Sheila Keith

Actress

Born: 9 June, 1920, in London.

Died: 14 October, 2004, in Surrey, aged 84.

SHEILA Keith spent all her youth in Scotland and later returned often to visit family and perform in various theatres. She was an actress of much charm (one colleague said of her "she was underrated and given the breaks could have had an even more distinguished career") and was seen in many TV series and sitcoms. In the Seventies she was often cast by the director Peter Walker in Hammer Horror movies and played with unremitting relish psychotic warders and crazy cannibals. Somewhat different were her many appearances at the Pitlochry Festival Theatre where she was a regular visitor in the Fifties and Sixties.

Sheila Keith was born in London of Scottish parents, but was brought up in Aberdeen from the age of two by an aunt. She trained for the theatre in London and then spent some years with repertory theatres in the south and in Scotland: spending a season with the Wilson-Barrett Company.

In 1961, Keith appeared for a season with the Belgrade Theatre, in Coventry, and played the lead female role of Lady Alice in A Man For All Seasons. A nervous young actor just out of drama college called Ian McKellen played the young man. He missed a crucial entrance in a scene one night and met a group of irate actors in a corridor. Keith took him aside and told him kindly: "Every actor is allowed to make that mistake once in their career. You have got it over early. I am sure you’ll go far."

Her West End appearances included Present Laughter (1965), Mame (with Ginger Rogers), Anyone for Denis and Deathtrap.

It was at the Pitlochry Festival Theatre that Keith was most seen in Scotland. In those early days - when the festival took place in a vast tent - Keith came to the 1957 season in RF Delderfield’s The Mayerling Affair. She returned for the next two years: in new plays titled The Heir to Ardmally by Ena Lamont Stewart and The White Falcon by Neilson Gattey. Keith was back in 1963 appearing in all four plays and is especially remembered for the role she played in William Davenant’s dark comedy The Wits.

Her last visit was in 1964 when she was in Noel Coward’s Present Laughter. It was a play with which Keith was to become closely associated. After performing in Brian Shelton’s production in Pitlochry, she played it in the West End the following year directed by Nigel Patrick. After a lengthy stay in London she came to the King’s Theatre, Edinburgh, in the play in 1966.

Also during Keith’s 1964 season at Pitlochry she appeared in Toby Robertson’s production of James Bridie’s Daphne Leoreola.

But it was on the small screen that Keith was to become more widely known. In the Sixties, she was often seen in series such as The Saint, Public Eye and Sherlock Holmes. But she gained a national popularity when she went into Crossroads in 1967 as Mrs Cornet. It was the era when the soap was hugely popular and Noele Gordon ruled the motel with a rod of iron.

In the Seventies, Keith was cast either as dotty aunts or a collection of terrifying characters in British cult horror films. She played Lady Rosina in the BBC’s mammoth production of The Pallisers, Aunt Morag (keen on her sherry) in Hinge and Bracket’s TV series Dear Ladies, Auntie Ethel in Moody and Peg and Mother Stephen in Bless Me, Father, with Arthur Lowe. She was also seen in the first run of Dr Findlay’s Case Book.

The Comeback (1977) was a film starring Jack Jones and directed by Peter Walker. Keith and Bill Owen - known for his Compo in Last of the Summer Wine - were much praised for their efforts ("awesome as ever" one critic said of Keith) in an unmemorable movie.

Keith played a cannibal pensioner who goes on the rampage from the asylum in Frightmare and then in House of Whipcord, Keith was a deranged warder in a girl’s school. The House of Mortal Sin (1975) was her final foray into the horror genre: on this occasion she was a not-at-all pleasant, one-eyed housekeeper in a convent. In 1983, Keith joined Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing in the House of Long Shadows: again she played a fearsome housekeeper.

Despite all the gore and terror, Keith was a loved and respected actor. Gentle of nature and patient to a fault, she found it slightly strange when expected to turn into an axe-wielding nun.

Keith was once married and is survived by her son.