Obituary: Anna Quayle, Tony Award-winning British actress

Anna Quayle, second from left, at the opening night of the musical Stop the World ' I Want to Get Off in 1961, with, from left, Jennifer Baker, producer David Merrick, Anthony Newley and Susan Baker  (Picture: Keystone/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)
Anna Quayle, second from left, at the opening night of the musical Stop the World ' I Want to Get Off in 1961, with, from left, Jennifer Baker, producer David Merrick, Anthony Newley and Susan Baker (Picture: Keystone/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)
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Anna Quayle, actress. Born: 
6 October, 1932 in Birmingham. Died: 16 August, 2019, aged 86.

Anna Quayle was born into a theatrical family and made her stage debut when she was three. She went on to hone her talents at Rada and the Edinburgh Fringe before appearing in the West End and on Broadway, winning a Tony award. But she reached her widest audience in A Hard Day’s Night and Chitty Chitty Bang Bang in the 1960s and as one of the regulars on the school drama series Grange Hill in the 1990s.

In the classic 1968 film of Chitty Chitty Bang Bang she played Baroness Bomburst, who hates children and shares a memorable duet, Chu-Chi Face, with her husband the Baron, played by Gert Frobe. With blonde, plaited hair swinging below her knees and dressed in a corset, Baroness Bomburst dances round the room, rolling on a table, taking it all very seriously, declaring undying love and never faltering, despite a series of mishaps that might easily have resulted in her demise, including a trap door suddenly opening.

There is just a hint of momentary doubt in her eyes at one point as she struggles to understand what is happening around her, but never quite realises that her “lovey-lovey-dovey little teddy bear” is actually trying to kill her.

Quayle had only a very small role in the 1964 Beatles film A Hard Day’s Night. But she shares a brilliantly nonsensical dialogue when by chance her character Millie meets John Lennon, who was playing himself in the film, which was made at the height of Beatlemania when the Fab Four could not go out without being mobbed.

She thinks she recognises him, but cannot quite place him. And Lennon claims he is not “him” anyway… Millie: “You look just like him.”

John: “Do I? You’re the first one that’s said that ever.”

She tells him to look in the mirror. “My eyes are lighter,” he says. She suggests the nose is similar. Lennon stresses that she knows “him” better than he does. She insists indignantly that he is only a casual acquaintance. And so it surreally goes from there. After putting on her glasses, Millie admits: “You don’t look like him at all.” And as Lennon walks off he mutters to himself: “She looks more like him than I do.”

Quayle was never a classic beauty, but she had eyes that spoke volumes and she could say a lot with just an expression – or sometimes a lack of one.

She was also very good at foreign accents and decided early in her career that she would concentrate on comedy and light-hearted drama.

She was born Anne Veronica Maria Quayle in Birmingham in 1932. Her father was a theatre actor and manager and she made her stage debut as a small child in one of his productions.

She studied at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art in London, appeared in a series of revues, including Better Late at the Edinburgh Fringe in 1956 and Do You Mind?, which brought her back to the capital in 1959.

After seeing her in the revue And Another Thing… in the London West End, Anthony Newley cast her as the female lead in his musical Stop the World – I Want to Get Off. He played the protagonist, named Littlechap, and Quayle played the four women in his life, English, Russian, German and American. She appeared in the show in both the West End and Broadway, where she won a Tony award for her performance.

A Hard Day’s Night was her first film and over the next decade she became a familiar face in both films and television. She appeared with Tony Curtis in Drop Dead Darling, ran a school for spies in the 1967 version of Casino Royale, with David Niven as James Bond, and played another spy, an East European who teams up with John Steed (Patrick Macnee), in an episode of the hit TV series The Avengers.

Her diverse list of subsequent screen credits range from various panel shows, including Juke Box Jury and regular appearances on What’s My Line?, to Granada Television’s highly acclaimed adaptation of Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited, as socialite Nancy Tallboys, and several X-certificate sex comedies, including Eskimo Nell, which was not so highly acclaimed.

But it was arguably with younger audiences that she had her greatest successes, not just with Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, but also with appearances on Jackanory Playhouse, The Basil Brush Show and The Sooty Show.

And between 1990 and 1994 she played the kindly Mrs “Marilyn” Monroe in more than 80 episodes of Grange Hill. Quayle’s last television credit was for a guest appearance on the children’s series Adam’s Family Tree 20 years ago.

She was married to the agent and theatre producer Donald Baker. The marriage ended in divorce. Quayle was diagnosed with Lewy body dementia seven years ago. Although she died in August, news broke of her death only this month.

She is survived by a daughter from her marriage, Katy, and by her brother, the actor John Quayle.

Brian Pendreigh