She was once Britain’s highest paid female star. She won a BAFTA for Best Actress and was awarded an OBE. Talented and versatile, she appeared in Carry On films, Shakespeare plays, stage musicals, works by Harold Pinter … and Absolutely Fabulous. She was featured on This is Your Life twice. In later life she owned and lived in the Kemptown seafront hotel Clarges and was a much loved Kemptown character. When she died in 2014 at the age of 91, her packed funeral was held in Kemptown’s St George’s Church.
Dora Bryan (she was born Broadbent, but adopted Bryan as a stage name from a Bryant and May matchbox) began acting as a child in Lancashire and quickly found success which led her to the West End. Often cast as the bubbly blonde or the tart-with-a-heart, she also excelled at grittier, more complex roles. It was playing he part of the alcoholic and manipulative mother in the much acclaimed 1961 film A Taste of Honey that won her the BAFTA.
Married for 54 years to Lancashire cricketer Bill Lawton, the couple owned the Regency-era hotel Clarges at 115-119 Marine Parade. The front of the building featured in both Carry on Girls and Carry on at your Convenience. But despite their long and enduring marriage, the couple were beset with difficulties: Dora suffered several miscarriages and she struggled with breakdowns and alcoholism. One of their adopted children suffered from a severe spinal condition and their daughter Georgina died in her mid-thirties. Their property development plan to convert Clarges into flats ran into financial trouble in the 1980’s recession – and the ensuing liquidation soaked up their remaining assets, leaving Dora and her husband with just a tiny flat. Despite still being in demand for films and TV shows well into her 70s, her ability to remember her lines eventually failed and the work dried up. Friends credit her strong marriage, Christian faith and irrepressible sense of humour for helping her to keep going.
Clarges’ elegant façade still has the old hotel lettering – but is now divided into private flats. A blue plaque honouring Dora Bryan was unveiled on the front of the building in March 2016, in a ceremony which included some of Dora’s family and former showbiz colleagues, including presenter Michael Aspel and comedian Roy Hudd. A special exhibition, Dora Bryan, Miss Showbusiness – A Celebration! for which Dora loaned much of her own meticulously archived memorabilia, opened at the Grange Museum Rottingdean in the year before her death and ran until 2015. Details can still be viewed on the museum’s website.
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