Paddie O'Neil: Expressive actress and comedienne who worked with Peter Sellers and Dick Vosburgh
Tuesday 27 April 2010
Actress, singer and comedienne, Paddie O'Neil was a lady of formidable talents who, while never a major star, made a strong impression on stage, television and radio, and appeared with Peter Sellers in his first film, Penny Points to Paradise (1951), which teamed Sellers with the other fledgling stars of radio's Goon Show, Harry Secombe and Spike Milligan. She also had a notable role in the Norman Wisdom comedy, The Early Bird (1965), in which she was Gladwys Hoskins, the plump, amorous lodger of Edward Chapman.
On stage, her greatest hit was the Frank Lazarus-Dick Vosburgh musical, A Day in Hollywood, A Night in the Ukraine (1979). In the show's second half, A Night in the Ukraine, a wickedly funny spoof of a Marx Brothers movie, she added to the fun with her delicious take on the haughty but dizzy aristocrats played in the original films by Margaret Dumont. "Paddie was an enormous talent," said Lazarus. "A large woman with huge eyes and an expressive face, she was a natural comedienne, had a large voice for both speaking and singing, and could do marvellous impressions. I think the only thing that prevented her being more widely known is that she got bored easily and did not like long runs."
Born Adelena Lillian Nail in 1926 in Hereford (her first name invented by her mother from the names of her aunts Ada and Lena), she was of Welsh ancestry and the daughter of circus and fairground performers. Her father was a lion tamer, billed as "Professor Nail", and she recalled that when she was four years old he encouraged her to sing the music hall song, "Daddy Wouldn't Buy Me A Bow-Wow" while standing in the lion's cage, "The Den of Death". She later confessed that she had no idea at the time that it was not something that most other children did.
During her childhood she also did stunts on the trapeze, rode bareback and acted as "barker" for the fairground rides. Her education was nomadic, as her parents' work took her all over the country and she rarely stayed more than a few weeks in any school. In her early teens, she was enrolled in a stage school in London, and in 1942 she had her first professional engagement, as stand-by for Elizabeth Welch at the London Palladium. Signed by the BBC, she was a featured singer on the radio for the rest of the war, and for a time she compered the popular variety programme, Navy Mixture. Later she was a regular on radio's The Jack Jackson Show.
She and the actor Alfred Marks had their own television series on the BBC, Don't Look Now, in 1950, and the following year she made her first film, Penny Points to Paradise, as one of a pair of gold-diggers out to fleece pools winner Harry Secombe of his fortune. A highlight of the patchy movie was O'Neil's broad pantomime impersonation of Bette Davis, and in another amusing sequence she and Secombe, while under the spell of a stage hypnotist, perform Verdi's "Miserere" duet with Secombe singing soprano and O'Neil baritone. Many years later Sellers recalled, "Spike, Harry, myself, Alfred Marks, Bill Kerr and Paddie O'Neil once made a film for £100 each in Brighton Studios... it really was a terrifyingly bad film!" A recent restoration of the film has shown Sellers' judgement to be harsh, though it is not a distinguished work.
In 1952 O'Neil married Marks, their union lasting 44 years until Marks' death. Their wedding took place in Brighton, where they were appearing in a show, and they threw a wedding party on the beach at midnight. The couple were to appear frequently together on radio and on television. O'Neil also wrote comedy material, often in collaboration with Dick Vosburgh, and she was the first female writer-producer to be hired by Independent Television when it began broadcasting in 1954.
When Vosburgh and Lazarus conceived A Day in Hollywood, A Night in the Ukraine, O'Neill was one of the first casting choices. It opened at the New End Theatre in 1979, and was an immediate hit, transferring after 11 weeks to the Mayfair Theatre, where it ran for six months and won several awards. The musical had started out five years earlier as a one-act play, A Night in the Ukraine, depicting a version of Chekhov's The Bear adapted for the Marx Brothers. Vosburgh suggested expanding the show by adding a first act, A Day in Hollywood, a revue about the movie capital in the Thirties, using the talents of the performers cast in Act Two.
O'Neil was in self-imposed retirement when Vosburgh, convinced she would be the perfect "Madame Pavlenko", coaxed her to appear in the show, in which her depiction of Bette Davis singing the Gershwins; "They Can't Take That Away From Me" stopped the show nightly. Alas, when producer Alexander Cohen took the musical to Broadway only Lazarus was allowed to go with it, since he was the composer and played his own music on the piano during his portrayal of Chico Marx. "Paddie would have wowed them!" said Lazurus, though the first act was considerably altered for New York. Vosburgh always credited O'Neil's contribution to the evolution of the original first act, because of her abilities as a comedienne and impressionist. "Paddie and Alfred were always quipping," Lazarus said. "I doubt that they could say,'Pass the cornflakes,' without it becoming a wisecrack."
One can only imagine what life could have been like at the Marks' first home, a flat in Highgate in London where they had Peter Sellers living upstairs and Spike Milligan downstairs. Later they moved to a large house where they installed a private cinema, complete with authentic seating and a sweet kiosk.
After appearing with Marks in the television series, Alfred Marks Time (1959), O'Neill retired to raise her two children and was happy to see her husband's career flourish – he was awarded the OBE in 1976. The couple worked extensively on behalf of charities, and a friend described them as "unwavering Labour supporters – well, at least till Tony Blair."
After Vosburgh brought her out of retirement O'Neil took occasional film, radio and television roles, including the film Fanny Hill (1983), in which she and Shelley Winters were rival brothel-keepers, and the TV series Rentaghost (1980) and Woof! (1989). In the hit comedy series Two's Company (1979) starring Elaine Stritch, she guest-starred in a "putting on a show" episode in which she and Stritch performed a rousing version of the duet, "Bosom Buddies" from Mame. She also toured the world with Marks. In 1980 she was the subject of This Is Your Life, and in order to get her there, she was enticed on to a ghost train, a reference to her fairground background. When Eamon Andrews and Alfred Marks suddenly appeared from the carriage behind her, her earthy response had to be bleeped out of the programme.
Adelena Lillian Nail (Paddie O'Neil), actress, singer, comedienne: born Hereford 2 February 1926; married 1952 Alfred Marks (died 1996; one daughter, one son); died London 31 January 2010.
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