Dors keep swingin’

The ever-glam Diana Dors circa early 1980s

As Britain’s best-loved blonde bombshell of the post-War era, Diana Dors is as synonymous with mid-50s’ glamour as a pink Cadillac.  But the former Rank starlet was much, much more than just a buxom pin-up.  With an astonishing ability to reinvent herself and move with the times, the 60s and 70s saw Diana develop into one of the UK’s most respected character actresses with gritty stage and TV roles, a chat show, several books and even a spell as a GMTV agony aunt to her credit.  In the wake of a recent showcase hosted by the BFI and DVD releases of some her early work, one of the tragedies of Diana’s death at the age of fifty-two is that she never lived to see the recognition her work is now receiving.

'Swingin' Dors': originally released in 1960

One of the albums in the Pye vaults that piqued my interest most was Swingin’ Dors.  Recorded by Diana Dors at the height of her UK television show’s popularity and produced and arranged by Wally Stott as was, the long-player had been released on sumptuous red vinyl with an innovative gatefold sleeve; a truly no-expenses-spared affair that echoed the glamour of the Swindon starlet.  By the time I joined Castle Music (Pye Records’ erstwhile custodian) in the late 1990s, Swingin’ Dors had become a collector’s item, and although there had been sporadic reissues these were invariably low budget cheapies or bootlegs, with little or no attempt made to replicate the deluxe feel of the original.  A long-time fan of Diana, it became a personal goal to see the release reissued in all its glory but it would take nearly ten years for this to come about.

One afternoon in April 2007, I took a call from a colleague in the Royalties department.

“Do you know anything about Diana Dors?”

Tentatively I replied, “yes… ish … how can I help?”

“Well, we’ve had a call from her nephew…”

“Nephew…?  Do you mean her son..?  Was the chap’s name Jason, by any chance?”

“Yes, that’s right!  Listen, I’ve got a number for him – could you possibly give him a call?”

“What’s it regarding?”

“It seems a Japanese label has released her album and he was wondering if we’d licensed it to them.”

“No… not us. I’d better call him.”

In fact I didn’t phone Jason until the following Friday, but in a curious way the delay proved to be auspicious.  Jason Dors Lake is Diana’s son by her third husband actor Alan Lake and, along with many other people’s, my heart had gone out to him when his mother died from cancer in 1984.  The double blow of the loss of his father some six months later was incomprehensibly tragic.  More recently I had seen him on television in Channel 4’s 2003 documentary Who Got Diana Dors’ Millions? Having watched the programme, clearly it hadn’t been Jason and much of the mystery surrounding the late star’s estate and “missing” assets continues to rattle on, seemingly with no  solution.  It was for this very reason that Castle Music had previously chosen not to release Swingin’ Dors because of the lack of paperwork and any easy means of contacting Diana’s estate…

With his ready sense of humour, Jason and I quickly established a rapport over the phone.  I explained the chances of him slapping a “cease and desist” on the offending label were slim, ostensibly because the record had been on sale for some time and because it was a bootleg, there’d be no easy way of tracing those responsible.  As we talked, a germ of an idea began to form.  Given he was the rightful beneficiary of Diana’s estate and in the absence of any third party claims (of which there had been none), were Jason willing to grant Castle Music a license, then perhaps together we could create a legitimate release – one of which we could all be proud, packaged properly in its original format and promoted with his full endorsement?  Neither of us needed much encouragement to pursue this idea and as we said our goodbyes, he added, “I’m so glad you rang.  I was feeling pretty low today… it’s the anniversary of my mother’s death and I was just thinking, ‘come on, Mum, send us a lucky break’ and the phone rang.  I wasn’t going to pick up but I’m pleased I did.” As he spoke, my arms began to quiver with goose bumps.

Within in a few weeks a deal had been thrashed out and I was on my way to meet Jason at his home on the sunny Kent coast.  Tall, good-looking and instantly recognisable as the son of his famous parents, it’s fair to say we got on like a house on a fire.  Sitting on the deck, with the waves lapping the shore and a chilled glass of rosé, we spent the afternoon going through what few mementos he’d been able to retrieve prior to the sale of the family home Orchard Manor in Berkshire.  We even came across Diana’s first husband Dennis Hamilton’s driving license complete with speeding endorsements!  Over the years, fan and collector Paul Sullivan, who runs the official Diana Dors web site, has furnished Jason with copies of photographs and other memorabilia, but even so it was sad to see just how few personal photos Jason had.  Over the coming months and thanks in no small part to Paul, who gave freely both of his time and his archive, the project began to take shape.  Uncanny coincidences also began to unfold.

