"Beauty queens belong to an era when everyone was sweet and lovely and nobody did anything wrong," said Tracy Dodds in Hannah Berryman's film about the heyday of the beauty contest. The remark turned out to be not quite as ingenuous as it sounded. Dodds was commenting sardonically on her own unexpectedly short possession of the Miss Great Britain title, which she relinquished when it emerged that she'd posed for topless shots before the contest. But the first time you encountered it, in the opening sequence to Wonderland: I Was Once a Beauty Queen, it was also undercut by a coincidence that Berryman surely couldn't have predicted when she made her film. As Dodds recalled her first steps on the road to beauty pageant glory – her parents had written to her school saying she'd got tonsillitis so that she could enter Miss New Brighton – you saw an image of the local newspaper reporting on her subsequent victory. And the celebrity giving her a congratulatory peck on the cheek looked uncannily like Jimmy Savile. Beauty contests were primetime family entertainment back in the Seventies, but I bet there were some backstage angles from which they didn't look anything like as cheesily guileless.
You really didn't get more than the faintest hint of such undercurrents in Berryman's film. She specialises instead in long-distance recollection, often beginning with a moment of minor celebrity and then tracing the ways in which those lives unfold later. She made a memorable film about what had happened to the children who helped make Pink Floyd's "Another Brick in the Wall" video, for example, and another in which she followed the lives of five county types who'd featured as Deb of the Month in Country Life. In theory, this film offered a natural extension to the franchise, finding out whether titles that were boosted as a passport to a life of glamour had actually delivered on the promise. In practice, it turned out to be a little disappointing, offering stories that offered no common theme besides the fact that most people get a little wiser as they get older.
It was useful to be reminded of how casual the discriminations against women were. "Your ambition is to be a bank manageress," one dinner-jacketed presenter said to Carolyn Moore (Miss Great Britain 1971). "I didn't know there were any such things." Carolyn's destiny, diverted from the checking counter in Nantwich, instead went by way of the Playboy Club in Park Lane (modelling jobs turned out to be a bit thin on the ground once her "reign" was over) to what looked like a very smart house not a stone's throw away, where she lived with her husband of 35 years. Della Dolan (Miss UK 1982) had also ended up with her childhood sweetheart, though not before fulfilling her regal obligations to the tabloid press by having an affair with a footballer. Two other beauty queens had ended up living alone, though not particularly unhappily by the look of it, while Tracy Dodds now shares a house with her daughter, who does glamour modelling and has just taken part in Miss Liverpool. And it was hard not to feel that their lives wouldn't have been massively different if they'd never worn the tiara and the winner's sash.
The main burden of The Great Train Robbery was that it wasn't a great train robbery after all. The thieves were violent and aggressive, their plan to hide out in a local farm was essentially flawed and they later let an innocent man die in jail because they couldn't be bothered to exonerate him. This suited me because I've always had an allergy to the mythologising of that event. But it's possible that some of the original train robbers who gave interviews here may feel they've been fitted up when they see the finished product. Interesting to see Charmian Biggs for real, though, after five weeks of Sheridan Smith's version.Reuse content