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Tributes paid to legendary Dirty Duck landlady Pam Harris - the real life Mistress Quickly

THE legendary former landlady of the Dirty Duck pub, Pam Harris, died on Sunday aged 88 after a long period of illness.

She was the boss of the Waterside, Stratford, pub from the 1960s through to the late-90s and was renowned for her strict ways but warm heart.

The Duck was very much known as an actors’ pub under her care and during the years of draconian licensing laws, when last orders were called just as the post-theatre show revels would begin, she would allow actors and those she favoured to carry on drinking after hours.

Tony Sher, Michael Gambon, Charles Dance, Kenneth Branagh and Helen Mirren were among Pam’s famous clientele. She was also said to have once hit the actor, Richard Harris.

Born in 1933, Pam grew up in Erdington with mum Joan, dad Frank, younger sister Val and brother Bob.

This week Bob, who was close to Pam and emotional from her loss, spoke to the Herald about her life.

Pam pictured with David Bedford, one-time world 10,000 metres record holder, former head of the London marathon and best friend of brother Bob.
Pam pictured with David Bedford, one-time world 10,000 metres record holder, former head of the London marathon and best friend of brother Bob.

“She was very much my big sister, 12 years older than me, and always kept an eye on me,” Bob said. “She was a very caring person. I’m 76 and she still bossed me about and told me what to do. She was always lovely until the absolute end.”

Pam died at Stratford Bentley care home in the early hours of Sunday.

“It was perfect because it was next door to the church where Shakespeare’s buried, next to the river and just down the road from the Dirty Duck,” said Bob, who had been with her a couple of days before and left her in the care of her friend John Warnaby, the former actor turned priest, who spent Saturday with her.

“She was fighting until the very end, as every one of her friends would expect,” he added.

After their Erdington upbringing Bob went on to be a sports journalist and author, while Pam embraced the theatre and found her spiritual home at the Dirty Duck. Bob says their parents were always encouraging of their children’s endeavours.

“They were terrific my mum and dad, we couldn’t have asked for better parents. My dad was incredibly artistic. He was a beautiful painter and had a good vocabulary. Pam took after him. I wanted to be a sportsman but I got injured in my first season with Warwickshire – once you’re injured as a fast bowler you’re dead meat. But they encouraged me with a journalistic career, and I joined local paper, the Birmingham Planet.”

Pam never married or had children, but took on a maternal role to her many friends.

“She was very understanding and sympathetic,” said Bob. “I’ve written about 30 books, and she was always so proud of me… although she never said it aloud, but I knew.

“We had a lovely juxtaposition because I was introduced to people from the theatre, and they were pleased to meet me because they liked sport and I liked the theatre.”

Pam’s no-nonsense nature is part of her legend, as Bob recalls with amusement: “When she needed to be she could be a horror. If anyone needed kicking out of the pub she would kick them out whoever they were – no matter what part they were playing over the road. It was the same with the Hell’s Angels who would come up to Stratford on bank holidays. She used to stand on the steps of the Dirty Duck with her arms folded and they used to nod and drive off.”

Bob reflected: “Despite her gruff and grumpy exterior inside she had a huge heart and if anyone ever had trouble or had problems then she would throw her arms around them and help them in whatever way she could.”

As a final word, Bob said: “I would like to say thank you to everyone in Stratford for all they’ve done for Pam while she was alive and during her illness. People were so kind. She really was a special person. And as many have said, a real-life Mistress Quickly.”

Your memories of Pam

Susan Steller

I worked for her at the Duck in the 1960s. A formidable person with an amazingly kind heart. She whacked a very drunk Richard Harris once. We always kept in touch. I last saw her a couple of weeks ago.. said her usual cheerio with 'you can sod off now' - treasured last words! I will miss her very much.

Greg Doran, RSC Artistic Director

I’m very sad to hear the news of the passing of a Stratford legend, Pam Harris.

Pam was “mine hostess” of the Dirty Duck before handing over to Sam Jackson in 1997.

Tony Sher wrote the following account of beloved Pam, and the pub over which she presided with such care, in his autobiography Beside Myself in 2001:

...I became absorbed in rehearsals for the next show, and in the phenomenal social life of that 1982 Stratford company. We’d settle into the Dirty Duck after closing - every evening, it seemed - and drink into the early hours. Alun Armstrong was on guitar, leading rousing choruses. Michael Gambon told jokes. Helen Mirren and Sinead Cusack downed pints like navvies. Derek Jacobi sipped wine and waved at us from the restaurant, where he was always hunched over a script.

Supervising us was Pam Harris, the Duck’s legendary Mistress Quickly figure; a huge, unpredictable character, now ferocious, now fun, with something of Frankie Howerd’s huffy vocal style, her tones marinaded in brandy and smoked in Piccadilly untipped. It was often dawn when she started throwing us out - and she could do this literally. Drunk actors fell into the river, others made love on the grassy banks.

Dear Pam. “Nay, sure” to borrow what Quickly says of Falstaff in Henry V, “she’s in Arthur’s bosom, if ever a woman went to Arthur’s bosom”.

Helen Mirren wrote about Pam and the Dirty Duck after she joined the RSC in 1967 in her biography, In the Frame

As night would fall into the Black Swan pub, otherwise known as the Dirty Duck, for a lock-in that would last until three or four in the morning. Then I would head home through the low fog that rises on the Avon as the sun rises. The Dirty Duck is the only pub I ever loved. It was run at that time by a powerhouse called Pam, who knew the most intimate details about every actor, both professional and personal. She was a tyrant and a mother confessor, an amazing woman in body and personality, and she took no shit from anyone. It was the place you could bang on about the audience, about why this scene worked and that one didn’t, and about what was going on in the rehearsal room, ad nauseum.

You could joke and you could flirt. You could laugh until you cried and then cry until someone made you laugh again…

Philip Hoppner

I worked at the Duck 1992-3 and she took me under her wing. Pam would stand at the corner of the bar, with a large glass of brandy and a filterless cigarette, charming the customers and making sure the staff kept the bar in ship-shape.

At weekends, if you were lucky to be on the Sunday lunch shift, she would cook up an incredible feast after the doors were locked at 3pm. Under her gruff exterior was an incredibly kind-hearted woman. We were like a family. I recall a particularly raucous party for Charles Dance and Kenneth Branagh popping in to say hello. Happy days. Cheers Pam for all the memories.

Sam Jackson, Dirty Duck landlord

I think Pam ran the pub for 33 years and I joined her in 1998, taking over later that year. I spent four months getting to know the pub and Pam showed me such kindness. There have only been three landlords since 1950. I have lots of stories she once told me but would never tell… she will be greatly missed by us all.

Will Trevor

Being banned from The Dirty Duck by Pam was a rite of passage for any young Stratfordian. A feat I achieved twice. RIP Pam.

Deb Hellyer

Huge telling off for putting hand drawn sketch of Gary Numan among the actors photos! RIP Pam.

Nicola Hale

I worked at the Dirty Duck in the early 80s. She could be scary but really looked after her staff. I remember one quiet January night, she told us to go upstairs and play Monopoly. A great woman RIP.

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