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From An English Affair: Sex, Class and Power in the Age of Profumo
 By Richard Davenport-Hines

If Dors was the ersatz Monroe, then the glamour model 'Sabrina' (real name Norma Sykes) was the ersatz Dors. Sykes was born at Stockport in 1936, daughter of a factory mechanic and a seamstress who later opened a small hotel at Blackpool. She contracted polio in girlhood, and endured years under medical orders. At the age of sixteen she went to London, where she worked as a waitress and posed nude to decorate the backs of playing cards. She tried to get modelling work from Harrison Marks, but was rejected - perhaps because at that time her waist size matched that of her bust. In 1955 the comedian Arthur Askey noticed her picture in a magazine. He invited her to his office, where he found that she could not sing, dance or act. Her Lancashire accent, too, jarred. But because her measurements were now 41-19-36, Askey put her on his television programme Before Your Very Eyes as a 'dumb blonde'. Viewers were so enthusiastic about her bust that she was moved centre stage for the next episode. Her stage name 'Sabrina' was coined.

Soon she was hired to attend shop openings and publicity stunts. In 1957, for example, she graced the launch of the Vauxhall Victor motor car (a four-door saloon with chrome trimming and a touch of Chevrolet swank), and spent a night at Thoresby Hall in Nottinghamshire (newly opened for sightseers in order to pay death duties levied after the recent death of its owner, Lord Manvers). When booked to star in the revue Plaisirs de Paris, Sabrina was paid to do nothing but stand with her chest held firm. In Askey's boisterous comedy-western Ramsbottom Rides Again (1956), she appeared alongside Sid James and Frankie Vaughan, but hardly uttered a word. In the film Blue Murder at St Trinian's (1957) she was given star billing after Alastair Sim, above Terry-Thomas, Joyce Grenfell and Terry Scott, but played a swot who stayed in bed with a book, and never spoke. She bobbed in the background behind Dickie Henderson in a 1957 revue at the Prince of Wales Theatre. Every week she signed thousands of pin-up photographs. A young schoolmaster at St Custard's prep school, in the classic Nigel Molesworth school novel, had one such picture, and daydreamed about her.

Sabrina's agent, Joe Matthews, was profiled in the Spectator of 1957 as representative of a new generation of self-made men. A cockney with a sharp weather-beaten face, he had discovered his flair for publicity when working as a stage manager. Then he opened a shop (flanked by an undertaker's and a supplier of jellied eels) selling photographs of American stars at 148E Lambeth Walk. During 1955-58 he operated as Sabrina's Svengali, managing her celebrity appearances and publicising her charms. Among his stunts, Matthews insured Sabrina's breasts for £100,000: she was promised compensation of £2,500 for every inch her bust measurement shrank below forty inches. Another device to curry publicity was to spend £2,700 buying a yellow and white Chevrolet for Sabrina, together with the registration number S41 (her bust measurement). Matthews drummed-up press interest in her romance with an American film­star, Steve Cochran: speculation about whether she would meet him on arrival at Heathrow airport relegated mine disasters from front pages. Dancing with Cochran at the Pigalle restaurant in 1957 she let her shoulder strap slip, and paparazzi snapped her in an expression of rapture.

After Sabrina scored a hit speaking at the Variety Club lunch, Matthews boasted: It was splendid corn - I wrote it.' The Variety Club was an exuberantly masculine showbiz charity with which he enjoyed cooperating.

His reaction was different when Antonella Kerr, the Marchioness of Lothian, invited Sabrina to speak at the Women of the Year luncheon at the Savoy hotel. Tony Lothian was a broadcaster who had spent her adolescence in Nazi Germany, voted Labour after the war and was married to one of the Catholic representatives on the Wolfenden committee. Her idea of an annual luncheon for women high-achievers - enabling women to meet one another and develop networks of shared affinities and plans, honouring women for outstanding work that was not headline-grabbing - was initially derided, especially by men who thought that the weaker sex could achieve little without male protection, and should either look like Sabrina or stay at home. Eventually Lady Lothian enlisted the support of Odette Churchill Hallowes, a survivor of polio and a year's blindness in childhood, who had been parachuted by the Special Operations Executive into Nazi-occupied France, served with the resistance, survived Ravensbruck concentration camp, and was the first woman to receive the George Cross. Lothian, Hallowes and Lady Georgina Coleridge finally launched these enjoyable, estimable luncheons, which also raised funds for blind charities, in 1955.

