Britain’s top glamour girl of the 1950s remembered.
When you think of the blonde bombshell glamour girls of the 1950s and 1960s, you might think of Marilyn Monroe, Jayne Mansfield, Mamie Van Doren, and perhaps Diana Dors. But for a few years, there was another woman who was just as well known, at least in Britain, and she went by one name – Sabrina. Not to be confused with the equally voluptuous Italian star of a few decades later, Sabrina was both the butt of jokes and the stuff of furtive fantasy, and she exploited her talents – which were meagre beyond the physical – for all she was worth.
born Norma Ann Sykes in Stockport in 1936, she moved to London as a sixteen-year-old and made money waitressing before being snapped up as a topless model for photographer Russell Gay (later to publish Knave and Fiesta). Either the BBC didn’t know about these scandalous glamour shoots or didn’t care, because in 1955, the ambitious nineteen-year-old got her big break, hired as a dolly bird stooge for comedian Arthur Askey on his TV show Before Your Very Eyes. Her 42-inch bosom and 19-inch waist made her an immediate sensation with viewers – male viewers at least, and although she wasn’t required to do very much other than stand around looking glamorous (in the great tradition of sexy girls and bumbling, unattractive male comedians), she was soon a household name. Comedians joked about her (the Goons seemed to have a particular obsession), front-heavy vehicles and aircraft were nicknamed ‘Sabrinas’ in reference to her and the newspapers couldn’t get enough of her.
Walton Films cashed in on her notoriety with a pair of 8mm glamour films – At Home with Sabrina and Goodnight with Sabrina, both of which were rather more tease than strip – while she takes a bubble bath in the latter, there is nothing even resembling nudity involved, and viewers would have had to use their imagination to fill in what they’d hoped to see (and no doubt many did). By this point in her career, nudity was a thing of the past for Sabrina, though she had arguably already peaked as a star.
She had made three feature films by the end of the decade, though her appearances in 1955’s Stock Car and 1956’s Ramsbottom Rides Again were not exactly leading roles, and by Blue Murder at St Trinians in 1957, she was reduced to a brief non-speaking role – though her fame was such that her name still appeared on the poster. After a cameo as herself in the Askey film Make Mine a Million in 1959, she upped sticks and headed for Hollywood, where a busty blonde glamour girl might have more opportunity.
Her career didn’t exactly blossom after this move, though she did make her best film, the unforgettable kinky exploitation classic Satan in High Heels, in 1962. Here, she played a supporting role as an uber-bitchy version of herself, and does a pretty good job of it – she’s not exactly a Shakespearean actress, but you could imagine that there was a good career in exploitation ahead of her. But times were a-changin’, and it’s possible that her reluctance to take her clothes off was increasingly going to be a problem for her. Or perhaps there were simply too many busty blonde bombshells in Hollywood for her to really stand out.
Whatever the reason, her film career continued to stumble along unconvincingly. She played an unnamed belly-dancing witch in the bizarre House of the Black Death in 1965 and had a better role in the lacklustre 1969 film The Ice House. In 1970, she was second-billed to Troy Donohoe in Albert Zugsmith’s western The Phantom Gunslinger, but by this time, the lure of acting seems to have been wearing thin. She’d married a gynaecologist in 1967 and seems to have settled down into domestic bliss – at least until 1977, when she got divorced. She lived out her days in relative obscurity, only surfacing to threaten legal action against the Daily Mail after it claimed that she was living in poverty. After some years of back pain due in part to a failed surgery, she died, aged 80, in 2016. By then, she was forgotten by all but the most dedicated of glamour enthusiasts. But her career – as brief as it was – is a fascinating one, and she deserves to be remembered as Britain’s impressive answer to the Hollywood glamour girls of her era.