Dora May Bryan (born 7 February 1923, Died July 23rd, 2014) is an English actress of stage, film and television.
Bryan’s first taste of acting came when she appeared in pantomime as a child in pre-war Manchester. She went on to become known for her comic roles in popular TV series including Absolutely Fabulous and Last of the Summer Wine.
Bryan was born as Dora May Broadbent in Southport, Lancashire, England. Her father was a salesman and she attended Hathershaw County Primary School in Oldham, Lancashire. Her career began in pantomime before World War II, during which she joined the ENSA in Italy to entertain British troops.
Bryan made her stage debut as a child in a pantomime in Manchester and, encouraged by her mother, joined the Oldham Repertory while still a teenager. After spending eight years honing her craft there, she headed for London to try her luck on stage, where she became a regular performer in the West End. Cast in a production of Noël Coward’s Private Lives, the actress was encouraged to adopt a stage name by Coward himself. She opted for Dora Bryant but a typographical error left off the last letter and she became Dora Bryan.
Recognized for her distinctive speaking voice, which became a trademark of her performances, she followed many of her theatre contemporaries into film acting, generally playing supporting roles. She often played women of easy virtue — for example in Ealing’s The Blue Lamp (1950) and The Fallen Idol (1948), one of her earliest films. She appeared in similarly stereotypical female roles in other films, for example The Cockleshell Heroes (1955), The Green Man (1956) and Carry On Sergeant (1958).
She appeared in a cameo role in 1955 on the BBC radio series Hancock’s Half Hour, in an episode now known as “Cinderella Hancock”. In 1961, she appeared in A Taste of Honey. The film won four BAFTA awards: director Tony Richardson won Best British Screenplay (with Shelagh Delaney) and Best British Film, while Bryan won Best Actress and co-star Rita Tushingham was named Most Promising Newcomer. In 1963 she recorded the Christmas song “All I want for Christmas is a Beatle”. She played a headmistress in The Great St Trinian’s Train Robbery (1966), and in 1968 she starred in her own British TV series, According to Dora.
Bryan appeared in the Anglo-Argentine Hitchcockian thriller, Apartment Zero. The film was featured in the 1988 Sundance Film Festival and was directed by Martin Donovan (the Argentine aka: Carlos Enrique Varela y Peralta-Ramos) and starred Hart Bochner and Colin Firth. Bryan plays the role of one of two eccentric characters (the other was played by Liz Smith) described by the Washington Post as two “… tea-and-crumpet gargoyle-featured spinsters who snoop the corridors.”
Throughout her career she also remained a versatile and popular stage performer, often appearing in musicals such as Gentleman Prefer Blondes (1962) and Hello, Dolly! (1966–68).
She also headlined a number of stage revues such as The Dora Bryan Show (1966) and An Evening with Dora Bryan and Friends (1968). She made her Broadway debut as Mrs. Pierce in Pygmalion (1987), starring Peter O’Toole and Amanda Plummer. Other notable credits include her first Shakespearean role, Mistress Quickly in The Merry Wives of Windsor (1984), Mrs. Hardcastle in She Stoops to Conquer (1985), Carlotta Campion (singing “I’m Still Here”) in the 1987 London production of the Stephen Sondheim-James Goldman musical Follies, and she appeared in the 1994 revival of Harold Pinter’s The Birthday Party.
In 2000 she joined the cast of the long-running BBC comedy series Last of the Summer Wine as Aunt Roz Utterthwaite; she left the show in 2005 to concentrate on stage work in theatre, though she was not written out. In 1999, she made an appearance in the Victoria Wood sitcom Dinnerladies. Her last film appearance was in Gone to the Dogs (2006) opposite Anthony Booth.
She twice was a guest star on Absolutely Fabulous as June Whitfield’s on-screen friend Dolly (originally called Milly). She received a BAFTA nomination in 2002 for this role. In September 2006, she was due to tour in the comedy There’s No Place Like a Home but withdrew early in the tour because of her husband’s continued ill health.
Awards and testimonials
Her autobiography According To Dora was published in 1987 and has since been updated and republished. In 1996, she was awarded the OBE in recognition of her services to acting and she was awarded a Laurence Olivier Award in 1996 for her role in the West End production of the Harold Pinter play, The Birthday Party.
She was married to former Lancashire and Cumberland cricketer Bill Lawton until his death as a result of Alzheimer’s disease in August 2008. The couple met in Oldham during World War II and were married at Werneth St Thomas, Oldham, in 1954. During her husband’s final years she reduced her public commitments to enable herself to look after him, as well as suffering with health problems herself, including a serious operation for a hernia.
She once owned Clarges Hotel at 115–119 Marine Parade on Brighton’s seafront, which was used as an exterior location in the films Carry On Girls and Carry On at Your Convenience. She and her husband were forced to sell the bulk of the building as a result of bankruptcy, but they retained a flat with a sea view on the first floor for many years. Still maintaining its original structure, the rooms of the hotel have been reconverted into flats, which are rented and owned by local residents.
She is now wheelchair bound and resides in a nursing home in Hove in frail health.
According to the Daily Mail (19 May 2009): “Sir Cliff Richard is doing a great act of kindness for his 85-year-old friend, the ailing Dora Bryan, who is languishing in a council-funded bed in a Hove nursing home…. Cliff appeared at an all-star fundraiser for Dora on 31 May at Her Majesty’s Theatre in London. Plans to transport Dora to London look precarious. ‘She is extremely frail and hardly eating at all,’ reveals organiser Tony Hardman.”
The Dora Bryan Charity Gala was held at Her Majesty’s Theatre, London, on 31 May 2009. The show was ticketed in order to benefit Bryan’s two nominated charities, the Variety Club and the Alzheimer’s Society, and all celebrity guests and performers donated their time to these causes.