Written by Terry Brown
Petite Phyllis Robins, at just five foot tall, delighted radio audiences and the record buying public alike, for more than twenty years with a vocal style that ranged from torchy smooth sophistication to finger snapping swing. With her peroxide blond ‘Jean Harlow’ looks, (her real hair colour was brown), she enjoyed major success in all entertainment mediums, and her 1934 recording of Smoke Gets In Your Eyes, (Rex 8569), remains an outstanding example of the torch singers art. I think it’s true to say that Miss Robins as a performer has been somewhat sidelined by some of her contemporaries, Eve Becke, Vera Lynn, and Evelyn Dall, spring to mind. But she was a headliner till the end of her career, not only as a singer, but also as a review star and film and television actress.
Phyllis Anne Robinson was born in Sheffield on 1 February 1910. Her father, William Robinson, was a successful scrap metal merchant and her mother Pollie happy to encourage Phyllis in her desire to go into show business. Phyllis’s early years remain obscure but by the age of 11, she was performing with her sister Iris, (born 4 November 1907), as, ‘Iris and Phylis, the Juvenile Entertainers’, in a singing double act, initially with each playing ukulele’s, then featuring Iris at the piano. (Phyllis also had two younger brothers, William and Robert). The two were popular in local pubs and, ‘Working Men’s’, clubs, eventually making their first major variety appearance on a bill headed by, ‘The Original Chocalate Coloured Coon’, G. H. Elliott at the Portsmouth Hippodrome during April 1921. Described as, ‘the wonderful juvenile stars’, the sisters continued across 1922 to 1925, as a popular fixture on the Moss Empires Theatre circuit and other variety theatres throughout the UK. The sisters popularity was such that for much of 1925, they toured abroad, performing in a show, ‘Veterans of Variety’, which although included old timers like, Marie Lloyd Jr., also showcased the girls, who also got to sing some of the old songs. The tour took in, South Africa and New Zealand and from June to September 1925, the Tivoli circuit in Australia, ‘delighting audiences with their songs and sketches’.
After returning to the UK, they had a break before returning to touring at The Grand Theatre in Nottingham in December. They continued touring across 1926/7, including appearances in, song publisher, Lawrence Wright’s, Blackpool based, ‘On With the Show’ review during the summer, with John Birmingham’s Band in 1926, and Jan Ralfini’s in 1927, (which was also broadcast). In mid-1928, the sisters decided to split and this may have been connected with a relationship Phyllis had entered into with a merchant seaman and subsequent Far East trading company owner, named, David Eric Kermode, who got Phyllis pregnant, around October 1928. The two became engaged with the intention of marrying and Phyllis had little choice but to take it a bit easier during her pregnancy, although with Kermode’s encouragement, (who was now acting as her manager), she took her first steps on the way to solo stardom with some top spots on the Moss Empires circuit, under her new name, Phyllis Robins. Incidentally, although the sisters had split as an act, Iris remained a key part of Phyllis’s life, as a general factotum, housekeeper and gofer, as well as acting as her accompanist on occasions into the 1940’s. Back in January 1929, Phyllis got one of her first solo press notices, whilst at The Empire, Portsmouth, the Western Daily Mail reporting, ‘Phyllis Robins proved herself versatile in several character studies and a song number which was extraordinarily well sung’. Phyllis and Kermode eventually married, quietly and privately at Birkenhead Register office on 20 February 1929. Unfortunately just two days later on 22nd, Kermode did a bunk, setting off on the S.S. Mantua, for Hong Kong, leaving a pregnant Phyllis to pick up the pieces. Despite the associated emotional fall-out, Phyllis had no choice but to keep on working and in March 1929, she joined the touring review, ‘Clap Your Hands’. A reviewer who saw her at the Derby Hippodrome noted, ‘Phyllis Robins supplies some comedy with her quaint and attractive way of working’.
