Looking back at the career of one of British cinema’s most iconic glamour girls.
It’s probably fair to say that they just don’t make them like Margaret Nolan any more. While she had rivals like Valerie Leon, I think that Nolan was the epitome of 1960s and 1970s glamour – the sort of voluptuous, pouting sex bomb that struck men with both lust and terror, as can be seen in many of her movie appearances where she is both an object of desire and so intimidatingly sexual that wimpy men would cower before her – as happens in No Sex Please, We’re British, where she and Leon appear as a formidable pairing of sexpots to terrorise Ronnie Corbett.
While Leon developed her dominatrix vibe to perfection in the Hi-Karate ads, Margaret Nolan was intimidating to men simply by virtue of being far sexier than anyone had a right to be. And she managed to juggle two sides of the male fantasy figure of the era – the empty-headed dolly bird (her character in Carry On at Your Convenience is actually called Popsy!) and the voracious man eater – sometimes simultaneously. her movie career mixed small parts as background totty (as in Witchfinder General, where she is ‘girl in Inn’) to bigger supporting roles in the Carry On films – in Carry On Girls, she’s the model in the too-small silver bikini that we are supposed to believe also fitted Barbara Windsor – and other comedies, where she would be the sex appeal (in The Great St Trinian’s Train Robbery, we first see her performing a striptease). Her most famous turn might be in Goldfinger, where she had a small role in the main film but also provided the gold-painted torso for the opening titles and the film poster leading to a 1965 Playboy shoot.
Nolan would be a familiar face – and, if we are fair, familiar body – in British film and TV throughout the 1960s and into the mid-Seventies, when her career began to slow down – such is the fate of the glamour girl, alas. She also had a solid stage career, and here’s the thing – she wasn’t just hired to look sexy. Nolan could actually act, and had an innate comic timing, even if she was essentially a stooge for lecherous and sexist comedians. You always felt that she was in on the gag, having fun at the fact that she could turn grown men to jelly with a glance. And she clearly had fun with her own image, knowing how to play with it and satirise it.
Before the mainstream films, Margaret Nolan was better known as Vicky Kennedy, nude glamour model for photographers like George Harrison Marks, who featured her in both his Kamera magazine and his 8mm nudie films. The Nolan nudes are – as you can see below – extraordinary, a tribute to both Harrison Marks’ instinctive awareness of light, shade and sensuality and her physical presence. A lot of early Sixties glamour imagery has a dated feel – nothing wrong with that, of course – as much because the models look very much of their time as anything; the Nolan images look remarkably modern. She also appeared as Vicky Kennedy in 1963 nudist film It’s a Bare, Bare World, before reverting to her real name as her mainstream career took off. In later years, she was both dismissive and – perhaps inevitably – revisionist about her modelling career, which she claimed only lasted for a year, but frankly, there is nothing to be embarrassed about.
After retiring from acting, Nolan became a serious and acclaimed visual artist – freed from her own image to finally be taken seriously as more than just a glamour girl, her work often deconstructed her own publicity photographs and was seen as a study of “socio-sexual hierarchies in the age of mass media”, as one exhibition press release put it. Nolan was, you suspected, a reluctant cult movie icon – less inclined to the convention circuit than many of her contemporaries and bitingly dismissive of the Carry On films in particular. Yet she remains one of the most immediately recognisable faces of the era, as much an iconic part of British pop culture as any of the people – from Bond to the Beatles – that she worked with.
Margaret Nolan died, aged 76, on October 5th 2020.
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