❉ Anna Cale’s book is an excellent springboard for exploring Dors’s back catalogue of work, writes Jay Bea.
“Arts and culture writer Anna Cale places Dors’s life experience and work in a wider social and cultural context .. Cale avoids dwelling excessively on Dors’s salacious life aspects that were (and still occasionally are) fodder for tabloids… Cale’s book is a fascinating and meticulously researched work, drawing together a full picture of Dors’s life from a wide range of sources.”
Autumn 1981. I’ve been left to my own devices in the TV room of a hospital children’s ward. It must be Thursday when I visit because Top of the Pops is always on. It’s in colour, and the screen seems gigantic. Perhaps to block out the surroundings and thoughts of my baby sister in her cot, I am fully immersing myself in its fantasy pop world. I hate the interminable Birdie Song and then wonder why Cliff Richard is zooming around a shopping centre on roller skates. But mostly I see the fairy godmother. She comes glittering out of the mist waving a wand, all blonde hair and sparkles, and unlike any woman I’ve ever seen. She is magically turning Prince Charming’s toy car into a real one and decking him out for a fabulous ball. They are all dancing in bright makeup and massive dresses. The fairy godmother is waving her wand at the screen. Can she magic me there?
Just two and half years after starring in this Adam and the Ants video for Prince Charming, Diana Dors – Britain’s original blonde bombshell and “first home-grown sex symbol” – was no more. Her death from ovarian cancer aged 52 robbed the next generation of actors of discovering her worth at first-hand. If her legendary magnetism was obvious even to a four-year-old girl watching her play centre stage in a pop video packed with high camp, what other interesting and surprising work might she have delivered in late middle age and beyond?
While we can sadly never know the answer, it is possible to discover, review and reappraise her immense back catalogue of work via a new biography. The Real Diana Dors will be released in July ahead of what would have been the screen legend’s 90th birthday in October.
The Real Diana Dors is by arts and culture writer Anna Cale, who has a special interest in classic British film and TV from the 1940s to the 1960s. This means Cale avoids dwelling excessively on Dors’s salacious life aspects that were (and still occasionally are) fodder for tabloids. Instead she place Dors’s life experience and work in a wider social and cultural context. Cale writes: “Diana’s personal story has been replayed in the press over the years, often as a fall from grace, with interest in the tragedy still outweighing any focus on her career. She is seen as an image rather than a whole person, a snapshot of blonde hair and pouting lips.” Cale’s account of Diana as a young woman trying to live on her own terms, pre-permissive society, is a fascinating snapshot of British cinema on the cusp of something different.
For those like me – the last generation to have briefly known who Diana Dors was in her lifetime – this book also represents a chance to get to know more about the work which propelled her to fame, rather than the motherly vision draped in powder pink or blue gowns, holding court on chat shows that were endlessly repeated in the wake of her death.
A life dramatic
Diana Mary Fluck’s destiny came about by design. Her cosseted middle-class upbringing and spell at private school through the relative austerity of the 1930s and 40s was paid for by her father and enabled by her mother, who treated her to thrice-weekly cinema trips and escorted her on dance hall dates with American GIs. She left home for drama school in London at 14, posing as an artist’s and photographer’s model at 15, and living alone in a Chelsea apartment by 16 where she held a string of parties and fell in and out of love. The name Fluck was ditched in favour of a grandmother’s more glamorous maiden name.
From training at LAMDA she signed up with the British Rank Association and its so-called Charm School, loosely compared with the Hollywood film star system that held actors under contract in return for a wage. Having ready access to money and the freedom to be wooed by her many admirers gave her a taste for the finer things in life. This giddy period also set the scene for future romantic attachments to men who with hindsight – and certainly to modern sensibilities – domineered and steered her life course.
Trading on an image
Dors’s first husband, Dennis Hamilton, whom she married at 19, was recognised as the Svengali figure who masterminded the publicity that saw her rack up column inches in the news for behaviour that skirted society’s expectations of decency. As it was, Dors had been cast in a series of ‘cautionary tale’ roles when under her Rank contract; party girl and local minx were among her stock in trade. With her pneumatic figure and striking looks, exchanging her honey-coloured hair for peroxide blonde completed the image that led to her being labelled ‘The British Marilyn Monroe’.
But she could outwit this label with a careful film choice and did this to great acclaim in 1956’s Yield to the Night, playing a woman sentenced to hang for the murder of her cheating lover’s girlfriend. A character part where she eschewed make-up and let her blonde hair grow out, Cale writes: “The film would go on to gain cult status with audiences, permeating popular culture and informing critical film discourse up until the present day, with the image of Diana as Mary Hilton marking a shift in British film history and creating a lasting legacy for her status as a British cultural icon.”
However, as Cale attests, Dors’s screen career “was often patchy and unpredictable” – and not always helped by the man at her side. In the same year she played a high-class prostitute in Passport to Shame (1958), a tell-all serialisation of her first autobiography revealed the couple had hosted so-called sex parties at their home, where Hamilton had installed two-way mirrors. They were accused of obscenity.
Her portrayed lifestyle was certainly out of keeping with 1950s societal norms and she was mentioned in Parliament on several occasions. Dors endured abortions, miscarriage, periods of ill-health, affairs and rocky marriages – things others might want to keep private. But to her some of this was fair game for the media. Cale writes: “She saw her sexualised image as a commodity and was prepared for it all to be consumed. ‘I might as well cash in on my sex now while I’ve got it. It can’t last forever, can it?’… Some in the media thought this admission of monetary worth shocking, others supported her mercantile attitude as refreshingly honest.” It’s an attitude much more common today since the advent of reality TV and social media. Was Dors the original UK reality celebrity?
