Comedy legend Dora Bryan was saved from the brink of despair by an uplifting 70-year romance

As her car drew up outside a Brighton church last month, a frail, 85-year-old woman, who was once Britain's highest-paid star, was lifted gently into a wheelchair.

Then, her son pushed her slowly into the church so she could bid a final farewell to the man who mattered more to her than all the fame she achieved, the applause she received or the awards she won.

When Dora Bryan was a 17-year-old aspiring actress in rep in Oldham, she walked from the theatre to the bus-stop one night and passed four youths standing outside the gents' loos.

In her hey-day, comedy legend Dora Bryan was Britain's highest-paid star. But her personal life was dogged by tragedy, heartbreak and trauma

'Three of them gave a long, low whistle as I walked past,' she remembered later.

'I ignored them and, looking as disdainful as I could, I joined the queue at the bus stop.

'But there had been something interesting about the fourth boy, and as I waited I took a surreptitious glance at him.

He was very tall and dark, with the nicest eyes. Very Gregory Peck, I thought.'

If there is really such a phenomenon as love at first sight, that was it. 'I took one look at him,' she admitted, 'and I thought to myself: "Hmm, that'll do.'' '

Dora's 70-year love affair with Bill Lawton saved her from despair

It was the start of a love story that was to endure for 68 years and would survive heartbreak, trauma and the darkest tragedy.

And when Bill Lawton, the dashing young man Dora first glimpsed on that long-ago night in 1940, died last month at the Hove nursing home to which ill-health and infirmity had confined them both, Dora Bryan, a woman who has made millions laugh, was for once distraught, bewildered and uncomprehending.

A close friend who visited her shortly after Lawton's death told me: 'It was as if she could not grasp what had happened.

'She never once mentioned Bill's name. It seemed as though she was in denial that he had gone. After all, they went through so much together.'

Behind the scenes, the Lawtons had supported each other through a catalogue of unimaginable disasters: the loss of three babies, Dora's psychiatric treatment to combat devastating mental breakdowns, her battle with booze, their elder son's disabling illness and their daughter's death from alcoholism.

On top of all this came the loss of their fortune in a disastrous business venture, Bill's descent into Alzheimer's and Dora's failing memory and inability to learn lines, which brought down the curtain on a career that had won her a Bafta, a Laurence Olivier Award and an OBE.

The chirpy blonde who became the nation's favourite female clown began life as Dora May Broadbent in Southport, Lancs, in 1923. She was the younger of two children of the director of a cotton bobbin mill.

Her long career started at the age of 13, as one of the 24 Drury Lane Babes in the pantomime Jack And The Beanstalk, at the Palace Theatre, Manchester, in 1936.

She grew up in Oldham and was the ingenue at the local rep when she first set eyes on William Lawton, who was three years her senior.

The very next night they met again at the local Conservative Club, and he asked her to dance.

'I was so overcome that I could hardly speak. He was equally shy, but managed to blurt: "I saw you at the bus stop last night." After I had responded with the brilliant reply: "Oh, did you?", we danced the rest of the quickstep in almost total silence.

'My bumbling incoherence did not put him off, because he came across and asked me for the next dance  - and the next  - and the next.'

At the end of the evening  -  'the most wonderful night of my life', she was to call it  -  came the last waltz, Who's Taking You Home Tonight?

Lawton walked her home, followed four paces behind by her brother John. 'It was enough to blunt the romantic feelings in any young man,' she admitted, 'but happily Bill wasn't easily put off.'

After 'one of the longest courtships in history', they finally married 14 years later, on her 31st birthday, by which time Dora was a West End stage and screen actress, and Bill was a handsome professional cricketer who had played for Lancashire against the Australians.

Eighteen months later came the show that transformed Dora into a star, the West End musical The Water Gipsies.

The morning after it opened, she received rave reviews and the impresario Peter Saunders telephoned her. 'Can you get to the theatre early this evening?' he asked. 'There's something I want to show you.'

When she arrived, he walked her along Drury Lane and pointed to the front of the theatre.

She looked up, and there, in lights, were the words: DORA BRYAN in THE WATER GIPSIES. 'It was one of those magic moments in life that one can never capture again,' she said.

But only three months into the run, Dora found she was pregnant and had to leave the show. Her baby, born prematurely, did not survive. She succumbed to a 'sense of futility and devastation', but agreed to star in a 52-week TV series, Our Dora.

After the first episode, she collapsed, and the series had to be cancelled. She suffered a severe nervous breakdown  -  the first of many  -  and did not work again for nine months.

'I lost confidence in myself. Frightened of meeting people, dreading pity, I avoided my friends and kept away from the West End. I was taking sleeping pills to knock me out, and pep-up pills to wake me up and stave off depression.'

In 1957, pregnant again, she was forced to leave another West End show. The result was a second premature baby who also died.

'Bill was wonderful,' she said. 'The loss of this baby was terrible for him, too, and I suppose he simply didn't know what to say to me.'

Lawton's words of consolation were typical of his phlegmatic character. 'Never mind,' he said. 'At least the garden will be lovely next summer. I've had two tons of manure delivered today.'

The Lawtons, despairing of ever having a child of their own, adopted a son, Daniel, followed by a daughter, Georgina.

The peak of Dora's career arrived in 1961 with her acclaimed performance as Rita Tushingham's promiscuous, selfish, alcoholic mother, Helen, in the film A Taste Of Honey, which won her a Bafta award for Best Actress.