Over the summer Phyllis took a break from performing and gave birth to a son, William Eric Kermode on 4 July 1929. Over the balance of the year and for much of 1930, Phyllis concentrated on motherhood and disappeared from the music press. But by the end of 1930, the lure to return to the boards burned as bright as ever and Phyllis did a pantomime and from January 1931, she went on tour in, ‘Pageant on Parade’, a review starring comedy husband and wife team, Billy Caryl and Hilda Munday. On 15 August 1931, Phyllis made her BBC radio debut as a solo artist, with ‘syncopated songs’, in ‘Variety’, broadcast on the Regional Service. Phyllis also caught the attention of talent scouts for Columbia records, who arranged a session for her on 17 September 1931. Although the two solos concerned were not issued, she made a sufficiently good impression to provide vocals for her first dance band sides with Percival Mackey on Columbia’s budget label, Regal, on 23rd. Her first solo’s proper, What Are You Thinking About Baby? /That’s What I Like About You, (featuring the guitar of Len Fillis), were made on 14 October that year, Phyllis thus joining the handful of other recording female popular soloist’s, around at the time.
In the latter part of 1931, her vocals were on display with the bands of Percy Chandler, Mackey again, and Ambrose. She made some excellent solo sides for the Filmophone label in December1931/January 1932, using the pseudonym, Vera Munson. Phyllis recorded and toured with Jack Hylton’s band in 1932 and was vocalist with Ambrose’s, Blue Lyres, at the Dorchester Hotel. For much of 1933 she concentrated on recording work with the likes of Arthur Lally, Howard Flynn, Harry Leader, Charlie Kunz, Jay Wilbur, and Stanley Barnett’s outfit at Madame Tussaud’s restaurant. Her June/July sides with Barnett on EBW are well worth seeking out, as are the solos she made for Winner in August 1933, Dusky Like His Mammy/What Are Little Girls Made Of? (EBW 5588). Speaking of EBW 5578, Mood Indigo/I Raised My Hat, record reviewer, Christopher Stone wrote in the Daily Mirror, ‘The new star in the list is, Phyllis Robins, who had had plenty of broadcasting and recording history, but now blossoms out as a soloist with her name on the label. Her style is Americanised and intimate. She whispered into the microphone as if it were a baby in arms; and as she is going to broadcast with Henry Hall at the BBC, this first record of hers may someday be accounted as a landmark in gramophone history’. (This of course was not Phyllis’s first solo, but as mentioned by Stone, she did join Henry Hall). Another attractive solo issue from this period is, Remember My Forgotten Man/Am I To Blame For That, (recorded under the name Mona Gray in November 1933 on Eclipse 550).
It’s unsurprising to find that Phyllis’s voice and looks attracted those at the BBC responsible for the first experimental Baird process television broadcasts, and billed as, ‘the girl with the intimate face and voice’, she appeared in half a dozen such broadcasts during 1933. More dance band vocals followed at Rex, and Phyllis appeared in cine-variety in such as, ‘The Hot Shot Review’, on the Paramount circuit. She also performed as featured vocalist with Jan Ralfini’s Band on tour, with Alex Freer’s Band at the Astoria and over the summer with Jack Hylton & his Orchestra. More importantly, as mentioned by Christopher Stone, from September 1933 Phyllis did indeed become a regular with Henry Hall and the BBC Dance Orchestra, joining his vocal team which included Canadian heartthrob, Les Allen.
She recorded and broadcast with Henry Hall, (under contract), to February 1934, before resuming more solo work on the variety halls, starting at the Leeds Empire. (Although she did re-join Henry Hall at the 1934 National Radio Exhibition). Just before leaving, Henry Hall, she gave a newspaper interview about her singing style, saying, ‘There really is an art in crooning. It’s vastly different from just standing in front of a mike and just singing. Crooning is an intimate affair. As a word differs in pitch, you must move further from the mike or else the low notes would disappear altogether and the high ones blast the ears of everyone in the country. Sometimes I whisper right into the mike, like a kiss.’ 1934 remained another busy year for Phyllis, who again hooked up with Jack Hylton, at the Palladium in March, the Leeds Paramount Cinema in April, and the Holborn Empire in May. More touring followed, in a variety show which included US reed player, Coleman Hawkins, as well as a spell in Ireland. She was also a featured singer in Jack Hylton’s 1934 Radio Luxemburg broadcasts. Into the latter part of 1934, Phyllis continued solo work on the BBC, (including Eddie Pola’s, ‘America Calling’, broadcasts), more commercial radio, the touring version of, ‘America Calling’, with Jack Hylton’s Orchestra and solo variety, (usually with pianist Jack Phillips).
