Actress Haydn Gwynne dies aged 66

The actor Haydn Gwynne has died of cancer at the age of 66. In a statement on Friday, her agent said that Gwynne had died in hospital “surrounded by her beloved sons, close family and friends. We would like to thank the staff and teams at the Royal Marsden and Brompton hospitals for their wonderful care over the last few weeks.”

Gwynne, who played the sardonic assistant editor Alex Pates in Channel 4’s newsroom satire Drop the Dead Donkey, had a celebrated career on television and stage. She received Olivier and Tony award nominations as the dance teacher in Billy Elliot the Musical (in London and New York) and three other Olivier nominations for the musical productions City of Angels, Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown (based on Pedro Almodóvar’s film) and The Threepenny Opera.

Among those paying tribute to Gwynne was Jack Thorne, whose play When Winston Went to War With the Wireless starred Gwynne at the Donmar Warehouse in London this year. Thorne said: “Haydn was the kindest, loveliest soul and a wonderful performer. She gave everything to everything.” The writer Jonathan Harvey called her “a gifted and versatile all-rounder”.

Haydn Gwynne, left, with Tamsin Greig in Women On the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown at the Playhouse theatre in London in 2015.
Haydn Gwynne, left, with Tamsin Greig in Women On the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown at the Playhouse theatre in London in 2015. Photograph: Tristram Kenton/The Guardian

In September 2023, Gwynne withdrew from the West End revue Stephen Sondheim’s Old Friends, shortly before it was due to open. She had previously starred in a one-off version of the revue, celebrating Sondheim’s career in musicals. At the time of Gwynne’s withdrawal, producer Cameron Mackintosh said: “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.”

Gwynne’s prominent West End theatre roles included Margaret Thatcher in Peter Morgan’s 2013 play The Audience (starring Helen Mirren as the Queen), gilded matriarch Lady Wishfort 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. Her Shakespearean roles included Queen Elizabeth in Richard III (opposite Kevin Spacey at London’s Old Vic in 2011) and Volumnia in Coriolanus for the RSC in 2017.

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

Memorably seen as regal and noble characters, Gwynne played Camilla as what she called a “soap-opera villainess” in Channel 4’s comedy The Windsors and portrayed Lady Susan Hussey, lady-in-waiting to Imelda Staunton’s Queen, in Netflix’s The Crown. She was also a scheming gallerist in the BBC’s Sherlock and had recurring roles on Peak Practice and Merseybeat.

Gwynne had been praised as an English lecturer in the 1989 TV mini-series Nice Work, based on David Lodge’s novel, but it was Drop the Dead Donkey that sealed her fame. She received a Bafta nomination for best light entertainment performance as Alex Pates, second in command to sadsack editor George Dent at the highly dysfunctional GlobeLink News. She played the role in the first two series of the popular comedy, her character eventually leaving GlobeLink.

Born in West Sussex, Gwynne was involved in local amdram productions and studied sociology at the University of Nottingham, during which time she did student theatre at the Edinburgh fringe. After graduating, she lectured in English at the University of Rome. She did not attend drama school and got a crucial break in 1984 when Alan Ayckbourn directed her in Sandy Wilson’s musical play His Monkey Wife, based on John Collier’s novel, in Scarborough. Gwynne had two sons with her partner, Jason Phipps.