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The Oldie Annual
"This year will be remembered for the General Election, the Big Four meeting, and Sabrina — especially Sabrina," reported one newspaper in 1955, and nobody disagreed.
On 18th February 1955, Cheshire teenager Norma Sykes had shimmered across the nation's cathode-ray tubes, displaying a spectacular 39.5-inch bosom, in a BBC television programme aptly entitled Before Your Very Eyes.
Sabrina's gimmick was silence; it was comedian Arthur Askey's idea to make a visual pun on the slang expression dumb blonde', and the humour came from pocket-sized Arthur's reactions to Sabrina's wordless interruptions.
The 18-year-old Norma had spent her adolescence in Blackpool, the Lancashire resort synonymous with cartoon postcards of generously endowed young females, and when she arrived in London the future Sabrina was already the embodiment of that particularly English comic recipe of sex and innocence.
Because she was a joke and not a threat, wives looked on indulgently as husbands and sons gulped and goggled at this astonishing apparition, introduced with characteristic BBC reserve in Radio Times as 'a glamorous new playmate for 'Big-Hearted Arthur'.
Hardened show-business columnists were not so generous, lacing their reports on the girl's elocution and singing lessons with dry asides, but in no time Sabrina was everywhere: opening department stores, causing sensations at film premieres, visiting the disabled, and endorsing nylon hosiery.
Almost immediately, a Soho coffee bar was named after her in Wardour Street, even then home of the British film industry, and by June 1955 Sabrina was on the set of her first picture, Stock Car. As Trixie, decorative companion of the unsavoury Turk McNeil, she would at last be heard to talk. Alas, when the film was released, Sabrina had lots to say because her natural voice had been replaced after filming by a coarse East End accent, sabotaging her conscientious performance. Upset by this experience, Norma Sykes returned for moral support to Arthur Askey, who put her into his comedy western Ramsbottom Rides Again - as a non-speaking Red Indian squaw.
Increased frustration at not being taken seriously caused a temperamental outburst in January 1956. She walked out of Jimmy James' BBC TV show Home James, fired her agent and headed for Birmingham and commercial television, where she finally got the opportunity to sing, dance - and speak.
Askey remained a loyal pal, inviting her to his daughter's wedding in March. This took place at the BBC church, All Souls, in Langham Place opposite Broadcasting House, and when Sabrina emerged from her taxi, a dozen photographers zoomed in on the famous cleavage, temporarily ignoring guests such as Al Read and Norman Wisdom.
Undiminished by magazine features asking 'What Now For Sabrina?' and 'How Far Can You Go On A Gimmick?', Sabrina continued to model the latest Italian fashions, stop London traffic, and 'first night' at clubs and theatres.
She was immortalised on canvas by a Blackpool artist, parodied in the West End revue 'For Amusement Only', and had a samba composed in her name by the band-leader at the Orchid Ballroom, Purley.
Only Madame Tussaud's refused to come out and play, because, in the opinion of the wax museum, Sabrina was not genuinely famous - merely a 'stunt personality'.
It was a lot to handle, and in September 1956, Sabrina threw a tantrum at the Savoy's 'Woman of the Year' luncheon because she was not asked to speak.
During these controversial years a 38-year-old Hollywood actor was her rock and solace. Steve Cochran had been variously a cow-puncher and store detective before entering movies, and in the autumn of 1955 he came to England to make The Weapon. Like Sabrina, the tall, dark and macho Cochran wanted to be taken more seriously and escape an image - that of a brawling womaniser - so there was more than sexual chemistry in the relationship, even mutual cause.
For public consumption, Steve and Sabrina emphasised their affection for canines. Early on, the lass from Stockport had acquired a pup named Shane, but when the Alsatian started to eat her wardrobe of expensive hats and shoes it was Steve Cochran who took the dog back to Santa Monica for house-training. Sabrina pined, but not for long.
In 1957, the couple was seen together at the Lyceum Ballroom for Norman Wisdom's 'Comedian of the Year' presentation, and Sabrina visited Steve and Shane at Malibu Beach. She was a 'wow' in the United States, where her most vital statistic was in 1958 confirmed for posterity as 41 inches. To the gob-smacked Americans, Norma Ann Sykes was Britain's answer to Vera Jayne Palmer, aka Jayne Mansfield.
By now the romance with Steve Cochran was cooling, but there were a few compensations; like her enormous American saloon with the 'S 41' number plate. Back in England, the routine of personal appearances and pin-up sessions continued, but movie-stardom eluded Sabrina. A gag shot in Blue Murder at St Trinian's as Virginia, the school swot, was no advance.
At least in the irrepressible Arthur Askey's spoof on television advertising, Make Mine A Million, Sabrina looked absolutely gorgeous and revealed in her one dialogue scene a soft, pleasant voice. Fortunately, Norma Sykes had retained enough common sense to acknowledge her limitations and she moved to America permanently, where in 1967 she became Mrs Harold Melsheimer.
Ten years later there was a civilised divorce, leaving Sabrina with a Californian tan, a local accent, a Spanish villa in Los Angeles, and her own Mercedes.
There she remains, in contented anonymity.
Page Created: 2023-07-13
Last modified Thursday, 13-Jul-2023 12:31 PM
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