Dora Bryan – Bold as brass
Fontana SFL 13114,
Dora Bryan has a singing voice that is far from subtle. It is hard to know how precisely to describe it for the uninitiated. It’s sort of… part someone trying to grind diamonds in a domestic food blender, part someone else attempting to cut through Italian marble with an blunt electric kitchen knife. Americans don’t seem to have a problem with this kind of loud siren-like voice, as stars such as Ethel Merman or Barbra Streisand prove, but in the UK it’s hard to really know what to do with such talents. We simply just don’t know what to make of the more brash, ear-shattering rattles that the human larynx can generate. While in the US many great musical stars are feted for their ability to blow chandeliers apart with their voice alone, over here we listen to the likes of Barbara Windsor, Su Pollard or Dora Bryan and are left in a startled state of disbelief, pondering instead the deeper mysteries of life.
Dora Bryan to be fair though, has not let her grating vocal talents stand in the way of pursuing a long and successful showbusiness career. In fact she has made something of a feature of it. Her stage and film roles have often relied on her voice. Dora’s CV is dotted throughout with early roles such as ‘prostitute’ and ‘barmaid’, and later on with roles playing people glorying in names such as ‘Nora’, ‘Mabel’ or ‘Elsie’. If a casting director needed an actress with an air of tarnished brassiness to lend a certain conviction to the role of a tart with a heart, then for many years Dora Bryan’s name was at the top of their list. Dora could bring a distinct, broad, knockabout charm to any comedy, such as her love-interest role in Carry On Sergeant opposite Kenneth Connor, but she could equally excel in serious roles such as the oversexed sot of a mother in A Taste of Honey. A role which of course won her a much deserved BAFTA.
Born plain Dora Broadbent in in 1923 in Parbold, Lancashire, a settlement nestled snugly betwixt the twin charms of Wigan and Southport, Dora and her family soon moved to the leafy suburbs of Oldham where she spent her formative years. Already performing on stage to rave reviews by the age of ten, she began her professional career at the Oldham Repertory Theatre Club based at the local Temperance Hall. The company and Dora both prospered, with the Rep relocating to the larger Coliseum Theatre and Dora relocating in 1941 to the bright lights of Peterborough to appear in Keith Winter’s play The Shining Hour. Already fantasising about her name appearing in lights over Peterborough, Dora Broadbent changed her name to the shorter Dora Bryant, so as to avoid changing the initials stamped on her luggage, and set off. When she reached the theatre though, her name had been further truncated by the lack of light bulbs to Dora Bryan, and lo, a theatrical phenomenon was born.
The 1964 album Dora came not longer after Dora’s sole venture into the UK charts with her well-timed 1963 Christmas novelty hit All I Want For Christmas Is A Beatle. Still sought after by obsessive Beatles completists, the single does not feature on the album but it really does carry on in that raucous novelty vein. The record is a celebration of Dora’s talents and revels in musical numbers as well as monologues and comedy sketches.
The album begins, as Dora often did herself, suddenly and with a blustering, boisterous auditorium shattering opening salvo. Not for our Dora a few quiet numbers to ease the listener into a gentle state of bliss. No, from the moment the needle of the record player settles into the groove, there is an all-out assault on the ears. The opening number Why Did You Call Me Lily? was the song that largely made Dora’s reputation in the West End. Written by Sir Alan Herbert and Vivian Ellis for their 1955 musical The Water Gypsies, the song made a star of Dora and it is hard to imagine anyone interpreting its demands so well. Dora made a triumph out of its deliberately convoluted, tongue-twisting lyrics which lament the conventions of baby-naming in a jolly romp of a march. Two Eyes, the second track continues in the same animated manner and is a mad stomping jazz and honky-tonk organ workout, complimented by Dora’s wailing banshee growl of a vocal.
Other songs find Dora in a more restrained mood, although admittedly it is difficult to imagine her mood being more upbeat than in those first two tracks. No Better Than I Should Be is a measured lament of a song by Richard Addinsell and Arthur Macrae taken from their 1958 revue Living for Pleasure, which introduces Dora as a brassy dame for the first time. Her ‘tart with a heart’ persona is allowed to soar and her growls and warbles on the track definitely play to her strengths.
Further brassy interpretations come thick and fast after that. Side one closes with a self-controlled version of Peter Greenwell and Peter Wildeblood’s Charity Begins, ornamented with a lush organ vibe and some bold drums. Side two adds two more into Dora’s repertoire of tart-inspired numbers with Because He Loves Me and Misery In Mink. The first is a tale of a naïve 20-year-old ingénue, besotted with the lecherous advances of a decrepit elderly married grotesque of a man. Misery In Mink is equally restrained and equally immoral. It is bathed is sleazy saxophones and lazy jazz tones that lend it an instant air of scandal.
Equally at home playing dissipated grande dame in the monologue Friends, or a gossipy incompetent travel agent in Jolly Jaunts, the real revelations are Dora’s brilliant turns in her sketches and monologues. They provide a welcome relief from the stream of molten brass belting out from her songs and are still genuinely clever and witty. The stand-out track for me is Miss Manderson, a deliciously dark and sinister tale of compulsive murder, played out by Dora as a psychotic patient confiding to her psychiatrist, played here by the writer of the sketch, Alan Melville. Showing that dark humour didn’t begin and end with the efforts of BBC Three, Dora comfortably confesses to mass murder with a calmness and menace that many modern performers would struggle to match.
Dora is a record of a star of stage, screen, cinema and TV at the very height of her powers. An acquired taste her voice may be, but the sheer variety of musical styles and sketches on the record are a reward worth exploring. Welcome to the brassy world of Dora Bryan: