Dilys Laye - Obituary
A versatile actor, her career spanned stage classics,
EastEnders and the Carry Ons
From The Guardian
SHers was a face you were always glad to see in a Carry On movie, an old-style revue, or a television series such as EastEnders or - with her lifelong friend Sheila Hancock, back in the mid-1960s - The Bed-Sit Girl. Her range and talent were unconfined: she would pop up everywhere, in a new play by Peter Barnes (who once wrote an exacting monologue as a belly-dancer for her), a revival of John Webster's The White Devil at the Lyric, Hammersmith, an Emlyn Williams drama in Clwyd, a new look at Stephen Sondheim's Sweeney Todd in Manchester.
The extraordinary career of Dilys Laye, who has died of lung cancer aged 74, stretched, like that of Hancock and Maggie Smith, from revue to the classics: she was the first Dulcie on Broadway in Sandy Wilson's The Boy Friend (she produced a curiously hoarse, and very funny, squeak in her voice, said Wilson), alongside Julie Andrews; she tried to seduce Dirk Bogarde as a married vamp in Doctor at Large; and she opened the new Wilde theatre at Bracknell, Berkshire, as the eponymous Lady B in The Importance of Being Earnest.
Like all great players, she attracted deep devotion on and off stage. During that debut Broadway season with The Boy Friend in 1954, she was dated by a handsome young actor called James Baumgarner; his career took off when he changed his surname to Garner.
After returning to London, she worked with Joan Littlewood at Stratford East as "the Redhead" in Make Me an Offer (1959) and became a regular in the unofficial company of great West End and television comedians that included Hattie Jacques, June Whitfield, Joan Sims and Annette Crosbie. They defined the sexual stratagems and appetites of a whole postwar generation in the comedy of the Carry On movies, the burgeoning world of TV sitcom and radio surrealism. Dilys scored a particular success opposite Ian Carmichael in the West End comedy Say Who You Are at Her Majesty's in 1965.
There was a weaponry in her acting, a cutting edge, that took her to the heart of an experimental writer such as Barnes, in whose amazing play Bewitched, directed by Terry Hands, she appeared with the RSC in 1975; this association continued in the mid-1980s when she graced an RSC Romeo and Juliet as the Nurse, Nick Dear's fantastic Hogarth play The Art of Success and a wonderful RSC and Opera North revival of Showboat, directed by Ian Judge.
Dilys worked happily with a new generation of directors including Jonathan Church in Salisbury and Paul Kerryson in Leicester and was always open to suggestion. As an undergraduate at Oxford in 1968, I took a vacation job as a stage hand on the Playhouse production by Minos Volonakis of Brecht's Good Woman of Setzuan. Peggy Ashcroft had scored a great personal success in the title role at the Royal Court theatre in London; in Oxford, Hancock made that role her own, with support from Dilys as Mrs Shin.
During that high summer season, I spent many hours on the river, and in local hostelries, with Dilys and the actor Alan Lake, then Diana Dors's husband. Dilys was a wise, perceptive and very sexy woman, usually brunette, with more than a wry twinkle and knowing glance. I learned more about the theatre from her than from anyone else I knew at that time and she never let me, or any other critic, down.
She was born in Muswell Hill, north London, adding an "e" to her surname for the stage, and educated at St Dominic's convent at Harrow-on-the-Hill. "Small but perfectly formed" ran a profile in the Stage: "Her smile is as warming as a log fire on a cold winter's night." She made her stage debut in 1948 playing a boy in The Burning Bush, at the New Lindsey theatre, west London, and her screen debut later the same year as a younger version of the popular star Jean Kent in Trottie True.
From her training at the Aida Foster stage school right through to strong character roles on film with wimpy buffoons such as Charlie Drake in Petticoat Pirates (1961) and Norman Wisdom in On the Beat (1962), Laye took a stand. She made her cinematic mark as the ghastly Flo Castle in Carry On Cruising (1962), taking over the role from an ailing Joan Sims at four days' notice; a Bond-girl parody in Carry On Spying (1964); Mavis Winkle, falling in love with Bernard Bresslaw, an impish pygmy to his lumbering giant, in Carry On Doctor (1967); and as Bresslaw's permanently car-sick companion Anthea Meeks, on holiday with Sid James and Sims, in Carry On Camping (1969), her fourth and last in the series.
She never wilted - in 1996-97, she illuminated the Donmar Warehouse in the Yeston and Kopit musical Nine, based on Fellini's 8½, and subsequently the brilliant revival by John and Bob Crowley of Stephen Sondheim's Into the Woods. Following a superb Mrs Pearce in Trevor Nunn's definitive revival of My Fair Lady, produced by Cameron Mackintosh in 2002, she was one of the few good things in a London revival of Christopher Hampton's Les Liaisons Dangereuses and, in 2005, she toured Britain in Roald Dahl's The Witches.
Recent TV appearances included a role in Lynda La Plante's two-part drama The Commander, with Amanda Burton, and as Frankie Howerd's mother (Frankie was played, a bit too spookily, by David Walliams) in Rather You Than Me (both 2008). In 2006 she was a tartly delineated Queen Elizabeth II to The Amazing Mrs Pritchard, Jane Horrocks's make-believe prime minister.
Her last stage appearance came that year in the three roles of Miss La Creevy, Mrs Gudden and Peg Sliderskew in the Chichester festival revival of the RSC's Nicholas Nickleby; in rehearsals, she knew cancer had returned, but told nobody. She was too ill to transfer with Philip Franks's and Jonathan Church's fine, spirited co-production to London. Mrs Gudden's moving farewell to the stage had been her own.
She was married first, briefly, to stunt man Frank Maher, and secondly to actor Garfield Morgan. In 1972 she married her third husband, the actor and writer Alan Downer, who wrote scripts for Coronation Street and Emmerdale Farm on TV, and Waggoners' Walk on radio.
Alan died in 1995, having been ill for some years after suffering a stroke. Soon after, Dilys was first diagnosed with bowel cancer. She is survived by their son, Andrew Downer, an agent for film crews. Feisty to the last, she outlived her doctors' predictions by six months, having ensured she would be alive to see Andrew married.
• Dilys Laye (Lay), actor, born 11 March 1934; died 13 February 2009