Sabrina – Britain’s answer to Marilyn Monroe

Sabrina in a black strappy dress
1956. Sabrina looking winsome in a black strappy dress.

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.

Sabrina by Philip Gotlop
1955. Out-take of a shoot published in the April issue of Beauty Parade. Photo by Philip Gotlop.

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.

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Sabrina at the premiere of The Ladykillers

Sabrina at the premiere of The Ladykillers

1955. When she became a star, Sabrina was no longer willing to reveal all (she'd done some nude modelling soon after arriving in London), but...

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Sabrina at Anthea Askey's wedding

Sabrina at Anthea Askey’s wedding

1956. Sabrina's wearing a very stylish velvet hat and tailored coat – she looks really classy here. The caption on the back of the photo...

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Sabrina with a photo of herself

Sabrina with a photo of herself

Around 1957. Here's our girl caught admiring a photo of herself – or perhaps she's about to autograph it for one of her millions of...

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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.

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Sabrina goes by helicopter to open a fete

Sabrina goes by helicopter to open a fete

1958. And the lucky man gallantly helping her out at Alexandra Palace is Captain Dibb, a BEA helicopter pilot. According to the caption on the...

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Sabrina on the set of Stock Car

Sabrina on the set of Stock Car

1956. Stock Car was Sabrina's first movie and the dress she wears was clearly designed for maximum impact. Poor Sabrina was bitterly disappointed when she...

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Sabrina demonstrates Howcol Spin’n Spandy

Sabrina demonstrates Howcol Spin’n Spandy

1957. Here Sabrina effortlessly combines self-promotion with a publicity stunt for a protective fabric finish. The mastermind behind her publicity machine was Joe Matthews, a...

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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.

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sabrina 1956

1956. Sabrina Before Your Very Eyes

Her appearances with Arthur Askey on Before Your Very Eyes launched Sabrina's career. Her dress is a thing of wonder – seemingly floating in front of her. The humour is dated and the overt sexism is toe-curling. Sabrina was clearly very fond of Arthur. He was shameless in the way he talked about her: "I wanted a dumb blonde for my series, and I got one," he told the Daily Mirror on 6 January 1956.
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sabrina 1956b

1956. Sabrina the centre of attention on a cruise liner

Steve Page, who introduces these clips, was kissed goodnight by Sabrina. And, not surprisingly, the experience is as vivid today as it was all those years ago. Brilliant that the captain noticed the ship slowing down, only to find that the stokers had sneaked up on deck to catch a glimpse of Britain's sex symbol of the day posing and pouting in a trademark décolleté number.  
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sabrina 1956a

1956. Sabrina’s photo shoot

This offering from British Pathé was shot at the Polyphoto counter in Bourne and Hollingsworth (a department store on London's Oxford Street). Polyphoto produced sheets of 48 small portrait photos in different poses so the sitter could choose the best for enlargement. The scenario is preposterous and the acting cheesy. The narrator's voice will be familiar to anyone who's watched newsreels or listened to broadcasts of the period. He's relentlessly cheerful and insidiously patronising.  It's totally period and a lot of fun.
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sabrina 1974

1974. Sabrina This Is Your Life

Almost 20 years on from her breakthrough, and Sabrina's still in great shape here. She hasn't forgotten the elocution lessons she took in 1954 to get rid of her strong Lancashire accent. And she's clearly been thoroughly rehearsed though she slips on a couple of her lines. But she's very endearing.

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?

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.

Sabrina – the BBC goes berserk

Sabrina was Britain’s number one pinup of the 1950s. She was Britain’s answer to Marilyn Monroe. Her career really took off after her first TV appearance next to the nation’s favourite comedian, Arthur Askey.

All she did was stand there, an archetypal dumb blonde, smiling in a figure-hugging sequinned dress, while Arthur did his stuff for the BBC’s Before Your Very Eyes.  Never before had a girl been allowed to show cleavage on British television. The effect was electric. As reported in an article in the 29 June 1955 issue of People:

When Britain’s now-famous television blonde, Sabrina, made her first appearance earlier this year, she did not speak, sing, dance, do conjuring tricks or even pull faces. She merely slid off the sofa on which she had been lying, clad in a skin-tight black dress, undulated toward the TV cameras and slowly turned sideways-on. About 4-million screens throughout the country were blotted out by a 39in bosom – and Sabrina had arrived.

