Valerie Leon: From Harrods to Hammer

There was a time you simply couldn’t avoid Valerie Leon, even, for whatever nebulous reason, if you tried to. Her frequent TV roles included stints on THE SAINT, THE PERSUADERS, SPACE 1999 and THE AVENGERS. Film assignments oscillated from pratfall comedy to action-adventure. Leon’s public persona further increased as a result of her visibility in a landmark ad campaign for Hai Karate aftershave (one whiff and sultry Leon falls for a wimp, who has no choice but to fend-off her passionate advances with kung-fu fightin’). Her golden era bridged two decades, the swingin’ ’60s and sex-obsessed ’70s; it’s a pampered period that Leon recounts with both bewilderment and a tinge of wistfulness. “When I look back, I realize how lucky I was then. You couldn’t have the same kind of career today. It took a while for me to suss out, but I created that sexy image and it paid off for me. The Hai Karate ads were extraordinary because they were only shown at Christmas and ran for six years, but they made such an impact that I became known as “the Hai Karate girl”.

But the image was still a few years from crystallization when the stage struck Leon, then a trainee fashion buyer for Harrods department store, joined actress Eleanor Bron to croon some Christmas carols. “We got chatting and I told her how much I enjoyed singing,” recalls Leon. “She recommended I go to her teacher for lessons, and I was hooked. I started reading The Stage newspaper, and answered an advertisement for a chorus line job with a touring company of BELLE OF NEW YORK. I played truant from work and went to audition. Incredibly, I got the job and, to this day, I have no idea why. Okay, I was pretty, but I stuck out like a sore thumb as I was at least a foot taller than the rest. My height has always singled me out as I’m just under 5 feet, 11 inches without shoes.”

Leon ditched her Harrods job to pursue her theatrical dreams, but was devastated when the tour was cancelled after only eight weeks. Upon applying for a position as the D’Oyly Carte Opera Company’s dresser, Leon contracted Central Casting for lucrative extra work. “I did quite a lot of crowd scenes and, after a while, began getting picked-out for the odd line or two in the comedies THE SANDWICH MAN and THAT RIVIERA TOUCH.” Leon was back on the boards in 1966; performing as a showgirl in Barbra Streisand’s London production of FUNNY GIRL, she vocalized a couple of stage lines. “You know,” Leon smiles, “I was really green. I had a fairly repressed upbringing. I didn’t really live when I was young. It was the ’60s, but I was never part of that scene. I’m a bit. sad about that now.”

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Nevertheless, Leon’s parents endorsed her burgeoning career: “My mother went to RADA (Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts) and would have loved to have been an actress, but she chose marriage instead. My father must have been proud of me. Although I entered the business just before he died, one birthday he engaged a press cuttings service for me as a present. That showed me he had a tremendous amount of faith in me, though I didn’t receive much publicity around this time.”

Leon was a beneficiary of the hype generated by Streisand’s London premiere. She was initially offered the small role in such pot boiling, homegrown British fare as Mister Ten Per Cent (1967) and Carry On Up the Khyber (1968). But it was a movie, destined never to see the light of day, that altered Leon’s professional outlook: “Seth Holt directed a comedy called Monsieur Lecoq (1967). I was covering for Julie Newmar, as a bride in the church, when the lead actor-I can’t remember who he was now-gave me the once over and told me to wise up and accentuate my best assets. From that moment on, I started wearing a cleavage brassiere and tight sweaters to devastating effect. I created this sexpot image which wasn’t me, but it sure worked for casting directors.”

Though her wardrobe stressed curves and cleavage, Leon adhered to her “Everything but the nipple” motto. “I never stripped, not even in the softcore sci-fi Zeta One (1969) says Leon. “I did three movies where everyone was naked except for me. I kept my clothes on, which was quite bizarre. I lost a lot of work by not disrobing completely. I think it was shyness. I built a wall around myself and became unapproachable-it was the only way I knew how to handle my lack of confidence. An uncle of mine once said to me, You know Valerie, I never ever thought of you as sexy,’ and he was probably right because it was nothing more than a well-fabricated image.”

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But the facade expedited Leon’s on-screen exposure: within a single year, she was cast in such eclectic fare as Carry on Doctor (1967), The Man Who Had Power Over Women (1970), Carry On Camping (1969), The Italian Job (1969), The Rise and Rise of Michael Rimmer (1970), All the Way Up (1970), A Promise of Bed (1970) and Carry On Up the Jungle (1970). By 1971, Leon was groomed as a bona fide Hammer heroine for Blood from the Mummy’s Tomb (1971), adapted from Jewel of the Seven Stars, a lesser-known story by Dracula author Bram Stoker. Director Seth Holt died a few days before production wrapped; Hammer kingpin Michael Carreras helmed the remainder of the script. Leon played dual roles as Queen Tera, the mummified Egyptian sovereign who terminates the defilers of her tomb, and Margaret, the 20th-century reincarnate of the vengeful mummy. The veteran cast included Andrew Kier (DRACULA HAS RISEN FROM THE GRAVE), George Coulouris (CITIZEN KANE), James Villiers (THE RULING CLASS) and Rosalie Crutchley (THE HAUNTING).

