Now I know exactly how James Bond felt in the 1964 film Goldfinger when Honor Blackman introduces her character to Sean Connery with the immortal line, ‘My name is Pussy Galore.’ ‘I must be dreaming,’ says Bond, dazed.
Honor is giving a masterclass in seduction during our photoshoot, working the camera like the star she is. Sheathed in a clinging gold-sequined number, she drapes herself languorously over various pieces of furniture in the London mansion where we’re shooting.
‘So where do you want me next?’ she purrs to the photographer in that honey-coated voice. Like 007, the men in the room are hypnotised.
We shouldn’t be surprised, of course, given her history as the seminal Bond girl Pussy Galore and leather-clad alpha female Cathy Gale in The Avengers. Except that in August she will be 90, for heaven’s sake! Possibly the oldest working grandmother in the business.
Sex appeal beyond 60
She’s proof that sex appeal is something that can’t be taught or sculpted by a surgeon. A dry wit (‘Light me so I don’t look 105’) mingled with a hint of toughness and a dash of self-deprecation only add to the allure.
‘I’ve never had any work done,’ she says. ‘I’ve been blessed with good bone structure and that doesn’t change. But look at the wrinkles!’ I’m looking and they’re scarce. Her thick hair is styled in her trademark long bob and those slender curves are intact. The only concession to her age is an occasional unsteadiness on her feet, due to a dodgy knee and scoliosis (a legacy of her judo moves in The Avengers), which has also taken an inch off her height. Nevertheless, when the photographer feels she has worked hard enough, she insists on keeping shooting.
Honor has returned to work to guest star in the UKTV Gold channel’s You, Me & Them, playing the deliciously mischievous mother of actor Anthony Head. In the sitcom, she descends on her son and his girlfriend unannounced, having been threatened with eviction from her retirement home after setting off the fire alarm while smoking a joint. She delivers one-liners that seem tailor-made for her: ‘Non-alcoholic wine? You might as well have a sex-free orgy!’
She was last seen on TV a couple of years ago, guest-starring in Casualty and the drama series By Any Means, but says she is officially retired.
‘I know I’m still working, but I am going to take that cookery course soon. It’s one of those things. Someone sends you a script and you think, “Why are you sending me this? I’m retired for goodness sake!” Then you read it, think it might be fun, and off you go again. It’s ridiculous.
‘The hilarious thing is when I arrived on set, one of the crew asked me if I wanted a hoist to get around! I’d told them I didn’t want to do stairs, but I meant on camera, not just getting about the place. That made me laugh.’ Hesitating, she asks, ‘So I was all right in it?’
Surely she doesn’t need to ask after a career spanning more than 60 years, during which she’s been voted one of the sexiest film stars in the world and hailed as the English Garbo?
‘I never considered myself a sex symbol,’ she says, surprisingly. ‘I hate watching myself. I’ve only seen Goldfinger twice: once at the premiere and once at the 50th anniversary. I’ve turned down parts in the past because they required a sexy woman and I didn’t think that was me. I always wanted to play the secretary. I know, it’s extraordinary, but it’s the truth.’
Surely she’s aware of possessing that rare quality among actresses – that men want to bed her and women want to be her? She laughs and rolls her eyes. ‘When I did The Avengers, I assumed I’d get male fan mail, especially as there was leather involved. But I got much more from women saying, “Go on, good on you”. They found Cathy empowering and that was great.’
Honor’s refusal to acknowledge her allure may owe a lot to her strict upbringing. She was born in Plaistow, a deprived area of East London. Her father Frederick was a First World War veteran and disenchanted statistician in the Civil Service, determined his four children would make something of their lives. Her mother Edith’s idea of a compliment was telling her she’d ‘pass in a crowd’.
‘My father was a real East Ender with a cockney accent, which didn’t belong in the Civil Service. He constantly pushed us to be better, was a disciplinarian and would whack us quite a bit, sometimes with his thick army belt, which you got on the bare bottom. It was par for the course in those days. My mother was warm, but downtrodden and afraid of my father because he could be so violent. She gave in to everything because she wanted a quiet life. But I loved my father and he’s the reason that I succeeded.’
Famously, for her 16th birthday she chose elocution lessons over a bicycle.After encouragement from her elocution teacher Irene Cockin, she enrolled in lunchtime classes at the Guildhall School of Music & Drama, which she funded by working as a clerical assistant in the Civil Service.
‘I never really belonged, because all the other students were so posh. It’s still the same today, isn’t it? There’s that debate going on now about how the industry is dominated by posh actors like Benedict Cumberbatch. But I suppose if you have talent, they have to accept you, whatever your background. I’ve always felt an outsider really. Father was great in one way, wanting you to get on, but he also thought everyone who had a private-school education was better than we were. I felt I couldn’t win.’
Her father doggedly scoured The Stage newspaper for auditions and at 18 she made her stage debut, understudying the lead role in a West End play. She then became a Rank starlet, with movie roles alongside Dirk Bogarde and Diana Dors. But she was derailed by her disastrous first marriage, to businessman Bill Sankey, 12 years her senior.
