The very lovely Valerie Leon was in Bond movies, Carry Ons and Hammer Horrors – and as the latter studio makes a comeback, she talks to Allan Bryce about her amazing – and still ongoing – career.
“I am amazed that people still remember me,” says Valerie Leon. “I get fan mail from all over the world. It really is extraordinary, but it’s great!”
It has been almost 25 years since Valerie’s last big screen role, but as far as the public’s concerned she has never been away, thanks to the constant screenings of the Carry On movies in which the tall, beautiful brunette was often one of the main objects of desire.
Remember her as Bernie Bresslaw’s ‘plain’ girlfriend who became a beauty queen by removing her thick National Health specs? Or chanting something like ‘Tonka, Tonka, stick it up your jumper!’ as an Amazon queen on Carry On Up The Jungle? She even helped Charles Hawtrey erect his pole in Carry On Camping – no mean feat given Hawtrey’s sexual proclivities…
But if any role was to sum up Valerie’s dark-eyed and dangerous sex appeal it would be as the star of those legendary ‘Hai Karate’ aftershave lotion commercials back in the swinging 60s.
The Hai Karate ad was just the start for Valerie, who went on to be a Bond girl twice, and a Carry On cutie six times. She also walked like an Egyptian to become a Hammer Horror icon in Blood From The Mummy’s Tomb.
Last year she appeared on our screens in a celebration of British Crumpet, and I have to say that it was a very good call by the makers – unlike those who put together the Bond Girls Forever documentary on the Casino Royale DVD and never even mentioned her – shame on them!
Meeting Valerie was a big thrill for me, since I started fantasising about her before I was even old enough to be able to legitimately use Hai Karate. I have to say that she’s looking very fit for a lady of a certain age, and could probably still do that Karate stuff if aroused. My wimpy Envy For Men, however, had no effect on her whatsoever.
Did she always want to be an actress? “Well I was stage struck from an early age,” she admits, “so when I was about 17 I decided to audition for RADA. I’ll always remember. I had this speech prepared, and when I got on the stage they gave me a chair or a stool as a prop. Well I was so naive, I didn’t know what to do with it. I did the Quality of Mercy speech from The Merchant Of Venice. I don’t know whether I sat on this chair or whatever I did, but whatever it was it was all wrong for them. So I didn’t get into RADA, that all fell by the board. I thought, ‘Heavens, what am I going to do now?’”
She did lots of different things actually, starting with a six month stint in Paris as an English au-pair. Now there’s a switch for you. Imagine being a randy Frenchman and having the young Valerie Leon as an au pair. There should have been a film in it…
“I actually had the chance of going to Paris or America,” she recalls. “Foolishly I chose Paris because I thought I could learn French, but of course I didn’t because I was far too lazy…”
She ended up being an au pair to lots of different families. “The last one I did was a big house in the country outside Toulon – she was an aristocrat named Madame de Cosse-Brissac. The lady had got six grown up daughters and she’d just had a son and heir who was three years old and needed some help with him during the summer. That was quite an experience…”
Asked about her first movie roles, she replies with a Michael Caine catchphrase… “Not many people know this… but I actually started off as an extra in The Riviera Touch, with Morecambe and Wise, again in 1966. Another one I did was with Lynn Redgrave, called Georgy Girl. Those two I remember doing very well.”
But more important to her career was a tiny role in the same year’s Barbra Streisand musical Funny Girl. “Even then, Streisand was a megastar and of course that opened lots of doors. Because of that I got an agent, and it was a great time because I went from shows like The Saint and The Baron and The Avengers, to the original Randall and Hopkirk (Deceased).”
One movie I did want to ask her about was Queen Kong (1976), a spoof of the famous monster movie in which the actress appeared alongside Robin Askwith and Rula Lenska. The movie was withdrawn from circulation after being hit with a law suit from big banana King Kong remake producer Dino De Laurentiis and has only recently seen the light of day on an obscure US DVD release.
“I don’t remember much about that one,” she says. “You know, when I worked I was just pleased to work. It would have been nice to think that people could see it afterwards though.”
She probably doesn’t feel the same way about some of the mild sex movies she made in the late 70s such as This, That And The Other. Does she remember that one? “A friend of mine put it on to DVD for me,” she grimaces. “It was three short films, one with John Bird, one with Victor Spinetti and another with a very young Dennis Waterman. Have you seen it? It was meant to be titillating, but it was dreadful! Joanna Lumley was in it, naked, and I had this short red wig and jumped in the bath fully dressed!”
It’s quite some feat to get paid to star in an X-rated sex comedy and manage to keep your togs on, but unlike many other sexy actresses of the time, Valerie was very strict about her own ‘no nipples’ rule! She even produced an A5 booklet called Everything But The Nipple, that is sadly now out of print. You can, however, get a copy of her other book, In The Leon’s Den, from her website www.valerieleon.com.
“They didn’t try to persuade me to strip off in This, That And The Other,” she recalls, “but I did another film called Can You Keep It Up For A Week? and I think they would have liked me naked in that.” Thousands of DVD World readers would have done too, but let’s not go into that.
Why no nudity? “I don’t know whether I was a prude or just shy,…” she shrugs. “With me there was always this enormous cleavage but everything else was hidden. If it’s not so explicit, if it’s just the suggestion, it can be far more erotic. Having said that there is this publicity picture of me from Blood From The Mummy’s Tomb with the nipple showing through!”
