There was a time, as Peter Cook once joked, When Diana Dors Ruled the Earth. It’s a neat gag, but it’s also pretty telling. Swindon-born actor-cum-bombshell Dors had indeed loomed large in her heyday but, by the 70s, her career was heading off on a curious tangent. She was still ubiquitous – no one could fail to recognize her from TV game shows and chat shows – but younger viewers might not have known what actually made her famous in the first place.
Anna Cale, writer of the new biography The Real Diana Dors, says: “Stardom was always what she craved. Diana was one of the first film stars in the UK and I was interested in looking at that from a different perspective, the perspective of now.
“A lot of the books that have been written about her over the years have been by men. There haven’t been many female voices writing about her and her impact. I wanted to take it back to bare bones, really, and look at her journey, her screen work in particular.”
As the title of the book suggests, Cale feels that Dors’ real story still needed telling. “There’s been a lot written about her over the years, but a lot of it has focussed on her personal life, the scandalous side of things, and I’m really not looking at that. I wanted to cut through all the conjecture and assumptions. I’m a film writer by background, so I wanted to focus on that side because I think it gets lost in the focus on the other stuff. I wanted to look at her as a person, so, the real Diana Dors in that sense.”
Certainly, Dors had quite the rollercoaster career. After World War Two, having grown up enraptured by Hollywood glamour, she studied acting while paying her way as a model. Small film parts got her noticed and won her leading roles in 1950s British pictures such as The Last Page, The Weak and the Wicked and A Kid for Two Farthings. But her burgeoning reputation as an actor was often undercut by her tabloid notoriety, her eventful love life making more headlines than her very genuine talent. In 1956’s Yield to the Night, she wowed critics as a Ruth Ellis-esque character awaiting execution for murder, but a subsequent stint over in Hollywood soon fizzled out. Before long she was revealing all about her drug-fuelled celebrity parties to the News of the World for a quick pay-out.
“Diana was typecast in a lot of her early roles,” Cale says. “Some of those femme fatale and bad girl type roles she did were pure typecasting. Her performance in Yield to the Night should have been the making of her. She should have been a big star, but through life choices and poor decisions or just bad luck, she didn’t quite get there. She kept acting, though, and I think people forget that. She was a big star in the 50s and during the 60s she was a bit of a scandal because of some of the stuff in her personal life. That often overshadows her career journey, which is really fascinating, when you look at the roles she took on through the 60s and 70s and into the 80s.”
For anyone who grew up during that period, Cale’s detailed account of Dors’ career at the time may come as a proper eye-opener, proving that there was much more to her than appearances on Parkinson, Celebrity Squares, The Two Ronnies and Adam and the Ants videos.
“She just kept working and kept taking opportunities that came her way. She did stage work, she did TV, she took on character roles. It’s really interesting that she was given the freedom to do that. She was a star in the 50s and 60s, this glamorous, sexy woman. Come the 70s, she’s still a beautiful woman, yet she’s allowed in people’s eyes to take on character roles. She did all sorts of things. She starts doing TV work like The Sweeney. She was in a lot of Hammer films and other horror films from the time, real cult classics.”
In her biography, Cale has plenty to say about 1970s British cinema and Dors’ part in it. “I don’t want to give too much away but there’s some really interesting stuff in the book about her and other British actors navigating that period, when the UK film industry was on its knees and there was a real dearth of roles available. Diana was very self-aware and perceptive about the fact that she has no choice but to take on dodgy 70s British sex comedies and things like that at the time. But equally she was doing interesting work. She did some European films as well. It’s a very, very odd kind of filmography when you look at it, really. For instance, Deep End (1970) is a fascinating film, and she had a small cameo role in that. But it’s amazing, the performance she gives and the self-perception to understand what impact that would have.”
“It’s so young. She probably had so much more to give. To me it felt like it was turning, in terms of the roles she was playing. In her last film, Steaming, she has more of a supporting role, but she’s great. It’s a really low-key, nuanced performance in what’s a really interesting film. It’s so sad that she died not long afterwards. In fact, before it came out. It’s such a shame, because you can see in that how she was able to do nuance and a kind of quietness, as well as what she was known for in the early part of her career, in terms of that kind of star quality. I think knowing that and understanding what was required in that film shows a different type of star quality altogether. She could have gone on to be such a great character actor.”
Cale’s biography tells the full remarkable story, divorces, swimming pools, adult parties, scandals and all, but it always takes Dors seriously as an actor. The project came about, Cale says, “not exactly by accident, but certainly not by design. As usual with most of my writing career things, it was a tweet. I saw on Twitter that they were looking for someone to write about Diana Dors and I just kind of thought ‘OK, that sounds interesting’. Next thing I know I’m writing a proposal for the book, getting very excited about the prospect and hoping that it would happen. I couldn’t not write that book. I didn’t know Diana Dors’ work that well, so it was a journey for me too, just to get to know more about her. She was someone I wanted to know more about though and I think that’s a good starting place. I wanted to read this book. I’d never written a book before. I didn’t know what I was doing, I had no concept of how you write a book. But what I did know is that when I was offered the chance, I really wanted to tell this story.”
Now, having told the tale, it’s evident that Cale admires Dors even more than she did before. “For the 18 months or so I was working on the book, she was my best mate, I loved her, I loved hearing about her, reading about her, reading what she wrote about herself. She would have been such great fun, that was the thing.”
She adds: “The people I spoke to when I was researching the book, people who knew her personally and spent time with her, talked about her in such wonderful ways. She sounded like great company, a really engaging person to know. I just wish I could have gone for a drink with her. Whether she was on TV or she was doing other things, she always seemed to be very much herself, and embracing that. I loved that about her, that she was happy to be herself. She was a complex person and, hopefully, I haven’t skirted over some of the more challenging parts of her career and her personal life. I hope it comes across in the book, the fascinating character that she was, as well as a screen star. She was always resolutely Diana Dors.”
The Real Diana Dors by Anna Cale is now available in hardback from Pen & Sword Books.
Tickets are available for a free online launch event for the book on August 4, with Anna Cale in conversation.
You can find Anna Cale on Twitter.