As to records, she undertook more band vocals with Charlie Kunz, before eventually signing as a soloist for the Rex record label. As 1934 came to an end, Phyllis, (although still married to David Kermode), started a relationship with star ventriloquist, A. C. Astor. Arthur Charles Astor, (who always billed himself by his initials only), was in reality, one, Thomas Ferguson, born in Carlisle on 14th July 1890. Ferguson or Astor as I’ll call him for clarity, had started in Pierrot shows and had become a top headliner, touring the world, with his vent dolls, ‘Sentimental Mac’, ‘Maginty’, and others for many years. Now based mainly in the UK, Astor and Phyllis had first met when they appeared on the same variety bill at the Sheffield Empire in June 1934. Astor recalled that Phylliss, (19 years his junior and a deserted single mother), provided, ‘all I needed so badly, mentally, emotionally and physically…..we were drawn together, despite many difficulties and several attempted breaks on either side…..neither of us could leave the other alone’.
1935 continued in much the same way as previous years, although Phyllis would often perform on the same bill as Astor. In January she was at the Palace Theatre in Hull with Astor, on radio with him on 19th January in, ‘Music Hall’, and similarly at the Empire, Leeds in April, and the Grand Theatre, Derby in May. Phyllis’s other radio work included, John Watt’s, ‘Songs from the Films’, series, and Phyllis toured extensively, (without Astor), on the General Theatre and Moss Empire variety circuits for virtually the whole year, including starring in the touring variety shows, ‘Radio Revels’ and, ‘Rhythm is Our Business’, as well as London appearances at the Holborn Empire. As a glamorous and popular variety star, Phyllis was quickly taken up by British Film Studios, making her first, (non-singing), appearance in a Gordon Harker vehicle, ‘The Lad’, in 1935. This was followed by the film review, ‘Variety’ in the same year, in which she sang, This Thing Called Love and When I Grow Up. Phyllis also starred in the musical drama, ‘Murder at the Cabaret’ made in 1936, in which she sang, Powder Blues and Forgotten Woman. Alongside her films, Phyllis made appearances on the BBC’s Music Hall and Saturday Variety radio shows, and produced a stream of stunning vocals for Rex, including, When A Woman Loves A Man, (Rex 8247), Soon, (Rex 8284), I’ll String Along With You, (Rex 8319), My Kids A Crooner, (Rex 8378), Rhythm Lullaby, (Rex 8634), I’ve Got A feeling You’re Foolin’, (Rex 8690), and many others. As 1936 began, Phyllis was again touring for Moss Empires starting in January at the Leeds Empire on a bill which included, Nat Gonella & his Georgians, and later Teddy Brown. When the tour reached the Holborn Empire in May 1936, a reviewer complained about the use of a microphone, ‘handicapping a charming voice’. The same reviewer noted, ‘Miss Robins is one of those delectable people who seem to consider it desirable that songs should not be screamed or crooned, but simply sung, and sung with understanding and sympathy’.
