Sunday 27 November 2011

Diana Dors: Lady Godiva Rides Again

"I said to this priest 'Am I expected to believe that if I went out and had an affair that God was really going to be upset? If no one is any the wiser what the hell difference does it make?' He was lovely. He told me the Commandments were laid down for a lot of guys living in the desert."

Collective memory suggests that the early fifties was an era smeared with boredom, with Billy Cotton on the wireless and rationed gruel for dinner. In a country where everyone mucked in to muddle through, and where the blitz spirit meant that Vera Lynn could still score a number one hit as late as 1954, Diana Dors' beauty and easy charm must have seemed like an insult.

New York gave us Veronica Lake, Swindon gave us Diana Dors. For recent generations, the one-time Diana Fluck is best remembered, if at all, for appearing as a fairy godmother in an Adam And The Ants video. My first memories of her are as an overweight woman advertising her kiss-and-tell stories in the News Of The World; with no knowledge of her fifties heyday, I found her faintly repellent. "There is something a bit rubbish about her" says biographer Damon Wise, "rubbishy and British."

Like G-plan, for post-war Britain that was enough. By Hollywood standards she was a little plump, and she wasn't exactly pretty, but this didn't matter. Bursting onto UK cinema screens in all her curvaceous splendour, Diana Dors was the definition of a glamourpuss; she also looked like a whole heap of fun and a sack load of trouble. American stars were on another planet, but girls in Dewsbury knew they could be her, boys in Dartford knew they could meet her.

At five she had elocution lessons, quickly losing her West Country burr. At twelve, she was hanging out with GI's at a nearby army base. Most of the time, Dors was in the local Roxy, and at school she filled exercise books with the name of every movie star she could think of. She dreamed of having a cream telephone - an unimaginable luxury in forties Swindon. Dors attended LAMDA with classmates Christopher Lee, Pete Murray, and fellow pin-up Sandra Dorne, and soon landed some minor roles. But it was on meeting her first husband, Dennis Hamilton, that she created the Diana Dors legend. Hamilton encouraged her to live beyond her means - driving a Rolls Royce, wearing a mink, all on borrowed money - and suddenly, in the monochrome austerity years, the press couldn't get enough of her. "The problem with British films in the fifties is the lack of emotion" says NFT curator Jo Botting. "They de-sexualised women. But Diana Dors just looked fabulous, really. She looked dangerous."

Diamond City was Dors' first starring role in 1949 (her first line: "You shut up!"). She played barmaid Dora Bracken in a South African diamond mining town in the 1870's. It was an attempt at a British western, though the starchy David Farrar - a cut-price Stewart Granger - is no kind of hero. Instantly typecast, Dors is fighting for the attention of Farrar with bible-bashing Honor Blackman in a real battle of the busts. The two actresses end up in a saloon catfight, Dors finally decking Blackman with her diamond-encrusted fist. Still brown-haired, just seventeen, Dors often turned up on set without sleeping, having been up all night with the Chelsea set. "The make-up man had the devil's own job with my eyes, which grew baggier and smaller as the weeks went by" she later recalled.

Dors is frequently referenced as Britain's 'answer' to Marilyn Monroe, but her fifties films show an actress with a decidedly English sass. She didn't feel the need to be caught reading Sartre, or marrying playwrights, and was more than happy to play the party girl - it suited her demeanour, and on-screen she was closer to Mae West than Marilyn. If she became typecast as the knowing innocent or the sexual predator it didn't bother her, and her saucy roles were unique in post-war British cinema. As model Dolores August in Lady Godiva Rides Again, she claims to have met a pair of suitors at the Festival of Britain - "I picked them up in the Dome Of Discovery" - while her startling cameo as an actress in 1956's As Long As They're Happy leads Jack Buchanan to "capture her for posterity". "You leave my posterity out of this" she winks back.

The films were frequently smaller than her presence. Released on a BFI DVD last year, My Wife's Lodger (1952) has a script riddled with puns so weak ("Have you been creating a career for yourself in Korea?", "No, I was committing suicide in Suez") you'd think jokes were being rationed. An odd mix of Three Stooges slapstick and pre-war music hall, it is an intriguing curio, but Dors - playing a girl called, with characteristic British glamour, Eunice - cuts through the austerity fug with a jitterbugging exhibition. The main reason for her appearances in such minor movies (she was making an average of four a year in the fifties) was her husband and agent Dennis Hamilton. Down from Luton, he was a failed actor and was working as a door-to-door salesman when he spotted his golden ticket and wowed her with huge bouquets of flowers. Off camera, he initiated Dors into the world of sex parties and two-way mirrors; he also stunted her career like an ungodly mix of Colonel Tom Parker and Simon Cowell by guiding her away from serious roles, roaring "to hell with all that acting rubbish!" Light entertainment, as ever, was where the money was.

