Saturday, 20 June 2015

The Delightful Dilys Laye

Another re-post but hopefully it's worthy of a second look. Dilys Laye has always been one of my favourite Carry On actresses. She was brilliant to watch in each of her four Carry Ons and had a wonderfully rich and varied career away from all the fun at Pinewood. We should always make an effort to remember these terrific, hard working actors...

I just adored the late Dilys Laye. Whenever she appeared she brought so much warmth, joy and talent. She is best known today for her involvement in four classic Carry Ons but there was so much more to her than that.

Dilys was a star of stage, film, television and radio. Her career spanned seven decades and she was incredibly versatile, successful in every medium but always modest and never The Star. Born in 1934 in an area I know well, Muswell Hill, she was immediately drawn to the theatre. Trained at the Aida Foster Stage School, she first appeared on stage at the age of 14, making her first film appearance a year later, playing young Trottie in the Jean Kent film Trottie True. This film also featured the likes of Hattie Jacques, Bill Owen and Iain Carmichael, with whom Dilys would work a great deal in intimate revue.

She became a young star in intimate revue, appearing in many during the early 1950s both in the West End and across the country. It was this experience that first brought her into contact with another young actress who would become a lifelong friend: Joan Sims. One of the most endearing qualities Dilys possessed was the great warmth with which she always spoke of her close colleagues and it was evident just how much affection and regard she had for Joan.

Dilys Laye had an early success in her career, travelling to New York to appear in the Broadway production of The Boy Friend in 1954, starring opposite Julie Andrews. The late 1950s brought a run of classic comedy roles for Dilys in British film. In quick succession she appeared in Blue Murder at St Trinians with George Cole; Doctor At Large with Dirk Bogarde; The Bridal Path with Terry Scott; Please Turn Over with Ted Ray; Follow That Star and On The Beat, both with Norman Wisdom and Petticoat Pirates with Charlie Drake.

It was probably due to appearances in these popular comedies that Dilys first came to the attention of the Carry On production team. Dilys first appeared in Carry On Cruising in 1962, standing in at short notice for her friend Joan Sims. Dilys was eye-catching and full of life as Flo in Cruising, sharing scenes with Liz Fraser, Sid James and providing a love interest for Kenneth Connor. She memorably played drunk with the delightful Esma Cannon too.

Dilys returned to Carry On in 1964, playing a vampish spy in Carry On Spying. I loved her in this role. She got to show off her versatility yet again, singing a couple of lovely tracks during the scenes set in the Cafe Mozart. She was wonderful opposite Kenneth Williams and her famous ad lib of Kenneth's own catchphrase "Stop messing about!" was inspired and hilarious. Dilys was back again three years later, playing Mavis Winkle, a patient in Carry On Doctor who fell for Bernard Bresslaw's Ken Biddle. 

Dilys Laye's final Carry On appearance came the year after Doctor, in Carry On Camping released in 1968. Again partnered up with Bernard Bresslaw, Dilys played Anthea and made up a glorious foursome of holidaymakers which also included Sid James and Joan Sims. Sadly that was it for Carry On as far as Dilys was concerned but there was much more to her career.

She appeared opposite Marlon Brando and Sophia Loren in Charlie Chaplin's film A Countess from Hong Kong in 1967. She also worked with her friend Sheila Hancock in a typically 1960s sitcom, The Bed Sit Girl. She even created and co-wrote her own comedy series, Chintz, in 1981. Two years later she appeared with her old friend Joan Sims in Waters of the Moon. She would later have a recurring role as Maxine Palmer in EastEnders in the mid-1990s before portraying Isabel Stephens, a lady with Alzheimer's Disease, in Coronation Street between 2000 and 2001. I remember this performance well, it was so different from her comedy roles but she was convincing and very affecting.

For much of her later career Dilys concentrated on stage work. In the 1980s she spent a long period working with the Royal Shakespeare Company. Towards the end of her career she appeared in the likes of 42nd Street, Into The Woods and Les Liaisons Dangereuses. She also starred in the West End production of My Fair Lady, a performance my parents saw and remarked how Dilys shone, demonstrating her wonderful singing and dancing skills and attacking her role with tremendous relish.

In her later years Dilys recorded three audio commentaries for the DVD releases of Carry On Cruising, Spying and Camping. She recalled her times making these films with warmth, affection and enthusiasm. 

Dilys was married at one point to the actor Garfield Morgan, famous for playing Haskins in The Sweeney on television. She finally married the writer Alan Downer, who wrote for shows such as Coronation Street. Together they had a son, Andrew.

Sadly Dilys suffered from ill health in her later years, surviving cancer once only to fight it again in the 2000s. Rather than dwell on her condition, she fought her illness without telling colleagues and continued to act, appearing as Frankie Howerd's mother opposite David Walliams in a BBC4 biopic. Her final appearance was a cameo in the Amanda Burton series The Commander in 2008. 

Dilys Laye passed away in February 2009 at the age of 74. She may never have gained the fame of some of her other Carry On colleagues but she was always well regarded by her peers. She was certainly always a favourite of mine. She was a superb actress with a broad range and her enthusiasm for her life, her work and her friends always shone through.

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