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Born in Stepney, London, Sheen began her career training at the East 15 Acting School, and has appeared regularly on British television and in British films since 1988. On television she played Maureen Tacy in the series Doc Martin (2002) and had recurring roles as Nanny Simmons in Berkeley Square (1998) and Nurse Ethel Carr in the series Bramwell (1995–98). She also appeared as four different characters in six episodes of The Bill between 1989 and 2004.
In the 1995 film 'The Young Poisoner's Handbook', she played the part of Molly.
Sheen has appeared in six Mike Leigh films: Mr. Turner (2014); in the female lead role of Shirley in High Hopes (1988); as Laughing Woman in Secrets & Lies (1996); as Maureen in All or Nothing (2002); as Lily in Vera Drake (2004); and as Gerri in Another Year (2010). Her role in High Hopes won her the Best Actress award at the 1989 European Film Awards.
In 2007, she played the role of Lyn, opposite Ben Whishaw's Steven, in the world premiere of Philip Ridley's stage play Leaves of Glass at the Soho Theatre, London. Also in 2007, she appeared in the TV mini-series drama Fanny Hill, based on the erotic novel by John Cleland, in the role of Mrs Jones. She also played the mother of Jim Sturgess's character, Jamie, in Philip Ridley's 2009 feature film Heartless. She appeared in the films Run Fatboy Run (2007) and Welcome to the Punch (2013), and was the titular Elizabeth in "The Trial of Elizabeth Gadge", a 2015 episode of Inside No. 9. In 2016 she played Elsie in the hit film adaptation of A Street Cat Named Bob.
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- "Alumni". East 15 Acting School. Retrieved 3 August 2015.
- "Ruth Sheen movies, photos, movie reviews, filmography, and biography". AllMovie.
- "Review: Mike Leigh Paints His Masterpiece in Mr. Turner". The New York Times.
- Another Year – Ruth Sheen interview. Orange Film News 4 November 2010. Retrieved 19 July 2011.
- "In many ways it could be argued that Essex actress Ruth Sheen owes her career to Mike Leigh". Essex Chronicle.
- Lyn Gardner. "Theatre review: Leaves of Glass / Soho, London". The Guardian.
- "Fanny Hill Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure". BFI.
- Philip French. "Heartless". The Guardian.
- Lodge, Guy (15 March 2013). "Film Review: Welcome to the Punch". Variety.
- "Inside No. 9, The Trial of Elizabeth Gadge, TV review: Quintessentially barmy British comedy". The Independent.