Matthews, however, liked his women weak and helpless, and revelled in the growing cult of ill-manners and brazen disrespect. When approached by Lady Lothian, he decided the uppity women needed to be toyed with and snubbed. There would be 'better publicity', he reckoned, if Sabrina disrupted the luncheon with his gimmicks. 'When a countess or something asked her to speak at this Savoy lunch I made all sorts of impossible demands like them hiring a special plane to bring her down from Blackpool. Finally they dropped the idea of her speaking. Anyway, she went to the lunch, and after the coffee walked out.' To the journalists who had been primed by Matthews to follow Sabrina, she claimed to be hurt that she had not been asked to speak, and read some wisecracks that were widely if not respectfully reported.

It was, as Matthews intended, an insult to all the good, strong women who organised and attended the luncheon (Sabrina's walk­out occurred during a speech by a Pakistani woman who had represented her country at the United Nations - just the sort to threaten Matthews' sense of male supremacy). With the rodomontade of one man speaking to another about a woman under his control, Matthews 'wouldn't like to say whether I think the kid's got talent ... Let's put it this way, I think the bust attracts 'em and then they realise that she has a beautiful face.' Matthews said Sabrina was 'not intellectually inclined. I've only known her to write one letter, and that was to me ... I've got her invitations to parties at which they've been dukes and earls, but it wasn't a success. She would talk to them for a bit, but they never seemed to get real friendly. They didn't seem to have much in common.'
Sabrina was not so simple and downtrodden that she did not resent this denigration by her agent....

 

From Starstruck, by Cosmo Landesman, 2008.  Chapter 2.

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.

 

A working-class girl made good by this time was Blackpool's 19-year-old Norma Sykes, better known as Sabrina. 'What Sabrina has "got" is no mystery,' declared Picture Post's Robert Mullen 'With her forty-inch bust and very blonde hair, she has become the Teddy Boy's symbol for opulent sex. Incessant Sabrina propaganda had turned Norma Sykes into a national tonic, a seaside postcard brought to life, sex for the unimaginative, inflated into absurdity.'

Family Britain, 1951-1957. David Kynaston. Page 608


Girls with a Gimmick

Sun-Herald,  9 September 1956
From Anthea Goddard in London

Sabrina GimmickIN show business to-day, talent is no longer enough. The cry is: "You've got to have a gimmick."

So the Gimmick Age has come to Britain.

Would-be stars—talented actors, pretty actresses— struggle along for years in repertory, earning a pre­carious living without hope of reaching the top—until they find a gimmick.

This is defined officially as "a clever device to ensure success." and almost every one of Britain's rising per­sonalities has acquired one.

The craze has led to a new profession in London's theatreland: the gimmick expert.

He or she is the person with a vivid imagination who can take an unknown and build him into a personality.

...

Sabrina was one of the earliest gimmick-girls. Un­trained in any form of show business — except that she once posed for a photo­grapher in the nude — her name became a household word throughout Britain be­cause her bust (39½ inches) was discovered to be an inch or so bigger than that of Jane Russell.

This won her some film parts and a series of public appearances at bazaar openings and film premieres.

The search for the new gimmick is unflagging, but the most original publicist of all remains to be discovered: the man who will one. day make a star of a client because he has no gimmick.

 

 

GILBERT MANT
The Way I See It
Sun-Herald, 23 June 1957

WHATEVER you thought about that photo­graph of Sabrina gatecrashing the Royal enclosure at Ascot, you've got to hand it to her publicity men for bringing off a notable stunt.
This is an era of publicity and ballyhoo and there's no better proof of it than the immense success of Sabrina's chest measurements.

Nobody would look twice at her if you made her gatecrash a race meeting on the island of Bali.

But big commercial firms and theatrical entrepreneurs set aside large sums of money each year for stunts and gimmicks such as this.

With all due respect, even great stars such as Fonteyn and Olivier have to be constantly kept before the public by means of inspired stunts, but of course they use different types of gimmicks to Sabrina.

It doesn't do any real harm and it must amuse the Sabrinas to discover how gullible the public can get.

But you've got to have a gimmick.

 

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