A star too daring for the editors

Britain's first film sex symbol, Chili Bouchier, shares memories of her 'up and down life' with Louise Jury
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SHE was dubbed the British "It" girl by a press delighted to have found a homegrown rival to America's Clara Bow: she was Britain's first sex symbol.

"Except we didn't use the word sex in those days. That's why it was the It girl," says Chili Bouchier.

Those days: the 1920s world of silent films. Bouchier, who starred in many of them and then went on to a successful career in the talkies, is the last of Britain's silent movie stars and now, with her life savings and the help of a cheque from John Paul Getty Jr, she is publishing her autobiography, at the age of 86.

Shooting Star shows her on the book's front cover posing bare-breasted in a still from the film Carnival, which in 1931 many papers considered too daring to print.

Now she is in pain from a hip injury after a fall, but in the small sitting- room of her council flat in St John's Wood, north London, she flutters her giant eyelashes over large dark-brown eyes with the charm and experience of a film studio professional.

"It's been a very up and down life," she says. She misses, naturally, the heady excitement of the Thirties, when she was one of Britain's leading ladies and mingled daily with Noel Coward, Ivor Novello and Gertrude Lawrence.

"It was the most glamorous era - glamorous people and glamorous places. There were no troubles for everybody in the films, we were all working flat out and we'd had the war to end all wars. The clothes were elegant and we were all happy. We were shining brightly.

"We didn't get money like they do now. Usually we were on contract and got a weekly wage. But we did all right. We worked very hard but it was terribly naughty behind the scenes. The only thing was the gentlemen of the press were gentlemen and didn't publish it."

In her book, Bouchier tells of a scandalous start to her career, a lost love, three marriages and two proposals from Howard Hughes, Hollywood mogul and eventually the world's most famous recluse - both of which she declined.

She began in silent films when she was 17. Sacked from her job as a model at Harrods after a fling with another staff member, she saw a newspaper advertisement promising: "We make film stars. Price three guineas."

She had "the time of my life" when she started. "I was so happy to be in films. Talkies were a greater challenge, a more interesting and grown- up profession, because an actor had to be an actor whereas in the silents the director would talk you through it with a megaphone and all you had to be was photogenic."

She made 13 silent and 45 talking pictures and was thrilled to be invited to a National Film Theatre showing of one of the earliest recently. It was, coincidentally, Shooting Stars.

Today's films, however, do not please. "They're so violent. They don't make stories about people and emotions like our pictures were. Now they're all dark.

"I wait until they come onto television and watch them, but I love the glossy Hollywood movies like Philadelphia Story."

She hated Hollywood and broke her contract to escape. But Bouchier laments the decline of the big-name actors. "Where are the big glamorous stars of today that were looked up to by millions? They were gods and goddesses in those days. The mystery is completely gone. Stars on television look as if they have come to pick up the garbage."

She still performs sometimes. Last year, she was persuaded to sing I'm Still Here with Michael Barrymore. "Afterwards I had lots of letters from people saying, 'We thought you were dead'."

Her great love was the big band leader Teddy Joyce. When they became engaged, other bands would stop and play his signature tune, The World Is Waiting for the Sunrise, if she entered a club. It will be one of her Desert Island discs when she records her selection with Sue Lawley tomorrow. But he died before they could marry.

Barrymore had reminded her of him. "He was such a crazy person, very tall and slender and full of mad antics," she recalls.

Her worst period was in the 1970s when her third husband, Bluey Hill, an assistant director who worked with Hollywood's biggest names, lost their fortune on a failed project to film the story of Rolls-Royce.

She took whatever work she could get, including a stint in The Mousetrap, but they lost the lease on their home of 23 years and moved into a council flat. Bluey died of cancer in 1986. Yet theirs was the happiest of her three marriages. "I think I chose a couple of wrong husbands," she laughs. The first was matinee idol Harry Milton and the second Peter de Greeff, an actor 12 years her junior.

"I'm a one-man girl, really. And I didn't just turn Howard Hughes down. I was already married."

n Shooting Star is available from Vine House Distribution, Waldenbury, Chailey, East Sussex BN8 4DR.