NEILSON’S COLUMN (December 8, 2016): Keep learning skills, says Hilary O’Neil

Michael Neilson
Michael Neilson

For my column this month, I had a chat with hugely talented all-rounder Hilary O’Neil about her career and thoughts on show business, as she prepares to return to Crawley’s Hawth for Peter Pan.

Hilary’s parents first realised she was going to be a performer when they heard her, aged two, singing ‘You Are My World’ by Cilla Black, while sitting on the potty.

Leaving her potty behind, she trained at Laine Theatre Arts in Epsom and it was Betty Laine who gave Hilary her start by offering her a job as a dancer. She describes Betty as her heroine, as it was she who “changed her life”.

Hilary first came to the attention of the public in the ITV series Copy Cats, where her gift for doing impersonations saw her join series two of the programme alongside Bobby Davro, Jessica Martin and Gary Wilmot.

One of the reasons Hilary works so much is that she has her own self-contained act. This means she doesn’t have to wait around for an audition to come up; she can take her act out on the road or on to cruise ships, which she regards as the new home of variety acts, now that programmes like X Factor are so dominant in that area on TV.

Her tip for young performers: “Learn as many skills as you can.”

Sing, dance, act, juggle, rollerskate, whatever. You can’t have too many strings to your bow.

On the subject of where we will find new comedians with the enormous fame of say, Morecambe and Wise, Hilary thinks that we probably won’t see stars as bright as that again because of the number of TV channels now available.

I agree. Some 40 years ago we had only three TV channels, which meant some shows could have half the UK population watching them.

In 1977 The Morecambe and Wise Christmas Show pulled an audience of more than 21 million, whereas Strictly Come Dancing peaks at around 9 million, even though the UK’s population has grown.

You can see Hilary O’Neil in Peter Pan, with EastEnders stars Shaun Williamson and Emma Barton at The Hawth, from December 9 until January 2.

Meanwhile, I’ll be appearing as Dame Dotty in Beauty and the Beast at Kettering with Cheryl Ferguson, also from EastEnders, from December 10 until January 2.

Michael Neilson is a Horsham-based actor, singer, dancer and writer, with more than thirty years of professional experience in film, TV, theatre, radio and voice work. Follow him on Twitter @michael_neilson.

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