Died: July 11, 2021.
HOW many people who, if stabbed during their working day, and bleeding profusely, would carry on as if nothing had happened? Could you imagine an accountant, a bus driver or a journalist pushing the real possibility of death aside for a few minutes, just to finish the task at hand?
That is precisely what Colette O’Neil did. The Glasgow-born actress, who has died aged 85 after suffering from a heart condition and dementia, was accidentally stabbed during the final scene of Jean Paul Sartre’s Huis Clos at the Traverse Theatre Club, Edinburgh, on January 3, 1963.
The Glasgow Herald reported that her colleague, Rosamund Dickson, had been required to lunge at O’Neil with a knife and drop it after a struggle, but it became entangled in O’Neil’s dress and “was accidentally pressed into her stomach”. Despite the obvious blood loss – so terrifying that Dickson fainted – O’Neil managed to utter the final fate-tempting line – “You can’t kill me, I’m already dead’’ – before collapsing.
Advance bookings for the play soared, and Traverse membership rose dramatically to 2,000 on the back of the news coverage. The incident, John Linklater wrote in the Herald in 1992, “was to establish the Traverse quickly in the public imagination as a new kind of theatrical experience, wild and not a little dangerous”.
“My mum was made of strong stuff,” her daughter Lara says of the performer who appeared in a vast range of TV productions across the years, from Coronation Street to The Morecambe and Wise Show, and in minor Scots classics such as Hamish Macbeth and Monarch Of The Glen.
“She would never use the ‘stabbing’ word to describe what had happened when the blade of the other actor’s knife slipped and plunged into her stomach. It was just an accident. Mum was incredibly pragmatic. She just got on with stuff. Although she did have to have a major operation [the blade narrowly missed vital organs] and it took her out for the rest of the run.”
O’Neil’s remarkable stoicism manifested itself in other ways. “I can remember once when she was performing in theatre in Wales. We went down to the beach for the day, and I climbed up on to some big rocks and got stuck. My mum was wearing high-heeled boots at the time and, coming down, she sprained her ankle pretty badly. But, later that night, she appeared on stage, with only the slightest hint of a limp.”
Colette O’Neil was a consummate professional, but her career in acting came about by accident. Growing up in Glasgow with her three sisters, daughters of headmaster Neil McCrossan and Maisy, who worked in schools’ special needs, Colette attended Notre Dame before going on to study Sciences at Glasgow University with a view to becoming a pharmacist.
But a trip to London for elocution lessons elicited a life change for her. “I think it was my gran’s idea that my mother should take speech lessons,” says Lara. “And the examination classes happened to be in the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art”.
Seduced by this world of performance she signed up for drama college in the mid-1950s. Her father Neil said at the time: “It was with plenty of misgivings that we allowed this, but we gave in, as her whole heart seemed to be in it.”
He was right. His daughter achieved some of the highest marks ever awarded at LAMDA. And soon she was offered work with Bournemouth Rep, alongside fellow student David Baron – the stage name of Harold Pinter.
O’Neil’s talent became obvious to a range of theatre producers, including the Royal Shakespeare Company. In 1959, almost inevitably, given her forceful presence, TV came calling.
Work on the small screen became a constant, from Z-Cars to No Hiding Place. In the mid-1960s, O’Neil landed a commanding role in Coronation Street. “She played a little bit of a scarlet woman, and got some abuse for that,” says Lara, smiling, which, of course, was a testament of the power of the performance.
But the impassioned performances weren’t confined to the box in the corner. “As a little girl, I remember mum rehearsing for a play about Scottish coastal villages, and she immersed herself in the knowledge of them”, Lara recalls. “She always gave her all.”
During a stint at the Citizens’ Theatre in 1961, O’Neil met Michael Ellis, a stage director. A year later they married and went on to have three children, Dominic, Lara and Natasha.
But O’Neil had to cope with the break-up of her marriage in 1973, bringing up three children while touring the country in theatre, and living for spells in Glasgow and Manchester. There’s no doubt the peripatetic nature of work conspired to make marriage a real challenge. “My dad did get married again,” says Lara, “but my mum didn’t. She had three children to look after, and as for future relationships I don’t really know. She was an intensely private person, always comfortable in her own space. Yet she had a lot of friends, especially in the theatre. And she and my dad remained friends, right up until his death in 2016.”
Jobbing actors are seldom wealthy. “There were down times,” says Lara. “That’s the way with having an actor for a parent. But I don’t feel we lost out. What I do appreciate is that my mum taught us so much. She taught us to be kind. She taught us rationality. And she was so interesting. She read everything. Mum later studied and got a degree in hypnotherapy in her down time. She would reupholster furniture, and she got an early computer. And she was so much fun, and so proud of her children.
“And there are not many children who get to go on the set of Doctor Who and see her with Martin Clunes, who played her son.”
Colette O’Neil was a positive, hugely talented woman. The attitude that came to the fore after being stabbed on stage in 1963 continued throughout her life. “She refused to accept she had dementia,” says Lara. “She was a woman of great dignity. She had her faith, and she dealt with illness and moved on.”
Colette died peacefully at home in her bed. Actress and close friend Ann Scott-Jones summed up her friend with a touching, entirely apposite, tribute. “She bowed out of life as gracefully as she lived it.”
She is survived by her three children and her sister, Pat.