Friday, November 18, 2011

“I’ll never look like Rita Tushingham”

To a young boy growing up in Britain in the late nineteen-seventies, Diana Dors seemed to be on television virtually every night of the week.
I wasn’t sure exactly what she did, but she was always there: large, loud, in big pink tent-dresses from which gold high-heeled shoes peeked at the bottom, and white blonde hair exploded at the top. She was always rosy-cheeked and smiling and laughing, but the knowing eyes and gravelly laugh seemed charged with the cynicism of experience, and some kind of unspoken common history seemed shared by her and her interviewers, and we the audience, that only I was not privy to. She seemed jolly, and straightforward, like an eccentric aunt, but was there something hidden there, too?

I didn’t know until much later that in the fifties she had been Britain’s biggest, brassiest movie star - but then, to someone born in 1973, 1953 might as well have been the Middle Ages.
Now I’m of an age to see how truly short a period of time twenty years really is, I have a fuller sense of just how fast her career was, and just how much experience and living was packed into it.
When she died in 1984, I thought she was in her late sixties at least. In fact, she was just 52, and she had been a star for over 35 years.

The future Miss Dors was born Diana Fluck, in Swindon in 1931. Her mother Mary lived with two men, and Diana never knew which was her father, but it was Bert Fluck, sub-head of the Great Western Railway’s accounts department, that brought her up. (Dors was the surname of her maternal grandmother; she would explain that she changed it in case it was ever painted in lights on Broadway, and the 'L' malfunctioned. Is it true, or apocryphal, that she was once mistakenly asked in a tv interview the no-U turn-possible question: 'Was it embarrassing growing up as a child with the surname Clunt?')
Diana's dreams of stardom were not pursued in the face of parental indifference or resistance: Mary deliberately took her to see glamorous Hollywood movies, and encouraged both her ambitions and her air of precocious sexual knowingness.
By the age of fifteen she was earning a guinea an hour modelling, and was the youngest ever student at the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art, where she won several medals for elocution and dramatic excellence. Her very genuine talent led almost instantly to a contract with the Rank organisation and an endless series of variations on the same few roles: blowsy good time girls, dance hall queens and barmaids.
She had something new: a relaxed, natural quality on screen and an obvious authenticity in working class roles, and both assets paradoxically but magnetically combined with the kind of natural glamour audiences expected to find in Hollywood movies but was rarely to be found in Swindon. (And though invariably compared to Marilyn Monroe, it is important to remember that Diana was no carbon copy: she actually achieved stardom first.)
Rarely did a film come along to challenge her or offer anything new or surprising to the public, and while the production-line fodder of the early fifties looks just wonderful to us today, British audiences of the time generally found such product an entirely drab alternative to Hollywood, at the time at its most tv-obsessed crowds-of-thousandsish. The key to Diana's initial appeal, perhaps, was that she seemed like an authentic piece of Hollywood glamour in the mundane context of British B-feature comedies and crime thrillers. Titles like Is Your Honeymoon Really Necessary? and My Wife’s Lodger (currently available on a charming, highly recommended double bill DVD from the BFI) did little to enhance her critical reputation, but audiences weren’t complaining. They liked her on screen and most of all they liked her in the newspapers and magazines, where she was happy to pose in eye catching outfits and swimwear, and proved a witty and attractively self-deprecating interviewee.
At 20 she was the country’s youngest registered owner of a Rolls Royce motor car.

Diana herself was becoming restless with the treadmill, however, and interviews increasingly became dominated by two aspirations: to crack Hollywood, and to get serious, meatier roles to play. (Her hopeless desire to play a nun was a frequent refrain at this time.) She also spoke of her ‘five year plan’: “to make enough money while I’m young and enjoy it; five years and then a family and real living.”
She never quite achieved any of these goals, and the main reason – in all three cases - was Dennis Hamilton, the first of her three husbands. She never picked her men well, indeed she seemed to perversely and knowingly pick them badly, but Hamilton was the worst: a ghastly, violent sponger who comfortably settled into the role of her manager and promoter, encouraging her to turn down work if the money was not lavish enough, and to present a more arrogant, aloof public image that he felt was better suited to a screen goddess. Sometimes he turned down work on her behalf without even informing her of the offer, especially if Burt Lancaster was pencilled in as co-star.

