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Obituary: Dora Bryan

image captionBryan starred in her own BBC show in 1964, in which she sang and performed sketches from London revues and musicals

Dora Bryan was a talented character actress who could turn her hand to everything from musicals to Shakespeare, farce to tragedy.

The variety of the roles she played, including parts in plays by Ibsen and Pinter, belied her caricature as a wide-eyed dizzy blonde.

Born Dora May Broadbent in Southport, Lancashire in 1924, she went to a council school and, encouraged by her ambitious mother, made her first stage appearance at the age of 12, in pantomime in Manchester.

image captionBryan recorded the post-war radio show Much Binding in the Marsh with Nicholas Parsons (far right)

During World War 2 she worked in repertory theatre and with the Entertainments National Service Association (ENSA) - an organisation set up in 1939 to provide entertainment for British armed forces personnel during the war.

She moved to London in 1945 and appeared in a number of West End productions - notably in the Lyric and Globe revues in the 1950s.

image captionIn 2000, Bryan joined the cast of Last of the Summer Wine but left five years later

She changed her name to Bryan, taking it from the match manufacturers Bryant and May. She lost the closing "t" when a theatre programme misspelled her name.

In 1966, the actress played the title role in Hello, Dolly at Drury Lane, eating a full chicken dinner on stage six nights a week and at two matinees.

In 1968 she played nine parts as the star of They Don't Grow on Trees at the Prince of Wales.

Later, she was in the National Theatre's She Stoops to Conquer (for which she won an award) and a revival of Charlie Girl. And she took the West End by storm in a lavish 2002 musical production of The Full Monty.

Speaking to Michael Parkinson on Desert Island Discs in 1987, she said musical theatre had always held a special place in her heart.

"I was in rep for seven years and to get a marvellous part in a play is great, it really is super, particularly if it's a funny part and there is nothing like making an audience laugh.

"But with musicals, I like the atmosphere backstage. You go backstage in a real theatre, in a real plush and gilt theatre and you can shout to the dressing room opposite you and you're all clustered in together, you get a real theatrical atmosphere."

Her theatre career was crowned with a prestigious Olivier award in recognition of her role, as Meg, in a National Theatre production of Harold Pinter's The Birthday Party.

Ab Fab

But she was not just a stage actress - she made her big screen debut in 1948's The Fallen Idol. About 40 further films followed, including The Blue Lamp, The Great St. Trinian's Train Robbery, The Sandwich Man and Two a Penny.

The peak of her career came as she played the domineering, promiscuous, alcoholic mother, Helen in the 1961 film A Taste of Honey. The role won her a Bafta award for best actress.

image captionIn 1994, she was cast in the play Bed, which presented a vast dreamscape of seven very old people - all of whom share the same vast bed
image captionBryan and June Whitfield acted together in the fourth series of Absolutely Fabulous

On television, she appeared in According to Dora and Both Ends Meet and, latterly, she joined a star-studded cast in Last of the Summer Wine.

In an interview with the Church Times in 2006, she said: "I got my part as Roz in Last of the Summer Wine through Thora Hird. We had always been friends, and always nattered on about the old days.

"We knew actors most people have now forgotten. Then, a few years ago, she suddenly said: 'I wish you were in it with me.'"

image captionAmong Bryan's numerous TV appearances was an episode of Casualty

She also brought the house down with a recurring cameo role in Absolutely Fabulous as June Whitfield's on-screen friend Dolly.

This is Your Life

Dora Bryan was also in the post-war radio show Much Binding in the Marsh. And she once made a novelty record, All I Want for Christmas is a Beatle, which became an unexpected hit.

However her life was also touched by tragedy.

Her adopted daughter Georgina died from alcoholism, her son Daniel endured a debilitating illness and she herself experienced alcoholism.

She told the Church Times she was a member of Alcoholics Anonymous.

"I got very lonely on tour," she said, "and used to order room-service with a bottle of wine, which was not the answer. I don't miss it at all, and just enjoy coffee or tea."

Bryan's husband, Lancashire County Cricketer Bill Lawton, died from Alzheimer's in 2008 and Dora, in her later years, became unable to work, as short-term memory loss affected her ability to learn lines.

She was honoured twice by TV tribute show This Is Your Life, in 1962 and again in 1989.

In her book, According to Dora, she remembered her first appearance.

"I was hoping the BBC would have filmed a message from my brother John in South Africa. It never occurred to me that they would have gone to all the trouble and expense of flying him from Cape Town, and I must admit that when he walked on to the stage with his wife Marguerite, I cried a little from sheer happiness."

On her second appearance, host Eamonn Andrews "ambushed" the actress in her living room, before whisking her to the TV studio to hear tributes from her friends and family.

"Tonight?" exclaimed the star. "Oh dear! I've got to do some auditions at four!"

Her final film appearance was in Gone to the Dogs (2006) opposite Anthony Booth.

The indomitable actress said that in her life she was helped through the bad times by her family, her faith and the next challenge around the corner.

More on this story

  • Dora Bryan: Summer Wine and Ab Fab actress dies aged 91