Pete Townshend's 1966 hit song, Pictures of Lily, was later described by him as 'a simple ditty about masturbation,' but it's much more than that. The Lily of the title is Lillie Langtry, an Edwardian actress and pin-up girl whose photo helped teenage Pete sleep at night and had once performed the same service for his dad. 'Pictures of Lily made my life so wonderful,' Pete tells us in the song, but when he asks where he can find her in real life, the old man says 'she's been dead since 1929,' and Pete cries all night. These days, looking at pin-ups of sixties actresses gives you the same feeling of devastation that such beauties were doomed to fade.
The job-description 'actress' isn't just a euphemism for 'slag' here - far from it. For a pin-up to be truly sexy in the sixties she had to be serious – Diana Rigg trained at the Royal Shakespeare Company before playing Emma Peel in the Avengers – and the voice issuing from those slightly parted paper lips, always on the point of whispering your name, well, it had to be posh and a little bit disapproving.
Some of the hottest sixties pics you can find in nostalgia shops are Spotlight Photos, those prim 8x10 black and white repros that agents sent out to casting directors. Head and shoulders shots of Julie Christie, Susan Hampshire, Susannah York - school prefect types named after venerable auction houses and English counties, models of big-sisterly poise with tantalising hints of heaviness along the line of their lashes.
Then there were the cheeky ones like Sarah Miles and Fenella Fielding, 'the mistress of the double entendre.' Check out Fielding's perky-haired casting pics then see her in a long black wig as the self-combusting femme fatale in Carry on Screaming. Her shiver-inducing, 'Do you mind if I smoke?’ has become a YouTube classic.
Being a piece of posh totty belonging to some high-achieving bloke remained absolutely acceptable for brainy women right up to the start of the seventies, after which they were expected to do the achieving themselves.
As an 'Actress', you were guaranteed imagination in sixties woman, and just the right amount of rebellion. It meant she knew how to break out of her convent education - and to do that she had to have had a convent education in the first place, like Marianne Faithful - then help you elaborate your fantasy of a leather-suited Girl on A Motorcycle if your image of yourself is French film star Alain Delon or, if you are Mick Jagger, a smack-shooting coke-snorting hippie savant and dab hand at filling your Cheyne Walk mansion with Moroccan/Elizabethan chic whilst modelling lacy, minstrely, cheesecloth tops that show off your tits.
Being a piece of posh totty belonging to some high-achieving bloke remained absolutely acceptable for brainy women right up to the start of the seventies, after which they were expected to do the achieving themselves. The great woman behind the great man has had a bad rep since then, but when Charles II shacked up with actress Nell Gwyn he was extending the restoration of his monarchy to an entire art form that had been banned under the puritans. Nell was, in her own right, 'an extraordinary comic talent,' according to accounts at the time.
In the sixties, actresses got a lot of mileage out of playing historical figures, reminding an unstable present that the past is far from fixed. Gorgeous, foul-mouthed Sarah Miles was the fantasy-come-to-life of aging actors Laurence Olivier and Robert Mitchum and a young Steven Spielberg. She also contrived, by the magic of cinema, to be Lord Byron's lover in the movie Lady Caroline Lamb (1972). Most famous for describing the poet as 'Mad, bad and dangerous to know,' after their first meeting, Lamb became obsessed with Byron and chased him all over London when he broke things off.
When Miles played Lamb, she gave us, at the dawn of seventies feminism, the prototype of a figure that has become all too familiar in its long strange dusk - the sexual fantasy that steps down from her frame and stalks the viewer.
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