Dilys Watling, who has died aged 79, was an all-round entertainer on stage and screen. From singing and dancing in the Raymond Revuebar in Soho, she took her vivacious personality to West End musicals and television appearances in both light-entertainment programmes and dramas.
In 1970, she was even on the Broadway stage in Georgy, starring as the awkward, dowdy title character, played by Lynn Redgrave in the film version, Georgy Girl, four years earlier. She received a Tony award nomination as best actress in a musical, despite the production proving a flop and closing after only four performances at the Winter Garden theatre.
The New York Times described Watling as “adorable” but judged that the cast had no good songs to sing from the composers, George Fischoff and Carole Bayer.
Broadway never beckoned again, but Watling continued to show her talents in British theatres. She was also a pantomime regular and, by the mid-1970s, the Stage newspaper regarded her as “one of the best principal boys in the business”.
She popped up regularly on television in entertainment and sketch shows alongside some of the biggest stars of the age – Adam Faith, Dickie Henderson, Tommy Cooper, Joe Brown, future Pythons and Goodies in Twice a Fortnight (1967), Mike Yarwood, Frankie Howerd, Leslie Crowther, Reg Varney, Eric Sykes, Terry Scott, Jimmy Tarbuck, Morecambe and Wise, Benny Hill and, from 1972 to 1984, Corbett and Barker in the Two Ronnies.
Dilys was born in Fulmer, Buckinghamshire, the daughter of two actors, Patricia Hicks, who later performed on Broadway, and Sidney Rhys-Jones, who served as an RAF flying officer during the second world war. She was still a baby when, in 1943, he died after his Lancaster bomber crashed on take-off during flight training.
The family moved to Essex, where Dilys attended St Mary’s convent school, Woodford. She trained at the Italia Conti stage school and joined the repertory company at Frinton summer theatre in 1959.
Watling first gained good notices in London at the Revuebar (1961-62), performing in between striptease acts. Full-frontal nudity was allowed at the time because it was a members-only club, but Paul Raymond was found guilty in 1961 of running a disorderly house.
In his 2013 Raymond biography, The Look of Love, Paul Willetts wrote of another undercover police officer visiting later that year: “He attended a show featuring an Arabian Knights striptease by Trixie Kent, not to mention three uncontentious song-and-dance numbers performed by Dilys Watling.” No charges resulted this time.
Watling and Brian Lindsay, a tap dancer, then performed in clubs as a double act before her breakthrough in stage musicals in the role of Mary, the maid, alongside Harry Secombe, in the original London cast of Pickwick (Saville theatre, 1963-64).
She was back in the West End to play Lady Agatha in the satirical Our Man Crichton (Shaftesbury theatre, 1964-65), also standing in as Tweeny when the star, Millicent Martin, fell ill. Then, she took over the role of Hodel, the milkman’s daughter falling in love with Sandor Elès’s student revolutionary, in Fiddler on the Roof (Her Majesty’s theatre, 1967). Five years, later, she was back at Her Majesty’s to step into the role of Amy in Stephen Sondheim’s Company.
In the provinces, Watling starred as Sally Bowles in Cabaret (Liverpool playhouse, 1975-76), before returning to London to play Anne Boleyn to Frank Finlay’s Henry VIII in Kings and Clowns (Phoenix, 1978), then the pivotal character of the beggar woman in Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street (Theatre Royal, Drury Lane, 1980), another Sondheim show. In the sci-fi musical Time (Dominion theatre, 1986), she was Judge Morgua.
On TV, Watling also showed her talents as a character actor. Early in her career, she had short runs in three soap operas: in the glossy magazine serial Compact as Gillian Nesbitt in 1962; in the football saga United! as Sue Grainger in 1966; and in Coronation Street the same year as Merle Baker, a cockney arriving to find her “fiance”, David Barlow, now happily married. She later took one-off character roles in episodes of Paul Temple (1971), The Bill (1991) and Minder (1994).
Similarly, she switched from musicals to drama on stage to play Belinda Blair in Michael Frayn’s Noises Off (Savoy theatre, 1984-85).
Watling’s two marriages, to Bruce Anderson, an Australian teacher, in 1966, and the actor Owen Teale, in 1986, both ended in divorce. She is survived by Ion, her son with Teale, and by Giles, now Conservative MP for Clacton, and Nicola. Deborah died in 2017.
• Dilys Watling (Dilys Rhys-Jones), actor, born 5 May 1942; died 10 August 2021