First marriage disaster
‘I married someone like my father and I was happy to do that at first. But I chose very badly. He was so jealous and got furious if I spoke to another man. Life was a nightmare. He wanted us to emigrate to Canada. I didn’t want to go, but I gave in and went for a year. I later realised why he wanted to go in such a hurry, because he was cheating in business…’
The marriage ended after eight years (not before he’d cleaned her out financially) and left its mark: she had a nervous breakdown that resulted in a hospital stay.
By the time she married her second husband, actor Maurice Kaufman, in 1961, her career was back on track and peaked the year after when she won the role of Cathy Gale. Two years later she took on Pussy Galore – she was 39 and then the oldest actress to play a Bond Girl.
‘When you’re faced with Sean Connery it’s a great test,’ she laughs. ‘Of course I fancied Sean, he was the sexiest man I’ve ever met. He was Mr Universe, with a body to die for, had those twinkly eyes and was great fun.’
So just to clarify…
‘Yes, if I hadn’t been married, I would have gone there.’
The role she most longed for, however, was that of mother. She and Maurice could not have children together but adopted two babies, Lottie and Barnaby, a year apart. ‘My marriage to Maurice was more successful – but not that much more,’ she laughs.
They divorced in 1975 but remained friends until his death in 1997. ‘Maurice had stomach cancer for 13 years. I would have topped myself, because his quality of life was so poor, but he got on with it. There was no one else who was caring for him and you can’t watch someone you’ve once loved go to pieces like that and not be there. And of course the children loved him dearly.
‘He continued to work and our friend Albert Finney was so kind and gave him the role of his understudy in a play. But then during a theatre tour Maurice went into hospital. I visited all the time. He never came out,’ she explains, her eyes misting over.
Honor has never remarried and has often stated that cohabitation never suited her, a sentiment she still sticks to. ‘People can’t understand it. Basically I’m a shy person and I like my own company. I couldn’t bear to be with someone now. I do exactly what I want to do, when I want to do it. I’ve always been like that… you’re only hindered by husbands!’
She’s had other hindrances, notably falling victim to the Equitable Life pension scandal, which depleted her funds by half. Looking critically at a Damien Hirst work on the wall of the house in which we’re meeting (‘He’s a very good publicist…’), there is a sadness behind her disdain. ‘I had some paintings that were worth quite a bit, but they’re in museums now. I was forced to sell them.’ She now spearheads the campaign for full compensation for fellow victims. The subject is changed.
Having coped with these financial difficulties, and a brush with breast cancer a decade ago treated successfully, she’s not going to let a little thing like age get in her way. ‘My children are afraid I’ll start forgetting things, and want me to go and live with them in Sussex. I said I’d let them know when I can’t manage. Now they’re worried I won’t know when I get to that point. I think it’ll be noticeable,’ she laughs drily.
Would she consider turning up on their doorstep like her new TV character? ‘Not to save my life – I don’t think it would do their relationships any good. Besides, I tell them I couldn’t live without my own private bathroom.’ They needn’t worry, because this indefatigable woman shows absolutely no sign of slowing down.
A lifelong Liberal and a republican (she turned down a CBE, not wanting to be a hypocrite), she is watching the run-up to next month’s election. Has she ever been tempted to stand?
‘I’ve been asked many times, but I’m not smart enough.’ (That self-deprecation again.) ‘And you want to believe that the candidates want to do well for the country, but the moment they get in, they’re whipped into shape. So what is the point of it all?’
Her 90th birthday will be spent at the family home in Spain, drinking champagne and revelling in the company of her four grandchildren (two boys and two girls aged between 9 and 11). Not having experienced childbirth herself, she was thrilled when her daughter asked her to be present at the birth of her two.
‘What kind of grandmother am I? A very old one! I didn’t adopt my children until I was around 40 and they didn’t have children until they were in their thirties. When I played the grandmother in [Nineties sitcom] The Upper Hand, I wasn’t a grandmother in real life and I thought grandparents were bloody boring about their grandchildren. Now I’m bloody boring about mine.’
She is also, of course, a very glamorous grandmother. But decades of being asked about the secret to her ‘enduring looks’ make her eyes glaze over. She puts it down to her mother’s good genes. ‘My grandchildren don’t care what I look like. What they love is for me to read to them. I’ve always done it and I love nothing more. The kids are all so close and it’s lovely to see them together. I find it so comforting to know they’re going to be close mates for ever.’
She smiles wistfully. ‘I hope their parents instill in them the value of a real relationship, which has to include sex otherwise there’s not much point. But that’s just part of it. You have to be a friend, able to laugh with each other and to have an emotional connection. Everything is in your face these days – if you fancy someone, you’re in bed within half an hour.’
As a parting shot, I ask why she’s never committed her fascinating life to paper. ‘I’ve been approached a million times to write a book, but unless you tell the entire truth there’s no point in doing it. And I’m not prepared to tell the entire truth. There’s lots of my life that I want to keep back because I have children. Although they should know the worst, and they probably do.’
Suddenly, she leans in close. ‘Now, promise me you’re not going to write anything about my family that would hurt them… or I will come after you,’ she says in full Cathy Gale mode, only half-jokingly.
I tell her I wouldn’t dare, seeing as she’s a national treasure. She howls with laughter.
‘A national treasure? I don’t think I’ll get over that.’
Read more about Honor Blackman on her Wikipedia here
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