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There were two movie franchises guaranteed to have Britons glued to the telly in the 1970s: James Bond and Carry On. And whilst they entertained the nation in distinctly different ways, there was one actress who, uniquely, brought her own brand of sexy, sophisticated glamour to both.
Valerie Leon appeared in six of the 30 Carry On films made between 1958 and 1978 (not counting Carry On Columbus in 1992). She was also a Bond girl in two James Bond films, The Spy Who Loved Me in 1977 and Never Say Never Again in 1983.
And neither franchise, she reveals in a new book, was the hotbed of chauvinism and sexism the so-called “woke generation” would have us believe.
Quite the opposite. Valerie insists those 20th Century actors, whom modern society often views today, unfairly, as politically incorrect, were actually kind, respectful and chivalrous by nature.
Despite going on to star in some of Britain’s best-loved films and TV series, Valerie, who was born in north London, never thought she would become an actress. The woman who appeared regularly on screen with legends such as Michael Caine, Tony Curtis and Peter Sellers, as well as comedy heroes Norman Wisdom and Morecambe & Wise, actually started her working life in a department store.
“I was a very shy girl working as a trainee fashion buyer at Harrods,” she explains when The Daily Express meets her at a hotel in London, still her home town.
“But I was star-struck. I used to hang outside stage doors to collect autographs. I had two books full of them including Noël Coward’s, Rudolf Nureyev’s and Margot Fonteyn’s.”
Indeed, her entire career came about almost by accident.
“I went to singing lessons with a friend, just for fun,” Valerie continues. “Then I saw an ad in The Stage newspaper for chorus singers. To my surprise, I got the job and that led to a part on the West End stage in Funny Girl with Barbra Streisand and then as a film extra with Morecambe & Wise in That Riviera Touch.”
At 5’ 10” tall, Valerie towered head and shoulders above most of the other actresses and, as her career developed, it led to her being offered roles as a statuesque, intimidating beauty. She was labelled a “glamazon” by the press and even cast as a leather-clad, whip-wielding dominatrix in Revenge of the Pink Panther.
“I enjoyed being in charge,” she laughs. “In Carry On Up The Jungle, which is my favourite film, I loved playing Leda, the head of the all-female Lubby Dubby tribe. The rather skimpy costume I wore was made as a tribute to the one Racquel Welch wore in One Million Years B.C.”
By the 1970s, Valerie was an object of adoration for millions of British men and became the only Bond girl to dazzle two 007 actors – Sean Connery and Roger Moore.
She also starred with the latter in The Persuaders, The Saint, and The Wild Geese, along with Richard Burton and Richard Harris.
She and Moore developed a friendship based on their close working relationship but it was purely platonic, according to Valerie. She does reveal with a glint in her eye, however, that he stole an unscripted kiss from her on an episode of The Persuaders he directed.
“And if anyone asks me who I prefer, Connery or Moore,” she confides. “I always say Roger. He was such a lovely warm man… and an excellent kisser!”
Valerie appeared in six Carry On films: Carry On Up The Khyber, Camping, Again Doctor, Up The Jungle, Matron, and Girls.
In 1977’s The Spy Who Loved Me, she played a flirtatious receptionist who makes a big impression on Roger Moore’s 007 when he checks into a Sardinian hotel.
Informing him that she has a message for him, Moore raises his eyebrows and tells her: “I think you just delivered it!”
Six years later, in another Bond film, Never Say Never Again, she reels in Sean Connery while fishing off the Bahamas and lands him in her bed. It was actually the first bedroom scene of Valerie’s career and she spent the entire morning beneath the sheets with Connery, perfecting it for the cameras. “When his wife dropped by in the afternoon to watch us film, he couldn’t get out of bed fast enough!” she reveals
As Valerie said last year: “A Bond Girl is forever! It doesn’t matter if you have a small cameo role or are the leading lady, you are forever known the world over as a Bond girl.”
Her Carry On co-star Sid James was not blessed with the handsome looks of either Bond actor. “A face like a rumpled bed,” is how Valerie jokingly refers to him. “But he was a lovely man.”
Contrary to his on-screen persona as a lecherous predator, always chasing after girls much younger than himself, Valerie says the real-life Sid, like many of the Carry On team, was an absolute gentleman. His only real vice was gambling, she adds.
“Sid loved to bet on everything and anything, even on whether I’d be invited back after my first Carry On film, Up the Khyber. When I saw him on the set of Carry On Camping, he said to me: ‘I knew you’d be back’. He’d bet on me and won!”
