The Big Interview: Shirley Anne Field

life in films: Shirley Anne Field was a working-class girl whisked to stardom via Saturday Night and Sunday Morning which portrayed a world she knew. Fifty years later, she tells Tony Earnshaw she is just beginning to understood where her career has taken her.

Shirley Broomfield’s father, a cockney lorry driver, leaned out of his cab and sized up the three-year-old girl below. Casually but without real malice, cigarette dangling from his mouth, he uttered a phrase that his third daughter remembers to this day: “Good job you’re funny, girl, ‘cause you ain’t got anything else!”

Sitting in a diner in Derby, the starting point for a new touring stage production, his daughter, now known to one-and-all as Shirley Anne Field, recalls the scene. “I looked up and thought ‘I’ll bloody show you’. And I think, ever since then, that’s [the root of] my insecurity. I’m only just learning to assert myself at this great stage in my life.”

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Born in Forest Gate, London, she was too young to be evacuated when war broke out and was sent to a children’s home in Bolton. She was never returned to her family and when she left, aged 15, it was to modelling and, later, films, that she turned in a vain teenager’s hope that she would be spotted.

Shirley Anne Field enjoyed a spectacular early career after landing the key role of a beauty queen in The Entertainer in 1960. A trickle of film roles in the late Fifties turned into a flood in the Sixties. Saturday Night and Sunday Morning with Albert Finney was followed by The War Lover, with Steve McQueen and Robert Wagner, Alfie, with Michael Caine, and Kings of the Sun with Yul Brynner. She became known as “the British Marilyn Monroe”.

It was a tumultuous few years that also saw her taking to the stage with the Royal Court, turning down Laurence Olivier’s offer to join his Old Vic company and marrying racing driver Charles Crichton-Stuart, who was also part of the English aristocracy.

Her career slowed down in the Seventies but she bounced back in the Eighties with Stephen Frears’ My Beautiful Laundrette and, in the Nineties, Peter Chelsom’s Josef Locke biopic Hear My Song.

She will be in Yorkshire next week as special guest of the Holmfirth Film Festival. She defies the years and quips that she’s grateful for the celebration “because I’ve forgotten half of what I’ve done”.

There is a wistfulness to Field, but it’s tempered with a steely determination. She looks back on her life equally with a sense of wonder and pragmatism for the decisions taken, the mistakes made, the road travelled. As for that fractured childhood, she remembers it with cool detachment.

“I always had a division with my name because I remembered, before I was separated from my family, my father didn’t want – and this is his expression – ‘any bleedin’ film stars’ in his family, or ‘any bleedin’ film stars’ names’.

“But my mother, an Irish beauty from the East End, was desperate to have [that]. My oldest sister was called Joy, my youngest sister was called Sonny, or Sonja, after Sonja Henie, I guess, and I was after Shirley Temple. So he called me Anne or Annie; she called me Shirley. I’m the youngest – the third sister. Funny thing, he was sort of prejudiced against the film business early on and I ended up in it.”

She broke into movies after enjoying an early career as a pin-up girl for magazines like Reveille and Blighty. She was of medium height – 5ft 4½in – and amassed a pile of glossies that inevitably led to an offer to work in movies.

The film director Val Guest asked that deathless phrase “Do you want to be an actress?” and young Shirley Anne was signed to an agency run by Bill Watts whose premier client was 22-year-old Joan Collins.

“I was the youngest and Joan Collins was possibly the oldest. But we all wanted to be like her because she had a pink sports car, lived in Hollywood and earned £120 a week! It’s a horrible experience being a teenager in the film industry: you’re exposed to all the wrong influences. It was a very predatory world, you were always at risk.”

In a succession of films she was “the special girl” – the pretty, shapely one who stood out in a scene and maybe had a line or two to speak on screen. But by 1959 Field had had enough of movies. Naive, lacking confidence and unaware of her sexual allure, she decided to quit.

“I felt like a piece of meat just being picked for the way you looked and the shape you were,” she says. “I felt exploited but I don’t know what else I could do. I didn’t know that I [was attractive]. I’d been invisible all my childhood until I was 15. When people used to shout out I couldn’t believe it. Then I had the best good fortune in the world [in landing the role of] the beauty queen in The Entertainer.”

