Wednesday 14 June 2017

The One and Only Dora Bryan


What can I say about Dora Bryan? The late actress was a complete one off, a unique talent who brought joy to millions during a career which endured for many decades. Although she left us at the grand old age of 91 in 2014, she is one of those great talents who will always feel very much still a part of British life. I wanted to write a little bit about my love for Dora's work and highlight some of her best known and best loved roles.

Of course Dora is well known to Carry On fans for her role as Norah in the very first in the series, Carry On Sergeant, in 1958. She is an absolute knock out in the film, bouncing about with boundless energy and twinkling at love interest Kenneth Connor with beautiful comic timing. Her portrayal has a joyful innocence and sense of fun. Sadly Dora turned down the chance to make any further Carry Ons - she probably asked for an extra £100 and they never contacted her again. Dora was already a big name so her career did not suffer as a result, quite the contrary.

While I'd have loved Dora to return for further adventures at Pinewood, her absence from Carry On Nurse did make way for Joan Sims to join the team for the first in 24 appearances in the series. Indeed Joan and Dora were often confused for each other during their peak film making days, leading them to run towards each other during location work for Convenience in 1971 calling out each others' names with squeals of delight. Dora's Brighton seafront hotel was used for location shooting for that film.

Many familiar names in the world of British entertainment have spoken of how much they adored Dora. Liz Fraser once spoke of how much she loved Dora's work and was thrilled to go on to work with her on stage. When I interviewed Amanda Barrie back in February she recounted with great affection her time in the revue Six Of One in the early 1960s. Amanda co-starred with Dora and Richard Wattis and the three were frequently convulsed with giggles during a performance! Probably Dora's most famous stage role was in the musical Hello Dolly in the late 1960s, a role for which she won great acclaim. She worked on stage in productions as diverse as Stephen Sondheim's Follies, Harold Pinter's The Birthday Party and Mistress Quickly in The Merry Wives of Windsor. She also toured regularly in a string of successful one woman shows such as The Dora Bryan Show and An Evening with Dora Bryan and Friends.

On film, Dora's career took off in the 1950s. She was often quoted saying she made so many cameos in post-war film that she couldn't recall who she'd worked with and what films she'd made. With typical impish glee she declared she was best known for playing "a series of tarts with hearts of gold". She was in The Blue Lamp, a 1950 police drama starring Dirk Bogarde which was the inspiration for Dixon of Dock Green. Other films included Lady Godiva Rides Again with Diana Dors; Mother Riley Meets the Vampire with Arthur Lucan and Bela Lugosi and You Know What Sailors Are with Donald Sinden. Dora worked again with Sinden the year after Carry On Sergeant, when she appeared in the comedy film Operation Bullshine. The same year she was a memorable addition to the cast of the ENSA comedy Desert Mice which co-starred Irene Handl, Sid James and Liz Fraser. She teamed up with fellow Carry On star Frankie Howerd in two feature films - first of all The Great St Trinian's Train Robbery in 1966 and then several years later in the film Up The Front. 

However probably Dora's most famous and well-loved film role came in 1961. Dora played Helen, the difficult, alcoholic mother of Rita Tushingham's Jo in A Taste of Honey. The film was based on Shelagh Delaney's seminal play, her first work written in her very early twenties. The film is one of the very best examples of kitchen sink social realism which erupted onto the big screen at around this time. It focussed on ordinary people and it's unflinching portrayal of issues such as race, alcoholism and homosexuality was a revelation at the time. Dora Bryan won many plaudits for her headlining role as Helen. The film won four BAFTA awards including Best Actress for Dora.

Dora worked with Tony Hancock in an episode of the BBC radio series, Hancock's Half Hour, but appeared much more regularly on television. She had her own show, According To Dora in 1968 which featured her friend Joan Sims. Bryan played Dora Morgan in the series Happily Ever After between 1961 and 1964 and in 1972 took on the role of Dora Page in Both Ends Meet. Dora twice worked with the late comedienne Victoria Wood - in one episode of the 1985 series Victoria Wood: As Seen On TV and then in 1999 memorably played Anne Reid's mother in Dinnerladies (an episode which also guest starred Thora Hird and Eric Sykes). 

Late on in her career, Dora won great acclaim for her role as June Whitfield's bonkers sister in the hit BBC comedy Absolutely Fabulous, demonstrating her ability to do the splits well into her maturity! Her longest running later role was as Ros in Last of The Summer Wine, a part she played until 2005. She retired from performing the following year as she sadly could no longer learn her lines. Dora was in demand well into her eighties though and was a familiar figure in Brighton, the town she made her home. Married to cricketer Bill Lawton for 54 years until his death in 2008, together they owned Clarges Hotel. Never changing, she was a constant delight, even making a rare appearance for a DVD audio commentary for Carry On Sergeant in 2006. 


For me, Dora Bryan typifies the high standard of truly great British character actors and comedy performers we produced in the post-war period. Her star never dimmed and she won legions of fans across all ages. Dora is right up there alongside the likes of Irene Handl, June Whitfield, Joan Sims and Joan Hickson. They all made countless appearances in film and television for many decades, rarely the headlining star but always adding that extra special something to whatever they appeared in. Unique, talented, brilliant. There was only ever one Dora Bryan. 

To end, a prime Dora Bryan classic. Here's  Dora's novelty record, "All I Want for Christmas is a Beatle:

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