Actress Haydn Gwynne dies aged 66

At the age of 66, the actor Haydn Gwynne passed away from cancer. Her agent announced that Gwynne passed away in a hospital “surrounded by her beloved sons, close family, and friends” in a statement on Friday. For their excellent care over the past few weeks, we would like to thank the staff and teams at the Royal Marsden and Brompton hospitals.

In the newsroom satire Drop the Dead Donkey on Channel 4, Gwynne played the caustic assistant editor Alex Pates. Gwynne had a renowned theater and television career. She received nominations for the Olivier and Tony awards while playing the dance instructor in the London and New York productions of Billy Elliot the Musical. She also received three additional Olivier nominations for the musical productions City of Angels, Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown, and The Threepenny Opera.

Jack Thorne, whose play When Winston Went to War With the Wireless featured Gwynne at the Donmar Warehouse in London this year, was one of many paying tribute to Gwynne. “Haydn was the nicest, loveliest soul and a wonderful performer,” observed Thorne. She offered everything she had. She was referred to as “a gifted and versatile all-rounder” by author Jonathan Harvey.

Haydn Gwynne, left, with Tamsin Greig in Women On the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown at the Playhouse theatre in London in 2015.
In 2015, Tamsin Greig and Haydn Gwynne appeared in Women On the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown at the Playhouse theater in London.Picture by Tristram Kenton for The Guardian

Shortly before its scheduled opening in September 2023, Gwynne withdrew from the West End production of Stephen Sondheim’s Old Friends. She had previously played the lead in a special performance of the revue honoring Sondheim’s musical theater career. Cameron Mackintosh, the show’s producer, stated at the time of Gwynne’s withdrawal: “Haydn gave an unforgettable performance of Ladies Who Lunch during the Old Friends gala premiere in May 2022 and has been an integral part of this very close-knit company ever since.”

Margaret Thatcher in Peter Morgan’s 2013 play The Audience, which starred Helen Mirren as the Queen, Lady Wishfort, a gilded matriarch in the Restoration comedy The Way of the World at the Donmar in 2018, and a no-nonsense judge in The Great British Bake Off Musical in 2023 are just a few of Gwynne’s notable West End theater roles. Her Shakespearean roles includes Volumnia in Coriolanus for the RSC in 2017 and Queen Elizabeth in Richard III (against Kevin Spacey at London’s Old Vic in 2011).

Haydn Gwynne attending the Women's Prize for Fiction awards ceremony in 2021

Famous for portraying regal and noble roles, Gwynne portrayed Camilla in the Channel 4 comedy The Windsors as what she called a “soap-opera villainess” and Lady Susan Hussey in Netflix’s The Crown as the Queen’s lady-in-waiting. She has had recurrent appearances in Peak Practice and Merseybeat and played a cunning gallerist in the BBC’s Sherlock.

The 1989 television miniseries Nice Work, which was based on the novel by David Lodge, had commended Gwynne for her work as an English professor, but it was Drop the Dead Donkey that cemented her reputation. She was nominated for a Bafta for her work as Alex Pates, who served as sadsack editor George Dent’s deputy at the severely dysfunctional GlobeLink News. She appeared in the show’s first two seasons as the character who finally left GlobeLink.

Gwynne, a West Sussex native, participated in community theater productions while growing up and went on to study sociology at the University of Nottingham while performing in student plays at the Edinburgh Fringe. She lectured in English at the University of Rome after receiving her degree. She didn’t go to drama school, but she received a big break in 1984 when Alan Ayckbourn cast her in Sandy Wilson’s musical play His Monkey Wife in Scarborough, which was based on the John Collier novel. Gwynne and her partner Jason Phipps have two sons.

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