Honor Blackman obituary: a new-model leading lady

From the leather-clad crusader of The Avengers to James Bond’s feistiest female foil, Honor Blackman kicked away the cobwebs of British screen femininity in the 1960s.

22 August 1925–5 April 2020.

Josephine Botting

Honor Blackman

Honor Blackman
Credit: BFI National Archive

British television audiences had never seen anything like it when the character of Cathy Gale first appeared in the ABC series The Avengers on 29 September 1962. Judo-throwing villains while clad in skin-tight leather, Mrs Gale, as played by Honor Blackman, ushered in a new era of attractive yet tough and uncompromising female characters. These were women competing with men on an equal footing who, in the words of programme producer Leonard White, “could repair the tractor and deliver a baby”.

Thankfully, Gale was rarely required to do anything quite so mundane in the series, which Blackman appeared in for the next two years, making 52 episodes. Its huge popularity was due in part to the on-screen chemistry between her and co-star Patrick Macnee, the crime fighting pair engaging in witty banter peppered with double entendres. Blackman was instrumental in shaping her character, suggesting judo should be Gale’s weapon of choice and sporting her figure-hugging costumes with a panache that appealed to men and women alike.

It was the force of her personality that won her the role in The Avengers, something she had had little opportunity to demonstrate in her screen career to date. From a brief non-speaking part in the feature Fame is the Spur (1947) she quickly graduated to more substantial roles and joined Rank’s ‘Company of Youth’, leading to what she termed a catalogue of ‘wet’ parts. These included a Yorkshire lass cycling round the dales in A Boy, a Girl and a Bike (1949 – rentable on BFI Player) and a local reporter investigating smuggling in Green Grow the Rushes (1951 – free to watch on BFI Player).

Blackman between John McCallum and Patrick Holt in A Boy, a Girl and a Bike

Blackman between John McCallum and Patrick Holt in A Boy, a Girl and a Bike
Credit: BFI National Archive

Blackman in Green Grow the Rushes

Blackman in Green Grow the Rushes
Credit: BFI National Archive

Amidst this decidedly cosy fare she was seen in a few offbeat titles, though never as the ‘bad girl’: she saw off Siobhan McKenna’s homicidal nymphomaniac in Daughter of Darkness (1948) and Diana Dors’s roistering saloon keeper in Diamond City (1949).

Blackman (left) with Anne Crawford and Siobhan McKenna in Daughter of Darkness

Blackman (left) with Anne Crawford and Siobhan McKenna in Daughter of Darkness
Credit: BFI National Archive

Blackman (left) with Diana Dors and Andrew Crawford in Diamond City

Blackman (left) with Diana Dors and Andrew Crawford in Diamond City
Credit: BFI National Archive

Later in the 1950s, television offered more interesting challenges, including confronting a range of social problems in The Probation Officer and assisting Dan Dailey’s character in the Basil Dearden-produced Edgar Wallace series The Four Just Men (both 1959). However, she had to wait until her late 30s before landing the defining role of her career.

The Probation Officer (1959)

The Probation Officer (1959)
Credit: BFI National Archive

Blackman was born in Plaistow, East London on 22 August 1925, but her aspirational father soon moved the family to the more leafy suburbs west of the capital. A working-class man, he had worked his way up to a white collar job in the civil service and Blackman credited her success to his influence. He brought up his son and three daughters as equals and instilled in them the importance of ambition and hard work.

He was also a great believer that proper diction was the key to self-improvement and paid for her to have elocution lessons as a teenager. She embraced the training, taking acting classes and winning prizes for poetry reading; in fact, her rich, sultry voice and measured, precise delivery were a key element of her appeal.

Something of a tomboy, she did her bit during the war as a despatch rider and the police motorcycle trainers nicknamed her ‘Top Gear Tessie’ due to her love of speed. In 1946 she married a much older man who was jealous and domineering and the couple moved to Canada in 1951, interrupting her career. The marriage soon broke down, and so did she, spending time in a psychiatric hospital.

Blackman with Norman Wisdom in The Square Peg

Blackman with Norman Wisdom in The Square Peg
Credit: BFI National Archive

Regaining the ground she’d lost was tough, but she managed to re-establish herself through work with Ealing and Hammer, as well as smaller film producers and on television. She briefly returned to Rank in 1958, as a passenger on the Titanic in A Night to Remember and the love interest in Norman Wisdom army comedy The Square Peg, but the company was well past its heyday and the parts dried up. By the time The Avengers came along, Blackman had remarried, this time to actor Maurice Kaufman, with whom she adopted two children in the late 1960s.

Blackman on the set of The Avengers

Blackman on the set of The Avengers
Credit: BFI National Archive

The fame she achieved as Cathy Gale led to the film role for which she’s best remembed: Pussy Galore in the third James Bond film Goldfinger (1964). As the pilot for arch-villain Auric Goldfinger her judo training came in handy and she added another skill to her CV, taking flying lessons at Biggin Hill. She was aware that, as written in Ian Fleming’s book, her character was a lesbian and she used this to inflect her performance, though obviously that didn’t stop her from rolling in the hay with Sean Connery. Many fans of the franchise regard her as the best Bond girl and she brought a natural intelligence and wry humour to her performance.

Blackman with Sean Connery in Goldfinger

Blackman with Sean Connery in Goldfinger
Credit: BFI National Archive

Eon had signed her up to a five-year contract but her subsequent film career failed to live up to its promise, with distinguished roles such as the Goddess Hera in Jason and the Argonauts (1963) giving way to less prestigious features. Adventure films like the western Shalako (again with Connery) and smuggling drama A Twist of Sand (both 1968) furthered her range of strong female characters but did little to raise her profile.

Blackman with her adopted daughter on the set of Shalako

Blackman with her adopted daughter on the set of Shalako
Credit: BFI National Archive

Blackman turned 40 in 1965 and though she was still strikingly attractive and remarkably well-preserved this was an era when youth was in vogue and few available screen roles played to her strengths. She had released an album of pop songs in 1964 and musical theatre was soon added to her stage credits, which burgeoned through the 1970s and 1980s alongside occasional features and guest appearances in series such as Minder and Doctor Who. She declared herself retired several times but the arrival of a script on her doormat would usually tempt her back to work, as long as it sounded ‘fun’. One such script was for ITV sitcom The Upper Hand, which ran for six years from 1990 to 1996 and brought Blackman new fame as a glamorous man-eating grandmother.

A headline in the 1960s described Blackman as “the permissive society’s first sex goddess” and she was certainly in the vanguard of female stars who weren’t afraid to express their sexuality while demanding equality with men. A person of considerable integrity, she was frank and held strong ideals, taking part in several political protests and turning down the CBE she was offered in 2002 due to her republican beliefs.

She also declined requests to write her memoirs, regarding the truth as too outrageous to print, though she toured the UK with a one-woman show about her life. In a career spanning 70 years she did everything from Cabaret to Coronation Street, but will be remembered best for her screen portrayals of strong-willed, indomitable women: characters very much like herself.  

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