In a 2006 Hampstead Theatre production of The Best of Friends, based on a book by Hugh Whitemore, she portrayed Dame Laurentia McLachlan, OSB. The play focused on her friendships with Sir Sydney Cockerell and George Bernard Shaw. In 2008 she played Queen Mary in Royce Ryton's play Crown Matrimonial. Routledge's screen credits include To Sir, with Love (1967), Pretty Polly (1967), The Bliss of Mrs. Blossom (1968), and Don't Raise the Bridge, Lower the River (1968). Routledge's early television appearances included a role in Steptoe and Son, in the episode "Seance in a Wet Rag and Bone Yard" (1974) as a clairvoyant called Madame Fontana.
She also appeared in Coronation Street, and as a white witch in Doctor at Large (1971). However, she did not come to prominence on television until she featured in monologues written for her by Alan Bennett from 1978 (A Visit from Miss Protheroe) and later Victoria Wood in the 1980s. She first appeared in Alan Bennett's A Woman of No Importance in 1982, and then as the opinionated Kitty in Victoria Wood As Seen On TV in 1985. She performed two further monologues in Bennett's Talking Heads in 1987 and 1998. In 1990, Routledge landed the role of Hyacinth Bucket in the comedy series Keeping Up Appearances.
She portrayed a former working-class woman with social pretensions (insisting her surname be pronounced "bouquet") and delusions of grandeur (her oft-mentioned but never-seen "candlelight suppers"). She was nominated for two BAFTA TV Awards in 1992 and 1993. The series ended at Routledge's request in 1995. In 1995, Routledge accepted the lead in another long-running series, the mystery drama Hetty Wainthropp Investigates, which co-starred rising star Dominic Monaghan as her assistant. It first aired in January 1996, and ran until the Autumn of 1998, with one special episode in 1999.
She has also played several real-life characters on television including Barbara Pym and Hildegard of Bingen. In 2001, Routledge starred in Anybody's Nightmare, a fact-based television drama in which she played a piano teacher who served four years in prison for murdering her elderly aunt but was acquitted following a retrial. Routledge's extensive radio credits include several Alan Bennett plays and the BBC dramatisation of Carole Hayman's Ladies of Letters, in which she and Prunella Scales play retired women exchanging humorous correspondence over the course of several years. A tenth series of Ladies of Letters premiered on BBC Radio 4 in 2009. Routledge has also recorded and released a variety of audiobooks including unabridged readings of Wuthering Heights and Alice's Adventures In Wonderland and abridged novelisations of the Hetty Wainthropp series. In 1966 she sang the role of Mad Margaret in Ruddigore, the title role in Iolanthe, and Melissa in Princess Ida, in a series of BBC radio Gilbert and Sullivan recordings. She took part in a studio broadcast of Tchaikovsky's opera Vakula the Smith (narrating excerpts from Gogol) in 1990. In 2006 she was featured in a programme of the 'Stage and Screen' series on Radio 3. She was appointed OBE in 1993, and CBE in 2004.
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