Dora Bryan (stage name, originally named Dora Broadbent, 1923-2014) had appeared in pantomime in Manchester as a child and then as a teenager before the War became an assistant stage manager and ‘student’ at the Oldham Repertory Theatre Club at the Oldham Temperance Hall. Dora recalled in her memoir that no pay was involved in this dual role for some time, though she and her mother did later negotiate a wage. (1) In the early years of the war, Dora played in various repertory productions and theatres, but after December 1941 was, like other women aged between eighteen and thirty, subject to conscription. She was eighteen in February 1941, and presumably sometime after that was given a choice: ‘I was called up to do my ENSA service or go into a factory’ (According to Dora, p.36 – memoirs often do not specify months or years very exactly in their narratives). ENSA was the Entertainments National Service Association, formed in 1939 to provide entertainment for all three services, more-or-less wherever they were stationed. The organisation was part of the NAAFI (Navy, Army and Airforce Institutes), but there was a separate ENSA uniform and cap badge, and as Dora found, it was indeed a form of national service. She performed for some time as a member of ENSA, but in fact as part of Colchester Rep (in their home city and on tour), before going overseas to perform in liberated Italy (in Naples to be exact, which was liberated at the beginning of October, 1943). Dora recalled that for some odd reason ENSA members who served with Colchester Rep were issued with officer’s uniform instead of the other ranks uniform which ENSA members usually received. The ENSA uniform was essentially the standard army or ATS uniform, so the officers’ issue would have made life both smarter and more comfortable, being made of finer cloth, and giving automatic access to officers’ amenities. It, of course, went to Italy with her. (2) Here is the ENSA cap-badge (replica, maker unknown).
On her return from Italy and release from ENSA in 1945, Dora Bryan went to seek her fortune as an actress in London, but in need of some money to pay her wartime income tax, which she had not paid since 1941, she also took up a fixed-term opportunity back with Oldham Rep:
They were doing a try-out of a new play by Walter Greenwood, So Brief the Spring … [it] had Robert Newton as guest star, and Oldham Rep asked if I would go back for £12 a week … I was thrilled. Two weeks at home, with pay, and a chance to work with a wonderful actor like Robert Newton into the bargain. A charming man, but little did I know what would be in store for me when I worked with him. (According to Dora, p. 50).
This try-out was in October 1945 and had some advance publicity, mainly because of Robert Newton’s appearance as the central character, Randy Jollifer. Newton was a very popular British film star at this point, having done war-service in the Royal Navy before being cast in good parts in two successful morale-supporting films, This Happy Breed (Two Cities Films, directed by David Lean, 1944) and Henry V (Two Cities Films, directed by Laurence Olivier, 1944) (3). Newton’s return to a stage role was news in itself, and perhaps partly done to help his friend Greenwood. In fact, as Greenwood explained in an interview in the Manchester Evening News (25/9/1945, p.8), he and Newton had been on a holiday in Cornwall in 1939 and Newton had asked Walter to write a play for him. Greenwood had started, but as he explained, had to write it in brief snatches during the war (a report in the Glasgow Evening News (10/10/1945) adds the details that ‘part of the writing was done in an exercise book bought on Argyle Street while Walter was training at Maryhill Barracks’. As a result Greenwood had only just finished the play-script some six years later. The location of their holiday and Newton’s origins influenced the characterisation: ‘He is a Cornishman himself, so I decided to write a comedy round a Cornish character’. The central character, Randy Jollifer, is named after a small boat Greenwood and Newton bought in Cornwall, and is in many ways modelled on Newton (the two share war-service in the Navy, and both are rugged and individualistic).
However, Randy Jollifer is very much in control of his life and determined to settle peacefully in the Cornish fishing village of Trelooe after a hard war at sea. To return to the quotation from Dora Bryan’s memoir, and her reservations about the actuality of working with the star Newton, in this respect Jollifer and Newton were not, of course, identical. As Bryan goes on to say:
Bob [Newton] had just come out of the Navy, and it was no secret that he had an affection for alcohol. This had its problems for everyone, not least for me, as all my scenes in the play were with him. It was very nerve-wracking, because he would arrive on stage having had a sustaining amount of drink, and at times was so incoherent that he really couldn’t be understood, and invariably I found myself having to say his lines as well as my own. He also took it upon himself to rearrange the plot of the play.
I was playing the part of the hussy, and he took quite a fancy to me, making wild grabs at me on stage instead of lavishing his attentions upon the character supposed to be his true love. This made no sense of the production at all, and when dear Walter Greenwood came to see his play for the first time he wondered what an earth had happened to it (According to Dora, pp. 50-51).
