Norwich author’s book on Patience Collier will raise a smile

Patience in typical morning pose, ready to tackle the world. Picture: Patience Collier archive

Patience in typical morning pose, ready to tackle the world - Credit: Patience Collier archive

This is a glorious book about a loud, fearsome, eccentric and unpredictable actor and it has been written over seven years by a talented Norfolk author. Derek James talks to Vanessa Morton

As you turn the pages, following the life and times of the extraordinary and brilliant Patience Collier, you wish who had met her.

Mind you it could have ended in cross words.

As Joanna Lumley says: “She had a tongue like a lash and a mind like a scythe.”

One person who did know her was the award-winning Norwich author/biographer Vanessa Morton and her book  called The Performer’s Tale: Nine Lives of Patience Collier is out this week.


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It is a joy to read (or listen to)…and will raise a smile in dark times.

There was no-one else quite like Patience and it would have been difficult for anyone who didn’t actually know her to have written about her.

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We join Vanessa on a journey through her life which gives us a rare insight into the wonderful world of theatre, films and television from the 1930s to the 1980s.

“Patience could be quite frightening,” said Vanessa, the daughter of former Eastern Daily Press journalist Bernard Canter.

Author Vanessa Morton

Author Vanessa Morton - Credit: Archant © 2012

Vanessa’s mother was Doris Ray, a former teacher during the late 1920s and 30s on the new Mile Cross estate in Norwich.

They lived on Constitution Hill before moving to London. Vanessa returned “home” to attend the University of East Anglia.

In fact Vanessa is better known in these parts than Patience.

She was a member of Norwich City Council for several years serving as chairman of the housing committee which led her to working for the housing departments at across the region including King’s Lynn (West Norfolk) and Great Yarmouth.

Married to Sam she taught literature and social history at the University of Colorado and the UEA.

She is a graduate of the Life-Writing M.A., part of the famous Creative Writing school at the UEA and in 2010 won the Lorna Sage Memorial Prize and a distinction for her achievement there in 2010

Her first book, Travelling Towards War, was shortlisted for the East Anglian Book Awards in 2012.
Vanessa was also chairman of the Supporters of Norfolk Community Law Service.

So, how did the book about the actress Patience Collier (Rene Ritcher) who died back in 1987 come about?

It was about ten years ago when her daughters Susan and Sarah were talking about what to do with their mothers vast collection of boxes, held in attics and expensive storage pods. They were precious memories of 50 years of performances and personal history… and as for those straight-talking diaries!

Her New York debt: Patience Collier against the backdrop of publicity for John Littlewood’s producti

Her New York debt: Patience Collier against the backdrop of publicity for John Littlewood’s production of The Hostage, 1960 - Credit: Patience Collier archive

“Listening in vaguely to their conservation, I turned up the volume. A large, untapped, revealing archive? Belonging to Patience Collier – whom I remembered from my teens: loud, fearsome, eccentric and always unpredictable?

“As actress whose perfectionism shone through her every performance and who appeared with every starry director and actor of her time?” she Vanessa.

Through her name has faded from public consciousness, it still conjures cool memories of iconic television from the 1970s and 80s – Sapphire and Steel, Who Pays the Ferryman, Fiddler on the Roof and The French Lieutenant’s Woman.

And so Vanessa embarked on a seven-year journey of discovery talking to those who worked with her. From actors such as Joanna Lumley, Zoe Wanamaker and Timothy West, to directors, wig-makers, costume designers, stage managers, children, grandchildren, friends and…even enemies.

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The result is a highly entertaining book.

The foreword has been written by Dame Penelope Wilton who got to know her well…for example:

“If she was coming for lunch she would ring and ask what we were having? I never knew a week in advance, so she would order what she wanted. Lamp chops were her favourite.

“This used to make me very annoyed and I’d grumble and say I won’t put up with this behaviour,” she writes.

Then Patience would arrive. They would spend an afternoon of the best conservation. Her lunch would be praised to the sky and she was left feeling that she was the most marvellous hostess.

Vanessa knew her and recalls the time she arrived in Norwich in the 1970s where she appeared at the Theatre Royal, in the days of Dick Condon,  in the touring production of the National Theatre’s Heartbreak House with Colin Blakely.

“Her dressing room was a place to prepare, to retreat, relax and retrench, and to receive family and friends after the show,” she says.

So, after a performance in Norwich, she took a very proper Northern Irish aunt backstage. She wanted her to meet her co-star Irish actor Colin Blakely so she flung his dressing -room door open to find – he hadn’t finished dressing!

The Performer’s Tale: The Nine Lives of Patience Collier by Vanessa Morton is published by Head of Zeus, an Apollo book in hardback at £25. Also published in eBook and audiobook.

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