Paddie O'Neil: Expressive actress and comedienne who worked with Peter Sellers and Dick Vosburgh

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.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebookA unique anthology of reporting and analysis of a crucial period of history
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Guru Careers: Graduate Software Developer / Junior Developer

£20 - 28k + Benefits: Guru Careers: We are seeking a Graduate Software Develop...

Recruitment Genius: Graduate Trainee Teacher - Maths

£18000 - £21000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This organization is the larges...

Recruitment Genius: Delegate Telesales Executive - OTE £21,000 uncapped

£16000 - £21000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: High quality, dedicated Delegat...

Recruitment Genius: Field Sales Consultant - School Playground Designer

£25000 - £60000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A fantastic opportunity has ari...

Day In a Page

Fifa corruption: The 161-page dossier that exposes the organisation's dark heart

The 161-page dossier that exposes Fifa's dark heart

How did a group of corrupt officials turn football’s governing body into what was, in essence, a criminal enterprise? Chris Green and David Connett reveal all
Mediterranean migrant crisis: 'If Europe thinks bombing boats will stop smuggling, it will not. We will defend ourselves,' says Tripoli PM

Exclusive interview with Tripoli PM Khalifa al-Ghweil

'If Europe thinks bombing boats will stop smuggling, it will not. We will defend ourselves'
Raymond Chandler's Los Angeles: How the author foretold the Californian water crisis

Raymond Chandler's Los Angeles

How the author foretold the Californian water crisis
Chinese artist who posted funny image of President Xi Jinping facing five years in prison as authorities crackdown on dissent in the arts

Art attack

Chinese artist who posted funny image of President Xi Jinping facing five years in prison
Marc Jacobs is putting Cher in the limelight as the face of his latest campaign

Cher is the new face of Marc Jacobs

Alexander Fury explains why designers are turning to august stars to front their lines
Parents of six-year-old who beat leukaemia plan to climb Ben Nevis for cancer charity

'I'm climbing Ben Nevis for my daughter'

Karen Attwood's young daughter Yasmin beat cancer. Now her family is about to take on a new challenge - scaling Ben Nevis to help other children
10 best wedding gift ideas

It's that time of year again... 10 best wedding gift ideas

Forget that fancy toaster, we've gone off-list to find memorable gifts that will last a lifetime
Paul Scholes column: With the Premier League over for another year, here are my end of season awards

Paul Scholes column

With the Premier League over for another year, here are my end of season awards
Heysel disaster 30th anniversary: Liverpool have seen too much tragedy to forget fateful day in Belgium

Liverpool have seen too much tragedy to forget Heysel

Thirty years ago, 39 fans waiting to watch a European Cup final died as a result of a fatal cocktail of circumstances. Ian Herbert looks at how a club dealt with this tragedy
Amir Khan vs Chris Algieri: Khan’s audition for Floyd Mayweather may turn into a no-win situation, says Frank Warren

Khan’s audition for Mayweather may turn into a no-win situation

The Bolton fighter could be damned if he dazzles and damned if he doesn’t against Algieri, the man last seen being decked six times by Pacquiao, says Frank Warren
Blundering Tony Blair quits as Middle East peace envoy – only Israel will miss him

Blundering Blair quits as Middle East peace envoy – only Israel will miss him

For Arabs – and for Britons who lost their loved ones in his shambolic war in Iraq – his appointment was an insult, says Robert Fisk
Fifa corruption arrests: All hail the Feds for riding to football's rescue

Fifa corruption arrests

All hail the Feds for riding to football's rescue, says Ian Herbert
Isis in Syria: The Kurdish enclave still resisting the tyranny of President Assad and militant fighters

The Kurdish enclave still resisting the tyranny of Assad and Isis

In Syrian Kurdish cantons along the Turkish border, the progressive aims of the 2011 uprising are being enacted despite the war. Patrick Cockburn returns to Amuda
How I survived Cambodia's Killing Fields: Acclaimed surgeon SreyRam Kuy celebrates her mother's determination to escape the US

How I survived Cambodia's Killing Fields

Acclaimed surgeon SreyRam Kuy celebrates her mother's determination to escape to the US
Stephen Mangan interview: From posh buffoon to pregnant dad, the actor has quite a range

How Stephen Mangan got his range

Posh buffoon, hapless writer, pregnant dad - Mangan is certainly a versatile actor