However, there is an unsigned review in the Stage from 4th October 1945 which, though it has some reservations about the play itself, praises Newton highly. The reviewer thinks the play’s comedy is overladen with references to too many immediate topical end-of-war social issues, including demobilisation, the atom bomb and the Labour government, and that it needs cutting. But:
The play has strength in Randy Jollifer, written for Robert Newton and played by him brilliantly on one of his rare returns to stage work in the last ten years. Mr Newton illuminates the philosophical depths of Randy, who moves through the play a serene and gentle giant … There is never much likelihood that Jennifer (Dora Bryan) or Susan (Joan Sharp) will deflect him from his course, though Miss Bryan and Miss Sharp play the siren with charming grace … but the play is Mr Newton’s. He is not merely a he-man, but gives Randy a spiritual force and poetry which makes a fascinating part for actor and audience (p. 6).
This hardly sounds like the same experience or production, but perhaps Newton did get it together for the opening of the show and remembered that in fact he was meant to be pursuing neither of the leading female roles in the story. The play did not have a long run and did not gain the key thing for success – a London production.
Dora Bryan’s next involvement with Walter Greenwood was four years later, in 1949, when Robert Donat had with great persistence raised the finance to film Greenwood’s play, The Cure for Love, which he had produced and starred in for its first London stage production in 1945. In this, the returning hero, Sergeant Jack Hardacre, comes home on leave to his mother’s house in Salford immediately to fall for her wartime billettee, mobile wartime factory-worker, Milly Southern. He has, however, before setting off for war apparently become unwillingly engaged to a neighbour, Janey Jenkinson. Though decorated for his courage in North Africa and Italy, he cannot raise the nerve to tell the unstoppable Janey it is all off. Dora was cast as Janey Jenkins, while Renee Asherson was cast as Milly Southern (a southerner who has over the course of the war adapted to northern ways, more or less). Here are the three of them in a publicity photograph – the scene suggests the dynamics of the situation and the hero’s passivity (scan of original photo taken on set in 1949, and now in the author’s collection).
Like Newton, Donat was another popular film star, though with a very different personality from Dora’s previous co-star. Donat had two big pre-war film successes as the male lead in The 39 Steps (Gaumont-British, directed by Alfred Hitchcock, 1935) and Goodbye Mr Chips (Metro-Goldwyn-Meyer, directed by Sam Wood, 1939). However, though for very different reasons, The Cure for Love did not fully realise Dora Bryan’s expectations:
My first big break in films came with Walter Greenwood’s Lancashire comedy The Cure for Love …[it] was going to make me into a Big Star. I was heading for a contract with MGM. Oh yes, I thought, when I made that film all the Hollywood studios would be fighting over me. Despite all the English films I’d made, nobody here had discovered me, so Hollywood was going to be next. I had it all worked out. When the film was finished it was given a special press review before going on general release. Everyone was optimistic … but the film was received in total silence, so we crept away and left Robert to talk to the press (According to Dora, pp.63-4).
Donat had chronic asthma and often (in the absence then of any effective treatments) was unwell while working. In this case, he had been ill during filming leading to delays and the need to re-record his spoken part for many of the scenes, perhaps producing in various ways a stilted final effect. Also, he was not an experienced film director, but rather a theatre director, and perhaps the film was just too northern in focus and humour for the metropolis. Despite the reaction of the national press which Bryan and the cast picked up on so immediately, the film was a commercial success, as her memoir goes on to say:
Amazingly, although London hated the film, and the run at the Odeon, Leicester Square, had to be curtailed, from Birmingham northwards we were a great success, and had long runs in the cinemas in the north. In Newcastle it ran for eighteen weeks (According to Dora, p. 64).
Dora Bryan was in a great number of British films over the next five decades, as well as sustaining her stage career, but her perhaps greatest film performance did at least have a Salford location, when she played Jo’s mother Helen in the 1961 film of Shelagh Delaney’s A Taste of Honey (Woodfall Film Productions, directed by Tony Richardson, 1961). This film was, as she notes, a ‘great success’ commercially as well as critically, but alas she had opted for a relatively small one-off fee rather than a share in the profits (According to Dora, p. 134).
Note 1. In her memoir, According to Dora, Bodley Head, London, 1986, revised and updated edition, Hodder & Stoughton, London, 1996, p.17. Subsequent references to this entertaining memoir are given in brackets in the text when a concise reference suffices.
Note 2. See According to Dora, pp.39 and 41. For some further information about ENSA, see the Wikipedia entry: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Entertainments_National_Service_Association. For further information about the origins and history of the NAAFI see Wikipedia entry (though it currently has some referencing issues): https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Navy,_Army_and_Air_Force_Institutes. The ATS was the Auxiliary Territorial Service, the women’s equivalent of the Army – see https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Auxiliary_Territorial_Service
Note 3. See IMDB entries and BFI Screen Online entries for both films for further information: This Happy Breed – https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0037367/ , http://www.screenonline.org.uk/film/id/488558/index.html; Henry V – https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0036910/ , http://www.screenonline.org.uk/film/id/439237/index.html