Dora Bryan and the Sixties: From BAFTA to Beatles … and Billy Graham

Our latest guest blog is by Claire Mortimer, a PhD student in the School of Film, Television and Media at the University of East Anglia. Claire’s research focuses on ageing film actresses in 20th century cinema, and she has published widely on this subject. Here Claire discusses the career of Dora Bryan, one of the late, great underrated actresses of stage, film and television.

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The Christmas charts of 1963 were testament to the unstoppable momentum of Beatlemania, with no fewer than five Beatles singles in the top thirty.  The group’s fame was also marked by the top twenty hit ‘All I Want For Christmas is a Beatle’, performed by character actress Dora Bryan, known for her many roles in British film during the previous two decades. The middle-aged Bryan tapped into the heart of youth culture, with a Top of the Pops appearance and with ‘All I Want…’ gaining the rather dubious status of being voted ‘best bad record of 1963’. In her West End revue she was photographed posing as a member of ‘The Cockroaches’, sporting the signature Beatles moptop and suit.

For some Beatles fans the song was a source of controversy, and a few even complained to the music press about the lyric: ‘I don’t care which one he brings me/ Ringo, Paul, John, George, they’re all the same’. The humour of the single rested on the incongruity of the forty year old comedy actress yearning after a Beatle (being of an age to be the mother of a typical fan). The single helped to consolidate her fame yet failed to boost her film career, which underwent a steady decline during the sixties. Her relative absence from the screen was all the more puzzling in the light of her BAFTA award-winning performance in A Taste of Honey in 1961.

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Bryan’s persona was defined in the 1960s by her role as Helen, the dissolute mother to Jo (Rita Tushingham) in a film which was celebrated for capturing the mood of the times. Surprisingly Bryan found that offers dried up in the wake of the film, and she finished the 1960s in a much less celebrated role, playing Cliff Richard’s mother in the Billy Graham financed ‘crusade’ film Two a Penny (1967). Described as Brian McFarlane as a ‘chirpy blonde…who played tarts of every hue’, Bryan found herself typecast early in her film career. She later recalled that her brother had complained to her that he was embarrassed by her roles, asking ‘Can’t you find yourself a part in which you’re not a tart or a barmaid?’

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Bryan’s casting in A Taste of Honey was informed by this persona, rendered more grotesque by Helen’s age (she is only forty) which disgusts Jo.  In one scene Helen is unabashed yet exposed as Jo looks down on her in the bath, declaring ‘What use can a woman of your age be to anybody?’ Helen points out that Jo talks about her as if she’s ‘an impotent old woman’. The message of the film regarding ageing femininity was true to the spirit of the times. In common with other kitchen sink films the matriarch is positioned as representing all that limits and threatens youth. Helen is a poisonous role model from whom Jo cannot escape, seemingly doomed to repeat the mistakes of her mother.

A Taste of Honey brought Bryan international recognition, taking her to Cannes, yet it was five years before she made another film.  In interview with Brian McFarlane she comments on her mixed fortunes after her BAFTA: ‘no one asked me to do any films for such a long time.’ She was to return to the screen in the headline role as Headmistress Amber Spottiswood in The Great St. Trinian’s Train Robbery (1966).

“The message of the film regarding ageing femininity is true to the spirit of the times…the matriarch is positioned as representing all that limits and threatens youth.”

It was a significant role for Bryan, and though the film saw some commercial success it was critically derided and was the last in the series for many years. Bryan’s casting is informed by the persona which so offended her brother: a racy Headmistress whose bedroom is decorated like a bordello, her various lovers leaping out of her window to make way for the next arrival. She exploits her relationships, particularly with the new Minister of Education, to rebuild St. Trinian’s, rescuing her staff and creating a den of iniquity which is a haven for delinquent girls. The middle-aged Headmistress is empowered by her rampant sexuality, being a caricature of the spirit of the Swinging Sixties, and proves to be an unhealthy role model for her charges (much like Helen in A Taste of Honey).

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With the exception of a cameo role in The Sandwich Man (1966), Bryan’s film career during the sixties came to a disappointing end with a minor role in Two a Penny. The film is vehemently critical of the moral laxity of the sixties, and features footage filmed at Billy Graham’s London Crusade. The melodrama required Bryan to be a disappointed and downtrodden mother to Cliff Richard, a pop star who finds himself dabbling with drug dealing. Bryan is very much positioned in the background of the film, which foregrounds Cliff; her character is merely that of a disappointed drudge, and incorporates none of the humour or vivacity central to her performance style.  As a mother she is superfluous to her son, as he turns his back on his dissolute lifestyle and embraces Christianity. Bryan herself became a devout Christian and close friend of Cliff after making the film. There were no further screen roles for Bryan until the following decade.

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For Bryan the 1960s provided two of her most notable roles, both as matriarchs in narratives which centre on female relationships. There were few other similarities between A Taste of Honey and The Great St. Trinian’s Train Robbery, with both films reflecting very different aspects of the national cinema of the decade. British cinema, and particularly film comedy, had continued to be a rich source of work for the ageing female character actress in the post-war era, yet the cultural transformations of the sixties peripheralised and ultimately excised these roles and performers. The impetus behind the youth centred cinema of the sixties was to excise the ageing woman, posing an existential dilemma for a character actress who had been central to the ensemble of British film comedies of the previous decades. Indeed, the careers of character actresses such as Bryan can be read as a barometer of the state of British cinema; many faced a dearth of film work during the sixties, whilst there was a proliferation of opportunities in television and on the stage.

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