Common Sense: Interview with Hetty Wainthropp Investigates' Patricia Routledge

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Patricia Routledge as Hetty Wainthropp

As a child growing up in the North of England, Patricia Routledge learned early on that having common sense was an important part of her life. “I remember it was one of the salient requirements in my family,” says the actress. “There was a great criterion, you know, and common sense was one of the things you simply had to have.” This virtue was particularly helpful to Routledge in her portrayal of Hetty Wainthropp, the senior super sleuth in the British television detective series Hetty Wainthropp Investigates.

On February 11th, Hetty Wainthropp Investigates: The Complete Collection arrives on DVD in the States courtesy of Acorn Media. Best known to television viewers on both sides of the pond as the well-mannered and pretentious Hyacinth Bucket in the long-running British comedy series Keeping up Appearances, Routledge gave up Hyacinth’s social climbing endeavors to play Hetty Wainthropp, a retired senior citizen with a knack for crime solving. Coincidentally, the actress was already well-acquainted with the character long before bringing her to the television screen.

“Here in Britain we have a very strong radio broadcasting system and Radio Four, in particular, concentrates mainly on the spoken word with magazine programs, drama and storytelling,” she explains. “Now there used to be, and I think there still is, a series in the evening called Book at Bedtime, in which they have an actor read a book over several episodes. In 1988 I was asked if I would read a novel called Missing Persons written by David Cook, an erstwhile actor-turned-writer with a considerable amount of success behind him.

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“I read the novel over the next 13 episodes and became very interested in the story as well as the character of Hetty. Here was this ordinary working-class woman from the North who has just turned 60 but is not going to be put on a shelf. Hetty discovers she has a talent for finding missing people and locates a relative for a very old friend. After tracking down her second missing person, Hetty finally faces up to the fact that she has a real gift for sleuthing, so she becomes a private detective. It’s a story full of encouragement, hope, determination and North Country humor with which, of course, I’m quite familiar,” laughs Routledge. “It also really flies the flag for the older generation by saying that there’s life in them yet as, indeed, I knew with my own father and many other people close to me.”

Eighteen months later, Yorkshire Television approached the actress about doing a two-hour television adaptation of the novel, which she did. At the time there was talk of bringing Hetty to the small screen on a weekly basis but nothing ever came of it. “Then the BBC got hold of the rights and they flirted with me in the early '90s,” recalls Routledge. “I said to them, ‘Yes, of course I’m interested,’ but then that sort of disappeared for a while the way these things often do. I’m not a great manipulator of my own career, so I wasn’t about to go bang on the BBC’s door and say, ‘Look here, you’ve got to do this.’ It eventually came to past, though.”

Fans are introduced to the Lancashire housewife when she takes a part-time job at a local post office/convenience store in “The Bearded Lady.” In this episode, Hetty grows suspicious of a young couple coming in each week to cash pension checks that clearly are not theirs. With the help of a teenager named Geoffrey Shawcross she decides to look into the matter and together they stumble upon the brutal murder of an elderly woman. Shortly after exposing the couple as the murderers she announces to her husband Robert (Derek Benfield) that she is opening the Wainthropp Detective Agency and hires Geoffrey as her assistant.

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“Hetty discovers that this young lad Geoffrey is not only pilfering the sweets [candy] from the post office sweet department, but he’s also trying to pinch a charity box,” explains Routledge. “This infuriates Hetty and she makes a citizen’s arrest, but the boy gets away. The next time she sees him it’s in a checkout line at the supermarket and she pins him down. He’s so amazed by this woman that he follows her home. From then on it becomes the tale of a young man who could easily have turned into a delinquent but is saved when Hetty decides to take him on as her sidekick. We were very fortunate to have found an enchanting and talented fellow named Dominic Monaghan to play the character.”

In “Eye Witness,” Hetty and Geoffrey are contacted by a pair of worried parents whose deaf and mute son Malcolm has disappeared while out birdwatching. Unbeknownst known to them, the man has witnessed a murder and they must find him before he becomes the next victim. For her next case, “Widdershins,” Hetty and Robert travel to the small village of Readsby where his revered uncle, a former professional soccer player, has apparently committed suicide. She discovers that there are other forces at work in the town which may have been responsible for the man’s untimely death.

“This episode concerns witchcraft,” recalls the actress. “We did quite a bit of our location filming in Lancashire, which is a very beautiful county and an interesting one as well because it is there that the Industrial Revolution began in the 19th century. This industrial area opens up to reveal some wonderful moorland and rural areas which all have various legends attached to them. One of these old tales is about the famous Pendle witches, a group of two or three families hounded by the locals and eventually charged with practicing witchcraft. While Hetty does not meet these particular witches in ‘Widdershins,’ we do make good use of the local history and that always makes things much more interesting.”