By this time, Phyllis and A.C. Astor had set up home together as husband and wife in a flat in Dorset House on Baker Street in London. In August 1936, Astor purchased, Her Majesties Theatre in his hometown of Carlisle, which became a top variety venue and both he and Phyllis remained happy and successful together, at least for the time being. Also in August 1936, somewhat bizarrely, Phyllis attended the wedding of her brother, laying on a hospital stretcher as she was recovering from an operation for appendicitis, which she’d just had. In September 1936, Phyllis was interviewed by Radio Pictorial magazine. When asked if she ever got sick of touring, she replied, ‘Secretly, I do. I have worked for many years in variety, and the time I had at the BBC, giving me the opportunity for a home, (which is difficult to maintain when you’re on tour), and serious work was one of the most enjoyable times of my life. Of course, the BBC is not able to compete with the variety stage in payments to artists, and as I am fully booked up for London and provincial touring till after next February, I am not likely to do any more broadcasting or filming on an extensive scale’. By now, Phyllis as a top variety star, averaged £150.00 a week, or just under £9,000.00 in today’s prices based on the Retail Price Index. Mind you, as singer and friend of Phyllis’s, Paula Green told me, ‘With Phyllis it was easy come, easy go. She was generous to a fault with her friends and family, and she spent extravagantly on partying, designer clothes, expensive cars and caravans, which she tended to use, when touring’.
The touring Phyllis referred to above, in Radio Pictorial, was that on the Empire circuit with Nat Gonella’s Georgians and as said, it ran through to March 1937, (with Gonella), then to the autumn, with Teddy Brown, and then back with Gonella for the balance of the year. On 25th June 1937, Phyllis was subjected to one aspect of fame and success that wasn’t so pleasant, the arrival of an anonymous threatening letter. The note read, ‘Unless you want an abrupt end to your so far successful career, you will pay me the sum of 1000 dollars’, and went on to say how the sum should be taken to a certain post office and addressed to a George van Every for collection. The note added, ‘There must be no interference during collection, or I shall not hesitate to carry out my threat. I should not like the boys to pick you up….’ Fortunately the perpetrator one Leonard Newman, a naïve 17 year old clerk from Purley, was quickly identified and immediately declared his guilt. At a court hearing on 13th July, Newman apologized and pleaded guilty and was bound over to keep the peace. Meanwhile Phyllis’s commercial radio work began to grow and included appearances with Billy Cotton’s Band on the ‘Kraft Show’, and on the, ‘Stork Radio Parade’. Phyllis also made an appearance at the 1937 Radio Olympia, billed as, ‘The personality Vocalist of the BBC’. Phyllis made another film in 1937, ‘Shooting Stars’, in which she delighted audiences with, Boo Hoo, The Meanest Thing You Did To Me, I Saw a Ship A-Sailing and I Took My Harp To a Party. As the 1930’s came to an end, Phyllis was as busy as ever professionally, supporting Max Miller at the Holborn Empire at the end of 1937 into 1938, when she made two live broadcasts on the fledgling television service from Alexandra Palace. She was also heard again with Jack Hylton’s Orchestra on Radio Luxemburg, but again she majored on the variety stage over most of the year, including starring in Jack Hylton’s touring show, ‘Secrets of the BBC’, with summer variety in, Weston Super Mare, as well as numerous appearances on the Moss Empire circuit, again.
In October 1938 Phyllis’s private life was again subjected to public scrutiny when the wife of Thomas Ferguson, (A.C. Astor), sought a divorce on the grounds of his adultery with Phyllis. Of course Phyllis and Astor had been living together as man and wife since 1936, although she was still married to David Kermode and he to his wife Ivy. Ivy eventually got her divorce from Astor in April 1939, but with Phyllis still married the option of Phyllis and Astor tying the knot seemed as far away as ever and it would take till 1941 before a resolution to this situation was achieved. Being an adulteress did little if any damage to Phyllis’s career, which carried on much as before. In November 1938 she was in variety with Tommy Trinder at the Coliseum, through to 1939, and from March she was a regular on Eddie Pola’s BBC radio show, ‘Crazy Quilt’, which featured, The Heralds of Swing. But, as usual, touring in variety was the order of the day, and Phyllis appeared at Morecambe’s Winter Gardens, Derby’s, Grand Theatre, (in her own, ‘Radio Club Road Show’), Coventry’s, New Hippodrome, Oxford’s New Theatre, Northampton’s, New Theatre, the Plymouth Palace, and Blackpool’s, Palace Theatre, amongst many others. Part of Phyllis’s act at the time was to invite a young man from the audience, preferably uniformed, on to the stage, where she would sit on his lap to sing, Tea for Two, followed by a little dance to, I Want to be Happy. Depending on the reaction the young man got from the audience, she would arrange for the same serviceman to do the same at future performances. One such recruit was an RAF man, Lee Stevens, he later recalled that, ‘she paid very well’. Possibly tiring of the continual life on the road by then, when Phyllis was offered the chance to join a London based show, she jumped at the chance. This was a fortunate choice as the show was to become one of her most successful. ‘Shepherd’s Pie’, ‘a menu of songs, dances and laughter’, opened at the Princes Theatre in December 1939 and went on to have a run of 356 performances.
