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Tuesday, 26 June 2012

Phyllis Dixey - The Queen of Striptease

I first came across Phyllis Dixey while transcribing a WW2 war diary. The diarist wrote of his appreciation of  witnessing Phyllis' famous 'Confessions of a Fan Dancer' Act which broke the monotony of mechanic's training while stationed in London and waiting to serve his country on foreign shores. On 29 July 1941, he wrote: 'At Theatre Royal, saw Phyllis Dixie doing fan dance, hottest show I have seen.'

If you move - It's rude!

In the years leading up to WW2, shows displaying nudity were only legal if the performer remained still - 'If you move, It's rude' was the rule. A conference was held in St James Palace in April 1940 on 'Suggestive Nudity and Impropriety of Gesture and Speech'. The Birmingham Mail reported...

'The Lord Chamberlain did not long ago find a means of banning from theatres and music halls that decadent and vulgar importation from the United States known as 'strip tease'... where, at the conference; 'The point was made that indecent shows have tended to increase since the outbreak of war.  This is something which must not be allowed to develop by a nation which is fighting above all things for the moral standards implicit in the Christian code; and which cannot afford to flirt with the forces of decadence...'

Police were sent to investigate Phyllis's 'Confessions of a Fan Dancer' show which was promptly stopped for being in breach of public decency, however, a personal visit to the Lord Chancellor by Phyllis resulted in approval being granted. The show was the first of its kind in the area,  a dedicated striptease show, and was an instant success. (Apparently, Phyllis was not the first to perform a fan dance in Britain, that honour goes to Denise Vane, contortionist, although I haven't yet found any evidence of this).

'Blue' Plaque

At the time of writing, there is currently a row going on between English Heritage and the British Music Hall Society on one side, and members of Phyllis' family together with the occupants of an Art-Deco mansion block in upmarket Surbiton, on the other.  The problem is that English Heritage want to install a blue plaque in Phyllis' honour but they can't agree on the wording.  The occupants have taken exception to the wording 'Striptease Artiste' and would prefer 'Burlesque Dancer',  'Fan Dancer' or 'Actress', all of which, the Blue Plaque Panel at English Heritage argue, does not describe her career accurately.

At a meeting of The Blue Plaque panel in November (which includes Stephen Fry) it was agreed that:  "Having revisited the various options, the team remained confident that the original proposed inscription offered the most accurate description of Dixey's occupation and should be retained."

A Very Reserved Lady

Surprisingly as it may seem, Phyllis was 'a very reserved lady', 'a very private woman, much preferring to hone her act and live a quiet life off stage'.  She grew up with impeccable manners which were never forgotten.  She treated the girls in her troupe with protection and discipline insisting that there be no frivolous behaviour or alcohol and she would clear the back stage when her girls were to appear naked.  She was also very kind, on one occasion she paid for all the seats for her show 'Piccadilly to Dixie' and dedicated them to an entire audience of servicemen. However, this may also have been to her advantage as she also became a pin-up during the war.

Sadly, the years after the war became less successful for Phyllis, her shows waned when audiences began requiring more graphic routines, possibly in an attempt to keep up with demand, she was fined for indecency and around this time too, her husband and business partner began an affair with one of the showgirls.  She started a career as an actress, but was not particularly talented and her acting career was quite brief. By 1958, the couple were bankrupt and working as a cook and handyman but she still carried herself with great dignity.  Phyllis died in 1964 at the age of 50 after a battle with breast cancer.

Let's hope she gets her blue plaque soon...

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