Obituary: Honor Blackman

Honor Blackman Image copyright Getty Images

Honor Blackman was the original feisty, black-clad female agent in The Avengers.

It made her a role model for an emerging generation of women and an object of desire for their men.

Her characters were both sexy and intelligent and more than a match for their male co-stars.

She was often compared to Marlene Dietrich and Greta Garbo, although one cannot imagine them throwing villains around like her Avengers character, Cathy Gale.

Honor Blackman was born into a lower middle class family in Plaistow, east London, on 22 August 1925.

Her father offered her a choice of presents for her 16th birthday; a bicycle or elocution lessons. She chose the latter.

She described her elocution teacher as an inspirational woman who introduced her to poetry and the theatre and who advised her father to enrol her in the Guildhall School of Music and Drama.

Image caption She served as a dispatch rider during World War Two

She studied part time while holding down a clerical job in the Home Office, and, with war raging, also worked as a motor cycle dispatch rider.

Her first acting job was as an understudy in a West End play called The Guinea Pig, and, when the lead actress became ill, she was asked to step in.

Further theatre roles followed before she made her film debut in Fame is the Spur, starring Michael Redgrave. Her character dies following a riding accident, a fate she narrowly avoided in real life when, during filming, her horse stepped on her hair as she lay on the ground.

In the early 1950s, British cinema was dominated by the Rank Organisation and Blackman joined their Company of Youth, set up to promote up-and-coming actors and actresses.

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Dubbed The Charm School by the press, it nurtured the careers of, among others, Diana Dors, Joan Collins, Christopher Lee and Anthony Steele.

Over the next 10 years she appeared in a string of British films including A Night to Remember, which told the story of the Titanic disaster, and So Long at the Fair, with Dirk Bogarde.

She moved into television with a role in ITV's The Four Just Men which was transmitted in 1959.

Image copyright Ronald Grant Archive
Image caption Cathy Gale became something of a role model for a new generation of women

In 1961 the producers of the TV series, The Avengers, were looking for a new partner for Patrick Macnee, to replace his original co-star, Ian Hendry, who had decided to quit the series.

Blackman's new character, Cathy Gale, became something of an icon for the growing numbers of women who were taking advantage of social changes to assert their rights to equality in British life.

Cathy Gale showed that women could have it all. She was intelligent and witty, had her own life and career and, with her skills in unarmed combat, was capable of holding her own in a melee.

As the series developed, Blackman skilfully used flirting and innuendo to create an unspoken sexual tension between Mrs Gale and Steed, although they were never intimate.

Seduced

During her time with The Avengers, Blackman and Macnee recorded a single, Kinky Boots, which became a surprise hit when it was re-released in 1990, leading to an appearance on Top of the Pops.

Blackman stayed with The Avengers for two series but quit when she was offered the part of Pussy Galore opposite Sean Connery in a new James Bond film, Goldfinger.

The legendary Bond producer, Albert R Broccoli, cast her on the basis of her appearance in The Avengers, despite the fact the series had not aired in the US.

Image copyright Ronald Grant Archive
Image caption The role of Pussy Galore in Goldfinger brought her to a world-wide audience

"The Brits would love her because they knew her as Mrs Gale," he said. "The Yanks would like her because she was so good, it was a perfect combination".

The film watered down Ian Fleming's original character but, nevertheless, Blackman's Pussy Galore combined all the best characteristics of Cathy Gale, although she was eventually seduced by the womanising Bond in the final scenes.

At 39, Blackman was actually five years older than Sean Connery and, at the time, the oldest actress ever to play a Bond girl.

"Most of the Bond girls have been bimbos," she once said. "I have never been a bimbo."

Rave reviews

While Goldfinger made her internationally known, it failed to provide a springboard for her film career. By now, she was 40, and producers tended to overlook her undoubted skills in favour of younger actresses.

In an interview in 2009, she deplored the lack of good roles for older women.

"We have all these older men with their guts hanging out still acting - they can barely put their belts round their stomach so have to belt up round their crotch - and they all carry on getting roles and are accepted and praised, whereas older women are given rather boring parts or are cut off at their prime."

Image caption The BBC's Hotel Babylon provided her with one of many cameo appearances

She appeared in a number of films, including the western Shalako, again with Connery, and the DH Lawrence tale, The Virgin and the Gypsy but none of them achieved major success.

She did, however, do better in the theatre, particularly in musicals. She was in the 1981 stage revival of The Sound of Music, which starred Petula Clark and opened to rave reviews. She also appeared in A Little Night Music, On Your Toes and Nunsense.

In 2005 she toured as Mrs Higgins, in a production of My Fair Lady, before taking over from Sheila Hancock in a West End production of Cabaret.

Blackman also returned to television including a part in the 1986 Doctor Who series, The Trial of a Time Lord, alongside Colin Baker. She also won a new generation of fans when she played Laura West in the long running ITV sitcom, The Upper Hand.

She had a brief spell as the glamorous Rula Romanoff in Coronation Street in 2004 and made a number of cameo appearances including a part in John Malkovich's black comedy film Colour Me Kubrick in 2005 and the glitzy BBC series, Hotel Babylon, in 2009.

She also toured a number of one-woman shows entitled, Honor Blackman as Herself.

Away from the set Blackman was a supporter of Republic, an anti-monarchy pressure group and was alleged to have turned down the offer of a CBE in 2002. She was also active in politics as a high profile member of the Liberal Democrats.

She was married and divorced twice, to Bill Sankey and Maurice Kaufmann and had two children with the latter.

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