Valerie says Sid was also quick to defend his female colleagues against the casual misogyny that was rife back then.
“A load of industry bigwigs came on set one day and one of them was… how can I put this?” She pauses… “not behaving correctly with a young girl who worked there. So Sid came over, warned them off, and then made sure she was alright. He was a lovely man, he really was.”
Although many of those Carry On films appear to be raucous, even anarchic, Valerie insists this wasn’t the case. “They were made on a tight budget and they liked to get the takes done very quickly,” she says.
Producer Peter Rogers had a reputation for being miserly and Valerie gives an example of just how much of a shoestring the films were made on: “The cast got really excited about Carry On Abroad because they thought it meant they would be going to Spain to film.
“But what did Rogers do? He brought lorry-loads of sand into Pinewood Studios and spread it all over the car park. And that was their beach; that was the Spanish resort of Elsbels!”
The lack of exotic locations – even the scenes set in the Sahara Desert, in the 14th Carry On film, Follow that Camel, were filmed at Camber Sands, in Sussex — didn’t hinder the success of the movies which earned a fortune for the studio.
Valerie explains that, in the beginning, the producers offered the cast a percentage of the profits rather than a fee, but nobody took it up. “They obviously lived to regret it,” she adds.
Tight budgets aside, Valerie has nothing but fond memories of her time with the Carry On team. She is puzzled by some of the current negativity surrounding the films.
“What’s so funny is that it’s not considered acceptable today but it’s still so very much loved. And not just by people of a certain age.”
Nowadays she helps with guided tours of Carry On filming locations. “When I do the tours, families come with children who are now adults and have been brought up on the films,” she says proudly.
Caroline Frost, author of Carry on Regardless, a new book on the famous film franchise, is one of those people. “Like everybody from my generation, we grew up with them on the TV,” she tells The Daily Express. “They were the televisual equivalent of comfort food.
“But, as a self-respecting feminist, when I started the research for the book, I was thoroughly expecting to be offended. I went in armed and looking for offence, misogyny and bigotry in all the forms we’ve come to expect of a lot of humour from that era… and I just couldn’t find it. They’re mischievous but not offensive or nasty.”
She admits the material is very era-defining. “But, taken together, it offers this lovely social portrait of a changing society.”
Frost explains how the Carry On writers and producers had a keen eye for the social change of the 1960s and 1970s. “The changing role of women also featured within those films,” she adds. “The women were whip smart [literally, in Valerie’s case!], and they did it so lightly. That’s where the genius lay for me.”
Dick Fiddy, archivist at the British Film Institute offers further proof of how clever the franchise was. “The Carry On films start at a time in cinema which is really strong for British comedy,” he says. “The Second World War is over and the deference that a lot of people had for institutions has been worn away.”
He explains how the film franchise tended to satirise the pomposity of people in charge rather than the institutions it was based around.
The very first Carry On film, for example, was called Carry on Sergeant, a comedy about National Service.
“It isn’t anti-Army, it’s just anti the antics of some of the officers,” Fiddy says. “It showed how recruits were up against it from the very start.
“A lot of viewers would have had experience of being called up, so there was a real resonance. It was an incredibly finger-on-the-pulse kind of film at the time that a lot of people could relate to. So with the next ones – Carry On Nurse, Teacher and Constable – they’ve hit upon a winning formula.”
However, as Fiddy reflects: “When the films were made, they were contemporary. Now they’re period pieces. And we look at them with that affection we have for period pieces. They reflect a Britain and a set of attitudes that are long gone.”
Long gone they may be, but there’s still a lot of love out there for the films that made us carry on smiling through those decades. Valerie, now in her seventies, says she loves them now more than ever. And she still possesses the charm to disarm a double-oh agent.
Interview concluded, this screen siren who lured James Bond into bed and whipped the Pink Panther into shape, offers up a kiss.
What would the most famous actors of the Carry On cast, sadly no longer with us, think of that? Kenneth Williams would no doubt raise his eyebrows and purse his lips in that disdainful way of his. Sid James would cackle his gravelly laugh. And dear old Babs Windsor would of course offer up a saucy wink and a naughty giggle. “Ooh, cheeky!”
- Carry On Regardless: Getting To The Bottom Of Britain’s Favourite Comedy Films by Caroline Frost (Pen & Sword, £20) is out now. Guided Carry On tours, as well as merchandise such as Valerie’s 2023 calendar, are available at valerieleon.com
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