There was usually a smile and a pair of twinkling eyes. That tended to be the first sight of her. Then came the sound of the voice, with its rather high and slightly wavering tone, and there, in full, she was: Pat Coombs, one of British comedy's most well-meaning but chronically put-upon female figures.
If ever a show needed a nervous shop assistant, or a naïve policewoman, or a highly-strung customer, or a gullible next-door neighbour, or a doting but downtrodden wife, or an easily-bullied best friend, or just some or other nice but neglected member of the general public, the call, more often than not, would go out to recruit Pat Coombs.
The extreme amenability of her characters alerted the bad'uns like blood attracts the sharks. She had an open, trusting face that, in one comedy after another, seemed painfully exposed to the blows from her many tormentors.
She symbolised all of those who meant well but were met with meanness, who were hindered whenever they tried to help, who searched for the sun but ended up being soaked by the rain. Few comic actors exhibited such simple sweetness, and such a vivid vulnerability.
Pat Coombs was, for more than half a century, one of the genre's most effective and admired supporting performers. Her talent might have been channelled more narrowly than it deserved, but what she did, again and again, was of the highest quality.
She was born in 1926 in Camberwell Grove, south-east London, as Patricia Doreen Coombs, the daughter of Hilda, a bright and witty woman constrained by circumstances as a homemaker, and Thomas, a rather stern and sober man who was something in insurance. The family moved twice during Pat's childhood, first, when she was still only a few months old, to East Dulwich, and then again, a few years later, to West Wickham in Kent.
Devoted to her mother but rather scared of her father, Pat was quite a shy child, but, as her height continued to rise while her figure remained straight and skinny, she tried to disarm anyone at school who seemed likely to tease her by making them laugh instead (imitating her younger cousin crying was one of her specialities, amusing everyone except her younger cousin). The strategy worked so well that, after a while, she started dreaming of performing full-time.
It was one of her childhood friends, Ada Thomson, who persuaded Pat to go with her for private drama lessons. The impact on both of them would be immense: Ada would later change her name to Vivien Merchant, marry Harold Pinter, and make a name for herself as an award-winning dramatic actor, while Pat, after winning a scholarship, would enrol at the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art (LAMDA) and then pursue her own performing career.
It did not take long at LAMDA before Pat sensed that, unlike Ada, she was not destined primarily for drama. According to her recollection (which was no doubt exaggerated for comic effect), whenever she attempted a serious role she found that whatever she did would strike her classmates (Diana Dors was among them) as funny.
One talent that she certainly did have, however, was that of mimicking a wide range of voices and dialects. Still self-conscious about her height (she was now about 5ft 8) and her so-called 'beanpole' figure, but made newly confident by her vocal prowess, she was drawn more and more to the medium of radio as her best way to find regular and rewarding work.
After graduating from LAMDA she joined a repertory company in Scunthorpe (one of her jobs there being to repaint a set of Woolworths china tea cups a different pattern every week so that the regular audience wouldn't recognise them from one play to the next), but soon started auditioning for jobs back in London at the BBC. She tried unsuccessfully to get into numerous radio shows - ITMA and Much-Binding-In-The-Marsh were among those that chose to go on without her - until, in the late 1940s, a producer at Radio Luxembourg decided to start making use of her gift for accents in the odd one-off play.
This exposure proved effective enough to get her noticed by Ted Kavanagh. He was not only an experienced scriptwriter (with ITMA being his biggest and most enduring hit) but also the owner of an agency that, aside from representing several actors, was now employing some of the best writing talents in the country (including Frank Muir and Denis Norden). When he signed up Coombs as a client he assured her that he could add her to the cast of many of the radio shows that his various writing teams were planning.
He proved as good as his word, arranging for her debut on BBC radio on 9 May 1949, alongside Terry Scott, Norman Shelley and Richard Dimbleby, in Here's Howard - a variety show hosted by the comedian Michael Howard.
With further help from the young and ambitious writing partnership of Bob Monkhouse and Denis Goodwin (who by the early Fifties had started up their own agency and added her as one of their first clients) she would go on to appear in a number of other programmes during the next few years, sometimes styling herself 'Patricia Coombs' for the more serious plays but usually 'Pat' for the lighter kind of productions.
Her first spell as a 'proper' cast member of a radio comedy show arrived in 1954 with the popular sitcom A Life Of Bliss. Starring George Cole as an awkward and somewhat diffident bachelor, Coombs was used to provide the voices for a number of peripheral figures each week, including, in various episodes, a salesperson, a maid, a receptionist and a box office attendant.
This work led later the same year to a more prominent recurring role as Nola, the naive and put-upon (and 'unmarriageable') daughter of Irene Handl's studio cleaner, Mrs Purvis, in Arthur Askey's show Hello Playmates. Written by Monkhouse and Goodwin, the chemistry between Coombs and Handl was so strong that the two characters were given more and more dialogue to perform as the show continued its run, making the pair of them increasingly familiar figures to comedy fans (and their characters of Nola and Mrs Purvis - along with their catchphrases 'Yes, Mum' and 'Nola, babsie!' - would end up so popular that they would later show up again in a different series called Leave It To The Boys).
While Coombs would remain busy in radio throughout the Fifties and beyond (in such popular shows as Ray's A Laugh playing the home-help Ursula Prune), she was also starting to get some opportunities to appear on television, too, even though, initially, she was somewhat hesitant about accepting them. 'Radio's all I ever wanted to do,' she would later reveal. 'I never wanted to be seen, ever. I looked at myself in the mirror at the age of seven, stuck my tongue out and thought, you're a plain, ugly little madam. And I thought, voices yes, faces no. Who would want to see it? I didn't want to go on television, but it happened anyway'.
There had been a minor role in the 1952 comedy series Silk, Satin, Cotton, Rags, but she started appearing more often in the medium from 1954, beginning with a variety show called The Nixon Mix, hosted by the magician and comic David Nixon. Gradually, as others persuaded her that her own view of her appearance was both inaccurate and unfair, and as she started to realise that she was good at creating comedy through sights as well as sounds, she came to love the medium.
She was soon a regular in TV comedies, especially on the BBC, contributing to the likes of Cyril Fletcher's Roundabout (1956); the Terry Scott and Bill Maynard vehicle Great Scott - It's Maynard! (1956); Hancock's Half Hour (1957-8); the Monkhouse and Goodwin sitcom My Pal Bob (1958); Tommy Trinder's variety show Trinder Box (1959); the ITV sitcoms The Dickie Henderson Show (1960) and Bootsie And Snudge (1961); and The Charlie Drake Show (1961).
By the Sixties she had become an integral part of Britain's comedy landscape, popping up all over the place in amusingly well-observed supporting roles. Complementing her contemporary, Josephine Tewson, who cornered the market in middle-class types while she did the same for working-class characters, Coombs was the kind of actor who could be trusted to arrive already knowing her lines, improvise if required and always deliver a cleverly crafted performance.
She was also one of the best-liked people in her profession. Everybody seemed to love Pat Coombs. There was no ego, no edge, just a kind-hearted and modest person who was always positive, always generous and always supportive.
She acquired a higher level of personal fame when, from 1966 to 1968, she co-starred with Reg Varney, Peter Jones and June Whitfield in the 'keeping up with the Joneses' sitcom Beggar My Neighbour. Cast by the producer David Croft (who admired her as an actor with 'a great sense of character and a solid, reliable laughter gatherer') in the part of Lana Butt, the wife of Varney's well-paid working-class fitter, Harry Butt, she finally had a comparatively conventional modern woman to play: happy, positive and much-loved by her husband, Lana was probably the most calm and confident character Coombs had been given so far in her career (she called it 'my first glamour role'), and she clearly relished the opportunity to develop the part over the course of the three very successful series.
Always as popular with her female colleagues as she was with her male ones, she was as impressive in the scenes she shared with June Whitfield (with whom she had been good friends since their days working together a decade or so ago on such radio shows as Man About Town and Bring On The Girls, and who would later describe Coombs as 'the most smashing person to work with') as she was in the ones with Reg Varney. Such a balance helped prevent the sitcom from relying too much on awkward transitions between the two households, with those scenes shared between the wives adding another dimension to the storylines.
It was also during this period that Coombs acquired a similarly effective showcase for her skills as a sketch performer when she became a semi-regular in The Dick Emery Show. Joining the already well-established programme in 1966, she would stay with it, on and off, for the next fourteen years, appearing in no fewer than forty-four episodes in multiple roles.
She and Emery had known each other since the mid-Fifties (when they had appeared together in a summer season at Lowestoft), and been good friends ever since, so the rapport that they had was evident on the screen right from the start. They were both fine character actors with a great deal of charm, both had access to a variety of voices and physical traits, and both could mine a natural sense of mischief to make the most of the script's frequent double entendres.
