Any thinking person over the age of forty is bound to look at
contemporary Britain, with its expanding collection of celebrities,
famous nobodies, exhibitionists, attention-seekers and celebrity-
drenched media magazines, and wonder: when did this whole crazy
If you want to see the first face of modern British
celebrity culture you have to go back to the evening of 15 February
1955 and comedian Arthur Askey’s BBC television series Before
Your Very Eyes.
That night millions of viewers saw something they’d never seen
before: television’s first sex symbol in action. She was a young,
busty, peroxide blonde in a tight black dress making her television
debut. Viewers watched in amazement as she slid off a sofa,
walked towards the camera, and then slowly turned sideways to
reveal the mountain range of her magnificent cleavage. One can
only imagine the effect on the families watching: a collective gasp
of wonder. Men would fidget on the settee; teenage boys would
blush and women would go and put the kettle on.
This mysterious creature remained silent for the entire show.
She didn’t do a thing but stand there: a living, breathing pin-up.
But no one was complaining. The BBC had given the viewing
nation a mute blonde with a cheesy smile, a 41½-inch bust
towering over an 18½-inch waist ... and shazam! A star was born.
Her name was Sabrina.
Actually, her real name was Norma Sykes and her mother ran a
B&B in Blackpool. After her appearance on Askey’s show Sabrina
became a showbiz phenomenon, a national star who couldn’t act,
dance, sing, juggle or - so it seemed - even speak. She was
labelled, displayed and dismissed as ‘Britain’s dumbest blonde’.
And yet Sabrina had a huge following of fans. Even after she had
left the BBC her popularity showed no signs of declining. She
made money from public appearances and modelling, and hardly a
day went by when newspapers didn’t carry a Sabrina-related story.
Hers was a very British kind of Fifties fame: cheesy, cheap and
cheerful. It was imitation Hollywood with a touch of saucy British
seaside-postcard vulgarity: starlet meets harlot. Sabrina was
paraded at glamorous film premieres and showbiz events, but her
bread and butter came from doing the rounds of local openings and
special events. She was hired glamour.
All over the backwaters of Britain you got these personal
appearances of ‘stars’ - Rank school starlets, B-list actors,
television personalities and even pop singers. Those were the days
when you could see a young movie star like Dirk Bogarde judging
a beauty contest to find Miss Hull.
Sabrina could certainly pull them in. She once went to Sheffield
to open a new hardware store and a crowd of four thousand turned
up to take a peek at her. It was widely reported that a ‘riot’ broke
out when her dress strap broke.
In 1956 Picture Post announced that ‘Sabrina worship has
reached a new frenzy’ and frenzied Sabrina fans broke through a
police cordon to see her opening the Gondolier, Ipswich’s first
espresso coffee bar.
Sabrina is an important figure in the history of British celebrity
because her fame so resembles the fame of our own time. Hers was
an instant celebrity, one built on nothing but the thin air of glamour
shots, gossip, newspaper headlines, magazine features and public
appearances. And like so much fame today, Sabrina’s fame in the
1950s had no connection to talent. She knew it and so did everyone
There were lots of famous people in Fifties Britain who didn’t
have much talent (the public loved Diana Dors, but it wasn’t for
her acting). But none of these no-talents were so ridiculed and
savaged as Sabrina. God knows she tried to play along with it,
cheerfully telling the press, ‘I mustn’t speak or I’ll lose my
reputation for being the dumbest blonde in Britain!’
Commentators were baffled. Sabrina seemed to defy the laws of
show business, the first one being that you had to have some sort
of talent - however modest - to be in the limelight. Photoplay
magazine posed the great Sabrina question of the day when it
pondered, ‘Incredible, isn’t it, that a girl who has done so little
(one TV series, one film and a variety stint) should so soon have
become a household word. How long can it go on? How far can
she go on her dumb blonde gimmick?’
A year later in 1957 journalists were still asking how long could
she go on. Picturegoer magazine tells its readers: ‘at this time last
year the talk was like this: “She’ll never last. She’s not a real star.
