Laye with Kenneth Williams in a scene from Carry on Spying (1964).
She never tired of relating Carry On anecdotes
Dilys Laye was one of Britain’s most experienced comedy actresses, best known for her appearances in the Carry On films. But she was equally adept in straight roles, notably with the Royal Shakespeare Company, and she was a seasoned musical star, having appeared in the original Broadway production of Sandy Wilson’s The Boy Friend, opposite Julie Andrews.
Although she made only four Carry On films — Carry on Cruising (1962), Spying (1964), Doctor (1967) and Camping (1969), the series made her an international star and she never tired of talking with fans about the films. In Carry on Doctor, she played the diminutive hospital patient Mavis Winkle, the unlikely love interest of towering 6ft 6in Bernard Bresslaw and two years later she was reunited with him, again playing his girlfriend, this time as permanently car-sick Anthea Meeks. Laye clearly enjoyed working on the series, despite the low pay and often grotty locations — Carry on Camping was filmed in the middle of winter in a snowy field. She said of her years at Pinewood Studios: “The Carry On team were an elite. It was like being at school and we belonged there.” She remained great friends with all the cast, notably Sid James who taught her to play poker on the set of Carry on Camping.
Born Dilys Lay (she added an “e” when she became an actress) in London in 1934, she was the daughter of Edward Lay and his wife Margaret (née Hewitt). Educated at St Dominic’s Convent, Harrow-on-the-Hill, northwest London, she trained for the stage at the Aida Foster School and made her first appearance as a child in 1948 as Moritz in The Burning Bush at the New Lindsey Theatre. The following year she appeared in Trottie True in Brian Desmond Hurst’s music-hall film starring Jean Kent.
Her gift for comedy was noticed during the early 1950s when she began appearing in a series of then hugely popular intimate West End revues, including High Spirits, For Amusement Only and Intimacy at 8.30 in which she starred alongside such performers as Ian Carmichael and Cyril Ritchard.
She made her Broadway debut in 1954 as Dulcie in The Boy Friend after which she returned to Britain to play in both West End and provincial theatre comedies and musicals.
In 1957 she played Mrs Herbert in the film Doctor at Large, opposite Dirk Bogarde and James Roberston Justice. In the 1960s she had established herself as a leading comedy actress on television, appearing regularly in series such as the BBC’s Comedy Playhouse. In 1967 she had a small role in Charlie Chaplin’s romantic comedy film A Countess from Hong Kong.
For much of her career the theatre remained her first love and she showed her versatility as an actress when she joined the RSC in the 1970s playing roles such as Maria in Twelfth Night and the Nurse in Romeo and Juliet. She frequently played leading roles in musical comedy and in recent years had topped the bill in touring productions of Sweeney Todd, The Pirates of Penzance, Fiddler on the Roof and 42nd Street. Trevor Nunn cast her as Mrs Pearce in the 2007 Drury Lane revival of My Fair Lady.
She also won critical acclaim for roles such as Mrs Bransom in Terry Hands’s production of Night Must Fall (Theatr Clwyd), Mrs Medlock in the RSC production of The Secret Garden, and Charlotta in The Cherry Orchard (Salisbury Playhouse). At the Haymarket Theatre, Leicester, she recently played the Queen and Coral Browne in Alan Bennett’s Guy Burgess-inspired drama Single Spies. In 1981 she wrote and appeared in the ITV sitcom Chintz, which also starred Michele Dotrice.
Laye almost never stopped working and had been seen on television in recent years in Midsomer Murders, Holby City and EastEnders, in which she played Maxine Palmer.
She numbered among her hobbies driving, crochet and knitting.
Her husband, Alan Downer, died in 1995. She is survived by her son, the theatrical agent Andrew Downer.
Dilys Laye, actress, was born on March 11, 1934. She died of cancer on February 13, 2009, aged 74