Mike O’Neill: Bafta and Emmy award winning costume designer who dressed Helen Mirren in Elizabeth I

Screenwriter Sandy Welch remembers the friend and colleague whose scholarly attention to detail and wardrobe genius helped actors bring characters to life

Sandy Welch
Tuesday 10 July 2018 12:55 BST
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O’Neill and his wife Samantha Horn collaborated on the 2005 miniseries ‘Elizabeth I’, for which they picked up Emmys
O’Neill and his wife Samantha Horn collaborated on the 2005 miniseries ‘Elizabeth I’, for which they picked up Emmys (Getty)

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Louise Thomas

Louise Thomas

Editor

My friend Mike O’Neill was the Bafta and Emmy award-winning costume designer who started life on a Manchester council estate, the eldest of a Catholic family of seven children. An early show business influence was his mother, a former Tiller Girl, who taught him to tap dance, sprinkling sugar on the kitchen floor.

Aged 12, he was picked by the local priest to attend a Jesuit seminary, which he survived for only three years. To his family’s dismay, Mike was intent on forsaking the church for the theatre.

After studying theatre design at Nottingham University, Mike joined the Royal Shakespeare Company, where he stayed for 12 years as assistant to the head of design, specialising in costume. He worked on many of the most famous of the RSC’s Sixties productions, including Peter Brook’s The Dream, Buzz Goodbody’s Hamlet and Trevor Nunn’s Revenger’s Tragedy.

RSC designers were “lent out” to film productions, one of which was Polanski’s 1971 film Macbeth. These experiences prompted Mike’s switch to feature films and heralded a long and successful career in both contemporary and period drama that spanned Prime Suspect in the early Nineties to 2005’s Elizabeth I.

Mike’s approach to costume was both serious and simple. He believed that however elaborate, the costumes should appear lived in by real people with stories to tell.

Alex Fordham was costume assistant to Mike on 2004 TV film Charles II: The Power and the Passion, which won a Bafta for best costume design, and 2005 miniseries Elizabeth I, which won a best costume Emmy.

Fordham said: “Although his taste was refined, his choices of fabric lustrous and in jewel-like colours, Mike’s costumes were there to serve the drama, nothing else. He was completely unsentimental about them. As pretty things on mannequins, they were uninteresting. On an actor, inhabiting their character – that is what they were for.”

Mike had a mischievous sense of humour and liked to confound expectations, his wife Samantha Horn recalls, his gently eccentric demeanour seemingly at odds with a vivid Mancunian bluntness.

The couple, who worked together – Horn was corecipient of the Emmy for Elizabeth I – met in 1994 while working at film costume supplier Angels in London. They married in 1999.

Mike was especially empathetic with actors: 1992’s Prime Suspect 2 was Colin Salmon’s first screen-acting job. He remembers Mike’s fittings, often the first port of call on any production, and the patience and time spent exploring his character.

He said Mike gave him great confidence – and a pair of brown leather brogues with commando soles. These, he later revealed, were Sean Connery’s from Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade.

Romola Garai, who played Gwendolen in the 2002 miniseries Daniel Deronda, said “Mike’s artistry, ambition, use of colour and attention to detail” helped her find her character.

She added: “The intense weight, stifling tightness of the dresses, the feeling of being strangled by the most beautiful flowering shrub, taught me more about that character and her impossible prison than hours of rehearsals could have achieved.

“The extraordinary beauty and complexity of his vision for Gwendolen left a powerful impression on me: young and a bit lost in the industry and in need of inspiring and kind teachers.”

Helen Mirren in 2005 miniseries ‘Elizabeth I’
Helen Mirren in 2005 miniseries ‘Elizabeth I’ (Alamy)

Mike’s theatre experience enabled him to handle vast casts and teams of craftspeople.

Intellectual without being pedantic, scholarly without being stuffy, the meticulous detail that went into a queen’s robe would also be applied to peripheral characters.

On two TV miniseries, Our Mutual Friend (1998) and North and South (2004), on which I was screenwriter, I was impressed with the care Mike took with the poorest and smallest characters and the relish with which he dressed the armies of “poor”: those inhabiting the shadows of Dickens’ Thames and the northern industrial textile workers, their costumes tinged with blue and terracotta dyes. The little children and babies, the literally voiceless, were all considered to have a soul and therefore given special care.

Mike’s team was similarly thoughtful and highly skilled.

On a busy and often fraught film set, the last post between the actors and the camera is the costume trailer. Mike’s team would create a relaxed, slightly bohemian atmosphere: a calming and respectful place from which the actors were released to realise their characters.

Of the many tributes from colleagues, there are two words most frequently used to describe working with Mike: inspiring and confidence. Not just for the actors and crew but especially for those who considered themselves fortunate to become part of his team. Fordham recalls Mike’s appreciation of the tangible skills each colleague brought to the table such as embroidery, millinery and tailoring.

What he most loved was the whirl of ideas, the fun to be had bringing dreams to reality and the sheer pleasure of watching a good actor on form.

Mike’s work earned numerous award nominations, winning the Royal Television Society award for Our Mutual Friend, the Bafta award for Charles II: The Power and the Passion and the Primetime Emmy and Costume Designers Guild award for Elizabeth I.

Mike is survived by his children, Finnian, Aifric and Gabriel, and his wife Samantha Horn.

Michael O’Neill, costume designer, born 21 September 1945, died 10 April 2018

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