Haydn Gwynne, versatile actress best known for the sitcoms Drop the Dead Donkey and The Windsors – obituary

Haydn Gwynne as Queen Camilla and Harry Enfield as King Charles III in The Windsors Coronation Special, broadcast earlier this year
Haydn Gwynne as Queen Camilla and Harry Enfield as King Charles III in The Windsors Coronation Special, broadcast earlier this year - Channel 4

Haydn Gwynne, the actress, who has died of cancer aged 66, made her name on television as the sardonic Alex Pates, duty news editor, in the popular Channel 4 sitcom Drop the Dead Donkey – and later brought Camilla, Duchess of Cornwall, then Queen Consort, to the screen in the same channel’s wicked satire The Windsors.

She played the royal consort as a “soap opera villainess that we know and perhaps love” from The Windsors’ start, in 2016, until this year’s coronation special, in which Charles (played by Harry Enfield) fumes at Rishi Sunak’s idea of a budget coronation, and Camilla is transformed into a Cruella de Vil lookalike when she accidentally smears ink over half of her blonde hair. “Given that she started series one by trying to blow up the royal family, I can’t say she’s got any worse,” said Haydn Gwynne.

In 2021, Enfield revealed he had been told that Charles, then Prince of Wales, regarded The Windsors as “very cruel”.

Haydn Gwynne took a more subservient role in a royal saga when she had a cameo in the historical drama The Crown in 2022. She played Lady Susan Hussey, Queen Elizabeth II’s Woman of the Bedchamber, who – outside the drama – had recently left royal service after her remarks to a black charity founder caused a media storm.

It was a phenomenon Haydn Gwynne had satirised brilliantly 30 years earlier in Drop the Dead Donkey – “a parody on the tabloids and newsrooms in general”, as she put it – set in the studios of the GlobeLink News TV channel, newly bought by a never-seen Rupert Murdoch/Robert Maxwell-type media mogul.

As the sardonic Alex Pates, duty news editor, in Channel 4 sitcom Drop the Dead Donkey
As the sardonic Alex Pates, duty news editor, in Channel 4 sitcom Drop the Dead Donkey - Alamy

As the duty news editor, constantly harassed and frustrated by indecisive management, Haydn Gwynne played the only nice character in a series that also featured David Swift as a lecherous, drunken news presenter, Stephen Tompkinson as a ruthless reporter and Jeff Rawle as her boss, the news editor frequently on the verge of a nervous breakdown.

But the actress dropped her own breaking – and shocking – news on the sitcom by pulling out after the first two series (1990-91). While the Bafta-winning Drop the Dead Donkey continued for a further four runs, she was keen to return to theatre, for fear of typecasting on TV. “It could be seen as brave or foolish,” said Haydn Gwynne, but “at the time, I was only being offered Alex-clone roles.”

After sparkling on the West End stage, spending 18 months with the Royal Shakespeare Company and having her first baby, it would be eight years before she was on the small screen again. When the return came, it was dramatic. She appeared in a helicopter, landing in the Peak District, for the medical drama Peak Practice, playing Joanna Graham, who joins the GPs at the Beeches surgery in fictional Cardale after leaving a surgeon’s job behind.

“I’d already looped the loop in an open-topped Tiger Moth, but I’d never actually been in a helicopter,” Haydn Gwynne told Radio Times. “I felt like Action Woman. You get dressed up in all the paramedic gear and get to indulge your ER fantasies.”

But it was another run that ended after two years (1999-2000), with her pregnant character caught in the crossfire by an angry farmer brandishing a double-barrelled shotgun. Although the actress herself then left to have a second child, she said that “the decision for Joanna to have a baby was entirely coincidental”.

As Dr Joanna Graham in ITV's Peak Practice (2000)
As Dr Joanna Graham in ITV's Peak Practice (2000) - Television Stills

Haydn Gwynne was born in Hurstpierpoint, West Sussex, on March 21 1957 to Rosamond (née Dobson) and Guy Gwynne, who ran a printing company.

On leaving Burgess Hill School for Girls, she studied sociology at Nottingham University, where she acted in student productions, one of which they took to the Edinburgh Fringe Festival.

