchestra pit until their mother heard him sing and he was instantly promoted. In fact he went on to achieve fame as a tenor at an early age and was often likened to the great Richard Tauber. Incidentally, Tom F. Moss was the son of Jill’s mother and Tom Major-Ball who went on to marry one Gwen Coates. Tom and Gwen had three children – one of whom is John Major, former British Prime Minister. With the advent of war Jill signed up with ENSA and in 1942 she and half-brother Tom teamed up to tour the Moss Empire circuit.
Tom sang romantic ballads like ‘On with the Motley’, ‘Because’ and ‘I’m Falling in Love’ dressed in trade-mark top hat, tails and white-tie with a monocle and small, neat beard. Jill too was considered a classical singer until her voice began to deepen and her mischievous sense of humour came to the fore – from then on she performed musical parodies.
The successful double act toured together for seven years but in true theatrical fashion life was not without its rows and bust-ups. Tom was something of a lady’s man which occasionally caused problems - and eventually Jill got a feeling that she was earning less than him. Her suspicions were confirmed when Tom fell ill and she was forced to deal with the wages herself. Her horror at discovering the truth that he was dividing their fees 60/40 caused them to split up and Jill took the first steps towards becoming a solo act.