Eighty-two-year-old Pat Stewart takes her mind back to 1951 when, as a 17-year-old Yorkshire dancer she was the subject of one of the most iconic photographs of the 50s. The young ballet dancer went on to perform with some of the greatest and mixing with celebrities, including Morecambe and Wise, Laurel and Hardy, the Beverly Sisters and even the notorious Kray twins. But that picture made her a star. She is “the girl in the spotty dress”.
I can’t believe I’m actually dancing with the Tiller Girls on a proper stage, in a beautiful theatre (the North Pier, Blackpool). At last I’ve made it. I’ve dreamed of this moment for all of my life.
I pulled on my cupid’s costume, consisting of a tunic, thick dance tights, and a pair of pink dance nickers that covered my own.
The larger, ‘silky dance pants’ fastened using an antique-looking hook-and-eye sewn on the side.
My routine consisted of pretty basic ballet moves – mainly standing in this pose with my right leg extended. I was standing in this pose when the music started and the curtain began to rise. As the music changed I began to bring my extended right leg inwards, as slowly and gracefully as I could. And that’s when it happened. Ping!
I felt a sense of ‘release’ as something gave way at the side of my right hip. Then I felt a horrible sliding sensation as my tiny silky knickers fell to the floor, landing in a messy bunch around my ankles.
I heard a muffled snigger from behind me as one of the dancers tried her best not to fall over. I laughed too but, somehow, I managed to contain my fit of giggles as the packed theatre looked at me in horror, wondering what I’d do next.
With one delicate tiptoe, I managed to step out of the leg holes and over to one side. With a deft flick of my ballet point, I kicked the silken pants across the floor so that they slid towards stage left.
My tiny silky knickers fell to the floor, landing in a messy bunch around my ankles
An arm had extended from the darkness of the wings as a hand quickly grabbed the offending undergarments.
I completed the rest of my ballet routine knickerless, apart from my underwear hidden beneath my stage tights.
Afterwards we all fell about with laughter.
One evening we’d just finished a show when the stage-door manager, Harry, tapped on our dressing room door.
“Now then, I’m looking for two dancers.”
“Oooh,” the girls whooped in unison as Harry flushed.
“I’m looking for Pat Wilson and Wendy Clarke,” Harry explained.
“Me?” I asked, thinking I had misheard.
I was one of the new girls. Whatever did Harry want me for? “Go on, what have I done wrong?” I said with a laugh, recalling the knicker incident.
“No, it’s not that,” Harry said, shaking his head. “It’s just there are two gentlemen waiting at the stage door. They want to speak to you and Wendy.”
Little did we know then that those gentlemen were about to turn our lives upside down with an opportunity that would follow us for the rest of our lives.
The two men lifted their hats as we approached them.
“Thank you for coming to see us, ladies,” the younger one began. His hand fumbled around in his overcoat pocket and he pulled out a business card.
His colleague gave us his card:
“The thing is,” Brian said, “the magazine has been losing circulation so we came up with the idea of running a competition to get more interest.
“Our boss decided we needed to run a photographic competition and Bert here, well he’s a photographer and he reckons anyone can take a good picture as long as they have a good eye for a photograph.”
“That’s right,” Bert chipped in.
“You don’t need a good camera to take a cracking picture but people don’t believe me, so I’m going to do it and prove them wrong. All you need is a basic camera. It’s what or who you’re taking the photograph of – that’s the most important thing.”
“And that’s where you two ladies come in,” Brian said, smiling broadly. “We came along to Blackpool to find something he could take a picture of and that’s when we spotted you two girls up on the stage.”
“So, what’s the prize?” Wendy asked.
“The first prize is £5,000.”
Wendy and I gasped out loud. A £5,000 prize was a life-changing sum back in the 1950s and more than enough to buy two houses, especially in Yorkshire. I was thrilled that we’d been asked to front such a huge competition.
The following morning, I put on my bathing costume, which was cut modestly low against my legs, and pulled on a brown and cream spotted dress over the top. I loved the dress. It had been a gift from my parents to wear during my first summer season in Blackpool. It had cost £3, which was quite a lot of money then.
I met Wendy at the North Pier just before 10am, as arranged, and we headed down to Blackpool Tower where Brian and Bert were already waiting. Sure enough Bert was holding a Box Brownie camera in his right hand.
It was a blustery but lovely sunny morning – typical weather for Blackpool seafront.
Bert, took control. “I think I’d like to start off by getting a photograph of you each riding a donkey.”
Our donkeys must have been used to having their photographs taken – well, more than Wendy and I – because they were ultimate professionals. Bert got his shot and suggested we strip down to our bathing costumes on the sand. It was all very innocent and proper.
Brian helped us with our things as we pulled our dresses back over the top of our bathing costumes. We both headed up to the promenade. Bert was already up there waiting.
“All right then, girls,” Bert said. “I’d like you two ladies to position yourselves on the railings.” I tried my best to smooth down the flimsy hem of my dress against the breeze.
“I’d like you to sit on the railings but, whatever you do, don’t hold on!”
We climbed up on to the pale grey railings and looked down at the 12- foot sheer drop directly behind us. Bert instructed: “Do what you have to do to balance yourselves, but I’d like you to keep your hands and arms free so it looks as natural as possible. But you can hold on to Wendy if you like.”
With both hands clutching my friend, the wind picked up once more, blowing the hem of my spotty dress up and out. I’d wanted to let go of Wendy so that I could grab it but I was terrified I’d slip back. Instead I sat on the railings unable to do a single thing about it. Wendy realised what was happening and we both began to scream with laughter and terror.
Brian pressed his finger on the button of the Box Brownie camera and the shutter fell at that precise moment. The image of my billowing dress on Blackpool Promenade had been captured forever.
It was four years before Marilyn Monroe’s skirt had fluttered up over the famous subway grating in the iconic film Seven Year Itch so, in many ways, me and my spotty dress had beaten Marilyn to it.
I can’t be sure but I believe our photograph was later used as an inspiration for the cult 1987 film, Wish You Were Here, starring Emily Lloyd.
With the shot finished, Bert packed away his camera and called the day to an end.
“Thank you ladies.. I think I’ve got some lovely photographs.”
A fortnight later our picture was published on the front of Picture Post magazine and it launched a nationwide competition.
As I looked more closely at the photograph I clasped a hand against my mouth in horror. With my skirt blowing up it looked as though I had no knickers on at all.
“Oh, no! What’s my mam going to say, Wendy,” I gasped.
Mum didn’t even notice the ‘no knickers’ bit. She just saw her daughter on the front page of a magazine that was read by over a million people.
“I’m so proud of you, Pat. I could burst,” she later wrote in a letter to me.
Extract from The Girl in the Spotty Dress by Pat Stewart with Veronica Clark, published by John Blake Publishing Ltd.