With the university’s opera group, she gained good reviews as the tragic Fenella in Masaniello, but steered away from making acting her career. “My father was a Barnardo’s boy and I was worried he’d think I was wasting my talents,” she explained.

Instead, she spent five years lecturing in English at Rome University. Then, after seeing some Broadway shows on a visit to New York, she wrote to theatres across Britain and landed her first job with the playwright-director Alan Ayckbourn at the Stephen Joseph Theatre in the Round, Scarborough, where she made her debut in the rarely staged Sandy Wilson satirical musical His Monkey Wife in 1984.

But Haydn Gwynne was brought down to earth when she was cast as Billie Burke, second wife of the real-life Broadway producer of the title, in Ziegfeld (London Palladium, 1988). The multi-million-pound production went through a string of disasters before closing after five months. “That was fairly traumatic,” she said. “In retrospect, it toughened me up.”

Her television breakthrough came a year later in David Lodge’s four-part adaptation of his own novel, Nice Work, winner of the Royal Television Society’s 1989 award for Best Drama Series. She stripped off to take a starring role as Dr Robyn Penrose, a feminist university lecturer shadowing Warren Clarke’s engineering firm boss. Other actresses had turned down the raunchy part, but Haydn Gwynne insisted: “The naked bedroom scenes weren’t about sex. It was supposed to be very, very funny. I thought the finished result very funny.”

As Superintendent Susan Blake in the police drama Mersey Beat
As Superintendent Susan Blake in the police drama Mersey Beat (2001-2) - Television Stills

In 1993, after leaving Drop the Dead Donkey, she confirmed her flair for satire when she made her West End debut in City of Angels, the musical about Hollywood. Playing the parts of two secretaries, Oolie and Donna, at the Prince of Wales Theatre, she was praised by The Stage for her “strikingly deep singing voice” – and won the first of four Olivier Award nominations.

With the RSC (1994-95), her parts included Helena in A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Olivia in Twelfth Night.

On television, she followed Peak Practice with another starring role, as Superintendent Susan Blake in the police drama Mersey Beat for its first two series (2001-2). She shadowed officers to research the part, telling The Independent on Sunday: “My knowledge of the police seemed to come exclusively from television. After I’d met them in the flesh, I came to see police officers more as ordinary people doing a job.”

She then brought her experience of living in Rome to the small screen as Calpurnia, Caesar’s dour wife, in the epic series Rome (2005-07).

On stage, she starred in the West End as the dance teacher, Mrs Wilkinson, in the Elton John-Lee Hall show Billy Elliot: The Musical (2005-06). When she reprised the part on Broadway (2008), she won Drama Desk and Outer Critics Circle Awards.

She returned to the classics to act Queen Elizabeth, opposite Kevin Spacey’s title character, in Richard III at the Old Vic in 2011 and on Broadway the following year. The production was part of director Sam Mendes’s Bridge Project of plays featuring actors from both sides of the Atlantic.

As the Prue Leith-style judge Pam Lee in The Great British Bake Off Musical earlier this year
As the Prue Leith-style judge Pam Lee in The Great British Bake Off Musical earlier this year - Alastair Muir

Two years later, she portrayed Mrs Thatcher in the Peter Morgan play The Audience, with Helen Mirren playing Queen Elizabeth II, at the Gielgud Theatre.

Returning to musicals, at the Playhouse Theatre in 2015, she played Lucia in Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown, based on the Spanish film directed by Pedro Almódovar.

Her subsequent performance as Mrs Peachum in the National Theatre’s larger-than-life production of The Threepenny Opera in 2016 led the company’s artistic director, Rufus Norris, to praise her “unique combination of wit, wickedness, grace and fearless craft”.

The actress’s last West End performance was at the Noël Coward Theatre as the Prue Leith-style judge Pam Lee in The Great British Bake Off Musical earlier this year – bringing spectacle, surprise and applause by doing cartwheels.

The Telegraph journalist Judith Woods observed: “She channelled Prue Leith with the same wholehearted conviction she deployed for her fabulous caricature of Camilla in the scurrilous royal satire The Windsors and witheringly sardonic newsroom hack Alex in Drop the Dead Donkey.”

Haydn Gwynne is survived by the two sons from her relationship with Jason Phipps, from whom she recently separated.

Haydn Gwynne, born March 21 1957, died 20 October 2023