Although Sheila Burrell spent her long working life as a character actress who never became a household name, she had the ability to get herself noticed. As the eccentric anthropologist Honor Klein, sleeping with her half-brother in Iris Murdoch and JB Priestley's musical-beds comedy A Severed Head (1963-64), she was reputed to be the first actress to bare her breasts on the West End stage, before reprising the role on Broadway.
Three decades later, she presented a ghostly image as another eccentric, the mad, miserly matriarch Ada Doom in the director John Schlesinger'stelevision film version of Cold Comfort Farm (1995), which was screened in cinemas abroad. Malcolm Bradbury's adaptation of Stella Gibbons's satirical novel stars Kate Beckinsale as Flora Poste, an orphan moving in with the cheerless Starkadders and her Great-aunt Ada, who rarely leaves thebedroom because she once "sawsomething nasty in the woodshed" but rules her farm and family with a rodof iron. Burrell takes Ada on thejourney through a transformation as she is eventually persuaded by Flora to swap gloom for joy and start a new life in Paris.
Born in Blackheath, south-eastLondon, in 1922, a cousin of Laurence Olivier, Burrell – whose father rana dye factory on the Thames – attended St John's School, Bexhill-on-Sea, before training at the Webber Douglas School of Singing and Dramatic Art. She made her stage début as Patsyin The Patsy (1942) for a troops entertainment company in Britain during the Second World War. Two yearslater, she appeared in the West End as Rose in The Rest is Silence (Prince of Wales's Theatre).
Over the next half-century, she was seen on the West End stage taking roles such as Barbara Allen in Dark of the Moon (Lyric, Hammersmith, and Ambassadors Theatre, 1949), Linda Cooper in Sweet Madness (Vaudeville Theatre, 1952), Rosina in The Herald Angels (Embassy Theatre, 1953), Elizabeth Glossop in Lola (Strand Theatre, 1954), Mrs Amos Evans in Strange Interlude (Duke of York's Theatre, 1984) and Violet Wallis in Last Dance at Dum Dum (New Ambassadors, 1999).
During a 1970 season with the RSC at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon, Burrell acted Margaret in Richard III, Constance in King John and Lucetta in The Two Gentlemen of Verona. She also enjoyed stints with the National Theatre company at the Old Vic, working with Olivier – her roles included the Duchess of Gloucester in Richard II (1972) – and with Ian McKellen's and Edward Petherbridge's Actors' Company (1974-75). She also played Mrs James in the original production of John Osborne's controversial post-colonial drama West of Suez at the Royal Court (1971), which transferred to the West End (Cambridge Theatre, 1971).
Burrell's first screen role was alongside Sidney James in the Hammer melodrama The Man in Black (1949). Although it was unintentionally funny, the same director, Francis Searle, saw her potential and immediately gave her a lead part in another Hammer production, The Rossiter Case (1950). She acted a woman having an affair with her brother-in-law, then producing a gun when confronted by her paralysed sister, with the result that she herself is shot dead in the struggle that follows.
Switching production companies, but with the same director, Burrell was cast in the thriller Cloudburst (1951) as one of the hit-and-run robbers avenged by a Foreign Office cipher expert whose wife was the victim. After appearing in the B-movie whodunnit Black Orchid (1952), most of her screen appearances were on television, in popular programmes such as No Hiding Place (1959, 1965), The Avengers (1969), The Bill (1989, 1998) and Trial & Retribution (1999). She played Lady Rochford in The Six Wives of Henry VIII (1970), Princess Myagky in Anna Karenina (1977), the witch Keelag in the children's series The Feathered Serpent (1978), Mrs Kinthley – owner of a prized hop garden – in The Darling Buds of May (1992) and Phyllis King, the forever-complaining aunt of the millionaire haulage executive Tom, who turned up for weddings and funerals in Emmerdale (2005, 2007). Her other films roles included Lady Eshton in Jane Eyre (1996) and Grandma Oliver in The Woodlanders (1997).
Her first marriage, to the actor Laurence Payne, ended in divorce. She is survived by her second husband, David Sim, a former theatre photographer for The Observer, and their three children, including the actor Matthew Sim. Her younger brother, the actor Richard Burrell, died in 1984.
Sheila Mary Burrell, actress: born London 9 May 1922; married 1944 Laurence Payne (divorced 1951), 1953 David Sim (two sons, one daughter); died Kingston-upon-Thames, Surrey 19 July 2011.