Nikki van der Zyl

Born: April 27, 1935;

Died: March 6, 2021.

NIKKI van der Zyl, who has died aged 85, played a vital but unacknowledged part in one of the best-remembered scenes in 20th-century film history. In the first James Bond film, Dr No (1962), it was her voice that issued forth from the bikini-clad form of Ursula Andress, whose own tones were judged “not exotic enough”, as she emerged onto a Jamaican beach, under the intrigued gaze of Sean Connery in his debut as 007.

A specialist in dubbing – or “revoicing”, to use her preferred term – van der Zyl stood in vocally for several leading ladies in subsequent Bond films. Her fees were modest – £25 per session for Dr No, rising to £30 for On Her Majesty’s Secret Service (1969).

Her impish smile was not, however, seen on screen, Dr No director Terence Young informing her “I’m afraid you wouldn’t stop the traffic, Nikki”. The future Sir Sean then opined: “I’d stop the traffic for you any day.”

A Jewish refugee from Nazi Germany who fled to London only to endure the Blitz, she became a lawyer in middle age, participated in politics in Parliament and Brussels, and then reported on them as a local television journalist. Her credits as an actress may have been minimal, but hers was a full life.

She was born in Berlin in 1935, as Monika van der Zyl. Her father Werner van der Zyl was, despite his blond hair and blue eyes, a Rabbi serving two congregations. In 1939, he accompanied a Kindertransport train to London. With her mother, who had ambitions to be a concert pianist “but the Nazis put an end to her potential career”, Monika followed later in the year.

Attending Stoatley Rough School in Surrey, which had been founded for German-Jewish refugees, she eliminated her German accent aged nine, having located it at the back of her mouth, and speaking from the front instead.

Initially taking a teaching course at the Central School of Speech and Drama, she then trained in acting at Parada, Rada’s preparatory academy. A sensationalist play, Bad Girl, was poorly received on its 1956 tour, particularly by, as she remembered, well-refreshed patrons at the Glasgow Empire.

Her introduction to film dubbing came through the actor and prolific voice artist Robert Rietti, who would himself contribute to the Bond films, after he participated with her at a poetry reading in her father’s new workplace, the North Western Reform Synagogue.

An early highlight was “revoicing” French actress Marie Versini in A Tale Of Two Cities (1958). Ironically, given her early life and later career as an offscreen voice, a tale of Jewish children evading Nazis, Conspiracy of Hearts (1960), gave her a non-speaking role as a nun.

Van der Zyl also insisted she had dubbed Andress’s singing Underneath The Mango Tree in Dr No, and that its frequent attribution to Diana Coupland was a misconception owing to Coupland, then married to composer Monty Norman, having recorded the song commercially. It was a lifelong regret that the producers deigned to give her on-screen credit for any of her Bond work.

For Goldfinger (1964) she dubbed Shirley Eaton, who was deemed insufficiently well-spoken. She was also dialogue coach to Gert Frobe, as the nominal villain, maintaining she had advised him to give “No, Mr Bond, I expect you to die” an understated reading. At stuntman Bob Simmons’s suggestion, she was stunt double for Amanda Barrie in Carry On Cleo (1965), filmed on neighbouring soundstages at Pinewood. She also provided what she called not so much dialogue as “shrieks and groans” for Raquel Welch, in One Million Years B C (1966). Later Bond assignments, such as for Jane Seymour in Live And Let Die (1973), were closer to additional dialogue replacement (ADR) than revoicing an entire performance. Bond was now Roger Moore and van der Zyl had dubbed several actresses in episodes of The Saint (1962-69) and The Persuaders! (1971-72). She also worked on the BBC’s English-language prints of the children’s series Belle And Sebastian (1965), which later lent its name to a Scottish pop group.

In 1957, she married Helmut Jondorf, a German-Jewish advertising executive, who became distant and unfeeling after they produced two children. After Jondorf began divorce proceedings in 1966, the legal battle that ensued lasted for almost a decade.

Eventually, van der Zyl and her second husband George Rooper, an engineering designer whom she married in 1968, represented themselves in court as “litigants in person”.

By the time the case petered out in 1976, she had begun a law degree at what is now Middlesex University, and upon graduation began pupillage at the Middle Temple. She was called to the Bar in July 1978.

In 1979, retaining her command of spoken German, she took up a year’s internship with the then-EEC in Brussels. From 1979 to 1990, she was an assistant at the House of Commons to MP David Mellor, whom she had first met during her pupillage when he was still a barrister.

She was subsequently a lobby correspondent for the then-ITV region TVS, and recalled discovering a gentler, literary side to the pugnacious MP Eric Heffer.

Although her book of poetry, MPs In Verse, was lampooned by Simon Hoggart in his Guardian column, in 2013 she published an autobiography, For Your Ears Only. She made a late appearance on The One Show in 2015, demonstrating the art of post-synchronisation.

She is survived by Rooker and her son and daughter.