In the wake of this success, she found she was pregnant again, and on February 2, 1962, to their delight, the Lawtons' son, William, was born.

But the following Christmas, Dora lost a third baby, and then, in that strange juxtaposition of triumph and disaster that has punctuated her entire life, she shot into the Top 20 with the hit single, All I Want For Christmas Is A Beatle.

By 1966, she was at the zenith of her fame, starring at Drury Lane Theatre in the title role of Hello, Dolly! But the heartache continued.

It was discovered that the Lawtons' son, Daniel, had the painful and disabling illness ankylosing spondylitis, a form of arthritis which gradually makes the spine rigid.

Daniel, for whom walking became increasingly difficult, eventually underwent hip replacement surgery, and finally, a year ago, a 'miracle' operation which successfully straightened his back.

In 1972, the Lawtons and their three children were involved in a terrifying car accident in Spain, when they skidded on oil on the road. The car went down a sheer drop, and Dora suffered six broken ribs, a broken collarbone and shoulder blade, and a badly cut face.

In public, Dora continued to create laughter on stage, screen, television and radio, but in private there was often very little to laugh about. In 1979, another breakdown forced her to withdraw from the West End musical, On The 20th Century, before it opened.

She entered a nursing home and underwent six weeks of sedation and electro-convulsive therapy.

She also had to confront the fact she had a serious drink problem. She joined Alcoholics Anonymous and began a long battle to conquer her addiction.

Her close friend Tony Hardman, an entertainment executive, says: 'When she was drinking, she wasn't the Dora we all knew and loved.'

Lawton, who supported her steadfastly through all these disasters, had gone into the hotel business after his retirement from cricket.

In the late Eighties, he and Dora decided to convert their 60-bedroom Brighton seafront hotel, Clarges, into flats.

They obtained planning permission for the conversion, but the recession and the length of time it took to do the work caused them to run into debt. Their bank refused to lend them any more money, and they were forced to go into voluntary liquidation.

'I don't know how we would have come through the whole devastating experience if it hadn't been for my faith,' Dora later admitted. 'The day Bill had to go to London to face the liquidators, I stayed in my bedroom and read the Bible all day.'

Dora had earned millions during her career, but after the liquidators had finished with them, the Lawtons had nothing left, except one very small flat. The gloom was only relieved when they became grandparents through the birth of Daniel's son, Samuel, and William's son, Nathaniel.

Then tragedy struck again when the Lawtons' daughter, Georgina died from alcoholism at the age of only 36.

As they stood by her bedside after her death, Dora said to Bill: 'Our little girl,' and he wept. 'I've never seen him cry since,' she said, 'but he won't look at photographs of her.'

There had been increasing tensions between Dora and Georgina, but ever since her daughter's death, Dora says 'Goodnight Gina' to her on every new moon and whenever she sees a bright star in the sky.

Dora's last career highlight came in 2000, when she joined the cast of TV's long-running Last Of The Summer Wine, playing Dame Thora Hird's sister, Ros Utterthwaite.

But Bill's increasing forgetfulness was causing her anxiety. 'So I went with him to see the specialist, and he sent Bill out of the room and said: "I'm afraid he's got Alzheimer's". Well, to me that was the end of the world.'

As she passed 80, Dora's own life and career started to unravel. In 2002, she was discreetly replaced, without any public explanation, in the London cast of the £3m musical The Full Monty, based on the movie about male strippers.

Meanwhile, BBC executives were alarmed to see Dora, during a break in filming, trying to use a TV remote control to make a mobile phone call.

In 2005, her role in Last Of The Summer Wine came to an end. She was not asked back. It was rumoured that her increasing difficulty in memorising lines was causing too many retakes.

In 2006, it was announced that she would appear in the comedy Rock-A-Hula Rest Home, at the Marlborough Theatre, Brighton, a tiny 50-seat pub venue.

It was ominously described as a play that 'deals with a range of mental health problems, from Alzheimer's and hallucinatory delusion to the inevitable strains of advancing years'.

But Dora never opened in the play. 'We had to let her go,' said one of the producers. 'Sadly, she just couldn't remember it.'

Later that year, Dora withdrew from another play, There's No Place Like A Home  -  set in a retirement home  -  before it opened. Once again the problem was her inability to memorise her lines.

The final curtain had fallen on a glorious career. With no work and no money coming in, Dora and Bill's world had shrunk to a one-room apartment with a balcony.

As life closed in, the octogenarian Lawtons, as much in love as ever, clung to each other.

Bill, said Dora, was 'the most selfless man I know. We have had a lot of sad times in our lives, losing our babies and our parents, and coping with our son Daniel's illness, and losing our business. But as it has all been shared, it has been easier to bear.'

Before long, Dora and Bill exchanged their tiny seafront flat for a council-funded double room at Springfields nursing home in Hove. And there, on August 14, after 54 years of marriage, Bill slipped quietly away at the age of 88.

The Lawtons' local church, St George's, Kemptown, was packed for Bill's funeral. One of Dora's friends who was present, actress Barbara Whatley, said: 'Her hair was beautifully done and she was wonderfully made up.

'As Daniel wheeled her down the aisle, she smiled at everyone like the trouper she is. And at the end, when the congregation sang Jerusalem, she even got out of her wheelchair and stood for the hymn.'

At the private cremation service that followed, attended only by family and very close friends, a tape was played of Dora singing the song Bill, from the musical Showboat:

'I can't explain why he should be Just the one, one man in the world for me . . .

I love him because he's, I don't know,

Because he's just my Bill.'