“It was just another job.” Leon relates. “I went to an open casting call and I have no idea if Seth Holt remembered me from the aborted MONSIEUR LE COQ. It was my first leading role and it freaked me out in a way. I wasn’t social at all while we were making it. I hid in my dressing room during lunch breaks, and didn’t mix with the rest of the cast and crew at all. There was work to be done.” Holt’s abrupt demise shocked the production team. “He had these terrible hiccups for a week,” sighs Leon, “and everyone thought it was enormously funny. We’d sit watching rushes, he’d suddenly hic cup and we’d all burst out laughing. Then his heart gave out because of the strain… it was awful. I was so upset when they wouldn’t let me go to the funeral. I remember crying a lot and looking very grim in the first scenes shot by Michael Carreras.

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Interview with Valerie Leon

I was wondering if your very strong ‘Hai-karate’ image kept admirers respectful?
Valerie Leon: In the 70s I did create this rather aloof image. It’s crazy when I think about it now, because it was not the real me. A fan once told me with great respect how much he appreciated seeing a beautiful women who could kick ass ! I do think people were often in awe of me. So yes they retained respectful distance. What amazes me even now is when men come up and say ‘oh you helped me through puberty’. Yet it is all so long ago.

You often ended up playing powerful women. Even in Blood From The Mummy’s Tomb, one of the two roles that you play was a queen. Did you ever want to play a wallflower?
Valerie Leon: No, it is much more fun to play strong characters. Although, having said that, I am sure that I did lots of TV series where I was…not exactly simpering, but where I was a foil for comedians. But then considering my height and the cleavage – no, I would not want to play a wallflower. I prefer something meaty to get my teeth into.

Have you noticed a greater degree of fan mail and general interest since the seventies stopped being embarrassing and started being cult?
Valerie Leon: Very much so, and also because of the world-wide web. That is totally extraordinary. I get fan mail most days and from all over the world. Amazing and quite gratifying.

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With your height and your Amazonian physique, what did you gain and what did you lose in terms of roles? I was reading how you went to France to learn French and become a fashion model, and you were disappointed that your stature perhaps held you back in that respect ?
Valerie Leon: Yes I was too tall for modeling but I found a niche in show business. I did a film in France called Monsieur Le Coq, a Carl Forman film which Seth Holt directed with Zero Mostel. It never saw the light of day, but I do remember meeting an actor on that movie – I was very young then – and he said ‘You’ve got to accentuate your assets and create an image to go with your height. And that is exactly what I did ! ..I was also lucky because it was the age of mini-skirts and big boobs……it worked because at that time I went from one job to another, which was fantastic.

Since you mentioned Seth Holt just then…do you still believe that Blood from the Mummy’s Tomb was a jinxed movie ?
Valerie Leon: Without a doubt. First of all Peter Cushing should have been on it, and his wife got so terribly ill just after we had done a days shooting. Then I heard that a young man from the arts department died on his motor bike, which I don’t think is generally known. And then, of course, Seth. At the time I never knew that he had been quite ill right from the start. They wouldn’t insure him because he had a weak heart. I just thought he might be great drinker. When he died a week before completion of the movie, I was totally devastated. I still have this image of him in certain scenes, bending over and looking at me very carefully before we went for a take. `.

I’m sure you’ve read that he had hiccups for days before he died, but it just continued, and it does put a strain on the heart. He just collapsed one night after a dinner party with his wife. The people had gone and apparently he just looked up and said ‘I’m going’. I didn’t know any of that at the time.

I have also read something recently which I should have read years ago, and the library had to buy it in for me. I read The Jewel of the Seven Stars by Bram Stoker, on which Blood From The Mummy’s Tomb is based. This was a novel written in 1903 which a young American Producer Howard Brandy found. It was really interesting to read this book only last year. I don’t know why it took me so long. It’s a terrible admission, But it had a completely different ending and I don’t think it would have helped when I was filming.

You would have approached the role differently maybe ?
Valerie Leon: Not necessarily but I wish I had been more outgoing with the people I was working with and shown more interest in what was happening around me.

Do you think Seth’s death on the film production changed the final product from what he envisaged?
Valerie Leon: Yes. Yes, I am sure, because Seth was also an editor, and a lot of what he shot was very much in his head when he died. I believe that Michael Carreras had quite a problem putting it together, and it also came out as a ‘B’-feature to a film called Doctor Jekyll and Sister Hyde, so I suppose at that time it was not expected to be successful – a female mummy and all that. The extraordinary thing is that it’s now become such a cult. I think there is a lot of nostalgia for the Hammer Horror Films. Similar films are so horribly graphic today.

They keep trying to resurrect Hammer and talk about making more films. In fact even as we speak I have 500 little trading cards to sign with pictures of me from Blood From The Mummy’s Tomb on the back, like those cigarette cards. It’s quite extraordinary. They are sold in newsagents and people swap them. That’s what I mean – this is a film from 1971.

You carried Blood from the Mummy’s Tomb very effectively. Were you disappointed it didn’t lead on to other leading roles ?
Valerie Leon: Yes, in retrospect, of course. I was very disappointed at the time. But it is the luck of the draw. Now I feel really blessed that I had that opportunity, and that it’s still remembered after all this time.

Do you think that if the British Film industry hadn’t been in such a financial crisis in the 1970s that you might have got as broad a range of roles in films as you did in television ?
Valerie Leon: Yes, possibly. I always remember – now I am really going back to the very beginning – Michael Caine, who I met in 1966 on The Italian Job, when we had coffee and were filming at the Royal Lancaster Hotel in Bayswater, saying that I ought to go to Hollywood . But actually I was naïve and shy, and quite immature, ludicrous when I think back on it all now but I came from a protected middle class background. I think that people who grow up in more difficult circumstances are hungrier and more willing to claw their way up the ladder. In fact Ruby Wax once met me for an appearance on her show, and after spending some time with me she said ‘I can’t use you – you’re too nice!’, which I regret. But I just have to be grateful for what I have had.

THE SPY WHO LOVED ME
THE SPY WHO LOVED ME

If you could do it all again would you be a little bit tougher?
Valerie Leon: Yes. I would be harder, tougher. I would put myself about more. I should have mixed with more people which would have led to more opportunities. As I said, I had this sort of ‘keep away from me’ look, barrier, whatever, and I guess people might have thought I was snooty, which I wasn’t, but that was my way of just coping with things. Many stars come to sticky ends, so I think maybe it’s just as well. At least I am still here, for which I’m grateful.

Were you surprised the type of film Zeta One turned out to be considering it featured James Robertson Justice and Charles Hawtry?
Valerie Leon: Yes. That was an odd film. I haven’t seen it for years, but when you talked about it, I ploughed through all my photographs and I found this extraordinary photo of me where I am dressed in a white cat suit with ropes going round my body and through a leather triangle; I think there’s another photo somewhere with just pieces on my nipples or something. That really is so long ago, but it turned out to be a sort of spy sci-fi spoof, didn’t it? and it has been described, I think, as soft core porn.

What do you get asked most about at conventions ? is it the Hai-karate or the Bond?
Valerie Leon: Bond, Carry On and Hammer Horror, because all three have become cults, and I have been very lucky to have been associated with all three. And the fact that I worked with Roger and Sean. Some people always say ‘Who did you prefer?’ and I always sit on the fence and say, well, Sean was the definitive Bond, but actually as a person I preferred Roger.

What was your favorite out of your six Carry On films ?
Valerie Leon: I took part in six of the films and two Christmas shows on television. My favorite was Carry On Up The Jungle, where I was leader of The Lubbie Dubbies which was a true Glamazon part !

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“It was clear when we were shooting with Seth that he had very definite ideas in his mind. All his directions were very precise with regards to me running through the undergrowth, getting my clothes torn off or my hair blowing out behind me in a dream sequence. One thing he had me do, which I hated, was being shut in the tomb. I’ve never felt so spooked as the coffin lid was put on top of me. I kept thinking. What if there’s a fire and they leave me here trapped?’ Everything changed when Seth died because his editing point-of-view was missing.”

And, according to Leon, Holt’s disengagement from genre cliches may have imperiled the film’s commercial success. “Distributors were very disappointed by it.” she explains. “They wanted a traditional mummy wrapped in bandages, not a dead Egyptian queen reincarnated as a modern girl. It wasn’t what they had hoped for. Seth’s ideas obviously didn’t fit the market for horror at the time. Maybe that’s why it has become a cult movie.”

British exhibitors were so disappointed in MUMMY’S TOMB that the film was dumped on the bottom half of a double-bill with DR. JEKYLL AND SISTER HYDE. And Hammer executives were dismayed with Leon. “I refused to show too much in any of the publicity shots that I did,” she says. “I was a disaster on the Hammer ‘glamour queen front because I didn’t bare all. I’ve always believed suggestion is more erotic than showing everything, anyway. There is a nude rear shot of Margaret getting out of bed in BLOOD FROM THE MUMMY’S TOMB. But it isn’t me, it’s a body double. Significantly, though she earned glowing reviews as a “Hammer discovery,” Leon never again worked for England’s “House of Horror.

But the experience hardly ruffled the actress. Between movie and stage gigs, Leon was photographed at glittering movie premieres with her “glamour rival” Imogen Hassall (WHEN DINOSAURS RULED THE EARTH). “She had even bigger cleavage than me!” laughs Leon. While recording an episode of the popular Brit sitcom Up Pompeii (1971), Leon met Michael Mills, the BBC head of comedy whom she married in 1974. Though Mills was 25 years her senior, Leon acknowledges, “I think I was looking for a father figure to look after me. I was quite neurotic at the time and he used to keep me calm.” Mills died in 1988, leaving Leon with teenage son Leon and daughter Merope.

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“It was difficult to cope when Michael died in 1988 – my children were still young and I took any job to make money, such as meeting and greeting in restaurants and helping in a jeweler’s shop.

Subsequently hired as a decorative presence, Leon in her post-MUMMY roles appeared in bawdy comedies No Sex Please – We’re British (1973) Can I Keep It Up for a Week? (1974), The Ups and Downs of a Handyman (1976) and a certain low-budget spoof of a 1933 classic. “I played a High Priestess in Queen Kong (1976), and looked great, “grins Leon. “I should have played more evil parts. I was always getting cast as the dumb brunette, which hampered my career.” One predictable question (“Which role qualifies as your favorite?”) draws an unpredictable answer: ” Carry on Girls (1973). It was so much fun. I started off very plain and ugly with glasses, and was thoroughly transformed into a beautiful model. I have very fond memories of that CARRY ON.”

Training as Tanya the Lotus Eater, an Amazonian dominatrix in Revenge of the Pink Panther (1978), Leon “literally cracked the whip in my garden, Neighbors peered over the fence wondering what I was up to. I’m still not sure

they believed I was simply rehearsing for a part!” The previous year, Leon performed a less intimidating role as a “Bond girl”: ” Producer Cubby Broccoli asked me to go to Pinewood Studios to audition for THE SPY WHO LOVED ME. I told him I didn’t want to be killed off, so I ended up playing a hotel receptionist who hands Roger Moore his key, takes a fancy to him, then goes to his room and finds Barbara Bach has beaten her to him. We went on location to Sardinia and had a fabulous time as you always do when you are part of the Bond family. We even had a private dinner with the Aga Kahn.”

Leon enjoyed another rendezvous with 007 in the renegade Never Say Never Again (1983) though, this second time around, the superspy was embodied by Sean Connery. Fishing lessons and a 10 a.m. audition, were obligatory for the role of Sexpot. “I turned up wearing a maroon catsuit with a sleeveless lurex coat. The producers were amazed by such an over-the-top outfit at that time in the morning, and I’m sure it got me the job. We shot in Nassau and my scenes had me meeting Sean Connery on the quayside, later feeling a tug in my fishing line and pulling Bond out of the Ocean.

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Her last role to date was a guest spot on the British TV show ROY’S RAIDERS; but Leon admits that she’s ready for some second innings. “If Hammer were to remake JEWEL OF THE SEVEN STARS, as I believe they’re considering, of course I’d love to appear in it. I want to work.” Involved with public relations for Le Cafe Du Jardin restaurant in London’s Covent Garden, Leon is flattered by the attention kindled through her Hammer affiliation: “It’s amazing to me that I made enough of an impact to be remembered so many years later. When I look back over my career today, I realize I was never marketed correctly, Raquel Welch was, and I needed the sort of Svengali she had in her then-husband Patrick Curtis… someone who would have made me train my mezzo soprano voice for the musical theatre. My husband was proud of me, but could never understand the all important publicity side of the business, where one thing really did lead to another. My children are now grown up and doing well: Leon works in multimedia and web design and Merope is a high-flyer with The Guardian. Outside of acting, I perform regularly with my singing group and I attend conventions for fans of Bond, Carry On and horror films. What’s kept me really busy are my illustrated presentations, which I originally wrote to perform on cruise ships. I think I’d like to be a personality, a presenter. I live in hope of a resurgence in my career. Like Queen Tera, I will rise again!”

CREDITS/REFERENCES/SOURCES/BIBLIOGRAPHY
Femme Fatales v04n03
express.co.uk
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