Surrounded by a stellar cast of comics, Richard Hearne, (later better known as, ‘Mr Pastry’) Arthur Riscoe, Sydney Howard and Vera Pearce, it was an ideal showcase for Phyllis who provided the songs and glamour, amongst the madcap humour. Her rendition of, Who’s Taking You Home Tonight, went down particularly well with the mainly services audience. Pathe filmed part of one of the comedy sketches and live excerpts were also broadcast on BBC radio. At this time Phyllis’s private life with Astor became complicated when she had an affair with Cardiff born guitarist/singer, Jimmy Mesene, and in September 1939, Phyllis and Astor split up. But Phyllis ended the affair and went back to Astor, although not for very long. Meanwhile, Phyllis had returned to solo recording work in the latter part of the year, on the Parlophone label, issuing amongst others, Oh Johnny! Oh! (F1675), Scatterbrain (F1646), and Sing for Your Supper (F1728). Despite her continuing personal success, the strains in her relationship with Astor re-surfaced in early 1940, as she had revived her affair with Mesene, and in March 1940 she left Astor and moved into a flat with Mesene in Watford. In August 1940, newspapers reported that Phyllis had finally divorced her long estranged husband David Kermode on the grounds, (this time), of his adultery in China.
The following month after overtures from Astor, Phyllis dropped Mesene, (again), and told Astor she wanted to get back together, and they were reconciled in November 1940, (just after Phyllis finished her run in, ‘Shepherd’s Pie’), and relocated to a country house outside Astor’s hometown of Carlisle. In between her theatre commitments, Phyllis’s radio work across 1940 included headline spots in, ‘Close-Up’, ‘The Name on the Label’, the, ‘Sunday Forces Show’, and, ‘Saturday Spotlight’, with Billy Ternant’s Orchestra. At the start of 1941, Phyllis decided she wanted to retire from show-business, settle down, and become a farmer. In consequence, A. C. Astor purchased Townhead Farm near Thursby in Cumberland, and the couple moved into the farm house. All seemed well and Phyllis determined to make the farm a going concern by completely modernizing and replacing clapped out plant and equipment. With the farm her main priority, Phyllis remained out of sight for much of 1941, although she did make a few radio appearances, including, ‘Cavalcade of Variety’. In September 1941, news reports welcomed her back to the variety stage, when she did a season at the Winter Gardens, in Morecombe. A reviewer wrote, ‘A vivacious personality and the ability to put over any type of song has put Phyllis Robins in the top flight of stage stars and she heads a very attractive bill’. On 26 October 1941 she was a headliner in a special show to raise cash for the RAF Benevolent Fund, at the Winter Gardens. Phyllis could also be heard on radio again in October, in, another ‘Cavalcade of Variety’, but otherwise, farming was the order of the day. On 11 December 1941, Phyllis and Astor finally tied the knot at Caxton Hall, Westminster.