Take, for example, Coombs as Win, the motorcycling mad woman next door to Emery's sour-faced and envious Ethel, who is always cheerfully chatting about her and husband's latest venture in spite of her neighbour's increasingly obvious put-downs:
WIN: There's nothing my Charlie enjoys more than sitting on the pier and letting his rod dangle over the edge.
ETHEL: Some people get their fun in peculiar ways, don't they?
WIN: I don't know what he sees in it, really. I mean, he don't seem to care if he gets a nibble or not.
There was also the over-trusting Ethel, the rival Slap On cosmetics rep to Emery's hyper-competitive Edna:
EDNA: Let me inform you that I have been appointed the sole Slap On representative of Walthamstow East!
ETHEL: You never! You can't - because I have!
EDNA: You haven't!
ETHEL: Oh, yes, I have! That nice Mr Rabine, he came round to see me. The area manager! He took one look at me and he said, 'You should drop everything and get on my staff!'
Then there was the prim and very nervous librarian Ada Noggin who was shaken up by Emery's alarmingly forward potential flatmate, Phoebe:
ADA: I think perhaps we should introduce ourselves.
PHOEBE: I'm Phoebe Fairhurst. My friends call me Fi.
ADA: I'm Miss Noggin.
PHOEBE: Oh, so do I, but we're both over thirty.
Emery was never more relaxed than when he was working in a sketch with Coombs. Normally a stickler for keeping to the script, he knew that, with her, he could improvise the odd line, as could she, and there would be no stumbles or stalling, and they could go wherever they wished while still in character. It was because she always focussed so well within the frame, and engaged so effortlessly and effectively with whomever she was facing, that they could communicate privately through the eyes while the words went on being spoken.
It made Coombs Emery's favourite female co-performer. Usually a notorious worrier when rehearsing his scenes and routines, it was said that, as soon as the ever-smiling Coombs arrived, he visibly relaxed and started rubbing his hands in anticipation at the fun they were going to have with the latest sketch.
'Ever since we met,' Emery would say, 'we have had tears running down our cheeks. It's a wonderful thing to have so much laughter between two people as we have had'.
The woman he always called 'Patty' would be just as warm about him. Reflecting on how close they grew - and there would be rumours of a marriage proposal - she said: 'The truth is that we both valued our friendship more than anything, and Dick wanted me as a friend for life rather than just a one-night stand or a quick affair. I've always seen that as a wonderful compliment'.
Another long-running partnership would be with Peggy Mount. An obvious contrast as comic personalities - Coombs tall, skinny, high-voiced and timid, and Mount short, stout, deep-voiced and domineering - they were first brought together for the sitcom Lollipop Loves Mr. Mole (ITV, 1971-2), in which Mount co-starred with Hugh Lloyd as a couple whose delicate domestic bliss was constantly in danger of being undermined by a brash brother-in-law and his hypochondriac wife (played by Coombs).
Rather reminiscent of the stage and film dynamic shared between Mount and the bird-like Esma Cannon during the Fifties in such vehicles as Sailor Beware and Watch It, Sailor, with the former's booming-voiced bullying sending the latter scurrying dutifully hither and thither, the on-screen relationship between Mount and Coombs proved effective enough to prompt their being united again, but this time as a proper central pairing, in another sitcom, You're Only Young Twice (ITV, 1977-1981).
Set in the Paradise Lodge retirement home, it starred Mount as the restless and plain-spoken Flora Petty, and Pat Coombs as her rather refined but childlike sidekick Cissie Lupin. This particular pairing was more of a female version of Laurel & Hardy, with Flora forever being frustrated by the sweet-natured stupidity of her friend:
FLORA: Close your eyes. Now I want you to cast your mind back. You are sitting on a park bench not a million miles away from here. It is raining.
CISSIE: Am I getting wet, dear?
FLORA: No. You are wearing your plastic pixie hood.
CISSIE: It must be Wednesday!
FLORA: Suddenly a voice says, er... - why must it be Wednesday??
CISSIE: Because it's the Reading Room on Wednesdays. What does the voice say, Flora?
FLORA: 'Is this seat taken?'
CISSIE: Why, I can move up if you like, dear.
FLORA: THAT IS WHAT THE VOICE SAID, CISSIE! My voice! In the park! Before I took you to the Linga-Longa Tea Rooms. Where I gave you a cup of tea and you gave me your cold! Our first meeting, Cissie: Stanley and Livingstone.
