The actor Damaris Hayman, who has died aged 91, was perhaps the last conduit to a bygone age of British comedy, her toothy bonhomie and breezy eccentricity making her a reliable supporting player to many of the big and small screen comedy stars from the 1950s to the 80s.
With a slight sibilance, a jaunty air and tally-ho demeanour, she was, comedically, almost the missing link between Joyce Grenfell and Miranda Hart – the embodiment of the kind of genteel humour required for boisterous games mistresses, discreet secretaries, jolly passers-by and, latterly, dotty old ladies.
The parts she played were often small but usually memorable, such as her cameo in a 1984 episode of the groundbreaking alternative comedy series The Young Ones. As the anarchic housemates get up to no good in a graveyard, she blithely wanders past them, pushing a dead body in a wheelbarrow, and cheerily enquires of Neil the hippy (Nigel Planer) “Do you dig graves?”. “Yeah, they’re alright,” he replies, to which she enthusiastically responds, “I’m so glad, I think they’re wonderful,” before going merrily on her way.
Her best television role came in the 1971 Doctor Who serial The Daemons, one of the most fondly remembered adventures featuring the third Doctor, Jon Pertwee. As Miss Hawthorne, the white witch of the village of Devil’s End (in reality Aldbourne, Wiltshire) she gamely stands up to Roger Delgado’s villainous Master and whacks a homicidal Morris dancer on the head with her handbag (rendering him unconscious due to her always carrying a crystal ball around in it). The character was popular enough for her to recreate the role in a 2017 direct-to-DVD sequel series from Reeltime Pictures, The White Witch of Devil’s End.
Born in Kensington, London, she was the only child of Perceval Hayman, a barrister and later county court judge, and his second wife, Vera (nee Kennedy); there were also two half-brothers from her father’s previous marriage. She spent her early childhood in Nelson, Lancashire, before the family relocated to Cheltenham.
While she was going to Cheltenham Ladies’ college she was bitten by the acting bug – her father wanted her to go into law but she did not feel she had a scholarly brain: “I was quick and intelligent but not deep enough.” She joined various local drama groups until she was 18 when she attended classes at the Royal Academy of Music and acquired a teaching qualification.
Gradually she broke into professional stage work and in 1952 joined the Byre theatre, St Andrews – they needed Anglo-Scots actors for a season “doing rather bad plays by new authors”. She returned there in 1954 as an associate director/producer as well as performer, with her roles including Madame Arcati in Blithe Spirit (1954).
Her television debut came in The Story of the Treasure Seekers (1953) and she went on to prove a dependable comic foil for Sidney James (Citizen James, 1962), Tommy Cooper (Life with Cooper, 1968 and The Tommy Cooper Hour, 1974 and 1975), Les Dawson (as a regular on Sez Les, 1972), Morecambe and Wise (1973), Dick Emery (four episodes of The Dick Emery Show between 1967 and 1977) and many more.
She particularly enjoyed a Comedy Playhouse (The Handyman, 1963) opposite Alfred Marks, her two appearances in Steptoe and Son (1964 and 1965), and a regular stint with the comedian Freddie Davies in the children’s comedy series The Small World of Samuel Tweet (1974-75). In One Foot in the Grave (1992) she memorably tried to sell Victor Meldrew her dead husband’s shoes while he was still wearing them.
Her first film was The Belles of St Trinian’s (1954), a walk-on part that nonetheless got her noticed – thereafter she popped up in Greyfriars Bobby (1961), Mutiny on the Buses (1972), Love Thy Neighbour (1973), Confessions of a Driving Instructor (1976), The Pink Panther Strikes Again (1976) and The Missionary (1982). She could be intransigent but she was unfailingly professional and approached each project with gusto and curiosity. Her lifelong love of animals (she devoted much of her spare time to animal charities) led to her once, when filming in Iraq, marching off to a slaughterhouse to observe how things were done there.
She never married, though the platonic love of her life was the comedian Tony Hancock, with whom she first worked on his final UK TV series Hancock’s (1967). “He was the Everest among the peaks of the comedians – very intelligent but a very sad man. I think now he would be described as bipolar.” Hancock would occasionally ring her in the middle of the night and ask her to come around – they would talk and she would read to him, everything from Plato to The House at Pooh Corner.
Her eye for children’s books made her invaluable to her 10 great-great-nieces and nephews, for whom she was an inspirational reader and chooser of stories in her later life, which she spent happily in Cheltenham surrounded by toppling piles of novels, boxes and memorabilia, giving insightful interviews about Hancock and her other great friend Margaret Rutherford, for whom she regularly understudied.
She was delighted that her Doctor Who role continued to provide enjoyable and paid employment – via interviews, conventions and signings – until lockdown in 2020, when she moved into a retirement home for her final year.
• Damaris Ann Kennedy Hayman, actor, born 16 June 1929; died 3 June 2021