She never did play that nun, but dramatic roles in The Weak and the Wicked and, especially, in Yield to the Night (a drama about capital punishment inspired by the Ruth Ellis case, in which she dared to appear without make-up), showed a little of the very real talent the studios left so deliberately untapped at all other times.
And Hollywood did come calling: RKO put her under contract and launched her on a wave of publicity, but her Hollywood experience never really survived its disastrous beginning.
Her marriage to Hamilton was by this time seriously on the rocks, his increasingly violent and bizarre behaviour exacerbated by her unwillingness to make a permanent base in America, take up citizenship and devote her attention solely to a Hollywood career. ("Diana will do what I tell her to do," he told an interviewer around this time; "When you quote me you're quoting Diana, and never mind what she says.") At a swanky party designed to introduce her to the Hollywood elite, a drunken Hamilton, jealous of the limelight rightly angled at Diana alone, picked a fight with a press photographer and savagely attacked him. Her reputation stateside never really recovered. Though she would continue to work sporadically in America over the next few years – the leads had dried up but she did some decent supporting work and television – the Hollywood dream was basically over before it had ever begun.

Back in Britain, she found the climate changing. Like jealous lovers, fans and newspapers who had once supported her now condemned her for abandoning them for tinseltown, and columnists wrote disparagingly of her lavish, lawless lifestyle. When her first autobiography was serialised in the News of the World in 1960, some of her scandalous revelations of life with Hamilton, replete with wild parties, blue movies and two-way mirrors, caused outrage. The Mayor of Swindon denounced her for “bringing shame on the town” and the Archbishop of Canterbury called her “a wayward hussy”. The announcement that she would be appearing in that year’s Royal Variety Show was met with a storm of protest, and even though she did appear as planned, she wasn’t presented to the Queen.
And the movies were also changing. The naivety and artificiality of the films Diana had known was giving way to kitchen sinks and angry young men, in worlds where Diana’s brand of impossible glamour had little place. Overnight, standards of female beauty changed, and she seemed instantly anachronistic alongside the likes of Julie Christie and Twiggy. “No matter how hard I try,” she told one interviewer resignedly, “I’ll never look like Rita Tushingham.” And so British roles, too, began to dry up, just as the American ones had.
Her first solution was to take to cabaret, where she was promoted by the man who became her second husband, Richard Dawson. After divorcing him she married her final husband, the actor Alan Lake, in 1968. Though not as disastrous as any of her previous relationships, it was still an ill-advised match. Lake was neurotic and fiery, an alcoholic given, like Hamilton, to the occasional public brawl, and Diana, cast increasingly in a maternal role, found him draining and unpredictable. (Five months to the day after her death, an inconsolable Lake returned to their former home, now up for sale, and committed suicide. He was 43.)
Diana quickly put on weight, and segued instantly from sexpot roles to playing frustrated landladies and matronly, faded women. Michael Winner's brilliant first film West 11 introduced this new Diana in 1963, and though she remained elegant and dazzling off screen, despite her ballooning size, on screen she seemed to positively revel in looking as dowdy and washed-up as she could, perhaps thinking that this would at last give her the chance to be recognised for her dramatic capabilities. Even so, there was something self-demeaning in the way she seemed so frequently to play characters whose unattractiveness was of their essence, and even commented upon, like the slatternly wife of Peter Sellers's doorman in There's a Girl In My Soup. (Describing the latest girlfriend of Sellers's randy tv chef as having "legs all the way up to her arse", he adds that when Diana stands up "her arse comes all the way down to her knees.") You can imagine the impression she might once have made on the young Harold Steptoe in the one-and-nines, but by the time they meet in one of the spin-off film Steptoe and Son Ride Again she is a nymphomaniac who invites him into her flat while her late husband is still lying in state, her sturdy legs packed into white knee-high boots, and from whose attentions Harold cannot escape fast enough.
Such work was now typical; she had become a professional guest star, taking a scene here and a scene there in bawdy comedies and horror films. Of the latter, the most interesting was probably Herman Cohen's well-named big-top blood-spiller Berserk! (1967), in which she got to co-star with a similarly down in the world Joan Crawford. By all accounts the two got on like a house on fire.

Television became her real home, and this is where I came in, waiting for Robin's Nest to start and wondering just who these people were with names like Kenny Lynch and Bernie Winters and indeed Diana Dors, whose presence seemed instantly to represent something they were never obliged to demonstrate. Like Kenneth Williams she had become a professional celebrity, and her real career was in chat shows, panel games, cabaret clubs and kiss and tell autobiographies (she wrote no fewer than five), helping to keep her profile high with memorable appearances in The Two Ronnies (packed into leather as the dominatrix head of all the all-women secret police in the serial The Worm That Turned) and a regular diet spot on new-fangled breakfast television.
In the early 1980s she was diagnosed with ovarian cancer, and though early early treatment was deemed successful, the condition recurred. She died in May 1984.
It had been a troubled and difficult life, for all its glamour, but today, she is more highly regarded than at any time during her career. Her very real comic and dramatic talent is widely acknowledged, and several sympathetic biographies have told the true and often tragic story behind the glitzy façade. And as far as British movies are concerned there really has never been anyone else quite like her. Had she lived, she would have been eighty last month.