CISSIE: Ooh. Were they the gentlemen at the next table who asked did we mind if they smoked?
Following four well-received series of the sitcom, the two women were brought back together yet again for another project - made by Yorkshire TV for Channel 4 - entitled It's Never Too Late (1984). Featuring, besides Coombs and Mount, their old mutual friend and colleague Hugh Lloyd along with Harold Goodwin, it was a gentle comedy about four elderly people, with the two women living together and the two men doing the same, who first meet at a local bowls club. Intended as a series, the pilot unfortunately fell flat with the critics (one of whom complained that the dialogue 'would have been booed off by the regulars of a pre-school playgroup') and the plans went no further.
One other project that did, finally, come to fruition during this period was a sitcom for her and Patricia Hayes by the writer Johnny Speight. The man behind Till Death Us Do Part had been so impressed by the contributions the two had made to that show that he had resolved to shape a separate show expressly for them.
His first idea - a satirical comedy about two East End char women who worked in the House of Commons - had been discussed during 1977 and 1978 with ITV, but then petered out before even a pilot could be shot (it was later revived in 1979, as a pilot for the BBC, as The Tea Ladies, with Hayes and Dandy Nichols but not Coombs). Undeterred, Speight returned in 1982 with a different idea (a kind of gender reversal of his old 'tramp' sketches for Arthur Haynes) and clinched a deal with the then newly-formed Channel 4 to write a series called The Lady Is A Tramp.
Broadcast from the following January, it starred Hayes as the down-and-out Old Pat, with Coombs in support as her fellow bag lady Lanky Pat, who seek to move on from their many hard years of sleeping rough on park benches to sneak into a derelict van in what appears to be an unused yard, and then resist multiple attempts to evict them from their new home.
The show ran for two series, and exhibited the usual Speight strengths and weaknesses - sharp and snappy dialogue but loose and increasingly lazily-written storylines - but it showed off both performers' acting skills very well. Several awards were won, including one by Speight for creating the best comedy role for a woman (played by Hayes), and one each by Hayes and Coombs for their own performances.
Speight, however, was soon distracted by his ongoing ambitions for the Till Death saga - which would result in a new series, In Sickness And In Health, starting in 1985 - and Coombs found herself having, at least for a while, to take on some work in children's TV to cover the gaps in her schedule. Among the series in which she figured were Rainbow, Ragdolly Anna, Super Gran and Emu's All Live Pink Windmill Show.
Coombs did, nonetheless, soon find other ways to keep herself busy during this period. Always a welcome guest on panel, game and variety shows, she was a fairly regular benign presence on the likes of Blankety Blank, Noel's House Party and Celebrity Squares, and also featured as a guest in such series as Boon and Doctors. She was also a familiar voice in countless commercials, which included the likes of the 'oriental' fragrance for women Just Musk ('Oo-er - shouldn't be allowed!'), Lyons cream cakes ('Naughty - but nice!') and Typhoo tea bags ('You only get an "oo" with Typhoo!'), which provided her with a sizeable additional source of income.
In spite of all the praise she received, from both inside and outside the profession, for her performances over the years, she - like that other outstanding female comic actor June Whitfield - would never be actively groomed for any major starring vehicles all of her own. There was a rare allusion to the absence of such institutional support when she said of her own potential, 'I have great faith deep down, but you need people to encourage you...'. Most of the time, however, she would simply express her gratitude for remaining so busy as a supporting player.
Her work was, to a great extent, her life. She got engaged, she would say, 'two-and-a-half times', but would never marry, although she sometimes admitted that there was a lingering degree of sadness about her single status: 'I was very nearly married but I got cold feet. Partly because of the business and partly because I think I picked the wrong men. I regret it in many ways. There won't be any children now. But at least I can't ever upset anyone but myself. I can't ruin another person's life'.
There were many strong friendships, although, because of the pressures of work, some of them were maintained via correspondence rather than socialising. Describing herself as a 'manic letter writer', she would send as many as eight missives in a day to various people all over the country and in some cases abroad. She was also known to often spend hours at a time chatting on the telephone, catching up on what was happening in other people's lives.
Fame, she would say, made her uncomfortable - 'It's frightening. I go hot in restaurants if people recognise me' - and she much preferred to blend into the background whenever she was out and about in London. The rehearsal room, the studio and backstage at the theatre were the places she felt most at home, doing what she always did best.
