I was shocked to hear that Dora Bryan had died. I suppose I shouldn’t have been because when I worked with her in 1974/75 she was then in her early fifties. She looked a good ten years younger, amazingly spry and youthful, ready to do a high-kick at the drop of a hat. ‘Dora Bryan dies aged 91’ sounds like an oxymoron. I was in a production of Ayckbourn’s Relatively Speaking at the Gardner Centre, then a new theatre on the Sussex University campus just outside Brighton (I don’t think it exists now). Directed by John David, it starred Dora as Sheila and Moray Watson as the philandering Philip, Madeleine Cannon as Ginny and me as her boyfriend Greg. Dora, of course, was a national treasure and the Queen of Brighton. We hit it off at once. She and her ex-cricketer husband Bill owned Clarges, a hotel on the front at Brighton, and after a week or so Dora let me have the top flat there for the rest of the season (Macbeth, Jumpers, The Homecoming and Beyond the Fringe). It was one of the most enjoyable plays to do I have ever been in and, having seeing several productions of Relatively Speaking since, by far the funniest. The last one I saw starred Felicity Kendal. Even she was no match for Dora who was getting belly laughs off her first page. The second scene of the play (when Dora and Moray as Philip and Sheila make their first appearance) is etched in my memory, the two of them having breakfast on the sun-drenched terrace of their Home Counties home:
PHILIP: I can’t say I’m very taken with this marmalade.
SHEILA: No, nor am I.
PHILIP: Then why did you buy it?
SHEILA: I couldn’t tell by looking at it, could I?
PHILIP: Hm. (He returns to his paper. Daringly long pause…)
SHEILA: They didn’t have our sort.
PHILIP: I’d sooner have none than this.
SHEILA (fighting back): You say that now. You say that –
PHILIP: If you ask me we’d have been better off with jam,
SHEILA: You may well say that –
PHILIP: I do. I mean it.
It looks like nothing on the page, but Dora and Moray got laughs on nearly every line. I knew how to do light comedy but to watch those two was a master class in timing that told me I still had a lot to learn. The three weeks of performances were a joy – even the opening night when Madeleine succumbed to a terrible migraine an hour beforehand and her part had to be sight-read (brilliantly) from the script by a young actress named Caroline Goodman who had turned up just that day ready to start rehearsals for Macbeth. One performance I remember was attended by Moray’s ancient father-in-law. His name was Percy Marmont and he had been Britain’s first silent film star. Born in 1883, he had made his first film in 1916.
The following year, the young Cameron Mackintosh took the Gardner Centre production on tour with Dora, Robert Flemyng, Simon Williams and Phyllida Nash. Sam couldn’t do a couple of dates so I was asked to revive Greg for the two weeks in Bury St Edmunds and Darlington. Bobby Flemyng was good, but not as good as Moray. Phyllida was terrific and brought a whole flirtatious side to Ginny that had been missing in Brighton. The week in Darlington was sold out – probably the best week I have ever had on tour. The performances didn’t end with the usual curtain calls. No. Not with Dora about. I had discovered a piano in the wings and she heard me tinkling away. ‘Right, now after we’ve done our bows tonight,’ she said, ‘nip into the wings and we’ll give them a bit of a singsong.’ ‘What are you going to sing?’ ‘Don’t know – “Hello Dolly”, maybe. Can you play it? ‘Yes, but there’s no light! What key do you sing it in? I can hardly see the keyboard.’ ‘Oh, you’ll manage.’ And of course we did. The audience loved the impromptu cabaret which even involved her little dog (which went everywhere with her) making an appearance.
Dora was a force of nature. She simply got off on entertaining whether it was acting, singing or dancing. She had a naturally warm, sympathetic stage presence, so she never had to work at being liked by an audience: they loved her as soon as they saw her.
Dora & Bill
I visited her quite a few times after that, popping down to Brighton to see her and Bill but then, to my eternal regret, we lost touch. I heard about the bankruptcy, selling Clarges and about Bill’s death in 2008 (though no idea it was from Alzheimer’s). Someone told me, too, that Georgina, her adopted daughter (a beautiful girl), had died aged 36 from alcoholism. But then to find that lovely, lively, life-enhancing Dora had had to stop acting because she could no longer remember her lines, then that she had had to move to a nursing home and been confined to a wheelchair…it didn’t fit in with my memory of the unstoppable, irrepressible Dora. As her fellow Brighton resident Max Miller would have put it: ‘There’ll never be another.’