Monday 12 October 2020

Remembering Margaret Nolan

The actress Margaret Nolan has died. She was 76. Another great face, great name, great talent from the best of British film, television and cinema gone. I never met Margaret properly, but I did, once, spot her across a crowded room at one of those fan signing events. She was engrossed in conversation with a well wisher and although it was many years after the likes of Goldfinger and Carry On Girls, she remained striking, effervescent and every inch the icon.

From reading about Margaret, it’s immediately clear that she was so very much more than what she was always known for: providing glamour to an impressive roll call of classic sixties and seventies films and television shows – many still known and often repeated. Margaret was a woman of many talents and while the high profile roles on the screen proved to be her steady income in the profession, Nolan was, latterly much more interested in serious political theatre. She starred in countless productions in small fringe venues, often with the Ambiance Theatre Company or Almost Free Theatre, from the late 1960s onwards. I am sure these roles provided a much needed creative outlet and quite a change from her turns in films.

Margaret also became an acclaimed visual artist much later in life. She created countless photo montages based on images from her early work as a model and actress and these were exhibited at many galleries both in London and abroad. They provided her unique take both on herself and her early forays into the business but also a different perception of the classic 60s lifestyle that she became so synonymous with throughout her life. 

Of course to many, Margaret was known mostly for two things. Firstly, in 1964 she was launched into cinema with two appearances in the classic Sean Connery James Bond adventure, Goldfinger. Margaret took the small role of Dink, Bond’s masseuse in a scene early in the film but more eye-catching was her involvement with the title sequence. Robert Brownjohn’s creation saw Margaret painted gold and don a gold bikini for an iconic sequence which played out with Shirley Bassey’s theme song. The image of Nolan in those titles eventually graced the cover of a book on the work of Brownjohn.

And who can forget Margaret’s six Carry On appearances? Beginning with the small part as a secretary in Carry On Cowboy in 1965, Margaret returned to the series in 1970 with another cameo as a peasant girl opposite Sid James in Carry On Henry. She provided eye-catching support as Bernard Bresslaw’s girlfriend in Carry On At Your Convenience and later the same year popped up again for a hilarious sequence as Mrs Tucker, opposite Terry Scott’s Dr Prodd in Carry On Matron. Possibly Margaret’s most infamous Carry On role came two years later in 1973 when she played beauty contest entrant Dawn Brakes in Carry On Girls. Although pregnant at the time of filming, Margaret still took part in a rather arduous yet memorable cat fight with co-star Barbara Windsor. Margaret’s final appearance in the Carry Ons came the following year, with a more sedate co-starring role, again opposite Bresslaw, in Carry On Dick.

Other well known film roles included parts in the 1966 film comedy, The Great St Trinian’s Train Robbery and The Beatles’ film A Hard Day’s Night. In 1973 Margaret co-starred with fellow Carry On actress Valerie Leon in the big screen version of No Sex Please, We’re British. The film also starred Ronnie Corbett, Arthur Lowe and Beryl Reid. Valerie herself paid tribute to Margaret on Twitter earlier today. In contrast to these comedic roles, Margaret also filmed scenes for Alfred Hitchcock’s 1972 film, Frenzy. Stills remain of this filming, which sees Margaret fleeing from Barry Foster’s protagonist, but sadly she is absent from the final print.

On television, Margaret was particularly prolific during the mid 1960s onwards. As well as guest starring in the usual run of series such as Danger Man, The Saint, Adam Adamant, The Persuaders and The Sweeney, she also struck up a regular working relationship with Spike Milligan. Margaret provided support for Spike in five series’ of Q, for the BBC in the 1970s. Nearly forty years later, Nolan wrote an essay on working with Milligan, which she performed at the Poetry Society in London, to great acclaim. Margaret worked on several episodes of the Adam Faith series Budgie in the early 1970s as well as making appearances in such iconic series as Whatever Happened To The Likely Lads, Steptoe and Son, Crown Court and Brideshead Revisited.

One of Margaret’s last television roles before taking a break from acting in the mid 1980s was in the ITV soap opera Crossroads. In 1983 she played the role of Denise Paget, mother to a little girl called Nina, who had Downs Syndrome. This storyline proved quite a departure for the programme and received a great deal of praise for leading the way in its portrayal and discussion of such subject matter.

Shortly after this role, Margaret stepped away from the limelight. Moving to rural Spain, Margaret Nolan raised her family and devoted her time to other interests. For many years out of touch with the acting world, she did eventually return to London and became a familiar face once again, both for her well-received art work and for appearances at fan conventions and in documentaries. It was a joy to see Margaret appear in the 2015 Carry On Forever documentary, reminiscing about her times at Pinewood with the team.

The director and writer Edgar Wright shared the news of Margaret’s passing on Twitter on Sunday evening. Margaret had, last year, filmed a short role in Edgar’s new film, Last Night in Soho, which will also star the late, great Dame Diana Rigg. I am pleased Margaret got to make one final appearance on the big screen at the end of a glorious, diverse and unforgettable career across all media.

On a personal note, a few years ago I came so very close to interviewing Margaret for this blog. Several attempts were made to make contact and it all went quiet. Then suddenly, one Saturday morning, an email arrived from the lady herself. It was totally unexpected and a great pleasure but, due to other commitments sadly it never happened.

Another great figure from the golden age of British film and television has left us. My thoughts are with Margaret’s family and friends.