Obituary: Tessie O'Shea

Denis Gifford
Monday 24 April 1995 23:02

Exuberant, ebullient, effervescent - even elephantine: as Tessie O'Shea herself declared in her signature song, "I'm Two-Ton Tessie From Tennessee".

She wasn't from Nashville, Tennessee, as the lyric claimed; nor was she from Lancashire, as her accent implied; nor from Ireland, as her surname suggested. She was a Welsh girl born in Cardiff in 1914, four months before the beginning of the First World War. Before that war was over the tiny Tessie had made her stage dbut at the seaside and won a stick of rock. It was the first step in a career that made her the star of two continents, covering variety theatres, radio, records, television, West End revue, Broadway drama and Hollywood movies.

Tessie was 11 when she first came to London to sing and dance in a charity performance put on by her mentor, Billy Barnes. Seen by talent spotters for the Oswald Stoll organisation, she was booked for a solo appearance at the Hippodrome, Bristol, in March 1926, aged 12. Within three months she was a turn at the Chiswick Empire and a legendary music-hall career was under way.

Tessie's early turn was based on the wonderful character comedienne Lily Morris, and she impersonated her version of "Why Am I Always the Bridesmaid, Never the Blushing Bride". Never bothered by her burgeoning body, the teenaged Tessie bounced through a bright and breezy act, backing herself on the banjulele, a combination of banjo and "uke" popularised by George Formby.

In 1933 she cut her first record, "You Bet Yer", for Parlophone, but it was rejected. O'Shea immediately went to a less particular company, Panachord, and in July out came her first disc, "When Are They Going to Find Us Owt to Do?". Then came a comedy yodel song called "U are a Liarty" and in 1934 a wonderful double-sider for Decca called "Veterans of Songland". Her version of the classic "Nobody Loves a Fairy When She's Forty" was switched by her to "Nobody Loves a Fat Girl When She's Forty", which fortunately for her proved utterly untrue. The warmth of her reception by every audience from the Argyle, Birkenhead, to the London Palladium proved that.

O'Shea's regular summer season for the entrepreneur Bert Feldman in Blackpool cemented her stardom as far as the North went, and one of these shows was recorded, with Tessie singing a top-speed comedy number, "I Met Him by the Withered Weeping Willows". She also recorded "The Man on the Flying Trapeze" in a specially written "girl's" version.

Her signature tune which gave her her nickname of "Two-Ton Tessie", was not recorded until 1939, and her last recording for some years came in 1940, "I Fell In Love With An Airman Who Had Big Blue Eyes But I'm Nobody's Sweetheart Now". Enormously popular in the war, the song marks O'Shea's years of entertaining the troops with Ensa. She also composed an epic song entitled "International Rhythm", which was unfortunately too long for the 10-inch recordings of the day. A pity, for it embraced her personal philosophy: "Every man that you meet he's your musical brother. Be mad about music and not at each other."

It was in early 1944 that she topped her first bill at the Palladium, sharing the honours with that king of cheeky chatter, Max Miller. This led to her starring in Val Parnell's first shot at revue in High Time (1946). Tessie made her first appearance on the back of an elephant, an impressive entrance spoiled somewhat by the elephant's being pregnant. Nobody knew this at first, and one evening came a moment when Tessie and her two tons proved just too much for Jumbo to bear. Jumbo threw her off and the star was out of the show for three months.

Determined as ever, she threw away her crutches on 4 November: she had been chosen to star in that year's Royal Variety performance. She came on after the cowboy comedy of Harry Lester and his Hayseeds. The Performer wrote: "Tessie O'Shea, in a glittering, resplendent costume, reeking of wealth, descending from the lift pedestal backstage, came forward to sing with full effect `Money is the Root of All Evil', the lesson being driven home with showers of paper money all over the auditorium. It was a startling and smash close to the first half."

O'Shea now teamed up with Billy Cotton, and under the title Tessie and Bill they first travelled a musical revue, then installed themselves at the Victoria Palace (1949). Gradually her career began to widen. She made a wonderful film dbut opposite Sid Field, in the musical London Town (1946). It gave her a terrific opportunity, singing the theme song, "My Heart Goes Crazy" (which gave the picture its American release title), "The Hampstead Way" and the old Harry Champion hit "Any Old Iron". Dressed as the Pearly King and Queen, Field and O'Shea danced a classic "Knees Up Mother Brown".

Unfortunately, perhaps, only the Manchester film producer John E. Blakeley saw potential in Tessie as a film star, and cast her to play in two typical Northern comedies, opposite Sandy Powell in Holidays With Pay (1948) and Frank Randle in Somewhere in Politics (1949). After a cameo as herself in the Ealing crime classic The Blue Lamp (1950), in which she sang "There Isn't Enough to Go Round", films dropped her again until 1957, when she starred in the Australian adventure The Shiralee and, 12 years later, in the satirical comedy The Best House in London she sang "The Birds of London Town".

With the decline of variety,O'Shea took her career into a new turn. She went to America and in 1963 at the Broadway Theatre, in New York, opened in Nol Coward's The Girl Who Came to Supper. O'Shea had several songs including "Don't Take Our Charlie for the Army", and became the toast of Broadway, guesting on television chat shows hosted by Ed Sullivan and others. More stage shows followed, and two big movies: The Russians Are Coming, The Russians Are Coming (1966), for which she received an Oscar nomination, and the Walt Disney special Bedknobs and Broomsticks (1971). The United States was now clearly her home, but she returned for show in Blackpool, oppositeKen Dodd.

Whilst she was here she found time to guest on my own radio nostalgia game, Sounds Familiar. My daughter, then very small, was greatly impressed by the outsize lady with the jangling jewels. For the next few weeks she bounced about on her bed crying "Hooray! Hooray! I'm Tessie O'Shea!"

Tessie O'Shea was a living embodiment of the American cigarette which advertised itself as "So large, so firm, so fully packed", and it is to Britain's national shame that we don't have more archive footage of her unique top-of-the-bill talents.

Denis Gifford

Tessie O'Shea, actress, singer: born Cardiff 13 March 1914; married 1940 David Rollo (marriage dissolved); died Leesburg, Florida 21 April 1995.

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