Tuesday, 10 August 2010

A Corrie Legend

I knew actress Jill Summers very well - and always loved her portrayal of Percy-chasing Phyllis Pearce.  Here's a reprint of an article I wrote for Lancashire Life magazine some years ago looking back on her life.

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.

Again Jill travelled the length and breadth of the country as a character comedienne appearing alongside the stars of the day and an amazing array of bewildering speciality acts. The picture above shows her whilst appearing at the famous London Palladium.  Welsh star Tessie O’Shea once told her: ‘Your mother may have passed on now but she’ll always live on in you.’ Jill had countless stories of the acts she worked with but two of the most memorable involve animals. On one bill was an act called ‘Mushie the Forest Bred Lion’. The lady who ran the act, dressed in full military uniform, pledged that the beast would eat raw meat from her chest and that she would risk death by placing her head inside its mouth. Jill recalled that Mushie was so old and toothless that the lady (Miss Ellen) had to wait for him to yawn before thrusting her head inside his gums, and that he couldn’t chew raw meat so it had to be chopped into tiny pieces before being placed on her ample bosom! The other act was a live bear who Jill worked with in the pantomime ‘Goldilocks’ at Folkestone. Jill recalled that the bear got so excited at being on stage that it used to wet itself thus fusing the footlights and plunging the actors into darkness!  It learnt to unlock the van the company travelled in and is said to have escaped whilst being driven through London!

During the fifties Jill became famous for her sketches including ‘The Landlady’, ‘The Bartered Bride’ and ‘The Lady Porteress’. Once again she toured the variety halls both with her own shows and as a club comic appearing alongside people like Dickie Henderson Jnr, Jimmy Charters and Jane ‘of the Daily Mirror’. One night she appeared with a husband and wife singing act. He would warble a selection of songs with roses in the title finishing with ‘Roses of Picardy’ during which his wife would walk along the footlights throwing red plastic roses to the ladies on the front row. Jill said that the effect was far from magical especially as the wife would hiss: ‘Hand them in at the Box Office on the way out!’

In 1948 she met and married her second husband, Doctor Clifford Simpson Smith, who took over the management of her career and toured with her whenever he could. It was in 1957 that Jill got her big break – her own television show entitled ‘Summers Here’, appearing alongside her were Michael Bentine and Wilfred Hyde White. She also toured for Paul Raymond as the comic in a strip show called ‘Paris After Dark – a tale of sin and sex!’

During the early sixties she continued with her stage appearances as well as pursuing a television career. Jill played the London Palladium, appeared in pantomimes and took part in the legendary ‘Thanks for the Memory’ tours for Don Ross, sharing the bill with such legendary names as Cavan O’Connor, George Lacey, Nat Gonela, Hetty King, GH Elliott and Billy Matchett.

During the latter half of the decade, with variety theatres closing, Jill re-launched herself on the club circuit with a show featuring songs and comedy, often quite blue comedy. She had many a tale involving being paid-off because her jokes were too much for the working men in the audience. But her professionalism and talent was beyond doubt as one critic put it: “She has a weaving-shed accent you could cut with a bread-knife and a sense of humour as keen as Gillette blue.”

In 1969 the newly formed Yorkshire Television launched its very first soap opera entitled ‘Castle Haven’. It starred Roy Barraclough (Alec Gilroy), Gretchen Franklin (EastEnders’ Ethel Skinner), Kathy Staff (Nora Batty) and Jill playing pub landlady Delilah Hilldrup. The series lasted just over a year and then it was back to cabaret and cameo TV roles, including a small role as a friend of Hilda Ogden's in 'Coronation Street'.  In 1982 fame came knocking again – Granada TV wanted to introduce a feisty old lady into ‘Coronation Street’, just for a few episodes. Her name would be Phyllis Pearce.

At the age of 72, Jill created another masterpiece and the nation took the blue rinsed busybody to their hearts. Her on-screen relationship with Percy Sugden kept us all entertained for over 500 episodes and she reached a whole new audience. In 1997 Jill died in her sleep aged 86, only months before she had taken a break from 'Coronation Street' but she'd always hoped to return to the famous cobbles.
A wonderful career - and I'm sure her mother would have been proud that she’d carried the family baton so well.

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