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In her final case of the show’s first season, “Safe As Houses,” an old friend of Hetty’s asks for help in locating her troubled foster daughter, Chrissie. The girl, a teenage mother with a history of setting fires, disappears soon after local homes fall victim to an arsonist. “What was so fascinating to me is that I was obliged to address uncomfortable subjects,” Routledge explains. “When you read about such things in the daily paper you turn the page and think, ‘Well, there but for the grace of God go I.’ We did a very good piece on schizophrenia and another story examines the issue of battered wives. We also filmed an episode set in the magnificent English city of Manchester that looked at violence in the Asian community. Of course, all of these things were very well researched—they had to be. I mean, one has a great responsibility to present such things as accurately as possible because they are of such great social significance.”

Although she may not be as young as some of her fellow sleuths, Hetty Wainthropp is just as enthusiastic and dedicated when it comes to the art of detection.

“Hetty is a very down-to-earth, ordinary, working-class woman who’s had no university education but obviously has worked quite hard all of her life,” says the actress. “Suddenly, late in life she discovers her latent abilities and the little grey cells which, like Hercule Poirot, she’s always referring to. She is finally able to fulfill the potential of her intelligence through her new job. There is no nonsense or sentimentality about her. I like her very much and she’s a total contrast to the monster [Hyacinth Bucket] who has become such a success around the world,” she chuckles.

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Since practicality and sensibility were big parts of Routledge’s childhood she never considered pursuing such a precarious profession as acting. It was her parents’ love of the English language, which they passed on to all their children, as well as Routledge’s active imagination and talent for writing that eventually distinguished her among her peers. At the age of eight, the actress was singled out by her teachers to read to the five-year-old students. She was also chosen to play everyone from Alice in Wonderland to Christopher Columbus in her school’s recitals. Despite all of this, Routledge did not believe her talents were any different from those of other children and, instead, assumed that performing was all part of her education.

“I just thought it was part of reading, writing, arithmetic, history and geography,” says the actress. “Sing a song, do a dance, learn a part, say a poem. ‘Why weren’t the others doing it?’ I used to think, and I just assumed, that they were lazy. I never thought there was anything particular about my abilities until I went on to higher education. I studied English for four years at the University of Liverpool and intended to become a teacher. However, my activities in the spoken word were becoming more and more satisfying and demanding.  So I finally, in terror and trepidation, took the plunge into the acting world,” she laughs. “I faced my destiny screaming inside myself, but after all this time I know I’ve done the right thing.”

Routledge trained at the Bristol Old Vic Theatre School and made her professional debut at the Liverpool Playhouse playing Hippolyta in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. “It was very thrilling,” she recalls. “I was so nervous and also excited to be working at the Liverpool Playhouse, which had a tremendous reputation as a repertory theater. Nowadays my heart aches for young actors because there are no repertory theaters that exist in which they can train. The physical theaters exist, the bricks and mortar are all still standing, but the tradition behind the repertory company is gone. Back in my day you were brought in as an unpaid assistant stage manager, which was lower than the snake’s belly. You would come in early, sweep the stage, make tea and say, ‘Yes, sir, no, sir, three bags full, sir,’ to the leading actors. If, at the last minute, they needed a body to play a part, it came down to you. Oftentimes it was a character for which you were totally unsuitable, but it provided you with the chance to make any mistakes away from the glare of the television cameras and London’s West End.”

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Over the years, the actress has performed in numerous stage productions on both sides of the Atlantic such as Othello, The Rivals, And A Nightingale Sang, Richard III and Henry V. Her film work includes roles in To Sir, with Love, If It’s Tuesday, This Must Be Belgium and The Bliss of Mrs. Blossom, while on television she has appeared in Nicholas Nickleby, David Copperfield, The Two Ronnies and Talking Heads:A Lady of Letters, which was written especially for her by Alan Bennett. Little did Routledge realize, however, the impact she would have on television audiences as the bold and brassy Hyacinth Bucket in Keeping up Appearances.

“She is an outrageous monster of a woman but monsters are great fun to be and play, aren’t they?” laughs Routledge. “Obviously, they are all over the world. I only have to get into a London taxi and the driver will tell me that his family refers to his sister-in-law as Hyacinth Bucket. What has amazed me is that it’s right across the social strata as well as the ages. My favorite letters are from eight-year-old lads who tell me, ‘My dad and I have been laughing at a lady like you who lives across the street.’ So obviously one touched a spring [nerve] with viewers.

“I’ve been very fortunate to have been able to play a wide range of characters in my career,” says the actress. “It’s this great variety of roles that continues to make my work interesting. The danger, of course, is that if you’re not careful, you may end up not knowing who you are. I, however, do know who I am,” laughs Routledge, “thanks to my upbringing, which, again, included common sense,” she enthuses.

Please note, all photos above copyright of the BBC. Hetty Wainthropp Investigates: The Complete Collection can be ordered at Acorn Online.

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A native of Massachusetts, Steve Eramo has been a Sci-Fi fan since childhood, having been brought up on such TV shows as Star Trek and Space: 1999. He is also an Anglophile and lover of British TV. A writer for 35 years – 17 of those as a fulltime freelancer – Steve has had over 2,500 feature-length…

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