Is Your Honeymoon Really Necessary (1953) was fresher, and captures her on the brink of stardom. While Britain gave her second billing to bumbling ur-Englishman David Tomlinson, the French poster was topped by the legend "la ravissante Diana Dors", and in Italy the rest of the cast weren't even mentioned - the poster featured Diana alone, perched on a cloud in a slinky blue gown. Candy Markham was the perfect role for her; the script was undemanding, a bedroom farce with a few good lines, but she sashays assuredly through every scene knocking men aside like bowling pins. Britain had never seen anything quite like this. After Is Your Honeymoon Really Necessary, she would never play a character called Eunice again.

Meanwhile in 1953, Marilyn Monroe was shooting the film that made her an international phenomenon, Gentlemen Prefer Blondes. There was no reason to suppose, prior to this, that Monroe was anything other than healthy competition for a shapely blonde, but from '53 onwards Dors was walking in her shadow.

Nonetheless, she looked spectacular in Value For Money (1955) which found her in a succession of gorgeous gowns and swimsuits. Platinum-blonde and rid of her puppy fat, she is the only reason to watch this drowsy comedy about a tight-fisted Yorkshireman (John Gregson) who meets a gold-digging showgirl in London. "She'll throw our money around like confetti" warns Gregson's father, "it'll roll off every curve of her sinful body!" It was a fun farce, but not a patch on Yield To The Night (1956). This was her best role, and also her least glamorous. It is loosely based, like Dance With A Stranger, on the Ruth Ellis case, and Dors as Ellis spends much of the film in a cell awaiting execution. Director J Lee Thompson (Woman In A Dressing Gown, No Trees On The Street, Tiger Bay) had previously found the best of Dors in another prison drama, 1953's The Weak And The Wicked. "Putting glamour and serious acting into separate compartments" she said at the time "makes me sick."

By now a huge star at home, a spell in Hollywood proved her undoing. At a housewarming party with a guest list including Tony Curtis, Lana Turner, Doris Day, Eddie Fisher and Gregory Peck, Dors was dunked in the swimming pool by a photographer. Dennis Hamilton went nuts and kicked the photographer senseless, earning a National Enquirer headline "Go home Diana - and take Mr Dors with you." She was nicknamed Marilyn Bovril and given a couple of tired, obvious roles (The Unholy Wife and I Married A Woman) and did a 1960 Vegas cabaret stint before returning home.

The sixties were not Diana Dors' era. The second Julie Christie appeared on screen in Billy Liar, the game was up: Diana Dors was pre-Beatles. Still she maintained her fame while her Rank starlet contemporaries - Sandra Dorne, Christine Norden, Carol Leslie - drifted into obscurity. Like Brigitte Bardot, Dors made some exquisite records as her acting career tailed off. Pick of the bunch are the Morrissey-approved So Little Time (1964), urgent and sexual as hell, and Garry (1966), a breathy British take on Phil Spector. Both sound homegrown, a little gauche, but therein lies the appeal.

Diana Dors knew her limitations, pushed bare-faced cheek to the limit, and never played the tragedy queen. When she was broke between films in the fifties, she went round Hertfordshire with Dennis Hamilton selling water softeners - an episode which ended with the pair climbling down knotted sheets to avoid paying the hotel bill. Later on, as a "diet buster" agony aunt on TV AM, she would be weighed with all her jewellery on, then remove it in the toilet to miraculously lose weight by the end of the programme. Her choice of friends (Freddie Starr, PJ Proby, 'Dandy Kim' Waterfield) was unfortunate, her husbands (Hamilton, who died of syphilis, the depressive drunk Alan Lake) worse. A relentless self-documentarist, books like Swingin' Dors are feisty, but have a wistful quality. In a way, she seemed genuinely innocent. "Nobody ever had a bad word to say about her" says Damon Wise.

In many ways her talent was under-developed - her real life lines were funnier and saucier than most she was given by scriptwriters. In 1964 she sat on a Juke Box Jury panel next to Rolling Stones manager Andrew Oldham, who'd had a boyhood crush on her. As he nervously picked up a glass of water it spilt all over Diana's lap - "My my", she purred off mike, "you couldn't wait." You can't imagine Marilyn coming up with a line like that, let alone the wobbly Jayne Mansfield. Diana Dors was knowing, effortless, mischief personified. Leaning on a bar in My Wife's Lodger she sighs "I don't know what to drink - I'm so hot." "Lady", says the wag next to her, "you said it."

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