Her only great frustration professionally during her many years in TV was how hard she had to struggle, no matter what critical plaudits came her way, to find any decent and demanding work outside of sitcoms and sketches. Once again, very much like Josephine Tewson who found herself similarly confined by comedy as far as the small screen was concerned, Coombs felt more than capable of taking on substantial and challenging roles in other genres, but they seldom arrived as solid offers.
There was a small role in the 1969 BBC adaptation of Dickens' Dombey And Son - she played the sycophantic Miss Lucretia Tox - and a somewhat bigger one in the Corporation's 1972 four-part version of Elizabeth Gaskell's Cranford - in which she took the part of the town gossip Miss Octavia Pole - and both performances received critical praise. They would, nonetheless, remain very much the exceptions to the rule.
It particularly niggled how relentless seemed to be the invitations to reprise the character she called 'my lady' - the all-purpose comic 'doormat'. A very different person in real life - her own voice was deeper, more confident and rather posh, and her personality was witty and quite assured - she protested: 'I do enjoy doing my lady but I get upset when people think I can't do anything else'.
'The one thing I would like to do is get into the BBC drama repertory company,' she said in an interview in 1972. '[But] I've done so much light entertainment, you see, that they think they know me and what I can do'.
She would appear eventually in EastEnders, in 1989, albeit as the predictably downtrodden, timid and mechanically-written Marge Green, and brought some much-needed humour to that self-consciously sombre soap, but was extremely hurt when the character - although palpably popular with viewers and critics alike ('Pat Coombs', one reviewer wrote, was just about 'the only character worth watching') - was dropped one year later, presumably on the grounds that such 'comic relief' was no longer needed with such a backlog of misery still to release.
She continued to be offered, and accept, a number of offers in comedy (and, as changing attitudes to the portrayal of women began - belatedly - to have their effect on mainstream sitcoms and sketches, she was pleased to have more opportunities to play somewhat less timid types, such as the super-efficient Gloria in Birds Of A Feather and the sympathetic Mrs Dobbs in An Actor's Life For Me). Whatever anger and irritation she might still have felt about being snubbed by the soap were kept (aside from an uncharacteristic quote in the press about the 'silly fools' who were in charge at EastEnders) very much within her private circle of friends.
In addition to all of her television work, she also appeared in quite a few movies over the years, although, sadly, never in anything that really tested her talent. She started with uncredited roles in Norman Wisdom's Follow A Star (1959) and A Stitch In Time (1963), followed by some frustratingly minor contributions to a couple of the Carry On franchise - Carry On Doctor (1967) and Carry On Again Doctor (1969) - as well as the high profile Willy Wonka And The Chocolate Factory (1971), the Dick Emery indulgence Ooh... You Are Awful (1972) and Spike Milligan's Adolf Hitler: My Part In His Downfall (1973). She also featured in the movie adaptations of Till Death Us Do Part (1969), On The Buses (1971) and Dad's Army (1971).
Her enduring friendship with Peggy Mount (who was, in stark contrast to the sort of characters she routinely portrayed, a rather reserved and essentially kind-hearted person) would end up seeing life imitating art when, in the summer of 2000, she decided to join her in the retirement home (Denville Hall, the actors' home in Northwood, Middlesex) where the now semi-blind Mount had settled a few years before. Coombs was, by this time, suffering from osteoporosis (an especially brutal form of which that would gradually shrink her in height by a full six inches) and emphysema (exacerbated by a lifetime of heavy smoking), but, from her new base, she continued to accept further offers of work.
Mount died in November 2001. Coombs would pass away less than a year later, on 25 May 2002, at the age of seventy-five, shortly after recording her final radio performance in the Roy Hudd and June Whitfield sitcom, Like They've Never Been Gone.
She had, at various times in her later years, entertained the idea of writing her life story (which she planned to call Getting It Off Pat), but had never found the confidence and drive to get very far with the project. She did, however, end up encouraging the author Andrew Ross, who had been corresponding with her (initially for the book he was researching on her friend Peggy Mount), to write an authorised biography, which he did, after her death, with the affectionate celebration Pat Coombs, published in 2021.
The passing of this most modest of performers was marked at the time with many warm and respectful tributes. She would no doubt have been surprised by all of the praise that came her way, but all of it was richly deserved.
If any comic actor today, of either sex, is even remotely interested in refining their art, then they would do well to spend an evening or two watching the best work of Pat Coombs. She was a charming performer, full of craft and cleverness, and as a person, too, even more importantly, she was one of the best to admire.