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A female Colossus

21 June 2007

3:22 PM

21 June 2007

3:22 PM

Coming on Strong Joan Rhodes

Serendipity, pp.151, 9.95

During the post-war years, the author of this book was a much-talked about variety artiste, famous for breaking ten-inch nails, bending steel bars in her teeth and throwing Bob Hope over her shoulder. Billed as the Mighty Mannequin, Joan Rhodes enhanced her appeal by looking and dressing as if she had stepped out of the chorus line — at the height of her fame she had a 20-inch waist — and accompanying her feats of strength with plaintive little odes delivered in a girlish voice which apparently made her sound ‘like the bleedin’ Queen’.

For several decades, Rhodes did her unique solo act (‘I was something new,’ she says modestly) in places like the London Palladium, the Savoy Hotel, Churchill’s in Bond Street and in music halls, nightclubs, circuses and tea-gardens across the world. And of course in front of the bleedin’ Queen herself at Windsor Castle, where she tried to get the Duke of Edinburgh to bend a six-inch nail. ‘Look, you’ve got a kink!’ she exclaimed encouragingly after he’d utterly failed at this task.

Rhodes’ own life began quirkily enough. Abandoned by both parents — ‘I don’t regret it. I managed without them’ — she was brought up by her aunt Lily who ran a pub called the Red Cow near Smithfield market. A large and chubby child, she soon became aware of her secret strength — she could lift a full firkin of ale at the age of 11 — and by her 14th birthday was ready to run away and throw in her lot with a band of buskers and street entertainers. One of the many arresting photographs in this book shows the author, aged 16, tearing up a telephone directory in front of a huge crowd on Tower Hill.

After a gruelling time in doss-houses and living off other people’s discarded bacon rind, Rhodes got her first big break in February 1949 when she was invited to join a touring show called Would You Believe It? Beside acts like Mushie the Lion, who urinated on the bandleader’s wig, and Elroy the Armless Wonder, she toured the provincial music halls and in the process emerged as a great beauty and star in her own right. By the mid-1950s she had appeared often on television, fought off the attentions of King Farouk, cruised on Lady Docker’s yacht, found Lucian Freud having a bath in her dressing-room and sat for a famous portrait by Laura Knight, who called her the Golden Girl.

Some readers may find this self- published memoir erratically written and clumsily edited, but it has a chirpiness and charm lacking in most showbiz confessions. Far from gushing about her fellow performers she tells us that Frankie Howerd was a ‘nightmare’ and ‘pain to work with’ and that she didn’t find Bob Hope at all funny as a person. But more than anything this book highlights what Roy Hudd, in his introduction, calls ‘the loneliness of the long-distance speciality act’. We learn how shy Joan Rhodes was and, for all her stage successes and popularity as a person, how unloved. Mercifully she has survived these little hardships to tell a most extraordinary tale.

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