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Dors, Diana (1931-1984)


Main image of Dors, Diana (1931-1984)

As famous for her (not very) private life as for her screen performances, Diana Dors spent much of her career being touted as Britain's answer to Marilyn Monroe. Though this certainly helped her profile, and has ensured her immortality, it also tended to work against a genuine talent as an actress and comedienne.

She was born Diana Mary Fluck in Swindon on 23 October 1931, and studied at the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Arts. She turned professional while still a student, and quickly broke into films, making brief, uncredited appearances in The Shop at Sly Corner (d. George King, 1947), Dancing with Crime (d. John Paddy Carstairs, 1947) and Holiday Camp (d. Ken Annakin, 1947). She was spotted and signed up by J. Arthur Rank and spent the next few years as a Rank contract player, starting as a troubled teenager whose stern lecture by Flora Robson's magistrate provides the framing device for Good-Time Girl (d. David MacDonald, 1947).

She made several more films in the late 1940s, including more substantial credited roles in the Holiday Camp sequels Here Come The Huggetts and Vote For Huggett (both d. Ken Annakin, 1948), the slatternly Charlotte in David Lean's Oliver Twist (1948) and the 'bad girl' opposite Honor Blackman's more virtuous roles in cycling comedy A Boy, a Girl and a Bike (d. Ralph Smart, 1949) and imitation Western Diamond City (d. David MacDonald, 1949). She had high hopes for the latter, which gave her third billing and the chance to perform several song-and-dance numbers, but it was a critical and commercial failure.

Her Rank contract continued until 1950 with little improvement in the range of roles on offer, and a turbulent private life involved an illegal abortion shortly after her eighteenth birthday. Lady Godiva Rides Again (d. Frank Launder, 1951) first hinted at her sex-symbol potential after it was censored in the US for alleged (though largely mythical) salaciousness. Offered a Hollywood contract by producer Robert Lippert, she turned it down after he made advances to her, and her publicists spun this as a patriotic decision on her part to spurn America in favour of her home country.

She continued to act regularly in British films, her most fruitful collaboration being with the up-and-coming writer-turned-director J. Lee Thompson. They worked together on prison drama The Weak and the Wicked (1954) and a couple of amiable light comedies, An Alligator Named Daisy (1955) and As Long As They're Happy (1955) before he cast her as the lead in Yield to the Night (1956), an anti-capital punishment drama clearly inspired by the previous year's Ruth Ellis scandal. Eyebrows were raised at Dors being offered such a challenging dramatic role, given that her blonde bombshell image at the time was almost exclusively associated with comedy, but she rose to the occasion, managing to evoke considerable sympathy for her condemned but essentially unsympathetic character.

This finally led to an international career, including several minor Hollywood films as well as appearances in French and Spanish productions. None of them had the impact of her best British work, and by the early 1960s she had returned to work exclusively in her native country. Now in her thirties, big-screen roles were beginning to dry up, and she was devoting increasing amounts of time to television, appearing in several Armchair Theatre productions for ITV. Her major television breakthrough came in 1970, when she starred in Keith Waterhouse and Willis Hall's popular three-series Yorkshire sitcom Queenie's Castle (ITV, tx. 1970-72) followed by the thinly-disguised sequel All Our Yesterdays (ITV, 1973) and a splendid characterisation of the vulgar nouveau riche Mrs Bott (mother of the dreaded Violet Elizabeth) in LWT's adaptation of Richmal Crompton's Just William (ITV, 1977-78).

These roles, alongside regular appearances in game shows Jokers Wild (ITV, 1971-74), Looks Familiar (ITV, 1972-86), Blankety Blank (BBC, 1979-89) and guest cameos on The Two Ronnies (their serial 'The Worm That Turned', BBC, 1981) and a Morecambe and Wise Christmas Show (ITV, 1982), cemented her association with comedy - not entirely fairly, as the late 1960s and early 1970s saw a remarkable run of serious character parts. She was very proud of her "evil, gin-swigging old tart of 60" in Baby Love (d. Alastair Reid, 1967), and made a huge impact in a single-scene cameo as a sexually frustrated middle-aged woman attempting to seduce teenage pool attendant John Moulder-Brown with elaborate fantasies about footballers in Jerzy Skolimowski's Deep End (West Germany, 1970).

