Anna Quayle, who has died aged 86, was a multitalented and versatile actor with saucer eyes, a flirtatious smile and a sardonic touch. She could be both playful and deadpan, and was as adept at a sly aside as she was at delivering a musical number with wit and gusto, whether on stage, film or TV.
It was as the unforgettable Baroness Bomburst in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang (1968) that she broke through on the big screen, duetting with Gert Fröbe on the number Chu-Chi Face, where the couple declare undying love for each other as he attempts to kill her by various slapstick means.
More than 20 years later she was still a familiar face on British television screens, as the eccentric but good-hearted teacher Mrs Monroe in the groundbreaking children’s drama Grange Hill (1990-94).
But it was on the stage that Quayle’s many talents were honed, and shone. In 1960, the actor and singer-songwriter Anthony Newley came to see her in the revue And Another Thing, alongside Bernard Cribbins and Lionel Blair, at the Fortune theatre in London’s West End, and thought her perfect for the female lead in his musical Stop The World – I Want to Get Off (1961). Written and scored by Newley and Leslie Bricusse, it was an odyssey following its lead character, Littlechap (Newley), from cradle to grave. Quayle was cast as the four women in his life – wife Evie, the Russian Anya, German Ilse and American Ginnie – showcasing her vocal dexterity and mastery of comic, dramatic and musical material.
The show began in Manchester but soon transferred to the Queen’s theatre in the West End, and Quayle won the London Critics Circle award for her performance. She accompanied the show to Broadway in 1962, where it ran for 555 performances (first at the Shubert theatre before transferring to the Ambassador). At the 1963 Tony awards it was nominated in five categories (including best musical) but won only one – Quayle bagging best performance by a featured actress in a musical.
Born in Birmingham as Anne, she was the eldest child of actor-manager Douglas Quayle and his wife Kathleen (nee Parke), and was educated at the Catholic girls’ Convent of Jesus and Mary Language College in Harlesden, north London. A theatrical career was inevitable: she had already made her stage debut, aged three, in one of her father’s productions, the first of many such engagements.
While studying at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art (1955-56), she decided that her future career was more likely to be in comedy than tragedy. Immediately upon graduation she was at the Edinburgh fringe in the revue show Better Late (1956), before providing comic support for Cyril Fletcher in Summer Masquerade at the Sandown Pavilion, Isle of Wight (1957).
Other revue appearances followed, in Do You Mind? (Edinburgh Palladium, 1959) and Look Who’s Here! (Fortune theatre, 1960, her West End debut), which led to And Another Thing at the same theatre later that year.
After Stop the World – I Want to Get Off she appeared in Homage to TS Eliot (Globe theatre, 1965), Full Circle, her own one-woman musical show (Apollo theatre, 1970), Out of Bounds at the Bristol Old Vic (1973), and Pal Joey, as Melba Snyder, at the Oxford Playhouse (and later the Edinburgh festival, 1976). She hit the West End again in Anthony Shaffer’s The Case of the Oily Levantine (Her Majesty’s theatre, 1979), played Madame Arcati in a 1980 tour of Blithe Spirit, Madame Dubonnet in Sandy Wilson’s The Boy Friend (Old Vic, 1984) and Marigold in After October (Chichester Festival theatre, 1997).
Her first notable film role came in the Beatles vehicle A Hard Day’s Night (1964) as Millie, who recognises but cannot quite place an incognito John Lennon. Other big-screen appearances included opposite Tony Curtis in Drop Dead Darling (1966), the swinging London musical Smashing Time (1967), the James Bond spoof Casino Royale (1967), Up the Chastity Belt (with Frankie Howerd, 1972) and The Seven-Per-Cent Solution (1976).
On television she was in classics including Not Only … But Also (1965) and The Avengers (1967), and was just as comfortable in high-end fare such as BBC Shakespeare (as Alice in Henry V, 1979), Brideshead Revisited (1981) and Mapp & Lucia (1986) as she was opposite such children’s icons as Basil Brush (1977) and Sooty (1987).
Quayle was also familiar enough to audiences to appear as herself, in the likes of Juke Box Jury (1963), Call My Bluff (1967), What’s My Line (1973, as a regular panellist), and Give Us a Clue (1983). Her final appearance on screen was in 2002, in Things They Said Today, a documentary on the making of A Hard Day’s Night.
She is survived by her younger brother, the actor John Quayle, and by Katy, her daughter from her 1976 marriage to the agent and theatre producer Donald Baker, which ended in divorce.
• Anne Veronica Maria Quayle (Anna Quayle), actor, born 6 October 1932; died 16 August 2019