In 1970 the Daily Sketch voted Jenny Hanley the sexiest woman in the world. Raquel Welch came fourth. The 69-year-old tells the story against herself, especially as the coda involves a second poll by readers that put Welch first and Hanley second.
The two women would later meet. Hanley still has a telegram from Welch that reads, “First and second is better than first and fourth!” The tale is accompanied by a fruity laugh that indicates that Hanley takes none of it seriously.
“We decided it was my year. It was the year for pug-nosed, fat-lipped, strange blondes to be brilliant,” she says. “I never found myself beautiful. I found myself acceptable. Some people said I had beautiful eyes, some people said they thought my mouth was lovely. They sort of took me apart like a jigsaw puzzle. Bits of me were okay.”
Hanley recalls that as a child she was “remarkably shy. I didn’t think I was good-looking. You put me alongside my mother and I didn’t think I could stand up to that.”
Her parents were actors Jimmy Hanley and Dinah Sheridan. He was a respected character player and writer, she the star of The Sound Barrier, Genevieve and, following a lengthy break from movies, The Railway Children. Dark, elegant and impeccably groomed, Sheridan epitomised screen beauty.
Sometime in the Sixties glamorous mother and teenage daughter were at a couturiers to buy a dress. They overheard a barbed comment: “What a shame such a beautiful lady has such a plain daughter.” Sheridan chose not to buy the dress. Instead she paid for her daughter to go on a modelling course.
Soon she was one of the faces of the decade, looking out from magazine covers for Vogue Bride and disconcerting her brother, future Conservative MP Jeremy Hanley, then making a career for himself in the city. And while the Sixties were turning into the most permissive decade of the 20th century Hanley wasn’t about to burn her bra.
“I nearly ruined my career. I did stall it quite a lot because I refused to do nude or topless photos or films. It was one of those things whereby I wouldn’t do the nude or semi-nude stuff but at the same time everybody was doing it. I thought they were called private parts for a damn fine reason. I lost a lot of work because of it.”
Forty-odd years later she is the mother of sons aged 29 and 32. One thing she can be sure of is that the images bandied around at their school of “Jenny Hanley” in various stages of undress are definitely, definitively, defiantly not of her…
It was for her looks that she landed a role in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, the film that introduced George Lazenby as James Bond after Sean Connery first quit the part. Signed to a five-film contract by producer Harry Saltzman, she joined Joanna Lumley, Catherine Schell, Julie Ege and eight other beauties on top of a mountain.
With so many blondes on show, Hanley wore a red wig. And, credited as The Irish Girl, she practised an appropriate accent.
“I’m always deeply embarrassed about being mentioned in the same breath as On Her Majesty’s Secret Service because I’m hardly in it,” she laughs. “A standard lamp could have done what I did. But to be called a Bond girl, now that the Queen is a Bond girl, is terrific.”
History tells us that Lazenby didn’t work out as 007. Over the years stories have emerged about his ego, bad behaviour and the epic blowing of a God-given opportunity. Hanley’s view is rather more sympathetic, and tempered by the passage of time.
“George was a baby with loads of toys thrown at him and he didn’t know what to play with first,” she says quietly. He was an Australian model. Suddenly he was a big fish in a huge pond and someone had taken away his water wings.
“He was told to live up to Bond – to be Bond. Unfortunately he didn’t do it in a very charming manner. He didn’t endear himself to me when I met him on the mountain and he said, ‘There are 12 of you. I’ll get through you as soon as I can’. I’m sure he meant it. But he didn’t take into account that quite a few of us were perhaps slightly more worldly-wise than he was. He was a little boy trying to be Tarzan.”
Hanley turned down a role in Saltzman’s all-star war epic Battle of Britain because of a nude scene. Bizarrely she then accepted a part in a shocker for Hammer, purveyors of gothic tales of gore, fangs and décolletage. Scars of Dracula was a late entry in the annals of the vampire king and once again starred Christopher Lee. The story strayed a long way from Bram Stoker and featured Dennis Waterman and some palpably rubber (and wayward) bats.
Hanley remembers it as “huge fun”.
“Nervous giggles are quite near the surface when you’re doing things like that. Christopher would grumble and say, ‘You do realise that this is a true story about Vlad the Impaler,’ which, of course, made us even worse.
“I had one particularly difficult scene on the battlements of Castle Dracula with a bat that was trying to get a cross around my neck. Every time the bat flew in it hit me on the breastbone. Then it went out backwards.
“All of that was very tricky. It was on a certain part of my anatomy that I’m not used to having man-handled – or even bat-handled – so we were giggling quite a lot of the time. Then Christopher came on and said we should behave ourselves. It didn’t go down well.”
The Seventies saw her guest-starring on Emmerdale Farm (as Joe Sugden’s girlfriend), starring in a film with Peter Sellers and co-presenting the cult children’s show Magpie.
An intriguing part of Hanley’s CV is the role that never was. In The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes she played the young detective’s lost love. Legendary director Billy Wilder was the man behind the camera.
On completion she and other members of the cast headed to New York on a publicity junket, hitting the chat shows and the interview circuit.
“I knew about Marilyn Monroe and Some Like it Hot,” she says breathlessly à la Monroe. “Being taken to America as Billy Wilder’s new juvenile lead was HUGE. Everything was first class. I was on top of the world. Then I had to throw Warren Beatty out of my hotel room.”
She pauses for effect.
“He’d seen me on a chat show and asked the hotel manager to let him into my suite. I came back and there he was. He said, ‘Spend an hour with me and you’ll never want to go home’.
“It was a bit later that I discovered he’d also cancelled my ticket back to England. He seemed to think he owned New York. What really annoyed me is that each day I asked for some carrot batons and a vodka and tonic to be left in my room.
“I said, ‘Just go, sunshine. I’m British. We don’t do that!’ And I threw him out. I was furious. Not only had my drunk my vodka and tonic… he’d eaten my carrots!”
Bond and Beyond: In Conversation with Jenny Hanley + On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, Widescreen Weekend, National Media Museum on October 16, 7pm.