b. Katherine Patricia Routledge, 17 February 1929, Birkenhead, Merseyside, England. Her studies were directed towards a career in education, but Routledge displayed innate talent for performing and took singing lessons. Graduating from Liverpool University, she delayed making a career choice and worked as an unpaid assistant stage manager at Liverpool Playhouse. In 1952, she made her stage debut there in Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, then attended the Old Vic Theatre School in Bristol and in 1954 appeared in London’s West End in The Duenna. Other London productions followed, among them the musical Zuleika (1957) and she took the title role in Little Mary Sunshine (1962). She also worked in films, including To Sir With Love (1967) and The Bliss Of Mrs Blossom (1968). On television she was in Coronation Street (1961), Victoria Regina (1964), a regular on Victoria Wood As Seen On TV (1983-85), and later played leads in two long-running series, as the memorable Hyacinth Bucket in the situation comedy Keeping Up Appearances (from 1990) and the comedy-drama Hetty Wainthropp Investigates (from 1996). She also appeared in single plays, including Alan Bennett’s A Woman Of No Importance (1982) and A Lady Of Letters (1988). On radio she did plays by Noël Coward, Anton Chekov and Carol Hayman, and she has also recorded talking books.
Routledge first appeared on Broadway in Jule Styne and E.Y ‘Yip’ Harburg’s Darling Of The Day (1968) and although the show did not enjoy much success, Routledge won a Tony Award as Best Actress In A Musical. Other projects in America were similarly jinxed, Alan Jay Lerner and Leonard Bernstein’s 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue (1976) and Say Hello To Harvey (1981), although she was in the successful Central Park production of The Pirates Of Penzance (1980). Her songs in 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, ‘Take Care Of This House’ and ‘Duet For One’, were written for Routledge by Bernstein after he heard her singing. Back in the UK, she was in a Scottish Opera production of Bernstein and John Latouche’s Candide (1989), winning a Laurence Olivier Award, a 1992 National Theatre production of Carousel, Sheridan’s The Rivals (1994), and in the early 00s was in The Solid Gold Cadillac and Beatrix, her one-woman show as Beatrix Potter. Among honours Routledge has received are an honorary degree from Liverpool University, and in the Queen’s Honours List for 1993 the Order of the British Empire and in 2004 Commander of the British Empire.