Diana's Cadillac convertible is on the left (Photo courtesy of Alex Szczepanski)

Speaking to my brother about the release, it transpired that in the early 1950s our recently widowed grandmother, then living in leafy Putney, had put her house on the market and that Diana and Dennis Hamilton had been to view it.  An authority on classic cars, he also told me that in the 1970s he’d been offered a powder blue Cadillac previously owned by Diana Dors.  At the time he’d declined, as he was more into pared down SoCal hot-rods than gas-guzzling showboats.  A few years later, he caught sight of said Caddy languishing in a West London breakers yard and had the presence of mind to document it for posterity (above right).  I was relieved to discover that the car had since been salvaged, fully restored and is now leading a life of ease befitting its former owner cruising the highways and byways not of Swindon but Sweden!

Diana relaxes in her dressing room

Powered by industrial quantities of Twinings Rose Pouchong, Dan Rosen took the design reins and with his painstaking eye for detail the album was replicated as close to the original as possible but with the added bonus of a memorabilia-laden LP-sized booklet.  Including an essay by Paul and with contributions from Malcolm Baumgart and Diana’s friend singer Billie Davis, many previously unseen photographs were also featured, notably candid shots of Diana relaxing in Cannes and reclining on the beach with her dogs.   As well as the vinyl edition, Swingin’ Dors was also made available as a CD digipack complete with the split gatefold cover and a dinky CD-sized booklet.  All in all, the pair looked splendid and as the October 23rd release date drew near, we began to circulate review copies to the music press.  Given the project had first been mooted on the anniversary of her passing it seemed appropriate that its release was to fall on what would have been Diana’s 76th birthday, although that was more by accident than design.

Ooh la la! Diana performs in Las Vegas

The music on Swingin’ Dors was something of a revelation to me.  Wally Stott’s superb orchestral arrangements combined with a great song selection and Diana’s understated vocals make for a sophisticated yet light-hearted listen.  Her warmth and down-to-earth personality shine through and it’s easy to see why, in her later years, she became such a hit on chat shows and panel games.  I was genuinely surprised at just how good the album is and judging by its lavish wrapping, extravagant by 1960’s standards, clearly Pye had had high expectations, too.  Given Diana had made several well-publicised motion pictures in Hollywood, Swingin’ Dors also saw release in the US on Columbia Records and in many other overseas territories including Mexico.  With its suggestive feel ‘Roller Coaster Blues’ is the perfect vehicle for the pouty star’s intimate style, and on ‘Come By Sunday’ her tongue-in-cheek humour really comes to the fore.  In the wake of the reissue’s limited release, club deejays lucky enough to find a copy were reputedly spinning tracks for retro sophisticates and at the time remixes of some were mooted.

Perhaps not surprisingly, there was to be a further twist in the tale.  In August we learned that the Sanctuary Group (who’d acquired Castle Music in 2000) had themselves been bought by the Universal Music Group.  Overnight the company was plunged into uncertainty and with it, the release schedule.  No-one had any answers and those that did were keeping schtum.  Phones rang off their hooks, speculation was rife and morale plummeted.  With impending redundancy looming, our production team worked valiantly to ensure that parts were sent out to manufacture before the shutters came down.  After all the effort that had gone into this release in particular, we couldn’t believe the rug was being pulled from underneath us.   With some trepidation, I informed Jason.  Miraculously, both the vinyl and CD releases came in on time and were delivered to our distributor.  Initial orders had been promising and reviews glowing but with so much doubt surrounding the label’s future, retail customers found it nigh impossible to get hold of stock and  ultimately both formats sold in minimal quantity.

That September I left Sanctuary’s employ where I had worked as a label manager and latterly a consultant on and off for almost ten years.  It seems ironic that of all the releases I had most wanted to get my teeth into, Swingin’ Dors was to prove my swansong for the label.  So tonight, on what would have been her 79th birthday, I am raising a glass in honour of Diana and slipping Swingin’ Dors on the deck.

With grateful thanks to Jason Dors Lake, Marcella Trowell, Paul Sullivan and Dan Rosen.

One of my favourites: Diana on the set of 'The Unholy Wife' (1957)

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2 Responses to Dors keep swingin’

  1. Jason Dors Lake says:

    Thank you for posting this, it made my day. Jason x

  2. Mike Halls says:

    A good read Sam x.

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