Born: May 26, 1935;

Died: August 23, 2019

SHEILA Steafel, who has died aged 84, was a South African, but she thoroughly deserved the title of unsung heroine of British comedy. Chestnut-haired and vocally versatile, her range extended through Shakespeare at the RSC and in the West End to comedies and an opera, but she was cherished within the profession for her one-woman stage shows, highlighting diverse, playful characterisations and musical numbers, and with which she toured into the present century. On television from the 1960’s to the 1980’s, she worked, she said, “with just about every comedian to have his own show.”

Such was her mastery of comic timing that, when performing on the BBC’smusic hall show, The Good Old Days, she would deliberately sing “under the note and dance behind the beat”, or leave apprehensive pauses, her bird-like frame trembling, before forcing suggestive lines out. The set of her malleable mouth determined the rest of her oval face. When she smiled, her whole face turned upward. The slightest side-of-the-mouth downturn, complemented by her wistful eyes, could evoke worlds of regret.

She was born in Johannesburg to a Jewish couple, Harold, originally from Lancashire and an amateur musical performer, and Eda, “a sort of concert pianist”. Often, she said that as a ‘stievel’ was a type of Austrian boot, she should change her surname to Wellington-Boot. As she recalled, “I can’t remember a time when this burning ambition to be an actress wasn’t at the forefront of my mind.” The family had black servants, and regarding apartheid “The older I got, the angrier and more disapproving I became.”

At Johannesburg High School for Girls, her final year saw her writing and producing a ribald pantomime. She began a fine arts degree at Witwatersrand University, but was already talking of going to London and auditioning for RADA. Eventually her parents agreed and while the Academy was unimpressed, she did enter the Webber-Douglas School of Drama, winning its Silver Medal on graduation in 1955.

Initially working as an usherette at the music hall revival venue, the Players’ Theatre, she was soon performing there herself. She would continue the tradition on The Good Old Days between 1975 and 1983, sometimes introduced knowingly by Leonard Sachs as “Emmaline Wellington-Boot”. For solo shows such as Victoria Plums (1999), she researched music hall items in the British Library.

It was while ‘resting’ and working in a nightclub that she met Harry H. Corbett, then a much-hailed serious actor. They were married in 1958, but even before Corbett’s success in Steptoe and Son, he objected to Steafel pursuing her own career, and would have preferred her to have children. After a “divorce honeymoon” in Portugal, they parted in 1965.

Steafel’s unbilled bit-part, as a drowning motorbike sidecar passenger in Michael Bentine’s It’s a Square World (BBC, 1964) led Edinburgh producer James Gilbert to make her a cast regular in The Frost Report (BBC, 1966-67). Her only TV star vehicle was a special in the early months of Channel 4, Sheila (1982). Had she been born a few decades earlier, she may well have been successful in West End intimate revues.

One of her favourite TV roles was in The Liars (Granada, 1966) as a Victorian waif believing herself to be a bicycle. While The Ghosts Of Motley Hall (Granada, 1976-78) was ostensibly a children’s sitcom, she attributed its popularity to the cast treating it as “a serious, if somewhat eccentric, drama.” Believing herself “not a filmic person”, her debut was as a crowd extra in Otto Preminger’s Saint Joan (1957).

On radio from 1957, she enjoyed herself as a regular on Radio 4’s satirical Weekending between 1977 and 1982, saying that with the pace of production, “I simply had no choice but to learn to do a credible Mrs Thatcher.” A showcase on Radio 4, Steafel Plus (1982), included Douglas Adams among the writers.

In contrast to present-day female comic acts backed by powerful agents, she financed her first one-woman show herself, remortgaging her house in order to pay the writers and book it into the 1981 Edinburgh Festival. It subsequently played the King’s Head, Islington as Steafel Solo, while Steafel Variations (1982) and Steafel Express (1983) ran in the West End. She played Harpo in Dick Vosburgh’s Marx Brothers pastiche A Day in Hollywood, A Night in The Ukraine (New End, 1979), and the Witch in a revival of Hansel and Gretel (Bloomsbury, 1983). For the RSCompany at Stratford in 1985, she was a hipflask-toting Mistress Quickly in The Merry Wives of Windsor, set in the late 50’s.

Steafel was perfectly cast as Neil Simon’s The Gingerbread Lady (1988, Watford Palace Theatre) and as Fanny Brice’s mother in Funny Girl (Chichester, 2008). In 2010 she published an uncompromising memoir, When Harry Met Sheila, and two years later a prose collection, Bastards; one of the subjects in the latter was her dog Crispin, who had been “life-affirming company”.