She certainly wore some revealing outfits in the Carry On… films, starting out with a trouser-tenting turn as a sultry harem girl in Carry On Up The Khyber. She had so much fun that she actively pursued becoming a regular fixture in the immortal comedy series.
“I remember writing (producer) Peter Rogers a letter and told him that I had broadened my experience and hope that he would consider me again. I got a letter back saying ‘Dear Valerie so long as experience is the only thing that has broadened there is every chance of you working with us again’!”
She did, too. “In Carry On Camping I had two or three lines helping Charlie Hawtrey put up his tentpole and then selling toothpaste to Bernie Bresslaw because he and Sid James were too embarrassed to ask about the nudist camp they wanted information on! Then I was in Carry On Again Doctor where I had a lovely scene with Jim Dale. Carry On Up The Jungle was a good one. I was leader of the Aphrodisiacs, an all-women tribe that wanted men!”
In Carry On Matron Valerie’s character gave birth to triplets. “Bill Kenwright was in that as a journalist,” she recalls. “My name was Jane Darling and he didn’t realise that was my surname and he was saying ‘Jane, darling!’ (luvvie style). Of course that was before he became a mega-successful theatre producer…
“Then there was Carry On Girls where I was Bernard Bresslaw’s girlfriend. The glasses that I wore in that as the frumpy secretary were what I actually wore in real life when I was a trainee fashion buyer at Harrods! They were later sold at a charity auction with a picture of me wearing them in the movie.” Valerie was also in Carry On Stuffing, a television Christmas special, as a very buxom serving wench.
Though she’s obviously been asked it many, many times before, what was it like working with the Carry On team?
“There was always a family feel about the Carry Ons,” she explains. “But that was very much among the regular team. I remember that Barbara Windsor was very sweet when we did Girls – at the time we had the same agent. But you know I tended to not be terribly outgoing and friendly when I was younger, and perhaps I built a bit of a barrier around myself. People might have thought I was a bit snooty, but I wasn’t I can assure you. Now I’m much more in-your face!” (laughs).
Valerie’s single biggest movie role was a co-starring role in Hammer’s 1972 Blood From The Mummy’s Tomb, based on Bram Stoker’s Jewel Of The Seven Stars. In this creepy tale a group of archaeologists excavate the tomb of Queen Tera, and bring the treasures back to London, where she reincarnates herself in the very sexy body of Miss Leon and sets about bumping off the desecrators by supernatural means. The same story was mangled to the point of boredom in a big budget bore called The Awakening, but it works much better here despite the downbeat nature of the climax.
Did she make lots of money in her film career? Seemingly not. Valerie says, “I was paid more by Hammer because I was a leading lady, but I was never one of the top team in the Carry Ons and was paid accordingly. There is now a Carry On book where you can check what people got paid.”
As for her many movies, well she wishes she could tell me more about them, but life moves on… “I think when you get older you see and think about things quite differently and of course at the time I was doing them I was pleased to be doing them. I never thought how it would be remembered. I was happy to do it.
“When I first started getting jobs and they kept coming in, that was fantastic, and then as I got more jobs I got a bit more blase as I got older. But certainly, in retrospect, I never thought that at the age I am now people would still have such affection for things like the Carry On films and of course the Bonds, which will go on forever anyway.”
According to Valerie, making the Bond movies was like being transported into a different world. “With The Spy Who Loved Me I remember flying out with Richard Kiel and staying in the Aga Khan’s luxury hotel, and it was wonderful. I had a private suite and everything.
“The only thing is, as I arrived I got bitten on the head by a mosquito and I got terribly swollen and instead of going out and socialising I holed up in my room because I was too embarrassed about this bump on my head, until Cubby Broccoli summoned me out. Then we had a wonderful evening with the Aga Khan.”
Then she did the rogue Bond, Never Say Never Again, with Sean Connery. “I flew to the Bahamas, which was wonderful. And as a result of that film I ended up going to Japan twice. On the first occasion I remember getting home very early one morning and my son said, ‘Oh mum, you’ve had a call from Hollywood, they want you to go to Japan and make a commercial. They’re going to call you back.’
“I thought he was winding me up, but they did call me back. They had spoken to my agent and I did have to go to Japan. The commercial was one of the first Mitsubishi fax machines or something, because I was standing by the machine and I was wrapped in all the most obvious places with images from Never Say Never Again. Then I was invited back to Japan for the premiere.
“When I did the commercial they gave me a round the world ticket, which was fantastic. I remember going to America on the way back, then paying a little more and coming home on Concorde. Those were the days my friend…”
Indeed. Valerie has been semi retired for years now, but she is back in the news now that Hammer seems to be making a comeback. “I went to Forbidden Planet last week and did a little interview for the ITV news about it,” Valerie explains. “But already I’ve been approached – me, Martine Beswicke, Ingrid Pitt, Caroline Munro and Maddie Smith. The five of us are going to have to sign a special leatherbound Hammer book which will sell for £75.”
So, looking back, is she happy about the way her career has gone? The answer is a definite yes, but with slight reservations.
“I used to say I wanted to be another Sarah Bernhardt, Vanessa Redgrave or Diana Rigg,” she says. “My first love was the stage and I did an enormous amount of pantomimes and summer seasons and things like that, but you see I didn’t train, so I have been very fortunate in the amount of work that I’ve done, in that I did make a little tiny niche for myself. I’ve been very lucky… ”