Today (February 18) in London History – the birth of British celebrity culture

Modern British celebrity culture was born on February 18th, 1955. This Today in London History podcast tells the story.


The difference a day can make. From Cholera yesterday to the birth of modern British celebrity culture today. The year is 1955. The date is February 18th. The venue is Arthur Askey’s BBC television show, Before Your Very Eyes.

Here’s the money quote: ‘If you want to see the first face of modern British celebrity culture you have to go back to the evening of 18 February 1955 and comedian Arthur Askey’s BBC television series Before Your Very Eyes. That night millions of viewers saw something they’d never seen before: television’s first sex symbol in action.” The speaker was movie critic Cosmo Landesman.

He was talking about glamour model and variety performer Norma Sykes, better known as Sabrina.

In the words of Arthur Askey, who discovered her and launched her “career” – if career’s the word – “she could not act, sing, dance, or even walk properly.”

What she did have was a 41-inch bust. And a 17-inch waist. And 36-inch hips.

The show made Sabrina and her bust an overnight sensation. 

In the words of a BBC official, “Sabrina is a wonder of our time which makes us absolutely terrified of the power of television. Whoever heard of anyone being a screaming success for doing nothing?”

Yes, take a bow, celebrity culture.

Within a month of her appearance on Before Your Very Eyes she’d accumulated more than 500 press cuttings and was receiving 1,000 fan letters a week.

Her agent was cockney Joe Matthews. He was London-quick. Had an eye to the main chance. Practically overnight he turned her into what today would perhaps be called an “influencer.” She was promoting products left, right and centre. She was presented with a yellow and white Chevrolet with the registration number S-41, which was, needless to say, her bra size. (It’s nothing if not obvious, celebrity culture.)

She opened a shop in Sheffield. 4,000 people turned up to see her. Or see them. Chaos ensued.

She was in cinema newsreels. She was at film premieres. Her signed pin-up photographs were in hot demand. Her breasts were insured for £100,000. If they became smaller the policy paid out an agreed amount. In no time at all her “stage name” – Sabrina –  became a euphemism for breasts. RAF aircrews of the era labelled the shell case collectors on either side of the fuselage of the Hawker Hunter jet ‘Sabrinas’ owing to their resemblance to her most famous assets.

She went global. She was big in Australia. When she arrived in Perth 10,000 fans caused part of the airport roof to collapse.

Inevitably – this almost goes without saying – she ended up in Hollywood. 

Had a couple of minor film roles. Was more in demand on, shall we say, a personal level. As her Times obituarist delicately put it, she was generous with her affections. 

In the last analysis, Sabrina was, as Philip Hensher put it, “a symbol of opulent sex.” 

Or if you prefer, a symbol of feminine perfection for millions of young men. In the words of her biographer, Roger Mellor, she made a lasting impression on a whole generation. She was the teddy boys’ favourite pin-up. 

She claimed her bust and figure were “nature’s own handiwork.” She used no steel corsets or surgically enhanced lips, busts, or bottoms. 

A website devoted to her memory states: “her life is a fascinating farrago of fact, fantasy, photos, films, fiction, failures, fantastic feats and fabricated fables.”

So where’d Sabrina come from? The name came from the 1954 Audrey Hepburn film. 

Norma – let’s get her into focus before she became Sabrina – was born in Stockport, up Manchester way. She was born in 1936.

She was precocious physically – in a different way – when she was a kid. Was a good swimmer. Was winning competitions. Had plans to swim the English Channel. Fell ill. Rheumatic fever and polio. Had long periods of hospitalisation. Had to wear callipers. It was all for the good. Or so she thought. She credited her bust size to the bodybuilding exercises they gave her.

In 1952, she came down to London. To King’s Cross. Worked as a waitress. It wasn’t long before she was spotted. Photographers wanted her to pose. She obliged. She appeared as the cover girl on the men’s magazine Blighty.

She always agreed to pose topless. She bedecked decks of playing cards.

And enter Arthur Askey. He’d spotted her magazine picture. He said, “I hit on the idea of having a dumb blonde around the set. We held auditions for a suitable dumb-cluck and found one in Norma Sykes. It didn’t matter that she couldn’t act, sing, dance or even walk properly. All she had to do was be there on the set – preferably in profile – and simper and giggle at Askey’s sexist jokes about her 41-17-36 figure. 

It was a British version of what had been going for a year or two on the other side of the Atlantic. In the words of her biographer, the buxom dumb blonde was a cliche of 1950s US popular culture, personified by Jayne Mansfield in the film The Girl Can’t Help It.

Anything else? Yes, Sabrina had a bad back.

Anyway, so there we are. February 18th, the day celebrity culture came ashore in Britain.

Inevitably that happened in London. All changed, changed – better be careful how I pronounce this – changed utterly. The place never looked back. Nor did the phenomenon. The culture – with just a little bit of griping in certain quarters – was happy to make room for it.

 Good night from London.


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