After the ravages, angst and privations of the 1940s came the consumerism of the 1950s. And with it, the rise of the pneumatic blonde – embodied in every sense by Marilyn Monroe.
Others followed in her wake including Jayne Mansfield, Mamie Van Doren and Anita Ekberg. Brigitte Bardot doesn’t quite fit their voluptuous mould though her blonde-bombshell credentials are impeccable in every other respect.
The UK produced at least two home-grown offerings – Diana Dors (the siren of Swindon) and Sabrina (Sabby to her friends and would-be friends). Titillating is an adjective that barely (pun intended) does justice to the way Sabrina promoted her 41-19-36, hourglass figure.
It wasn’t just blonde tresses and dangerous curves that she shared with Marilyn. By bizarre coincidence, both changed their names having originally been christened Norma – Norma Jeane Mortensen in the case of Marilyn, Norma Ann Sykes in the case of Sabrina . Both posed nude before their careers took off. And both were ambitious.
In the words of Encyclopedia Sabrina, “her life is a fascinating farrago of fact, fantasy, photos, films, fiction, failures, fantastic feats, and fabricated fables.” How impressive is that given that, as Steve Sullivan puts it, “everything about Sabrina was manufactured – her heavy makeup, platinum hair, long eyelashes, and stop-at-nothing publicity.” But not her figure, to which her car number plate – “S 41” – called attention…
Sabrina – from Stockport to celebrity
Sabrina is born in 1936 in Stockport, an industrial town in the North of England. After an unpromising start (her family is impoverished and she spends two years in hospital with polio as a child), Sabrina proves to be an early developer with an eye-catching physique. Age 16, she sets out to London to seek fame and fortune. And here’s what she finds, as recounted by the lady herself in an interview in the 9 June 1960 issue of Australasian Post:
The world of entertainment is glamorous, star spangled, and exciting to the general public. To a teen-ager from a middle class North country home as I was, it turned out to be a ruthless jungle. It did not take me long to get tough. It took me even less time to be exploited. I learned early that I had to fight my own way. No holds are barred. The normal human decencies are in many cases ignored.
I soon realised the effect my 42-18-35 figure had on people. They would frequently stop and stare at me in the street especially if I was wearing a sweater, but it was some months before the idea of photographic modelling ever occurred to me. It happened in an extraordinary way. Alex Sterling, the well-known fashion and news photographer, saw a snapshot of me in the wallet of one of my. friends. The next thing I knew was that I got a telegram from him asking me to see him. I didn’t know what to do. I was frightened and finally went in to a well-known Bond Street photographic dealer to ask them if they had ever heard of a photographer called Alex Sterling. They assured me that he was very well known.
I went round to see him and then and there we started a series of sittings that was to bring my face and figure before the public for the first time. Almost every day I went to his enormous studio. He must have taken nearly 1000 shots in every kind of pose.
Soon, however, something was to happen that was to change the whole course of my career. I had joined Bill Watts’ agency which represented many of London’s top glamor girls. One day I was asked to come along for an audition and was given no idea at all what it was for. I went along to find myself one of about 20 girls with an awe-inspiring selection committee of four, including Arthur Askey. The following day I was telephoned by Bill Watts and informed “the job is yours.” I did not even know what the job was and told him so. It was only then that I learned that I had been auditioning for the glamor spot in the new television series starring Arthur Askey that was about to be launched.
Right from the very beginning, the idea seemed to tickle the interest of the Press. It was almost the first time that the BBC had indulged in such blatant sex appeal.
Arthur Askey’s show is beamed to the nation in February 1955 – you can see Sabrina in a subsequent episode in the video clip below. Cosmo Landesman in his book Starstruck sees it as a pivotal point in post-war British cultural history:
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.
Later that year an article appears in People about how the BBC went berserk with its PR effort.
Sabrina is an overnight sensation – the darling of the entire male population of the UK. A 1955 article reports that:
It is five months since she entered show business, and her rise to fame is now well known. She has played in specially written parts on films in Butchers’ “Stock Car”, made personal appearances at £100 a time, lent her name to advertisers’ products, been on front cover of English, French, German, Italian and American magazines. She has had a cafe, boats, frocks and cocktails named after her. Hollywood talent scouts have already sent for her photos. She is to tour the provinces, appearing at Nottingham, Leicester, Scunthorpe, Manchester and Blackpool.
That same year, Sabrina makes her film debut in Stock Car. It’s the first in a series of movies that showcase her lack of talent as an actress – though she does go on to achieve quasi-iconic status as Virginia in Blue Murder at St Trinian’s, despite (or perhaps because of) not having a single line to speak. But it’s early days and Sabrina’s acting shortcomings are not going to detract from her popularity. When she shows up to open a Sheffield hardware store in February 1956, 4,000 people turn out to see her, resulting in a massive traffic jam. When her dress strap breaks, a near-riot ensues.
Sabrina travels the world
But by 1958 Sabrina’s popularity in the UK is on the wane, so she decides to go on tour in Australia. The Aussies can’t get enough of her and get to see her regularly on TV as the Caltex Oil girl. Here she is remembering a visit to Perth for the 23 June 1960 issue of Australasian Post:
The most spectacular reception I received was when I arrived at Perth for the first time. I came in by air and there were more than ten thousand people jamming the roof at the terminal building all anxious to get their first look at my well-publicised figure. I did not disappoint them, and stepped off the aircraft in a very figure-revealing tight summer sheath dress. This proved too much for the crowd, who pressed forward to get a better look. The result was that the roof partly gave way. Almost miraculously, nobody was seriously hurt, but an awful lot got badly shaken.
But Sabrina is restless. She makes her way to the US to further her career but it doesn’t really happen for her there. In 1960 she fetches up in Cuba where she gets an enthusiastic reception.
In 1963 she returns to the UK and gets together again with Arthur Askey, performing a skit at the Royal Variety Show the following year. But her career is on the slide and she’s off again on tours of Europe and Australia.
Finally, in 1965 Sabrina settles in the US and in December 1967 she announces that she had married Dr Harry Melsheimer, a wealthy Hollywood plastic surgeon. Sabrina’s last appearance as an entertainer in England is in 1974 for Arthur Askey’s This Is Your Life (see video below). And that’s where this story ends.
Sabrina’s place in history
Sensational Sabrina with her breathtaking bosom was both a girl of her time and a very English phenomenon. She featured regularly on The Goon Show and her persona absolutely fitted in with the nudge nudge, wink wink, schoolboy humour of 1950s England – comedy that in the 1960s would translate into a seemingly endless series of Carry On films. Arguably, The Sun’s Page 3 girls, Samantha Fox and Jordan, were Sabrina’s successors.
According to Wikipedia, British aircrews of the 1950s Royal Air Force dubbed part of the Hawker Hunter jet fighter-plane “Sabrinas” owing to two large humps on the underside of the aircraft. In the late 1950s the British truck manufacturer ERF produced a heavy-goods vehicle with a short protruding bonnet that was nicknamed a “Sabrina” because it had “a little more in front.” And as late as 1974, the British motoring press gave the name “Sabrinas” to the oversized pairs of protruding rubber bumper blocks added to the MG MGB, Midget and Triumph TR6 sports cars, when US auto safety regulations mandated sturdier impact protection.
Want to know more about Sabrina?
There’s really only one place to go slake your thirst for all things Sabrina, and that’s Encyclopaedia Sabrina. But if you prefer to read a good, old, old-fashioned book, see if you can get hold of a copy of Bombshells: Glamour Girls of a Lifetime by Steve Sullivan.