She’s a freak who’ll fade overnight.” Bosomy Sabrina, who
seemingly had nothing to commend her but a talented physique,
was bitingly listed as The Girl Most Likely Not To Succeed in
1957. But has she faded? She has not. Talent she may not have -
her embarrassingly amateurish theatrical appearances prove that -
but the Treasure Chest revealed another attribute in 1957:
How a girl with such a conspicuous absence of talent could be
so famous and successful was a question that haunted Sabrina
herself She wanted to become a proper part of show business, so
she began to take singing and acting lessons. As she told one
reporter, ‘After all, a girl needs to have something more than a big
But, as we shall see, there would eventually come a time in
Britain when a big bosom would indeed be all a girl would need to
find fame and build a successful career as a celebrity. Still, Sabrina
- who now lives a quiet life in Hollywood - has had the last laugh.
Where once she was dismissed as a dumb blonde, she has had a
retrospective makeover and become the smart, media-savvy
pioneer of the modern art of self-promotion. No longer a national
joke, she is now seen and celebrated as the Jordan of her day.
Sabrina’s celebrity challenges some of the dearest assumptions we
have about Britain in the 1950s. The self-indulgent, celebrity-
obsessed 1960s are often contrasted with the good old sensible
1950s. Nick Clarke, in The Shadow of a Nation, portrays that
decade as the golden era before the thick, unreal fog of celebrity
settled across Britain. He points to the fact that we were then still a
nation of radio listeners. Television, which he holds responsible for
Britain’s slide into celebrity culture, had not yet become the tyrant
in the centre of our living rooms and our lives.
It’s tempting to take a romantic view of the 1950s as a
pre-Hello! Britain when people had real communities composed of
family, neighbours, workmates and friends to gossip and relate to,
and not the virtual communities of celebrities they have now. The
psychologist Oliver James argues that it was a time when we were
far happier because we were not so driven by material wants and
the longing for celebrity. And instead of the opiate of heat and
Hello!, ordinary people had socially aware magazines and
newspapers like Picture Post and the Daily Sketch. Most important
of all, in those days fame was hard to come by. ‘The only route to
fame and fortune was through achievements in some field of public
endeavour,’ writes Nick Clarke.
But, as the case of Sabrina shows, this wasn’t quite true. All
sorts of unlikely people, many utterly devoid of talent, found
themselves inexplicably famous, thanks to a new cultural force in
British life: television.
Although television broadcasting in Britain officially began in
1936, it only became popular in the late 1950s. At the start of that
decade only 4 per cent of the adult population owned a television
set; by its end this had risen to 80 per cent. Television had become
a pail of the daily fabric of ordinary lives. As Harry Hopkins noted
in the New Look. ‘Each morning at the bus stop, on the railway
platform, in office and shop and factory there was a new
conversation to replace “the weather” ... it was, “Did you see so-
and-so on television last night?”’
What Henry Ford’s assembly line did for the manufacturing of
cars, television did for fame. It began the mass production of a
whole new class of television-bred celebrities: presenters,
announcers, entertainers, game-show hosts, soap-opera stars,
weather girls and quiz-show contestants. They entered the homes
and hearts of the British public, becoming, as Hopkins put it,
‘invisible members of the family circle, and a part of the furniture
of the home in a way that film stars had never been before.’ That
was because television created the illusion of intimacy between
viewers and the viewed far better than the cinema.
Television could turn anyone - comedian, cook or serious
commentator - into a celebrity for no other reason than that they
appeared on television. Recognition became a form of renown. By
simply being on ‘the telly’ you were a somebody.
In 1957 ABC TV broadcast a game show called Can Do,
featuring Jon Pertwee - later of Doctor Who fame - as the host.
Celebrities were given various stunts to perform, and the
contestants had to guess whether the celebrity could do it or not.
One episode featured Sabrina in a bikini diving into a 20-foot glass
cage full of water in order to find and open an oyster with a pearl