During 1942, Phyllis again concentrated on her farming business, although she did more radio than the previous year, appearing with Jack Warner, (as his ATS girlfriend), from 28 February to April in the weekly, ‘Saturday Social’ series and over the balance of the year in editions of , ‘Starlight’, ‘Navy Mixture’, and ‘Break for Music’, for the BBC. By the end of 1942, Phyllis had begun to tire of her life on the farm and when in April of 1943 she was offered the starring role in a touring version of Cole Porter’s musical comedy, ‘DuBarry was a Lady’, Phyllis jumped at the chance to return to the bright lights. No doubt her husband, A. C. Astor was somewhat disappointed but stood by her and Phyllis opened at the New Opera House in Blackpool, on 19th April. After a very successful tour, Phyllis decided more or less to return full time to entertainment, leaving Astor to carry on the farming business. Although Astor would accompany his wife on occasions when performing, they spent long periods apart, he in Cumberland and she based in a bungalow the couple rented at Ham Island in Windsor on the River Thames. Phyllis began to increase her radio output and took a slight change of direction when she went into a comedy thriller, ‘Three Wives Called Roland’ with Henry Edwards, which opened at the Q Theatre on 2 November 1943.
It was around this time that Astor discovered that Phyllis had been seeing Jimmy Mesene again, and for some time, using the same flat in Watford he had confronted her in back in 1940. She again, dropped Mesene, but her relationship with Astor remained in a very fragile state. As 1943 came to a close, Phyllis joined Lupino Lane in his new musical comedy, ‘Meet me Victoria’. It opened in try-out on 7 March at Blackpool’s, New Opera House, with further showings in Nottingham, Coventry and Bristol, before settling into the Victoria Palace in London from 8 April 1944. It ran for 117 performances, before closing briefly, (because of V1 Flying bombs), to resume for another 134 performances to the summer. It was at the end of this show that Phyllis decided she wanted no more of the farming life and that she would be leaving Astor. With Astor’s pleading, the couple did attempt to get back together, and Phyllis eventually relented, saying she was prepared to give things another go, but only after she had undertaken an ENSA, (Entertainments National Service Association), tour of East and West Africa, that she’d been asked to do. In September 1944, Phyllis left for Africa. Unfortunately whilst in Khartoum she contracted dysentery, a condition which would cause her medical problems in the future. When the ENSA tour ended in February 1945, Phyllis returned to the UK, but reneged on her agreement with Astor. Indeed she returned without even informing him, and the proposed reconciliation never took place. Phyllis and Astor never lived together again, although he continued to support her financially on occasions, (through to 1949), especially when Phyllis’s health problems resulted in costly medical bills.
During 1945, Phyllis was again in variety at the Victoria Palace and elsewhere, as well as in the ‘Starlight’ slot on BBC radio, although an operation, (paid for by Astor), kept her off the boards for several months. In July 1945, Phyllis had a change of pace when she was recruited to appear in a new, ‘enchanting musical’, (as it was described), ‘Cage me a Peacock’, which opened in try-out at the Royal Hippodrome, in Chatham, Kent. Producer Peter Bull described how the leading role was a difficult one to cast as it required an expert singer who could also act. On Phyllis he said, ‘it was obvious from the first reading that here was our heroine. Tiny and exquisite to look on, with ash blond hair and an irrepressible sense of humour, she turned out to be the most unlikely leading lady I have ever encountered. She helped the chorus with their singing and half an hour before the opening night was doing a bit of necessary sewing to the costumes’.
