The variety of the roles she played, including parts in plays by Ibsen and Pinter, belied her caricature as a wide-eyed dizzy blonde.
Born Dora May Broadbent in Southport, Lancashire in 1924, she went to a council school and, encouraged by her ambitious mother, made her first stage appearance at the age of 12, in pantomime in Manchester.
During World War 2 she worked in repertory theatre and with the Entertainments National Service Association (ENSA) - an organisation set up in 1939 to provide entertainment for British armed forces personnel during the war.
She moved to London in 1945 and appeared in a number of West End productions - notably in the Lyric and Globe revues in the 1950s.
She changed her name to Bryan, taking it from the match manufacturers Bryant and May. She lost the closing "t" when a theatre programme misspelled her name.
In 1966, the actress played the title role in Hello, Dolly at Drury Lane, eating a full chicken dinner on stage six nights a week and at two matinees.
In 1968 she played nine parts as the star of They Don't Grow on Trees at the Prince of Wales.
Later, she was in the National Theatre's She Stoops to Conquer (for which she won an award) and a revival of Charlie Girl. And she took the West End by storm in a lavish 2002 musical production of The Full Monty.
But she was not just a stage actress - she made her big screen debut in 1948's The Fallen Idol. About 40 further films followed, including The Blue Lamp, The Great St. Trinian's Train Robbery, The Sandwich Man and Two a Penny.
The peak of her career came as she played the domineering, promiscuous, alcoholic mother, Helen in the 1961 film A Taste of Honey. The role won her a Bafta award for best actress.