Born: 7 February, 1923, in Southport, Lancashire. Died: 23 July, 2014, in Sussex, aged 91
Dora Bryan was identified by the public as the scatty blond with a heavy Lancashire accent and a good line in comedy. She certainly was all that, but much more too, as Bryan was an actress of much subtlety who played, with distinction, serious and demanding roles that marked her out as an accomplished performer. Her career on stage varied from impressive appearances in the West End in Hello Dolly! to a powerful performance as the overbearing proprietor in Harold Pinter’s The Birthday Party at the National Theatre – for which she won an Olivier Award. On television she was seen in a host of shows, from Absolutely Fabulous to playing Ros Utterthwaite in 50 episodes of the Last of the Summer Wine.
Her versatility was ably demonstrated when she came to the Edinburgh Festival of 1965 in a production by Frank Dunlop of Shaw’s Too Good To Be True. Bryan led an impressive cast that included George Cole, Alastair Sim and James Bolam, gaining such praise that the production transferred immediately to London. Bryan adopted a cackling, high-pitched drawl for the role of Nurse Sweetie that puzzled two ladies from Morningside. One said to her companion: “Do you think that’s her – the one dressed as a nurse?” “No”, came the answer, “That’s not her. She usually sings when she comes on.”
Dora May Broadbent was brought up in Oldham with a mother who was a driving force in her early life. At 12 Bryan was in a dance troupe and at that age made her stage debut in a pantomime at the King’s Theatre, Glasgow. Three years later she was in a pantomime at the London Hippodrome. Her mother decided she would not make it as a dancer so for five years Bryan worked backstage at the Oldham Repertory Theatre.
During the Second World War she performed in Italy with Ensa entertaining the troops, then made her official debut in a straight play in the West End hit thriller Gaslight. She was often cast in the fashionable revues that were then popular in London. She changed her name to Bryan and made a particular mark in the light-hearted The Lyric Revue, which also starred Ian Carmichael.
Bryan was much in demand in the West End for musicals, many of which toured Scotland. In 1962 she was in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes and later starred in Hello Dolly! at the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane, for five years from 1966 and made her Broadway debut as Mrs Pearce opposite Peter O’Toole in Pygmalion.
She made many movies – an early eye-catching performance was as a tart in The Blue Lamp in 1950.
After several Carry On films she was acclaimed for her realisation of the drunken mother in A Taste of Honey. Tony Richardson’s direction of the original play lost nothing when he brought a real gritty earthiness to the movie. For her stark and vicious performance as the bitter mother, Bryan won the Bafta Best Actress Award while her co-star, Rita Tushingham, who played the sulky rebel teenager, was the Most Promising Newcomer.
Bryan’s personal life was dogged with tragedy – despite a long and happy marriage to the cricketer Bill Lawton. The two ran a hotel in Hove and Bryan became great friends with fellow Brighton resident Laurence Olivier. Bryan suffered several nervous breakdowns, the first in 1957, and lost three children at birth – two of her adopted children also caused problems and her husband suffered from Alzheimer’s disease. On top of all these domestic pressures Bryan suffered with a drink problem and found solace in religion. She starred with Cliff Richard in a film promoting “love and family life” for Billy Graham in which she pledged herself to Christ.
Bryan continued to perform in pantomimes then, in 1996, she was cast at the National Theatre as Meg in The Pinter’s Birthday Party.
The role of the lonely, remote boarding house owner struck a chord with Bryan who delivered a startling performance.
Bryan was a survivor and she carried on working to become a great favourite on Last of the Summer Wine. She also appeared in memorable episodes of Heartbeat, Midsummer Murders, Dinnerladies and Absolutely Fabulous, heroically playing June Whitfield’s batty friend Dolly.
As if to underline her zaniness and love of variety, in 1963 she released a single – All I Want For Christmas Is a Beatle. It was voted Best Bad Record on Top of the Pops and was a hit.
Bryan was awarded an OBE in 1996 and published her autobiography, According to Dora, in 1987. Her husband Bill Lawton died in 2008, and she is survived by two sons.