Phyllis remained busy on radio with variety spots and from 4 August, a run of 20 weekly appearances in, ‘The Michael Howard Show’, with Phil Green’s Orchestra. In 1946, Phyllis toured in, ‘Cage me a Peacock’, and went on another ENSA sponsored tour to Germany and North Africa, (put together by Ivor Novello and producer, Michael Hickman, who would feature again in Phyllis’s life a little later). Following, her return to the UK, Phyllis did a season at the Latin Quarter in London, which was followed by cabaret, at the Berkeley Hotel under the musical direction of Carroll Gibbons. She returned to television as the star of the popular television review, ‘Paging You’, which ran periodically over the next two years. Phyllis was also subjected to yet another operation during the year, when her health problems surfaced again. More film work followed and she could be seen singing, The Pretty Little Girl from Nowhere, in ‘Gaiety George’, with Ann Todd and Richard Greene in 1946, and Caress Me, in the 1947 Trevor Howard thriller, ‘They Made Me a Fugitive’. During 1947, Phyllis toured in a stage version of the Ealing film, ‘Jassy’, to popular acclaim, and she also made several more television appearances in the BBC’s, ‘Variety’, series. But jobs were becoming more difficult to come by and in December 1947, Phyllis had to rely on a hand-out from A.C. Astor to make ends meet. Work picked up in 1948 with Phyllis juggling variety appearances with her highly successful touring version of ‘Cage Me a Peacock’. Whilst in variety at the Tivoli in Hull a reviewer noted, ‘Topping an excellent bill at the Tivoli this week is the ever popular radio and stage personality, Phyllis Robins, complete with lovable little dog. Miss Robins gave a charming and characteristic performance’.
Ever on the lookout for a new challenge, in late 1948, Phyllis, took the bold decision to travel to Australia to appear in variety. A newspaper reported one slight complication as to this trip thus, ‘Seeking fresh fields in Australia, Phyllis Robins is going to appear in variety out there. She will make a regular broadcast each week. Wherever Phyllis goes – even on the stage – her lovely little French poodle is sure to go too. But he cannot travel to Australia by air. So a very lonely little dog is going to make the long journey by sea’. Phyllis opened at Melbourne’s Tivoli Theatre in a review, ‘All the Best’, on 13 December 1948. From 16 February 1949, the show moved to the Tivoli in Sydney, then to the Theatre Royal, Adelaide from 17 May, but the tour ended abruptly on 5 June, when Phyllis, (apparently after a phone call from her mother), was released from her contract to return to the UK to star at the London Casino from 15th July. Again at this time, Phyllis was having financial difficulties and obtained help from A.C. Astor and his accountant to get her tax sorted out. In August 1949, he also covered her medical costs when she was involved in a road traffic accident. On 24 September 1949, an excerpt from the London Casino show was broadcast on the BBC, and on 16 December Phyllis also started a run of the television version of BBC radio’s ‘Starlight’, with shows in December/January and April/May 1950.
By this time, Phyllis had again begun to withdraw from the business completely. Apart from one radio appearance on a ‘Worker’s Playtime’, broadcast, ‘from a canteen in Lincolnshire’, on 11 May 1950 and a role in, ‘Jack and the Beanstalk’, at the Connaught Theatre in Worthing, during December 1950, Phyllis remained off stage. Phyllis disappeared from the press other than an odd report in October 1950, when Phyllis was fined £75.00, for failing to declare and pay import duty on, ‘two silk shirts and a sheepskin coat’. Phyllis also began to get her private life on a firmer footing, finally obtaining a decree nisi from A. C. Astor, (In March 1951), and marrying, (yet again). This time it was Michael Hickman, (who as mentioned earlier had put her 1946 ENSA tour together). By the time they married he was a successful farm owner at Stanbury Manor, in Bude, Cornwall, and for the next seven years they ran the farm together. Unfortunately, some unwise investments led to Phyllis’s bankruptcy in 1956, but she and Hickman managed to work their way through this. In 1958, Hickman was recruited by the Show Jumping Association to promote show-jumping events and this involved both he and Phyllis travelling all over the UK and abroad, which she apparently loved. In 1968, Hickman left the Show Jumping Association to form, County Leisure International Ltd and he became a highly successful stud farm owner and ‘horse consultant’, to the Saudi Royal family amongst others.
The couple lived very comfortably and happily for 12 years in Buckingham, five years in Aylesbury and seven in Beaconsfield, where Phyllis became deeply involved in local social and charitable activities, leading a very active life until 1980, when she developed cancer. This sadly left her an invalid and despite a number of operations, she eventually succumbed to the disease on 16 March 1982, aged just 72. Despite her somewhat complicated private life, Phyllis remains one of the most glamourous and stylish singers of the 1930’s and 1940’s and I would recommend almost any of her recordings.