While Cale’s research helps to bust the myth that Hamilton was wholly responsible for establishing Dors’s public persona, it also casts doubt on how much of a willing participant she was in some of his antics. Their relationship was notoriously turbulent and even though his violent streak was documented by Dors herself, reading the quotes that Cale has gathered from a variety of sources is sobering. By today’s standards the fact Hamilton “watched her every move, paranoid that every man she met would make a move on her and that she would comply” might be considered coercive control.
Cale is careful to steer a path through Dors’s personal ups and downs that leaves most room for an appraisal of her work and observe where the dips mirrored her troubles. Naïve spending habits regularly resulted in Dors taking work purely for the paycheque while she waited for better jobs to come up. This was exacerbated by the circumstances of her second marriage, to Hampshire-born comedian Richard Dawson. This union gave her a second crack at Hollywood where Dawson wanted to establish himself. Ultimately, the move worked out better for Dawson than Dors. He remained in LA with their two sons while Diana returned to the UK. To keep the money men from the door, she embraced the cabaret and working men’s club circuit. A second divorce necessitated the continued paycheques and she was declared bankrupt in 1968, the same year she married her third husband, actor Alan Lake.
Cale observes: “Later, there were opportunities along the way, which she grabbed with both hands, but they never seemed to lead on to a sustained run of good luck required to really cement her reputation as an actress… She could not afford to be too choosy, but it impacted on her reputation.”
Opportunities… and an untimely end
A third son, Jason, was born to Dors in 1970, and as she approached her 40s, different work opportunities presented themselves now that her time playing good-time girls had come to a natural end. For three series she was “warmly received” for channelling fierce matriarchal energy in her role as the brassy, working-class Queenie Shephard, mum to three teenage boys, for the sitcom Queenie’s Castle. She was also acclaimed in art-house film Deep End, which premiered at Venice. A role in British Western Hannie Caulder followed in 1971, and the cabaret work also kept funds topped up. Theatre work included the role of Jocasta in Oedipus.
Dors also found roles a-plenty in British horror pictures and sex comedies of the 70s, appearing in Nothing But the Night (1973) alongside Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee and Theatre of Blood with Vincent Price, the Adventures of… series (1976-77) and What the Swedish Butler Saw (1975). A particularly creepy part saw Dors dressed down again, donning grey hair and a housekeeper’s tabard in the Hammer House of Horror episode Children of the Full Moon, where she presides over a household of orphans harbouring a wicked secret.
As the ’80s dawned, presenting work and a chat show gave Dors new audiences yet again, revelling as Cale notes “in her unique ability to draw out something different from her guests”.
She stole every scene as the Commander of the State Police in the Two Ronnies’ bawdy serial sketch, The Worm That Turned. www.youtube.com/watch?v=GcMd1F1acSo&t=2s A desire to lose weight also coincided with her being awarded a dieting spot on ITV’s breakfast show TV-AM.
Sadly, the year after Dors appeared in the Prince Charming video, her ovarian cancer diagnosis was first made and her fate shortly sealed. She died on 4th May 1984.
It’s easy to imagine an interesting path continuing for Dors had she lived; a part in EastEnders or an Andrew Davies’ Dickens adaptation, perhaps success in Hollywood at last. Or some other, unexpected turn of her choosing.
All in all, Cale’s book is a fascinating and meticulously researched work, drawing together a full picture of Dors’s life from a wide range of sources. These include original interviews, contemporaneous media interviews given by and about Dors, her own autobiographies, mentions of her in other people’s autobiographies and retrospective articles that discuss her cultural context. These are all documented in an extensive bibliography and filmography. The author expertly weaves in culturally and socially significant events to reflect Dors’s experience (the law on abortion in the 1950s for example). She segues from Dors’s role in Steptoe and Son Ride Again into discussion of the 70s trend for sitcoms to transfer to the big screen. Due to the volume of historic information used, I think I would have liked the book to be annotated with footnotes.
The column inches and previous books devoted to Dors’s life have tended to focus on her husbands, lovers and friendships with male co-stars. Quotes unearthed by Cale suggest she had a camaraderie with women that had never been given much space: “Writing in 1960, she commented, ‘My mail shows that middle-aged housewives and spinsters adore me. They identify themselves with me. I symbolise all they think they have missed in life.’ But friends also recall that she was always approached by women who wanted to spend time with her when she was out and about.” I’d have liked to see this explored in a little more detail.
But these are minor quibbles. Cale’s book is an excellent springboard for exploring Dors’s back catalogue of work. A quick trawl of YouTube will reveal a treasure trove of TV episodes and several films mentioned in the bibliography; many more of her films from the 1950s have been digitally remastered and made available on Blu-ray disc.
While the book does not shy away from mentioning the rollercoaster of events which she lived through, it is careful not to let these define Dors alone, and the star herself is rightfully well quoted. As a result, Cale succeeds in painting not a picture of a good-time girl nor a magical fairy godmother, but a rounded portrait of a woman who lived an extraordinary life.
❉ ‘The Real Diana Dors’ by Anna Cale is published by Pen & Sword Books’ White Owl imprint on 30 July 2021. ISBN: 9781526782151. RRP £19.99. Click here to pre-order from Pen & Sword Books.
❉ Jay Bea is a social historian and writer, blogging and (still) gigging around the outer edges of London. Her novel set during the Britpop era may see the light of day in 2021. Her social and cultural history website and podcast, 1,000 Londons, is in development. Twitter: @London_and_East Instagram: @eeastlondonista. © Jay Bea
Yield to the night clips courtesy of STUDIOCANAL.