Mention of Honor Blackman’s name will bring smiles to faces of movie enthusiasts

‘I never considered myself a sex symbol’, James Bond, The Avengers actor once said

Sean Connery and Honor Blackman filming a scene for Goldfinger at Pinewood Studios in Buckinghamshire in 1964. Photograph: PA/PA Wire

Sean Connery and Honor Blackman filming a scene for Goldfinger at Pinewood Studios in Buckinghamshire in 1964. Photograph: PA/PA Wire

 

Some may be surprised to learn that Honor Blackman, who has died in Sussex, attained the great age of 94. A key avatar of the glamorous 1960s, she was halfway through her forties by the close of that decade.

Defying a sexist convention that has dragged down the age of James Bond’s love interest throughout the series, Blackman had a full five years on Sean Connery, her co-star in the still-irresistible Goldfinger (1964).

Today’s moguls may wish to sit up and notice. In catsuit and gold lamé, hoarse vowels darkening her delivery, she was a living embodiment of Britain’s escape from rationing and post-war malaise.

The process kicked off with her performance as Cathy Gale in the deliciously camp TV series The Avengers. By the close of the decade, she was on the way to becoming a national treasure.

'I’ve turned down parts in the past because they required a sexy woman and I didn’t think that was me'

Blackman was born into an ordinary family from Plaistow in East London. “My father was a real East Ender with a cockney accent, which didn’t belong in the Civil Service,” Blackman later said. She went to grammar school in Ealing and then on to The Guildhall School of Music and Drama.

“I never really belonged, because all the other students were so posh,” she said. Blackman had a busy 1950s, but didn’t quite become a top-drawer star. She was among those getting wet opposite Kenneth More in A Night to Remember (1958), the best film about The Titanic. She endured Norman Wisdom in The Square Peg (1959).

It was, however, The Avengers that really established her with the British public.

Honor Blackman: ‘I’ve only seen Goldfinger twice: once at the premiere and once at the 50th anniversary’. Photograph: Silver Screen Collection/Getty
Honor Blackman: ‘I’ve only seen Goldfinger twice: once at the premiere and once at the 50th anniversary’. Photograph: Silver Screen Collection/Getty

Of her time

Only TV historians now remember the first series with Ian Hendry as Patrick Macnee’s partner in the fight against international evil. Blackman arrived in the second season to establish the odd anti-sexual chemistry - Macnee’s John Steed always skewed gay - that, despite her replacement, endured until 1969 and the end of the groovy aeon.

Diana Rigg and Linda Thorson succeeded Blackman in the assistant’s role. Blackman and Macnee had a hit single in 1964 with the memorable novelty song Kinky Boots (which lives on as the title of an admired film and Tony-winning musical).

The show was only modestly successful in the US, but Pussy Galore, Blackman’s outrageous character in Goldfinger, made her a star throughout the world. It hardly needs to be said that Pussy (the name alone!) was very much of her time.

The aviator’s lesbianism is less explicit than in Ian Fleming’s source novel, but there is no escaping the implication that Bond’s aggressive sexuality has the power to convert her from a forbidden inclination. He literally flings her into the hay before rolling in it.

Honor was an actor of hugely prolific creative talent; with an extraordinary combination of beauty, brains and physical prowess

“I never considered myself a sex symbol,” she later told Saga magazine. “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.”

Blackman couldn’t quite maintain that level of stardom into the succeeding decade, but she remained an adorable presence in TV and film. She was terrific as a grand theatre actress - and murderer of course - in Dagger of the Mind, an episode of Columbo that saw Peter Falk’s crumpled detective holidaying in London. She had a role in Doctor Who.

She can be seen opposite Christopher Lee and a young Nastassja Kinski in Hammer’s Dennis Wheatley adaptation To the Devil a Daughter. In the current century, she brought class to projects such as Bridget Jones’s Diary and Cockneys vs Zombies. As recently as 2013, she took a role in the BBC’s indestructible Casualty.

Family’s tribute

Fired up by her early experiences as a working-class girl struggling against upper-class prejudice, she remained politically engaged throughout her life. Originally a member of the Liberal Party, she stayed loyal to the Liberal Democrats in later life and was forthright about her old chum Sean Connery’s status as a tax exile.

“I disapprove of him strongly now,” she said. “Because I don’t think you should accept a title from a country and then pay absolutely no tax towards it. He wants it both ways. I don’t think his principles are very high.”

A republican, she declined a CBE in 2002.

Twice married - her second divorce was back in 1975 - Honor Blackman is survived by two children and four grandchildren. Confirming her death (and clarifying that it was unrelated to coronavirus), her family played moving tribute.

“As well as being a much-adored mother and grandmother, Honor was an actor of hugely prolific creative talent; with an extraordinary combination of beauty, brains and physical prowess,” the statement read.

The very mention of her name will bring a smile to movie enthusiasts over a certain age.

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