Vera Day, A Kid For Two Farthings
Vera Day knows horror when she sees it. In more than sixty years of movie acting she has been strangled by a gurning Boris Karloff, infected by the alien contagion of Quatermass II and involved in the writhing pseudopodia of The Woman-Eater (tagline: “SEE THE WOMAN EATER ENSNARE THE BEAUTIES OF TWO CONTINENTS!”) She survived all these terrifying experiences to give a grandstanding speech on the rules of poker in Guy Ritchie’s gangster flick Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels. It’s one of the most memorable moments in the picture, and she did it in one take.
Vera, like her contemporary, Barbara Windsor, is a product of that post-war moment in which an unmistakably East London accent was no longer a bar to being a movie glamour girl. Other blonde bombshells of the period had to mind their language: Diana Dors submerged any trace of Swindon under a sassy transatlantic drawl; the Stockport-born Sabrina had to be content with stooging silently beside the comedian Arthur Askey. (Although the fan mags declared that the 1955 trackside melodrama Stock Car would be the first to allow audiences to hear her speak, the producers broke the deal, and dubbed her.) But nobody silenced or elocuted Vera Day. She sounded like a girl from Forest Gate. Triumphantly, she still does.
“Every girl was a glamour girl in those days, whether she was blonde, brunette or redhead,” she reflects. “It was obligatory to have the 37-22-24.” She traces the hour-glass shape in the air. I suspect the same calculations were made by Jack Hylton, the band-leader and impresario who plucked her from a hairdressing salon and put her into a show at the London Hippodrome – and by the movie director Val Guest, who first put her on the big screen in Dance Little Lady (1954).
She soon became one of British cinema’s most prolific showbiz blondes. At the 1955 Royal Variety Show she shared the bill with Morecambe and Wise, Gracie Fields and Alma Cogan. She spent a season crooning for the diners at the Edmundo Ros supper club on Regent Street – and much longer performing live TV dramas and comedies. (“By raising an eyebrow,” said The Times of Vera’s turn in the title role of The Red-Headed Blonde, “she can put down an opponent as if with a feather dipped in acid.”) The film work also came briskly. In Too Many Crooks (1959) she’s the moll in a gang of thieves led by George Cole and Sid James – in one brilliant scene, she stuffs fistfuls of stolen banknotes down the front of her dress, as a distracted Terry-Thomas attempts to yank them out again. In Fun at St Fanny’s (1956), she is a conniving actress who infiltrates a private school attended by a very little Ronnie Corbett and the agreeably horse-faced comic Cardew Robinson. In A Kid for Two Farthings (1955), Carol Reed’s strange symbolist drama set among the stalls and shops of Fashion Street, she fights Diana Dors for the attentions of an East End bodybuilder. Reed, Vera recalls, would instruct actors by performing the lines himself. “It was strange, watching him being me, and then Primo Carnera, this huge Italian wrestler.”
The press took an interest in her, too. Picture Show reported, quite erroneously, that she had been injured in a car crash on the way to the Danziger studios. (A merciful deliverance if it had happened, given the quality of Danziger productions.) The Mirror asserted, more accurately, that a German film company had offered her a £15,000 contract to play a stripper. (“It’s one thing to give them rocket bases,” they thundered, “but that’s no reason for Vera to show Deutschland Alles.”) Her separation from her first husband, a Charles Atlas model and masseur called Arthur Mason, attracted the attention of the gossip columnists – as did the details of his brushes with the law. While they were married, however, the copy was good: “Given a couple of extra inches all round,” exclaimed the Daily Mirror in April 1960, ‘Miss Day (husband Arthur Mason) might begin to challenge Miss Monroe (husband Arthur Miller)”
Mason wasn’t much of a Miller. But Vera did survive a skirmish with Marilyn Monroe. She had a small part in The Prince and the Showgirl (1957), and Monroe saw to it that it was as small as possible. “Marilyn insisted I wore a brown wig,” she remembers. “I’m a blonde and she didn’t want any competition at all.” But an attempt to sabotage her costume seems to have backfired. “Marilyn had this one white dress to wear which if you’ve seen the film you’ll know was very figure-hugging. One day the designer Beatrice Dawson called me to say they were making me a new dress. This dress when I got it clung to me like I couldn’t tell you. It was flesh-coloured and it looked as if I was nude. It was a dynamite dress. And I walked on that set and she nearly had a heart attack.”
Vera Day is now in her late seventies. I am pleased to report that she remains resolutely, furiously, ineluctably blonde.
Vera Day (left) with rival blonde Dian Dors (right) in A Kid for Two Farthings.
Carol Reed’s film of Wolf Mankowitz’s novel was filmed on location in Spitalfields in 1954.
Vera Day in 2006
portrait of Vera Day copyright © Definitive Images
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