In the first of what is hoped to be a series of collaborations with new British musicals created for the stage at the BFI, Battersea Bardot brings the story of actress Carol White to life in the person of versatile singer/actress Lizzii Hills. The title comes from the nickname given to her by the media, equating her with the French sexpot actress of the late 1950s.
Carol White (1943-1991) was born in Putney, Hammersmith, the daughter of a scrapyard merchant. Starting in talent contests as a child, she had her first uncredited film role at the age of eight (in Kind Hearts and Coronets), and her first credited film role in Circus Friends in 1956. Her peak years were between 1966 (the year she starred in the television film directed by Ken Loach, Cathy Comes Home) and 1969 (when she tried to make it in Hollywood, and her career floundered as she became “just another blonde”).
It’s New Year’s Eve 1969 when we first meet Carol in Battersea Bardot, after a brief opener with the emergency call which prefigured her death at the age of 48. She’s drinking heavily and waiting for the arrival of her American producer boyfriend Paul (presumably Paul Burke, an actor whose wife did indeed attempt suicide because of her husband’s affair with White) to the posh London suburban home she has hardly lived in.
Through Ewen Moore’s songs and passages of dialogue, we find Carol White’s life and loves dissected and presented through her own vodka-sodden reminisces. The dreams of success, the early marriage (to one-time pop singer Mike King, father of her two children), the first film roles, the wild promiscuity which led her to throw herself at multiple men in positions of power, the fame which came too quickly and faded all too soon.
The men in her life seem to define Carol: her father, who called her “his pocket Venus”; her uncle who had rough hands and stale breath; her husband (only one mentioned, she had three in her short life); the relationships with Peter Sellers, Adam Faith, Oliver Reed (she spiked his drink in a Putney launderette, and mentions him a lot), Frank Sinatra; the producer who signed her to a Hollywood contract then cancelled it when her films started to fail. There is no mention of her mother, or female co-stars, or friends. Even her children are both male, appearing with her in Cathy Come Home.
Moore’s songs are catchy enough, from the title Battersea Bardot through to slow pieces reflecting on “the summer I spent with Sinatra” and upbeat songs like the one about the Peter Pan talent contest. Lizzii Hills resembles White in passing, and she makes the actress both likeable and pathetic, especially when the story reveals stories of abuse and mistreatment, hidden under a veneer of “the queen of 1969”. A thirst for fame led White to make poor business decisions and leave the husband and children she loved, for the bright lights of Tinseltown and Vegas, and the lure of money.
There are moments of honesty in the narrative that reveal the naivete behind the girl who has now been largely forgotten, or left as a footnote in British movie history. On Cathy Come Home, “after Ken [Loach] called cut, I was still shaking”; on Never Let Go (“I had three male co-stars, and I slept with all of them”); on Paul (“did I know he was married? yes, but so was I. It was what you did, part of the game”); on her own personality (“they called me the wild one”).
Some facts have been tweaked for dramatic effect – she did not really take much of a break from films to have her children, and a nine-year gap between films alluded to removes what I think was one of her best (if difficult) roles in The Squeeze from the narrative. It’s also unclear whether Frank Sinatra would have really wanted to marry a second woman thirty years his junior so soon after seperating from Mia Farrow, so this “best time in her life” may have been a bit of wish-fulfillment.
Ralph Bogard directed this ninety-minute piece, in which composer Moore accompanied Hills, whose superlative performance (she never leaves the stage) brought one of the quintessential faces of 1960s London back to life. I left humming some of the songs and wanting to search through my DVD collection to reacquaint myself with many of White’s performances.
There’s a quirky ending, too, in which 1969 Carol watches as the ashes of 1991 Carol are brought back to England by parcel post on a plane, and child Carol watches from her father’s scrapyard where she waves to the jets passing overhead. This is almost a frame from a film, itself, and brings us full circle, marrying the stage show we have just experienced with the woman visible on the screen in her 51 credits (including Poor Cow, I’ll Never Forget What’s-Is-Name, The Fixer, Dulcima, and Made).
The journey for this show is just beginning, and I hope to see it further down the line when it becomes largely in scale and scope. Battersea Bardot was performed at the Studio at BFI Southbank on 29 November, as part of the BFI Musicals season.