As for the title of Britain's first celebrity, all sorts of unlikely people have been awarded this dubious accolade. Frederic Raphael claims that Lord Byron (1788-1824) was 'the first modern celebrity'. No, says Jane Smiley, Charles Dickens (1786-1851) was 'the first true celebrity in the modern sense'.
Forget Byron and Dickens and all the other monarchs, movie stars, housewives' heart-throbs and adolescent pin-ups whom scholars and commentators have proclaimed the first 'modern celebrity'. 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 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 else.
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: PERSISTENCE.'
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 bosom.'
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.
Television was slow to pick up on what newspapers and magazines had already realized: celebrity was a popular form of entertainment in itself. People liked watching celebrities being celebrities. An early example of celebrity TV was This Is Your Life, which first appeared in 1955 and gained an audience of between 12 and 14 million people. Although today we think of it as a rather anodyne and celebratory view of the famous it was a controversial programme in its time. Critics complained that it was 'torture by TV, and a 'voyeuristic feast of invasive exploitation', which makes it sound like the Big Brother of its day.
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 inside.