Sheila Keith

Gentle actress who played terrifying roles
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The Independent Online

In contrast to the courteous, gentle nature for which she was known in her private life, Sheila Keith was capable of frightening the pants off audiences and fellow actors alike on screen and stage. With a benign smile, she portrayed terrifying characters in cult British horror films, as well as in television and stage comedies.

Sheila Keith, actress: born London 9 June 1920; (one son); died Chertsey, Surrey 14 October 2004.

In contrast to the courteous, gentle nature for which she was known in her private life, Sheila Keith was capable of frightening the pants off audiences and fellow actors alike on screen and stage. With a benign smile, she portrayed terrifying characters in cult British horror films, as well as in television and stage comedies.

The actress will probably be best remembered for her role in Frightmare (1974), as the electric drill- and red-hot-poker-wielding Dorothy Yates, a cannibal pensioner who goes on a murderous rampage again after being freed from an asylum. As she lures young people into her home in the guise of telling their fortunes, Dorothy's devoted husband covers up her bloodletting antics, in a film described as Britain's answer to The Texas Chainsaw Massacre.

It followed Keith's role as a psychotic warder in a correctional institute for girls in House of Whipcord (1974), from the same director, Pete Walker, a master of horror exploitation. "I'm going to make you ashamed of your body," she tells one girl, with relish. "I'm going to see to that personally."

In both films, Keith perfectly embodied the theme developed by Walker and his collaborator, the writer David McGillivray, of the elderly dominating and posing danger to the young generation.

She also appeared in the last of Walker's "suburban horror" trilogy, House of Mortal Sin (1975), as a Roman Catholic priest's one-eyed housekeeper who threatens his infirm mother: "He's gone out again, I'm afraid. You're all alone again . . . with me."

Born in London in 1920, of Scottish parents, Keith moved to Aberdeen at the age of two to be brought up by her Auntie Bella after the death of her mother from tuberculosis. Longing to act, she trained at theWebber Douglas Academy, in London, then gained stage experience the traditional way, at repertory theatres in Worthing, Liverpool, Ipswich, Bromley and at the Bristol Old Vic and the Pitlochry Festival.

When she graduated to London's West End, Keith was directed by the stage and film actor Nigel Patrick in Present Laughter (Queen's Theatre, 1965) and appeared alongside the musical star Ginger Rogers in Mame (Theatre Royal, Drury Lane, 1969).

At about the same time, Keith broke into television, with character parts in series such as Sherlock Holmes (1965), Public Eye (1966) and The Saint (1968), and a regular role as Mrs Cornet in the soap opera Crossroads (1967).

But her face became best known on the small screen in sitcoms, playing Auntie Ethel in Moody and Pegg (1974), Mrs Bagworth in A Roof Over My Head (1977), the stern but caring Mother Stephen in Bless Me, Father (1978-81) and Mrs Lilley in The Other 'Arf (1984).

Remaining a firm favourite of the horror film director Pete Walker, she was also cast by him in The Comeback (1977), as the housekeeper looking after a ghostly country mansion that becomes home to a pop singer trying to revive his career, and in a similar role in House of the Long Shadows (alongside Vincent Price, Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing, 1983).

She was also seen in the writer Michael Frayn's film comedy Clockwise (1986), playing the mother of an old flame (Penelope Wilton) reunited with the usually punctilious headteacher who is late for a conference (John Cleese).

On the West End stage, the actress also appeared in Deathtrap (Garrick Theatre, 1978), the writer John Wells's satire Anyone for Denis? (Whitehall Theatre, 1982) and An Italian Straw Hat (Shaftesbury Theatre, 1986).

Anthony Hayward



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