Illustration by Clara Nicoll

Long life: “Ten years of struggling to be beautiful and upper class”

I was recently shown letters I sent as a teenager in the BBC archives. They reminded me how resilient I was
November 3, 2022

Yesterday, I had an encounter with my younger self. I was shown communications found in the BBC written archives that I had with the corporation when I was bright-eyed and bushy-tailed.

The first letter that I was shown was one I had sent to a casting director. A polite, neatly worded request for an audition written in 1949 when I was 16 and had just started at drama school. The address I give is the YWCA hostel where I was living and it starts “Dear Sir”—the likelihood of a woman being in authority didn’t even occur to me in those days—and is signed “yours faithfully”. 

Presumably, that and maybe other well-mannered approaches failed, because in 1952 I sent another letter to the BBC showing some frustration. It starts: “I am a 19-year-old struggling actress who knows no one with influence”. It explains I have worked in Oldham, West Kirby and Bertram Mills Circus, which I can’t think would’ve impressed him greatly. There were two repertory companies in Oldham: one was excellent, and doubtless I hoped that he thought I meant that one; mine was next door, a twice-nightly flea pit presenting plays like Reefer Girl and Ma’s bit o’ Brass. (Bernard Cribbins was an actor and assistant stage manager at the posh one. We made friends and would sit by the stage door dustbins, dreaming of stardom.) My letter ends: “Please please just see me, or dare I say it, give me an audition.” 

Somebody must have taken pity on me, for the next document I was shown was a report on my audition in 1953. It made me very angry on behalf of the young me. It said of my diction that I was “perhaps a little over careful” and of my tone—whatever that is—it condescends: “She could pass for educated”. I should bloody well hope so, after two agonising years at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art getting rid of my much-mocked cockney accent. The adjudicator of the audition gave me an A for acting, but summed up regretfully that “this actress might be useful for character juveniles.” Heaven forfend that a girl from this background should play leads. 

Nothing daunted, in 1954 there I am again, trying to get another audition from a new casting director with another letter. “I may say this audition has become a positive obsession with me and you will get no peace until I do it… I only want an opportunity to show what I can do—even if you hate me.” It is not surprising that I didn’t hear from the BBC for several years after this deranged outburst. 

After that, I did an endless round of depressing repertory theatre—rehearsing a new play every week while playing another at night—as well as third-rate tours all over the country.

In those harsh years I learned to value the affection of audiences, but I just did not fit in with those at the top of the hierarchy: I was too tall, not pretty and working class. Thank God all that changed when the wonderful woman called Joan Littlewood came to Stratford East and, along with the Royal Court Theatre and television broadcasters, started to do plays about ordinary people. There, at last, in the BBC archives, is my contract from 1961 for a television show called Rag Trade. Ten years of struggling to be beautiful and upper class were abandoned when I played a gawky cockney girl. It was a huge success.

Why did some archivist see fit to save these letters? Were they, like me, moved by the sheer guts and determination of this girl behaving in an unseemly way for the period when women were supposed to know their place? Now I ask myself, do I still have the same resilience to fight the setbacks of old age?

A series that I loved working on has recently been cancelled—probably because at my age it is not deemed a long-term investment. The parts I am offered now invariably die or go senile; I’m running out of new interpretations of both. It’s a full-time job to keep functioning, let alone performing, involving the gym, hearing aids, pills, injections, crosswords, physio and willpower. 

The BBC obviously did not communicate with the young Sheila after the audition in 1953. Later she writes boldly, complaining that “you haven’t even acknowledged my being there.” This lack of recognition of her existence was obviously what hurt. She feared that she had failed a rare opportunity. She wanted another chance. “I do beg of you to allow this as I should hate to be inscribed as hopeless till the end of time on the sacred BBC files.”

Well, Young Sheila. Both the sacred BBC and the Old Sheila are having a bit of a struggle to exist.But never fear—they are not without hope.