The BBC was flooded with phone calls and letters in the next few days, and officials quickly “began measuring her for even more revealing gowns.” But before the show, the BBC had choreographed a warm-up act to ensure that Sabrina would not go un-noticed, as reported in the following article, which appeared in the 15 March 1955 issue of Picturegoer. By the way, Lime Grove Studios in West London (referred to in the article) were used by the BBC for television broadcasts from 1949 to 1991.

The BBC Goes Berserk

I would never have believed it of Lime Grove. Those normally dignified B.B.C. people became as publicity-crazy and gimmick-berserk over the new Arthur Askey showgirl Sabrina, as any Hollywood studio.

Arthur Askey introduces Sabrina
1955. Arthur Askey introduces Sabrina to the audience just before transmission of “Before Your Very Eyes” .

In seven days, they made Sabrina a legend … and they were the seven days before she’d even appeared on the screen.

Bill Ward, Askey’s TV producer, picked Sabrina after auditioning a dozen girls. He then had seven days in which to “sell” her, so he called in the publicity boys, saying: “Britain must know this girl before she even appears. Now get cracking.”

The story of Sabrina’s coming was announced trumpet-wise by Lime Grove as an exclusive for the Sunday newspapers. Clever – those papers always go for a glamour-girl picture.

By the fourth day, Sabrina had clocked up considerable space in nine of the national newspapers and uncounted spaces in provincial ones.

The only snag thus far was that Fleet Street had ignored Bill Ward’s appeal that nobody should reveal Sabrina’s real name. The newsmen had told the world that this gal was Miss Norma Ann Sykes.

Sabrina, meanwhile, instead of being bewildered and shy, began putting both feet well forward to make the best of the remaining days in Build Up Week.

The Statistics

At a Lime Grove press reception for her, a tactful publicity officer whispered: “It might be a good thing to tell the newsboys your vital statistics.”

For the first time, Sabrina looked puzzled. The publicity officer explained more frankly what vital statistics are. “Oh,” said Sabrina, and rattled them off, one by one, delightedly.

Sabrina at the premiere of The Blonde Sinner
1956. Sabrina surrounded by photographers at the Carlton Theatre, Haymarket for the premiere of The Blonde Sinner.

Sabrina then went on a round of Fleet Street offices. She had a long, cosy chat in the padded interviewing room of one national paper.

And she sent to the editor of a London evening paper a note that asked: “Why all the fuss over Marilyn Monroe? I’m here now. Want to see me?”

The editor received her, passed her quickly to his gossip department to get a quick note in the next edition. “I can’t act, I can’t sing. I can’t dance …” began Sabrina.

Gossip-writer pressed hard to find some less negative angle. “I broke my leg. They set it wrong, and I had to have it re-broken to put right,” confided Sabrina.

Gossip-writer scribbled furiously, until she said: “But I’ve promised that bit of my story to a morning paper.” Still, both papers did her proud.

On the fifth day of Build Up Week, Sabrina was operating around Lime Grove. Armed with a thick camera script containing more pages than any Askey show would ever need, she told onlookers:

“I’m only just beginning to go to drama classes. Heaven knows how I’ll remember my lines. But never mind” – patting the volume of script – “they’re all here.”

In the TV canteen, Lime Grove secretaries were transfixed, knives and forks poised between plates and pretty mouths, as Sabrina tucked into five courses of starch-supplying lunch.

The night before her TV debut, Sabrina turned up at the premiere of A Prize Of Gold. A hardened film publicity man reported: “I’ve never seen anyone so able to walk into the centre of every cameraman’s picture.”

But Sabrina has only just started drama lessons … A quick learner? Maybe. Certainly the quickest build-up British TV has produced – with the aid of Norma Ann Sykes.

Or has Norma taken Sabrina for a ride?

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