Pam Harris obituary

Pam Harris, who has died aged 88, was for many years the manager and licence holder at the Dirty Duck pub (originally known as the Black Swan) on Waterside in Stratford-upon-Avon, a few minutes’ walk from the Royal Shakespeare Theatre.

She lived above the shop for 20 years, from 1977 to 1997, and when she retired settled in a picturesque cottage in the town by the market square. She was a larger-than-life character who came into her kingdom, as much as any actor, on a Royal Shakespeare Company first night, floating through her domain in flowing, tent-like silk dresses, and across the road to the theatre.

One of the many great actors’ photos around the walls showed David Warner and Roy Dotrice – RSC fixtures in the early 1960s – supping pints in broad daylight on the stoop. Bubble captions had one saying, “Where is everyone?” and the other, “They’ve gone home for breakfast.”

Anyone could be banned for breaking the Dirty Duck rules, which included refusing to mingle with the enemy (that is, actors with critics, or vice versa), behaving badly – or insulting the staff. Pam was a formidable hostess, our very own Mistress Quickly, fuelled on brandy and Piccadilly untipped cigarettes, and accompanied for some years by a big floppy black dog called Fat Lump.

She was born and raised in the Erdington district of Birmingham, where her parents worked in the Fort Dunlop factory, Frank as a builder of giant tyres for wartime aircraft, Joan as a wages clerk.

Pam was educated at Sir Josiah Mason’s school. Her career in hospitality started at the Rainbow Club in Coventry and, between two stints at the Duck, a short spell at the Golden Hinde in Lutterworth, where her younger brother, Bob Harris, a well-known sports journalist, brought along his friend David Bedford, the runner, who became one of her many friends, too.

She worked at the Duck in her first (shorter) spell for the manager Ben Shepherd whom she succeeded as manager and licence holder on her return in 1977.

I particularly treasure a night at the Duck in June 1982 when, after Michael Gambon’s King Lear had opened, with reviews filed and dinner done, I summoned champagne for the actors. Pam brought down her most treasured cut-glass goblets. I carried a tray of brimming cups across to the actors in their snug. Alas, some slipped ineluctably into the very lap of the great Gambon. Others crashed to the floor and splintered. I turned on my heel and said to Pam, “Same again, mine hostess in the garters”. We had arrived in the Boar’s Head of Shakespeare’s history plays.

Among the critics, Pam was particularly fond of Jack Tinker, Michael Billington and Bill Hagerty. Her favourite actors included Judi Dench, Diana Rigg, John Turner, Norman Rodway, Robert Stephens, Guy Henry, Alun Armstrong, Antony Sher, Des Barrit, John Warnaby – who became a Roman Catholic priest and returned to Stratford to comfort her in the nursing home at the end – and Paul Jesson.

Over the past 15 years, she survived more than two dozen surgical operations and became such a fixture in Birmingham and Warwick general hospitals that her medical notes filled a supermarket trolley.

She is survived by Bob, and their sister, Val.