Who is the fairest of them all?


WHO could forget the scene in Dr No when a white-bikini-clad Ursula Andress emerges from the Caribbean watched by Sean Connery as James Bond? I certainly never have, and neither did those who placed it at number one in a poll of the sexiest screen moments. 

Sadly I’ve never encountered the divine Miss Andress in the flesh, but I did once have a long conversation with her voice. Let me explain.

Such was the Swiss-born star’s reluctance to learn English that in 1962 director Terence Young decided her words had to be dubbed for Dr No, the first Bond film. Her character Honey Ryder’s song Underneath the Mango Tree was actually performed by the British actress Diana Coupland, (later to star as Sid James’s wife in the ITV sitcom Bless This House), while her dialogue was spoken by another thesp, German-born Nikki van der Zyl. 

In addition, Nikki voiced several minor characters and performed a similar function in the next eight Bond movies up to 1979’s Moonraker. She went on to become a barrister and a political correspondent for, if memory serves, Southern TV.

I met her about 30 years ago in the House of Commons, when I was researching a political comic novel which would never see the light of day. My beloved colleague Gordon Greig, the Daily Mail political editor, had been showing me round the place when he was called away on an urgent story just after introducing me to Nikki. As he left he asked her to take over as my guide and we ended up having lunch together. She was good company with lots of stories about the Bond years.

Sadly there was a price to pay. She asked me if I’d like to buy a signed copy of Members of Parliament in Verse, a collection of her poems about said scoundrels. How could I refuse? Since Nikki is no longer with us, having died in 2021 at the age of 85, I am at liberty to say that this is terrible doggerel, one of the worst books I have ever owned, and that’s saying something.

Revisiting the Dr No scene set me thinking about some of the most gorgeous stars to have graced the screen. A completely subjective selection and exclusively female since, call me old-fashioned, I just don’t fancy blokes.

For starters there is the delightful Isabelle Adjani, born in Paris in 1955 to an Algerian father and German mother. She was scholastically gifted and found fame as a classical actress at the Comedie Francaise, joining in 1972. With looks like hers, there was always going to be a film career and at the age of 20 she became the youngest-ever nominee for a Best Actress Oscar for her portrayal of Adele Hugo in The Story of Adele H. In 1979 she starred as Lucy in Werner Herzog’s remake of Nosferatu, prompting American critic Roger Ebert to write that she ‘is used here not only for her facial perfection but for her curious quality of seeming to exist on an ethereal plane’.

Here is a short tribute

Nowhere near as conventionally beautiful but equally alluring was Lauren Bacall, born Betty Joan Perske in the Bronx in 1924. After working as a model she made her film debut at the age of 20 alongside her future husband Humphrey Bogart in To Have and Have Not. I have to say that Bacall turned lighting up a gasper into a work of art. Here’s a compilation of irresistible incendiary moments.

Next up is BB, as Brigitte Bardot came to be known when she wasn’t being described as a ‘sex kitten’. Born in Paris in 1934, she started her acting career as a brunette, with one early role as the love interest opposite Dirk Bogarde in 1955’s Doctor at Sea (not that the confirmed bachelor Mr Bogarde would have been much impressed). The following year the director of an Italian film, Mio figlio Nerone, asked her to dye her hair blonde and she was so happy with the result that she stayed that way for good.

BB’s big breakthrough came with the melodrama And God Created Woman, directed by Roger Vadim, her first husband in a line of four. In it, she played a promiscuous teenager in a disapproving small town. The movie was a worldwide success, particularly in America, where her smouldering sexuality brought admiration and outrage in equal measure. Some cinema managers were even jailed for showing it, while she was described as ‘immoral from head to toe’. A New York Times critic wrote: ‘It isn’t what Mademoiselle Bardot does in bed but what she might do that drives the three principal male characters into an erotic frenzy. She is a thing of mobile contours – a phenomenon you have to see to believe.’

One scene, in which Bardot dances barefoot and glows with perspiration, became a landmark in cinema history.

President Charles de Gaulle would later remark that BB was a ‘French export as important as Renault cars’.

She retired aged 39 in 1973 with more than 50 films to her name and devoted her life to animal welfare. Half a century later she is still with us and still a byword for sex appeal.

My final selection for today is Halle Berry, born 1966, the first non-white woman to win a Best Actress Oscar for her role as a struggling widow in the 2001 movie Monster’s Ball. Here she is alongside the brilliant Billy Bob Thornton.

Next week I will complete my list of screen goddesses, concluding with my favourite one of all. Can you guess who it is yet?

Old jokes’ home

The worst job I ever had was as a forensicologist for the United Nations. One time I thought I’d come across the mass grave of a thousand snowmen, but it turned out it was just a field of carrots.

A PS from PG

He uttered a coarse expression which I wouldn’t have thought he would have known. It just shows that you can bury yourself in the country and still somehow acquire a vocabulary. No doubt one picks up things from the neighbours — the vicar, the local doctor, the man who brings the milk, and so on.

PG Wodehouse: Right Ho, Jeeves.

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