She was especially memorable as the evil housekeeper Mrs Wickens in Lionel Jeffries' children's ghost story The Amazing Mr Blunden (1972), which was followed by a number of horror roles in Nothing But The Night (d. Peter Sasdy, 1972), From Beyond The Grave (d. Kevin Connor, 1973) and the camp classic Theatre of Blood (d. Douglas Hickox, 1973) - though the decline in her big-screen career in the mid-to-late 1970s can be neatly sketched by a recital of some of the titles: The Amorous Milkman (1974), Swedish Wildcats (US/Sweden, 1974), Keep It Up Downstairs (1976) and Confessions from the David Galaxy Affair (1979). Her final cinema role was a distinct improvement, though the Nell Dunn adaptation Steaming (1984), turned out to be a swansong for Dors and director Joseph Losey, both of whom died in the year of its release.

She continued her prolific television career into her final decade, increasingly appearing as herself. A 1959-61 ITV variety show, The Diana Dors Show, was revived by Southern Television in 1981, and she had a stint as "diet presenter" on pioneering TV-AM breakfast programme Good Morning Britain shortly before her death from cancer on 4 May 1984. Her third husband, the actor Alan Lake, committed suicide the same year, and rumours abounded that he had taken a secret about her hidden £2 million fortune with him to his grave. This even became the subject of an investigative documentary, Who Got Diana Dors' Millions? (ITV, 2003), merely the latest in a long line of posthumous television celebrations of her life and career.

Michael Brooke

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From the BFI's filmographic database

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Selected credits

Thumbnail image of Alligator Named Daisy, An (1955)Alligator Named Daisy, An (1955)

All-star farce starring Donald Sinden, Diana Dors and an alligator

Thumbnail image of Dance Hall (1950)Dance Hall (1950)

Low-key drama about factory workers and their evening escapades

Thumbnail image of Diamond City (1949)Diamond City (1949)

Lively British 'Western' set in South Africa's diamond fields

Thumbnail image of Good-Time Girl (1948)Good-Time Girl (1948)

Gainsborough melodrama about a girl's descent into ruin

Thumbnail image of Is Your Honeymoon Really Necessary (1953)Is Your Honeymoon Really Necessary (1953)

Diana Dors stars in this frothy farce about a marital mix-up

Thumbnail image of Kid for Two Farthings, A (1955)Kid for Two Farthings, A (1955)

Whimsical fable set in London's Jewish East End

Thumbnail image of My Wife's Lodger (1952)My Wife's Lodger (1952)

Comedy about a returning soldier usurped by his wife's new lodger

Thumbnail image of Nothing But The Night (1972)Nothing But The Night (1972)

Creepy Peter Cushing-Christopher Lee vehicle about a mysterious orphanage

Thumbnail image of Oliver Twist (1948)Oliver Twist (1948)

David Lean's definitive version of Charles Dickens' classic novel

Thumbnail image of Passport to Shame (1958)Passport to Shame (1958)

Melodrama about a cabbie befriending a girl caught up in the white slave trade

Thumbnail image of Penny and the Pownall Case (1948)Penny and the Pownall Case (1948)

Amiable if routine detective thriller with a very young Christopher Lee

Thumbnail image of Weak and the Wicked, The (1954)Weak and the Wicked, The (1954)

A young woman, framed for fraud, journeys through the prison system

Thumbnail image of Yield to the Night (1956)Yield to the Night (1956)

Diana Dors stars in a powerful anti-capital punishment film

Thumbnail image of Hammer House of Horror (1980)Hammer House of Horror (1980)

Horror series about supernatural goings-on in the present day

Thumbnail image of Just William (1977-78)Just William (1977-78)

11 year-old William Brown causes havoc among the 1920s middle-classes

Thumbnail image of Queenie's Castle (1970-72)Queenie's Castle (1970-72)

Raucous Yorkshire sitcom with Diana Dors as a brassy matriarch

Thumbnail image of Stars and Garters (1963-66)Stars and Garters (1963-66)

Unpretentious, very popular pub-set variety show

Thumbnail image of Timon of Athens (1981)Timon of Athens (1981)

BBC Television Shakespeare adaptation

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British cinema and postwar social change

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