In Which We Open Diana Dors

Today we raise a glass (and our eyebrows) in the direction of sexy British starlet Diana Dors (Diana Mary Fluck, 1931-84). I find Dors to be a fascinating phenomenon. Sometimes I think of English show biz as a kind of parallel universe, where the landscape is similar to that of America but not quite identical. For example, England and America are two countries that have always maintained uneasy balances between prurience and Puritanism in different mixtures. Thus, though the U.S. is quite obsessed with sex, no one in the States is quite like Diana Dors, at least not until decades later and in fact on the couple of occasions when Dors tried to crack Hollywood she found it oddly resistant to her tabloid exploits. She was billed as the British Marilyn Monroe, but she was really more like a British Jayne Mansfield and THEN SOME. And yet one who occasionally acted in classical plays, because, ya know, British.

Though Dors has 100 screen credits over a nearly 40 year period, she appeared in only a handful of American films. But I’ve managed to see a few of the movies she was in, which might provide a representative glimpse of what films manage to cross the puddle. They include, David Lean’s Oliver Twist (1948), in which she naturally plays a supporting, pre-sex-symbol role, Berserk (1967) with Joan Crawford, There’s a Girl in My Soup (1970) with Peter Sellers and Goldie Hawn, Jaques Demy’s The Pied Piper (1972) with Jack Wild and Donovan, Theatre of Blood (1973) with Vincent Price and Diana Rigg, and the Amicus horror anthology film From Beyond the Grave (1974).

Dors was only 14 when she began studying at the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art, modeling on the side to earn her living. She was only 16 when she began getting bit parts in film in 1947. Within months producer J. Arthur Rank took her into his fold and began to build her up into a star. One of her first starring roles was in Diamond City (1949), a drama set in South Africa. During the filming, she became involved with Michael Caborn-Waterfield, the son of the Count Del-Colnaghi, who started the Ann Summers chain of sex shops. Still 18, she had the first of many illegal abortions at this time.

In 1951 Dors had a supporting role in Lady Godiva Rides Again, the cast of which included a young Joan Collins and Ruth Ellis, who was later hung for murder. This proved to be a turning point for Dors. She met a man named Dennis Hamilton Gittins (known as Dennis Hamilton), who was to become her husband, manager, agent, and, frankly, pimp. I haven’t been able to ascertain what he did PRIOR to his relationship with Dors, but it has been written that he was friends with the criminal Kray Twins. It was under Hamilton’s management that Dors became the platinum blonde sex object, and took the restraints off her colossal bossoms, which had been bound up in her earlier films. It has been charged that he dispatched her to casting couches. The written record is rife with testimony of their famous orgies, which Dors continued hosting ’til the end of her life, long after Hamilton was dead and buried. She became fodder for the tabloids. In 1953 she released the provocative single “I Feel So Mmmm”, backed with “A Kiss and a Cuddle”.

By 1956, she was deemed ready for Hollywood. For RKO, she-costarred in I Married a Woman with George Gobel. Her introduction to America got off to a rocky start when Hamilton punched a photographer at a publicity event attended by many of the top stars of the day. The Hollywood establishment was dead set against her from that day, and she never attained the Monroe/Mansfield status here that she had hoped, although she was in some more American films. Her next film was RKO’s The Unholy Wife (1957) with Rod Steiger, with whom she had an affair. She then returned to The Long Haul (1957), with Victor Mature, during which she had an affair with Mature’s stuntman Tommy Yeardye. She divorced Hamilton, and in the process discovered that he had put her in serious debt. In 1958 RKO cancelled her contract, claiming that she had “become an object of disgrace, obloquy, ill will and ridicule.” 

Dors then put on a London cabaret act, and hired comedian Richard Dawson as a writer and performer. The pair were married in 1959 and moved to the U.S., where she had two children. She performed in Las Vegas, and made the films On the Double (1961) with Danny Kaye, and King of the Roaring ’20s: The Story of Arnold Rothstein (1962) with David Jansen. Alfred Hitchcock was clearly a fan of the buxom blonde. He put her in two episodes of his TV series in 1961 and 1963. In 1961 Dors had a near death experience at a Guy Fawkes Day party, when some fireworks inside a house went off and four people were killed.

Dors hit a low point in the mid ’60s. She divorced Dawson and allowed him custody of their two children. Bankrupt, she supported herself with live performance and supporting roles in films. Though she was still popular — she’s one one of the people on the cover of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Heart’s Club Band. 

In 1968 she met actor Alan Lake on the set of the tv show The Inquisitors. The pair were married soon thereafter, although this did not exactly usher in a new period of stability. In 1970, Lake was sentenced to jail for his participation in a pub brawl. He served a year. In 1972 he broke his back when he fell off a horse, becoming briefly paralyzed. This led to a severe alcohol problem, which plagued the couple for years, as did health problems for Dors, although she did continue to appear on stage, screen, and records ’til the end of her days. The titles of many of her sex comedies from the ’70s are priceless: The Amorous Milkman (1975), A Man with a Maid (1975), Bedtime with Rosie (1975), What the Swedish Butler Saw (1975), Three for All (1976), and Keep It Up Downstairs (1976) are stand-outs. She was in a 1980 version of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde starring David Hemming. One famous late turn for her was a role as a fairy godmother in a 1981 Adam Ant video for his song “Prince Charming”. Her last film was Steaming (1985), in which she co-starred with Vanessa Redgrave and Sarah Miles. She also wrote four books: Swingin’ DorsFor Adults Only, Behind Closed Dors, Dors by Diana, and A. to Z. of Men.

Dors died of ovarian cancer in 1984. Five months after her death, Lake committed suicide with a shot gun. Their son, Jason Dors Lake, died just recently, in September, 2019.

Dors continues to thrill from beyond the grace. In 1982, she gave her son Mark Dawson a sheet of paper on which, she told him, was a code that would reveal the whereabouts of several million pounds, distributed in banks across Europe. Supposedly, Alan Lake had known the code, but took the secret with him when he died. The code has never been cracked.

To learn more about show biz history, please see No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous.