Dana Gillespie: Beasts and Breasts

It wouldn’t be too unfair to say that THE LOST CONTINENT is one of Hammer Films’ less revered films. A rather pedestrian adventure yarn, shot in the mid-’60s by Michael Carreras, it has really only two things worthy of attention. One of the most lame rubber sea monsters in the history of British cinema. The film’s most distinctly memorable presence is Dana Gillespie, a buxom, young actress debuting in her first major role.

Dana Richenda Antoinette de Winterstein Gillespie, a native of Surrey, England, was born in 1949. By the time she turned sixteen, Gillespie was introduced to film audiences via her minor role in SECRETS OF A WINDMILL GIRL (1965). “How dreadful that you should know that!” she exclaims when I mention the film’s title.

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Based around a nude revue show at London’s famous Windmill Theatre, the thin plot involved a detective investigating the death of a dancer. Gillespie one of the few female participants to retain her clothing-appeared briefly during a party sequence: “The song I sang in SECRETS OF A WINDMILL GIRL was my first song. I remember the publisher, a man called Hal Schaffer—he’s probably dead now, he seemed ancient to me then when I was 16 he gave me a flat fee of £25. Nowadays I would never ever do that, I would stick with the royalties.

“These days, girls have hits sometimes when they’re 16 or 17 but back then, if you were 16, you were normally like a Hayley Mills child star.”

Brief as Gillespie’s screen-time may have been, she caught the eye of Hammer bigwig Michael Carreras. “Before I did THE LOST CONTINENT, he asked me to do a day’s filming on THE VENGEANCE OF SHE,” Gillespie recalls. Ah yes, THE VENGEANCE OF SHE. Directed by Cliff Owen, it’s one of Hammer’s more denigrated movie projects. Uncredited, Gillespie appears during early scenes draped across the shoulder of a very drunk Colin Blakely. Looking back, she’s pretty much dismissive of her part in the film: “You literally mustn’t blink. It’s one of those. But from that I got the part in THE LOST CONTINENT.”

Gillespie was cast in the 1967 Hammer film as Sarah, an escapee from a colony that’s presided over by descendants of the Spanish Inquisition. “They wanted somebody big,” she laughs. “At that time, I was British Junior Water Skiing Champion and the film involved that sort of thing; walking across the lake on pizzas with balloons over my shoulders. Anyway, they’d said, ‘Do this day’s filming on VENGEANCE OF SHE with Olinka Berova,’ and from that they gave me a proper screen test to do. And then they said, “The LOST CONTINENT part is yours.”

It was an extremely exciting experience for Gillespie, so young and new to movies, to find herself working alongside such luminaries as Eric Porter and Nigel Stock. “Yes, it was. By that time, I think I was just 17. If you don’t know anything about film, and you suddenly land a film part, you’ve got to know where the camera is. You know, silly little things that, when you get older, become second nature. So I had no idea what I was doing. Nobody really helped me. I put on my piece of chamois-leather costume and got on with it.

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“It was good for me to have done, though. I remember Hildegard Knef had to break down in tears and, at that age, I didn’t really know much about acting. I saw her having to do a scene over and over again bringing tears to her eyes, and I was quite moved. She did it very well. But at 16 or 17, what did I know? I only knew how to squeeze into my costume.

But other recollections of THE LOST CONTINENT are not as euphoric. “There was a terrible accident,” she recalls. “It was when the Spanish galleon explodes; the special effects men did it with something called Phosphor B, which burns but it doesn’t go out. The last people were escaping on a raft and this thing explodes over them, and it’s meant to land at one end of the lake. But it landed over our raft! One bit landed right in front of me and it burned its way through the raft. I can remember just looking at it, it’s just extraordinary stuff-it doesn’t stop burning. Anyway, some landed on the back of one of the other girls in the film a black girl called Sylvana Henriques who was a sort of starlet in those days and she got really badly burned. It just kept burning away at her flesh. Because everyone had to be acting and screaming, we all thought it was part of the scene.

During this period, Gillespie was also nurturing the embryonic stage of a love affair—with music. Film and television work have always played second-fiddle to her passion for the blues. She became smitten with the musical mode at the age of 13 after attending a Muddy Water’s performance. Later organizing her own band, Gillespie toured the world; her globetrotting routines have continued to this day. The devotion to her music has reaped rich rewards; she’s shared the bill with legends like Chuck Berry and Bo Diddley, and even spent time hosting blues radio shows in New York and Vienna.

She recorded initially in the folk genre in the mid-1960s. Some of her recordings as a teenager fell into the teen pop category, such as her 1965 single “Thank You Boy”, written by John Carter and Ken Lewis and produced by Jimmy Page. Her acting career got under way shortly afterwards, and it overshadowed her musical career in the late 1960s and 1970s.

“I’m really much better known now as a singer,” says Gillespie. “In England, record sales not just mine, but anybody’s-aren’t particularly wonderful. As I sing the blues, I tend to be out on tour anywhere but England.” Britain’s appalling lack of musical taste may be traced to Gillespie’s early ’80s number, Move Your Body Close To Me; the song climbed to Number #1 in Europe, yet shamefully wasn’t even released in the United Kingdom.

Tallying upwards of 20 albums to her credit, Gillespie was once quoted in the tabloid press with the following bon mot: “When I sing with my band, my act has heavy sexual overtones.” Sample the myriad of risque titles she’s recorded-Three Hundred Pounds of Joy, Get My Rocks Off, et al-and you realize the one thing Gillespie can’t be accused of is sensationalist overstatement!

One of her earliest albums was a collaborative work with Rick Wakeman and David Bowie: “At that time, Bowie’s manager was my manager. I’ve known him since I was 14. All the biographies say it, he used to walk me home from school and carry my bags. He taught me to play my first-ever chords on the guitar. He taught me how to do the chords of Love Is Strange in 1963/64. When I first went on READY, STEADY, GO!, I did Love Is Strange, literally with the only two chords that David had taught me, that’s all I could do. So there I was, strumming my guitar, hoping nobody would notice I didn’t really know how to play.”

The song “Andy Warhol” was originally written by David Bowie for Gillespie, who recorded it in 1971, but her version of the song was not released until 1973 on her album Weren’t Born a Man. Her version also featured Mick Ronson on guitar. After performing backing vocals on the track “It Ain’t Easy” from Bowie’s Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars, she recorded an album produced by Bowie and Mick Ronson in 1973, Weren’t Born a Man. Subsequent recordings have been in the blues genre, appearing with the London Blues Band.

Gillespie’s next big screen appearance didn’t come about until 1974, when writer/director Ken Russell cast her in his extravagant, musical biopic MAHLER. She played opera singer Anna Von Mildenberg, the mistress of the Jewish composer (a fine turn by Robert Powell). Applying her writing talents, Gillespie also penned some of the music for MAHLER, which led to a spate of similar work on a profusion of Italian films.

But the role that every red-blooded male has enshrined within his gray matter is Gillespie’s native girl, Ajor, in Kevin Connor’s creature feature, THE PEOPLE THAT TIME FORGOT (1977). “That was a fabulous film!” she enthuses.

Boasting a cast that included Sarah Douglas, Doug McClure and Patrick Wayne, the most exhilarating moments in PEOPLE-not unlike THE LOST CONTINENT occur when Gillespie appears in a skimpy costume that struggles to restrain its succulent cargo.

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Ever modest, Gillespie breaks into a huge smile when I cite her as the film’s critical draw-at the notion that she’s one of the most memorable things about the film “Well, it’s mainly because they always seemed to give me the chamois-leather bits that Raquel Welch had discarded from ONE MILLION YEARS, B.C. My costumes were actually much bigger than hers, she’s got the right shape for a bikini which I clearly haven’t, really. But if you play a native girl, there’s only one sort of costume you can be put into: it’s either bits of fur or bits of suede leather.”

How true. Thespian talent drops to the level of irrelevance whenever Gillespie strides into focus. All eyes are rigidly locked on let’s be honest here her chest. So how does she react to her endowments serving as the ahem center of attention? Gillespie ponders the question for a moment. “It doesn’t annoy me. It certainly doesn’t flatter me. It might amuse me if anything, I do remember when THE LOST CONTINENT first came out, I went to the premiere. But I thought I’d go and see the film again sort of anonymously in the local ABC in the Fulharn Road. And I went in and sat up the back to watch it and, the moment when I come on with these balloons on my shoulders, the whole audience fell about with laughter. Then I realized there’s no point ever being taken seriously in the film world. But you know, if you’re born with a particular shape, you’re judged on how you look. It’s a nuisance, and that’s why I’ve always preferred music for my profession-because it really doesn’t matter what color or shape or size you are.”

Nevertheless, it’s a great pity that Hammer never again hired that heavenly body, denying her the opportunity to play a more deserving role. “Yeah, I got in at the end,” Gillespie laments. “If I had been Ingrid Pitt or if I had got in earlier or been a little bit older like some of the other girls were, I could have done the vampire bit or the other type of Hammer Films, rather than just the native girl.”

The same year that THE PEOPLE THAT TIME FORGOT was released, Gillespie appeared alongside a stellar cast of British comedians in Paul Morrissey’s send-up of THE HOUND OF THE BASKERVILLES. Considering the caliber of talent (Dudley Moore, Peter Cook, Terry Thomas, Kenneth Williams, Roy Kinnear), it was something of a surprise that the spoof turned out to be a very dismal affair. One reviewer dismissed the results in a single caustic breath: “A pointless, pitiful, vulgar spoof of an enjoyable original.” Unfortunately, the film offers minimal compensation to counteract its negative reviews.

Television played a large part in Gillespie’s life during the late 1970s, and she has continued to sporadically appear on British screens. She’s been in cop shows (HAZELL and THE BILL), comedies such as the immensely popular LITTLE AND LARGE SHOW, and has even hosted a season of the variety show, SEASIDE SPECIAL (“They wanted somebody who spoke several languages, it was being done from France”).

Never one to be caught slacking-betwixt film, television and recording work-Gillespie found time to carve out a respectable niche for herself in theatre, treading the boards in such celebrated musicals as CATCH MY SOUL, TOMMY, and MARDI GRAS; she also portrayed Mary Magdalene in JESUS CHRIST, SUPERSTAR.

Gillespie’s most vivid memory of her subsequent film, Nic Roeg’s BAD TIMING (1980), is passing most of her brief time on the set in bed with Art Garfunkel. “He was terribly nervous and it’s the first time I had to do a bed scene,” she says.

“That was quite interesting because one didn’t know what to do with oneself. I was introduced to him and then, half an hour later, you’ve actually got to be horizontal. So I just said we’d better break the ice, so I just flung my arms ’round his neck and we carried on talking-although we’d just been introduced and I kept my body pressed against his for half an hour so that he got used to the feel of me. And then, actually in the filming, I did keep my cowboy boots on and some purple Janet Rener knickers. And that’s all I had on in the bed.”

And Garfunkel was paid for this? She laughs broadly. “The first kiss was very pleasant, I thought, ‘Ooh, this is going to be fun’ and then by the third kiss I thought, ‘This is getting boring.’ By the 20th kiss, my chin was raw because he’d already started to get a five o’clock shadow and everyone had wilted, and any decent makeup I had at the beginning of the day was straight out the window and gone.”

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BAD TIMING is an emotionally exhausting and ultimately depressing account of an American divorcee (Theresa Russell) and her affair with a psychoanalyst (Garfunkel). It was met with mixed critical reaction and Gillespie can probably be thankful that her part in it was relatively minor.

She was back for a far more substantial screen role in SCRUBBERS (1982), this time as a prison warden at a girl’s borstal. The director was her friend Mai Zetterling, with whom Gillespie worked many times, including the stage production PLAYTHINGS and a TV play with Denholm Elliott and Rita Tushingham entitled SUNDAY PURSUIT.

Her last film appearance to date was in David Hare’s STRAPLESS (1988), a “deftly handled, well acted” drama about a dangerous liaison; Blair Brown and Bridget Fonda were the top billed players.

Personal pastimes are as diverse as her media experience; water-skiing, gymnastics, equestrianism and snooker. “I don’t really do snooker anymore,” Gillespie smiles. “I’ve now realized I don’t have a eye for the ball. Twenty five years ago, snooker was not as publicized it is now; POT BLACK hadn’t even been on the television. It was rather a cool thing to be into then, to be one of the lads. I’ve always seen myself as one of the lads when I go on tour. Gymnastics? Well I still dance an hour and a half every day, except Sunday. And I was British Water skiing Champion for four years. And then the snow-ski team-but then I was caught in a really bad avalanche and it damaged my cartilage, so I now have to be careful. And I still ride horses.” Gillespie grins, adopting an uppercrust accent: “The sport for English girls.”

Any regrets? “No, there’s nothing I regret doing. There are a few things that I regret other people didn’t do; namely, being able to see beyond the visual in my case. It’s always been odd for me that people judge me on how I look.”

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She pauses. “I know I’m dealing in a business where we’re judged by what’s skin deep and not underneath it all. But I don’t judge men like that, and I always say I’d much prefer a one-legged humpback who’s at least got a decent heart and not good looking, rather than someone who’s looking at himself in the mirror all the time or who thinks he’s marvelous. So I’ve never understood how men-I’m talking about 25 years ago-treated me. It was very much physical. And I think people are a bit peculiar.”

Unperturbed by the suggestion she’ll now be deluged with proposals from one-legged hunchbacks, she chuckles, “Yeah, well, I don’t mind. But I still think people are peculiar.

“That type of film that I was doing, I don’t know any other actresses who were doing that same kind of stuff and survived to end up doing decent theatre work. Somehow, if you started off on that game of being those breathe-in and smile’ girls, you got stuck with it and the only way I was able to get out was because I had a voice. And I think doing JESUS CHRIST, SUPERSTAR was very good in taking me one step beyond, and then the whole Bowie thing and living in America put me another step beyond.”

So what’s going on “beyond” 1996? Any hopes or secret aspirations to ply her acting skills in more film or television work? “If somebody came along with a role that was worth doing-or if anybody was doing anything in this country-sure, I’d do it,” nods Gillespie. “But there’s so little actually happening that I don’t know really what I could do. It’s not as if I’m getting inundated with serious acting offers. But I’m not that unhappy because when I look back on my time when I was at the National Theatre, doing Shakespeare with Sir Joan Gielgud, I was the most miserable that I ever was in my whole life.

“I was sharing a dressing room with Julie Coyington and Jenny Agutter and I was totally miserable, because I loathe Shakespeare, I hate doing the same thing every night-whether it’s cooking or anything, I don’t want to do the same thing every night. So the theatre is not really for me. Whereas singing nobody can really tell you what to do.

“If you’re doing a play or a film, somebody has to direct you and say, ‘You go from there to there,’ but when it comes to singing interpretation, I hate being told what to do because I don’t know what going to happen when I open my mouth. I just wait for the inspiration to sort of fallout…” Her mouth widens into that winning smile one last time “…And hope that it’s going to be all right!”

Fumo di Londra (1966)
Secrets of a Windmill Girl (1966) – Singer
The Vengeance of She (1968) – Girl at Party (uncredited)
The Lost Continent (1968) – Sarah
Mahler (1974) – Anna von Mildenburg
The People That Time Forgot (1977) – Ajor
The Hound of the Baskervilles (1978) – Mary Frankland
Bad Timing (1980) – Amy Miller
Scrubbers (1982) – Budd
Parker (1986) – Monika
Sterben werd ich um zu leben – Gustav Mahler (1987) – Anna von Mildenburg
Strapless (1989) – Julie Kovago
Sunday Pursuit (1990)[1] – Maureen (final film role)
Hotel India (2014) – Herself

Femme Fatales v05n08

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