Book review: The Real Diana Dors

One of the reasons I was interested in reading Anna Cale’s recently released biography of the late British actress Diana Dors, The Real Diana Dors, is that I was curious to test out what I thought I knew about Dors and the reality of her life. What I was pretty certain about, and Cale confirms, is that Dors was stereotyped from the beginning of her career as either the sultry femme fatale bad girl or, as she herself once wrote, ‘the flighty, sexy little thing who pops in and out of the story whenever a little light relief seems to be called for.’

What I didn’t know, that Cale’s book taught me, was what a determined, serious, and hard headed performer Dors was. She accumulated a hundred screen credits in a career that began with her first bit part in the 1947 crime drama, The Code of Scotland Yard, to her last film role, Steaming, which appeared in 1985, a year after she died at the age of just 54. She resisted attempts to stereotype when she could, and no doubt like a lot of post war actresses undoubtedly had the talent and drive to be even bigger if not for various factors, of which beginning her career in the morally conservative, sexually hypocritical Britain of the late 1940s and early 1950s, was a major one.

It was a small role in David Lean’s Oliver Twist (1948) that got her noticed and led to her signing a contract with the Rank Organisation, then one of the country’s main film studios. She was admitted to Rank’s ‘Charm School’, part of the studio’s effort to develop a pool of future stars who would go onto appear in its films, a group that included Joan Collins, Claire Bloom and Christopher Lee.

The actress appeared to have a love/hate relationship with British newspapers, but she gradually learnt how to manipulate the press to her advantage and further her career. In this respect she was helped enormously by her first husband, Dennis Hamilton, a possessive, borderline abusive spiv. Hamilton was also a whiz at dealing with the media. It was he who came up with the incredibly successful idea of marketing Dors as Great Britain’s equivalent to Marilyn Monroe.

The lead in the gritty 1956 British crime drama, Yield to the Night, or Blonde Sinner as it was released in the United States, directed by L. Kee Thompson, was something of a breakthrough for her. She plays a woman who, having had enough of being abused by the men in her life, kills her boyfriend’s mistress and ends up unrepentan in jail, and is excellent in it. The film led to a role in the – in my opinion – underrated trucking noir, The Long Haul (1957) opposite Victor Mature, and a brief foray into Hollywood. This shouldn’t cemented her place as an international star but the opportunity was derailed and she was sent packing back to Great Britain after the details of an affair with co-star Rod Steiger, who she was appearing with in her first American film, the steamy 1957 drama, The Unholy Wife, became public. Both of them were married at the time.

But she continued to work. Not just in film, but radio, television, cutting vinyl records, touring a cabaret show across the country. This versatility was in part a necessity. Dors, terrible with money and, often on the verge of being broke, had to take whatever paying gig was on offer. But the larger point is, she was a multi-media star before it was a really thing in Great Britain.

There is no doubt that, like a lot of actors, Dors made a lot of crap. But she was also remarkable in a number of films, Yield to the Night and The Long Haul being two examples I have already mentioned. But even going into the 1970s when her screen career was sliding and the British film industry was in decline in every area except sex comedies of the Carry On variety and horror, there are highlights. I recently watched her opposite Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing in Peter Sasdy’s disturbing 1973 occult police procedural, Nothing but the Night, the only film produced by Lee’s Charlemagne Productions, and she gave a solid performance in it.

My only criticism of Cale’s otherwise well written and researched book is her failure to probe slightly deeper into some of the compromises Dors appeared to have made in her life. Cale convincingly writes about the moral ambiguity and behavioural pressures around sex that would dominate the early years of the star’s career. This includes her vulnerability, going back as far as her time at Rank, as a young woman at the mercy of the often-predatory behaviour of far more powerful and males around her. But Dors was no wallflower. While she undoubtedly suffered in aspects of her relationship with Hamilton, for example, she also benefited, and actively collaborated with his machinations in using the media to push her career.

Linked to this is the degree to which she was aware of Hamilton’s even more unsavoury activities. This includes sex parties at their shared house, in which the participants were spied on and sometimes taped by Hamilton and his friends, and his penchant for sex films, some professional, others homemade, filmed in secret and screened in the private cinema for a selected audience, that sometimes included young women. It is unclear whether Dors was an active participant or only found out about these activities later – Dors claims it was the former – and the author does not really delve into the matter. Perhaps there was no new information to be had or Cale was keen not to be seen to judge Dors. Or maybe she wanted to steer away from the more salacious aspects that have dominated other accounts of the actress’s life, that I am not across. I just think some further exploration into this potentially darker, more conflicted aspect of Dors would have contributed to a more nuanced picture of the actress.

Whatever the case, overall I really enjoyed Cale’s account of Dors and her life and recommend it to anyone interested in post-war British cinema. I am now left with a long list of films that Dors appeared in that I want to track down and view: Diamond City, a 1949 British Western set in the diamond fields of South Africa; Dance Hall (1950), a tale of four factory girls and their various romances at the local dance hall; a Hammer noir by Terence Fisher, The Last Page (1952); the 1958 British crime thriller, Tread Softly Stranger; Michael Winner’s 1963 hybrid juvenile delinquent/crime tale, West 11, based on the book, The Furnished Room by Laura del Rivo; and the 1968 spy film, Danger Route.

The Real Diana Dors is published by White Owl Books.

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