In the landmark 1976 adaptation of Robert Graves’ I, Claudius, Sheila White was involved in one of British television’s most controversial scenes when, as Messalina, the scheming, sexually rapacious third wife to Derek Jacobi’s aged emperor, she challenged – and beat – a notorious prostitute in a competition to see who could bed the most men in an evening.
White mesmerised with a performance of sexual candour, dangerous unpredictability and lightly-worn menace far removed from the frothy, meringue-light role of Ruby in Dames at Sea that had given her a taste of stage stardom at the Duchess Theatre in 1969.
In her first leading theatre role, White’s portrayal of a poor, shy girl who wins Hollywood fame in the musical by George Haimsohn, Robin Miller and Jim Wise saw The Stage applauding her as “an actress of engaging personality and considerable and varied talent”.
French critics concurred when she reprised the role in Paris, where success led to a busy singing career in cabaret and recording.
Returning home, White’s profile was boosted on stage by co-starring with Danny La Rue in The Exciting Adventures of Queen Daniella at the Casino club on London’s Old Compton Street in 1975 and the following year on television in Bill Dainty, Esq.
Early accolades were vindicated in 1980 by White’s indelible performance as silent movie star Mary Pickford in Warner Brown and David Henecker’s The Biograph Girl at the Phoenix Theatre. It was, The Stage noted, “a revelation… a pretty gold star girl whose every entrance lights up the stage”.
Four years later, she earned an Olivier award nomination as Young Belle alongside Russ Abbot in a revival of Neil Simon’s Little Me at the Prince of Wales Theatre.
Born in London, she made her professional debut at the age of 13 in Cinderella, starring Arthur Askey, at the Golders Green Hippodrome in 1961, immediately following it with a three-year run as Brigitta and Louisa in the original London run of The Sound of Music at the Palace Theatre.
After a spell at the Corona Theatre School, she was seen in the 1964 tour of Anthony Newley and Leslie Bricusse’s The Roar of the Greasepaint – the Smell of the Crowd alongside fellow urchin Elaine Paige.
White had attracted early attention when she was lifted out of the chorus and gifted the specially written solo Bleep-Bleep in Ronald Millar and Ron Grainer’s On the Level at the Saville Theatre in 1966. It secured her the role of Bet, bosom companion to Shani Wallis’ Nancy, in the 1968 film version of Lionel Bart’s Oliver!.
The same year, she was favourably reviewed as Phoebe to Ron Moody’s Aristophanes in Liz, Peter Myers and Ronald Cass’ reworking of the Greek comedy Lysistrata, at the Marlowe Theatre in Canterbury.
Television and film dominated her later career, where she was seen as Mary to Harry Secombe’s Pickwick (1969), alongside Rodney Bewes in Dear Mother… Love Albert (1969-70), with Nigel Davenport in the sitcom Don’t Rock the Boat (1982-83), in EastEnders (1990), as the grumpy ex-wife of Paul Shane’s struggling clubland agent in
Very Big Very Soon (1991) and in Gone to Seed, a comedy-drama series about a feuding family of gardeners (1992).
After marrying Richard Mills, the then chief executive of the Bernard Delfont Organisation, in 1983, she went into virtual retirement to raise their children. Her last screen outing was in an episode of the romantic comedy A Many Splintered Thing in 2000.
Sheila Susan White was born on October 18, 1948, and died on September 7, aged 69. She is survived by her husband and two sons.