Donald Clarke

Whingeing about cinema and real life since 2009

Farewell, Dora Bryan

The croaky voiced star of A Taste of Honey has left us at 91

Wed, Jul 23, 2014, 22:21


Some part of me always classed Dora Bryan with her contemporary Beryl Reid. Obviously they were very different people. Reid was a southerner for a start, whereas Bryan carried a Lancashire twang throughout her career. But both kept coming back to a particular class of charismatic character — disappointed, but strong and unstoppable — throughout their considerable careers. Neither was often allowed to be young on screen. We remember both as fearsome middle-aged women or equally fearsome old ladies. Film did that sort of thing to female actors back then.

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Bryan was certainly the more flirtatious of the two. You can see that in early supporting roles and as the brassy, boozy mother in Peter Richardson’s 1961 film of Sheelagh Delaney’s ground-breaking play A Taste of Honey. That film, set in Manchester, helped usher in the rather grandly (and retrospectively) named British New Wave. Suddenly, working-class Northerners were being allowed on screen and they were not being patronised or ridiculed. Stephen Patrick Morrissey was among a later generation swept along by that wave. The line “dreamt about you last night/ fell out of bed twice” in the Smiths’ Reel Around the Fountain is, of course, drawn from the play.

We mentioned that actors like Bryan and Reid were rarely allowed to be young. Looking back at her performance, it’s rather arresting to realise that she had not yet reached 40 (the character has, apparently, just hit that milestone). Back then, you were already on the road to decrepitude when the fifth decade loomed. Somewhere out there in the home counties Mick Jagger was starting on a career that would ultimately help change all that.

Speaking of the new pop stars, Dora managed to hitch a ride on their coattails and in 1963 had a novelty hit with All I Want for Christmas is a Beatle. Bryan was, at heart, a bit of a variety performer. For the rest of her busy career she alternated musicals with character roles on film and on TV. You can see her in Dinner Ladies, Last of the Summer Wine and Absolutely Fabulous. On every occasion, one caught that unique voice — somewhere between a gurgle and a croak — and wondered why it wasn’t exploited by better directors.

Part of the reason was that, during the 1970s, when she was moving through her fifties, the British film industry more or less ceased to exist. You won’t beed to be told that she appeared in one of the era’s horror films. It’s a pretty good one. In Peter Sasdy’s Hands of the Ripper she plays an exploitative medium caught up in the grim doings of Jack the Ripper. Seek it out in the wee hours on the more obscure channels.

Sadly, it seems that she suffered much ill health before her death today. They don’t really make actors like that anymore. Mind you, who would they play? They don’t make people like that any more.