Paddie O'Neil (1926 - 2010)

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Paul E. Gierucki
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Paddie O'Neil (1926 - 2010)

Postby Paul E. Gierucki » Thu May 06, 2010 4:42 pm

Paddie O'Neil Dies

Tuesday, 27 April 2010

Actress, singer and comedienne, Paddie O'Neil was a lady of
formidable talents who, while never a major star, made a
strong impression on stage, television and radio, and
appeared with Peter Sellers in his first film, Penny Points
to Paradise (1951), which teamed Sellers with the other
fledgling stars of radio's Goon Show, Harry Secombe and
Spike Milligan. She also had a notable role in the Norman
Wisdom comedy, The Early Bird (1965), in which she was
Gladwys Hoskins, the plump, amorous lodger of Edward
Chapman.

On stage, her greatest hit was the Frank Lazarus-Dick
Vosburgh musical, A Day in Hollywood, A Night in the Ukraine
(1979). In the show's second half, A Night in the Ukraine, a
wickedly funny spoof of a Marx Brothers movie, she added to
the fun with her delicious take on the haughty but dizzy
aristocrats played in the original films by Margaret Dumont.
"Paddie was an enormous talent," said Lazarus. "A large
woman with huge eyes and an expressive face, she was a
natural comedienne, had a large voice for both speaking and
singing, and could do marvellous impressions. I think the
only thing that prevented her being more widely known is
that she got bored easily and did not like long runs."

Born Adelena Lillian Nail in 1926 in Hereford (her first
name invented by her mother from the names of her aunts Ada
and Lena), she was of Welsh ancestry and the daughter of
circus and fairground performers. Her father was a lion
tamer, billed as "Professor Nail", and she recalled that
when she was four years old he encouraged her to sing the
music hall song, "Daddy Wouldn't Buy Me A Bow-Wow" while
standing in the lion's cage, "The Den of Death". She later
confessed that she had no idea at the time that it was not
something that most other children did.

During her childhood she also did stunts on the trapeze,
rode bareback and acted as "barker" for the fairground
rides. Her education was nomadic, as her parents' work took
her all over the country and she rarely stayed more than a
few weeks in any school. In her early teens, she was
enrolled in a stage school in London, and in 1942 she had
her first professional engagement, as stand-by for Elizabeth
Welch at the London Palladium. Signed by the BBC, she was a
featured singer on the radio for the rest of the war, and
for a time she compered the popular variety programme, Navy
Mixture. Later she was a regular on radio's The Jack Jackson
Show.

She and the actor Alfred Marks had their own television
series on the BBC, Don't Look Now, in 1950, and the
following year she made her first film, Penny Points to
Paradise, as one of a pair of gold-diggers out to fleece
pools winner Harry Secombe of his fortune. A highlight of
the patchy movie was O'Neil's broad pantomime impersonation
of Bette Davis, and in another amusing sequence she and
Secombe, while under the spell of a stage hypnotist, perform
Verdi's "Miserere" duet with Secombe singing soprano and
O'Neil baritone. Many years later Sellers recalled, "Spike,
Harry, myself, Alfred Marks, Bill Kerr and Paddie O'Neil
once made a film for £100 each in Brighton Studios... it
really was a terrifyingly bad film!" A recent restoration of
the film has shown Sellers' judgement to be harsh, though it
is not a distinguished work.

In 1952 O'Neil married Marks, their union lasting 44 years
until Marks' death. Their wedding took place in Brighton,
where they were appearing in a show, and they threw a
wedding party on the beach at midnight. The couple were to
appear frequently together on radio and on television.
O'Neil also wrote comedy material, often in collaboration
with Dick Vosburgh, and she was the first female
writer-producer to be hired by Independent Television when
it began broadcasting in 1954.

When Vosburgh and Lazarus conceived A Day in Hollywood, A
Night in the Ukraine, O'Neill was one of the first casting
choices. It opened at the New End Theatre in 1979, and was
an immediate hit, transferring after 11 weeks to the Mayfair
Theatre, where it ran for six months and won several awards.
The musical had started out five years earlier as a one-act
play, A Night in the Ukraine, depicting a version of
Chekhov's The Bear adapted for the Marx Brothers. Vosburgh
suggested expanding the show by adding a first act, A Day in
Hollywood, a revue about the movie capital in the Thirties,
using the talents of the performers cast in Act Two.

O'Neil was in self-imposed retirement when Vosburgh,
convinced she would be the perfect "Madame Pavlenko", coaxed
her to appear in the show, in which her depiction of Bette
Davis singing the Gershwins; "They Can't Take That Away From
Me" stopped the show nightly. Alas, when producer Alexander
Cohen took the musical to Broadway only Lazarus was allowed
to go with it, since he was the composer and played his own
music on the piano during his portrayal of Chico Marx.
"Paddie would have wowed them!" said Lazurus, though the
first act was considerably altered for New York. Vosburgh
always credited O'Neil's contribution to the evolution of
the original first act, because of her abilities as a
comedienne and impressionist. "Paddie and Alfred were always
quipping," Lazarus said. "I doubt that they could say,'Pass
the cornflakes,' without it becoming a wisecrack."

One can only imagine what life could have been like at the
Marks' first home, a flat in Highgate in London where they
had Peter Sellers living upstairs and Spike Milligan
downstairs. Later they moved to a large house where they
installed a private cinema, complete with authentic seating
and a sweet kiosk.

After appearing with Marks in the television series, Alfred
Marks Time (1959), O'Neill retired to raise her two children
and was happy to see her husband's career flourish - he was
awarded the OBE in 1976. The couple worked extensively on
behalf of charities, and a friend described them as
"unwavering Labour supporters - well, at least till Tony
Blair."

After Vosburgh brought her out of retirement O'Neil took
occasional film, radio and television roles, including the
film Fanny Hill (1983), in which she and Shelley Winters
were rival brothel-keepers, and the TV series Rentaghost
(1980) and Woof! (1989). In the hit comedy series Two's
Company (1979) starring Elaine Stritch, she guest-starred in
a "putting on a show" episode in which she and Stritch
performed a rousing version of the duet, "Bosom Buddies"
from Mame. She also toured the world with Marks. In 1980 she
was the subject of This Is Your Life, and in order to get
her there, she was enticed on to a ghost train, a reference
to her fairground background. When Eamon Andrews and Alfred
Marks suddenly appeared from the carriage behind her, her
earthy response had to be bleeped out of the programme.

Adelena Lillian Nail (Paddie O'Neil), actress, singer,
comedienne: born Hereford 2 February 1926; married 1952
Alfred Marks (died 1996; one daughter, one son); died London
31 January 2010.

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