Film Studies: She could have been a contender. She could have been Sybil Fawlty...

On the 20th anniversary of her death (from cancer, at the age of 52), the National Film Theatre is offering a short season in tribute to Diana Dors. You might guess from the alliteration in her name that Diana Dors was what her England (and the News of the World) liked to call a sexpot. (Not every letter in the alphabet, maybe, has its example, but quickly I can think of Brigitte Bardot, Claudia Cardinale, Gloria Grahame, Jennifer Jones, Kay Kendall, Marilyn Monroe, Nita Naldi, and so on.) Not many of those names were real. Most of them were names designed to go beneath pin-up pictures, where the double initials were a tactful way of reminding us of legs and breasts. Yet "Diana Dors" may have been a mercy - despite the way it allowed for the title, Swinging Dors, for a 3-D booklet that may now be a collectors' item. Born in that great railway junction, Swindon, in 1931, the daughter of a railway booking clerk, Diana's real surname was Fluck.

On the 20th anniversary of her death (from cancer, at the age of 52), the National Film Theatre is offering a short season in tribute to Diana Dors. You might guess from the alliteration in her name that Diana Dors was what her England (and the News of the World) liked to call a sexpot. (Not every letter in the alphabet, maybe, has its example, but quickly I can think of Brigitte Bardot, Claudia Cardinale, Gloria Grahame, Jennifer Jones, Kay Kendall, Marilyn Monroe, Nita Naldi, and so on.) Not many of those names were real. Most of them were names designed to go beneath pin-up pictures, where the double initials were a tactful way of reminding us of legs and breasts. Yet "Diana Dors" may have been a mercy - despite the way it allowed for the title, Swinging Dors, for a 3-D booklet that may now be a collectors' item. Born in that great railway junction, Swindon, in 1931, the daughter of a railway booking clerk, Diana's real surname was Fluck.

Not even in the 1930s (well before Kenneth Tynan) could that humble, West Country name inspire much innocence. And when nature determined that Diana was pretty, with a wide, sulky mouth, eyes trained by a life of dirty jokes, and breasts that could have served as gentle restraints to entering trains at Paddington Station, there was no denying or altering the path set for Diana Dors. She wasn't even, in truth, allowed to be sexy - she was a joke about sex (not that far removed from Marilyn Monroe), a physical oddity created, it seemed, to exercise the many insecurities men might feel about sex.

I'm not trying to suggest - any more than I would with Marilyn Monroe, or Kim Novak - that Dors was a potential actress, thwarted and often travestied by the picture business in which she found herself, a business which cast and directed her so that her lips, her bust, or her great cushion of blonde hair was the first thing you noticed about her. Dors went to RADA; she played Charlotte in David Lean's Oliver Twist (1948); and she had the occasional role - like the prison picture, Yield to the Night - where she had a chance to act. When, belatedly, she went to Hollywood, she had an affair with that monster of the Method, Rod Steiger. How one longs to hear their pillow talk about how they might be Lear and Cordelia - not that lifting Diana would ever have been easy.

In truth, and in respect for the weird thing we call movies, the NFT should have a corridor of Diana Dors pin-up pictures from the papers where her mouth sags open, a satin dress is about to slide clear of her great blancmange treats, or she is asked to register the dismay at being caught in her undies.

Dors represented that period between the end of the war and the coming of Lady Chatterley in paperback, a time when sexuality was naughty, repressed and fit to burst. Had she been 15 years younger, even in giggly British TV, she would have been something else - the Rubens-like earth mother that Joe Losey made of her in Steaming, and the overflowing come-on that she was in Jerzy Skolimowski's great and almost forgotten picture, Deep End, a title that does not seem to make the NFT season.

That corridor of newspaper stories would be more eloquent than the movies, and a time would come when Dors's real-life involvement with riff-raff was far more interesting than anything she could do on celluloid. Monroe operated on a more industrialised plane, and she was lucky enough to bump into the sardonic Billy Wilder who saw just how much fun he could have at her expense. And very early on, whatever she might protest to Lee Strasberg or Arthur Miller, Monroe learned that her money was in that wide-eyed look that said, "What did you mean by that?", when the explosion of the eyes also indicated that some beast was screwing her from the inside out.

Sex was never that epic in Britain. It stayed guilty, furtive, a subject more for nudging than caressing. And by the time Dors got to Hollywood, she was puffing up and filling out. It was also by then, the Sixties, an age in which nymphs, sylphs and college girls (looking like Jane Fonda or Mia Farrow) would drop their clothes without a second thought. Whereas, for Dors, those precious frilly undies were as vital as a pope's robes.

I mentioned Kim Novak earlier, and just as she never had it in her to be as "sexy" as Dors or Monroe, still Novak had the blind luck to find herself in a great role - the stooge woman (in every way a set-up and a ghost) who moves according to the fantasies of men. The role was in Vertigo, the director was Hitchcock; and for the best part of two hours Kim Novak is sublime cinema, being so natural, so shy, so edgy, that acting never came into it. It's possible that Dors could have triumphed if she had ever won such a part, but British films in that era never grasped the mainline to fantasy that was making movies throb. So the throbbing in Dors was comic, absurd, and nearly a malady.

Not that her tradition died. When Monty Python came along - so avant garde, so post-modern, so surreal - it was notable that those bright boys were as terrified of women, real women, as all the males in the Carry On films had been. So there were no women in Python sketches, except for the drag performances and the occasional appearance of a poppet in very few clothes. That "bird" was a kind of back-handed tribute to Diana Dors and I sometimes wish that Dors might have been given the part of Sybil in Fawlty Towers. Not that Prunella Scales was ever other than perfect. But Dors could have suggested the orgiastic nights that both terrified Basil and kept him in line.

Dors needed Billy Wilder, or Luis Buñuel: she could easily have played a matron at a British boys' school, who gave the various succulent parts of her body to the boys, to cuddle with at night. "Where's my left breast?" she might have said at breakfast, as a hubby like Alistair Sim went all dithery. So it's a wrecked career, and I suspect she was miserable about it a lot of the time, even if she'd been trained by parents who knew that if your name was Fluck you simply had to turn the other cheek. Still, as Diana might have said - "But, Dad, with my cheeks, you expect something more." But wait, there is one more great film she might have made. It's Buñuel, and it's That Obscure Object of Desire. This time, Rod Steiger is playing the Fernando Rey part and his twin dreams are two of the women who possessed Steiger in life: Diana Dors and Claire Bloom. That's beyond credibility, isn't it? Unless, as sisters, puritanism and prurience had a joke or two to share.

d.thomson@independent.co.uk

The Diana Dors season continues at the NFT, London SE1 (020 7928 3232), to the end of May

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