A TRIBUTE TO SHEILA KEITH
By Simon Flynn
Sheila Keith star of stage, screen, and TV passed away on the 14th of October, 2004 in Chertsey at the age of 84. Despite her long and varied career on stage and TV, she is best known for her memorable performances in a string of cult horror films. Sheila Keith was born in London on the 9th of June, 1920. Her parents were Scottish and were just visiting when Sheila was born unexpectedly. She was brought up in Aberdeen by her grandparents and her auntie Bella. She lost her mother when she was 2, and her father remarried and moved to Italy. Sheila moved to London in 1938 to train at 'The Webber Douglas Academy', a very prestigious drama school founded in 1882 and still going strong. After the war Sheila did rep at the Connaught Theatre in Worthing - she appeared in several plays and worked with Christopher Lee. Her West End debut was in 1943 at the Garrick Theatre when she starred alongside Richard Attenborough in 'Brighton Rock'. This was the first of many important roles on stage which included 'When She Danced' at The Globe and 'Present Laughter' directed by Nigel Patrick at the Queens Theatre in 1965. It was around this time Sheila broke into television playing Mrs. Cornet in the famous soap 'Crossroads', this was soon followed by appearances in 'Sherlock Holmes', 'The Saint', 'Father Brown', and 'Z Cars'. In 1969 she appeared alongside the musical star Ginger Rogers in 'Mame' at the Theatre Royal. Sheila had a great talent for comedy and soon found work in 'The Ronnie Barker Playhouse', 'George and the Dragon' with Sid James, and an obscure short film in 1970 called 'It All Goes To Show' in which Sheila played Arthur Lowe's nagging wife. She then starred in 'Ooh, You Are Awful' in 1972 with Dick Emery. In 1974 director Pete Walker who had heard of her work, cast her in a horror exploitation film entitled 'House of Whipcord', Sheila gave a superb performance as a sadistic prison warden in a house of correction for young women. Sheila had never done anything like this before and enjoyed the challenge. Later that year Walker made 'Frightmare' written by David McGillivray especially for Sheila in which she played Dorothy Yates, a pensioner with cannibalistic tendencies. This was the only time she had a lead role, ironically it was one of the best genre performances of the decade. Pete Walker commented "Sheila can summon a sadistic streak at the drop of a hat" and in 1975 cast her in 'House of Mortal Sin' playing a Roman Catholic priest's one-eyed housekeeper. Another horror role followed in 1978 in 'The Comeback' in which Sheila added touches of black humour, the film is notable for starring singer Jack Jones and casting 'Last of The Summer Wines' Bill Owen as an axe wielding maniac. Sheila returned to the theatre in 1978 in 'Deathtrap' at the Garrick and then 'Anyone for Denis' at Whitehall. During her horror roles she appeared on TV in 'The Liver Birds', 'Moody and Peg', and worked for the BBC in 'Ballet Shoes' and 'David Copperfield', as well as 'Some Mothers Do Ave Em'. In 1982 she starred alongside Peter Cushing, Vincent Price, Christopher Lee, and John Carradine in 'The House of the Long Shadows', her fifth and final Pete Walker horror film. The John Cleese film 'Clockwise' was her next film role and after that she worked solidly in TV including 'The Paradise Club', 'Dr. Finlay', 'Fresh Fields', 'Lovejoy', 'The Darling Buds of May', 'The Brittas Empire', 'Love Hurts', 'Hamish Macbeth', and 'Never The Twain'. In 1986 she made her final stage appearance in 'Italian Straw Hat' at the Shaftbury Theatre.
Three other films followed, 'Venus Peter', 'Wild Flowers', and 'The Rainbow Thief' in 1992. Sheila's poor health prevented her from working, until in 2001 when she came out of retirement to star in a episode of 'Dr. Terribles House of Horribles'. It starred Steve Coogan, and in this Sheila got to showcase her talent for comedy and horror, it was to be her swansong. I met Sheila in 1999 and published a fanzine on her, she was thrilled to bits about it. I think she was the most memorable woman the horror genre has ever seen, and she is held in affection by many of its fans. She clearly enjoyed her work and it showed because amidst all the murder, mayhem, and madness of the Pete Walker films there was Sheila in the center with this mischievous smile on her face as if to say "It's just pretend you know". She is survived by a son.
COPYRIGHT SIMON FLYNN 2005