In 1958, theatre director Tony Richardson and playwright John Osborne had collaborated to turn Osborne’s theatre smash Look Back in Anger into a film. They followed up with The Entertainer, Osborne’s tale of down-at-heel seaside comedian Archie Rice that had given Laurence Olivier a new lease of life with the Royal Court.

Picked from 500 hopefuls to play Tina, the leggy northern lass who wins a pageant and ends up in Archie’s bed, Field remembers Richardson, Osborne and The Entertainer as the turning point in her life.

“Tony and John and those people – Lindsay Anderson – protected me wonderfully. They changed my life. That film gave me respectability, it gave me a love of the work and from then on it was a lovely time.”

Not all the time. Field’s career is littered with episodes involving some of the biggest names in the business. Her initial meeting with Laurence Olivier is memorable for all the wrong reasons.

“I wasn’t impressed with Olivier when I met him. I’m in bed with him, filming in a caravan. And he starts talking. ‘Now who’s your favourite actor or actress, dear? I said ‘Marilyn Monroe’ and he went off into a fit. ‘Dreadful girl! Never shows up on time!’ So we get over that. Two days later he again tries, very patronising. ‘Who else do you admire?’ So I said ‘I love Vivien Leigh’ and he went into a fury. He was horrible.

“I got out of his bed and said ‘I’m not staying here with you. Every time you ask me something and I answer, you’re always rude’ and I went and sulked. Tony came mincing over and said ‘What’s the matter, darling?’ and I went ‘I’m not staying in bed with him, he gets on my nerves’.”

She succeeded in worming an apology from Olivier who, when he saw the daily rushes of the scene they’d shot, danced through the streets with her and invited her to join his Old Vic company.

Lack of confidence made her turn him down. Soon she would star in Saturday Night and Sunday Morning as philandering bad boy Albert Finney’s girlfriend. Then came The War Lover with Steve McQueen. And Alfie, as the nurse seduced by casual cockney cad Michael Caine. It was a heady time.

She worked for Hammer Films, missed out on being a Bond girl (“Cubby Broccoli said he couldn’t hire me because ‘you’re above the title now’”) and saw her big Hollywood opportunity evaporate when the spectacular Mayan drama Kings of the Sun, starring Yul Brynner, flopped.

“I was influenced tremendously by Lindsay Anderson, John Osborne, Tony Richardson... I was their special leading lady,” she recalls. They didn’t like me tarting around in a Bond film. I feel as if I betrayed them in a way because they had such high hopes for me. What I did do was live a fairy story life and paid for it, because it wasn’t a fairy story. I could have done things a lot better – in life. Work-wise I don’t have regrets.

“I loved everything about America. They made me feel positive, they made me feel beautiful, made me feel special. But the work ethic wasn’t the same. Also I was homesick for English roots. When everything you ever dreamed of comes true by the age of 22 then it’s all too much. I didn’t believe that I belonged anywhere and I couldn’t start all over again.

“I didn’t have a strong sense of identity when I was growing up because I’d lost it along with my family. I hung on and the film industry literally saved me from despair because they all accepted me.

“I don’t think one has to be a diva and I’ve never been a bitch. I think you have to have lesser talent to be a bitch. I’m a fighter. My biggest weakness is that I always want a level playing field. It drives me mad.”

I suggest that she’s unique in having worked with Olivier and McQueen, with Brynner, James Coburn and Halifax-born Eric Portman. She knew David Niven, Gregory Peck and Warren Beatty, who unsuccessfully pursued her. It’s been a hell of a ride.

“It has,” says Field without a trace of ego.

“I’m glad that they want to celebrate the work in Holmfirth. That’s a privilege. Talking to you I’m thinking ‘God almighty, have I really done all that?’ I had a very strange experience with Frank Sinatra... but we’ll keep that for the festival.”

Shirley Anne Field appears at the 3rd Holmfirth Film Festival on Sunday May 20 at 4pm.