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From the stage to the streets

By River Reporter Nov 24, 2011

By Tom Ward

Ever spied the English Heritage plaque on Firth Street commemorating the writings and life of long-time opium addict Thomas De Quincey?

Perhaps you’ve wandered past Whitehall and gazed upon the giant statue of Field Marshall Douglas Haig, murderer of two million young British soldiers, depending on how you view your history.

With these controversial, yet undoubtedly important, historical commemorations lying around London, it was strange to hear that locals in Kingston and Surbiton are stopping the council from creating a plaque remembering another dead war hero.

I am talking of course about the Queen of Striptease, the star of the West End, and long-time member of the Entertainments National Service Association (ENSA), Phyllis Dixey.

Now, I understand that most parents wouldn’t be too keen on trotting their toddlers past a giant sign saying “Queen of Striptease”.

But for so many residents to rise up in anger over a nickname without first researching her life is, to me, typical of the upper-middle class snobbishness that can make it so hard to be a young student living in the Kingston area.

Because these could be the same people who would have no problem taking their kids to Madame Tussauds, past Madonna’s pointy steel bra, or happily let them watch Rihanna’s gyrating hips on MTV while they muster up an anti-Phyllis petition on the phone.

Do they not understand that these are the modern descendants of Phyllis Dixey, a woman who was dragged before magistrates countless times to defend her style of dance, which she considered an art form?

 KU’s dance department would have no problem telling you about the amazing contribution to modern dance the former singer and ballet student made over the years.

She helped to bring fan dancing into prominence in Britain and paved the way for many modern styles.

Dixey’s West End shows, while daring, were never tasteless and she cared for her dancers like family. But less well known was her incredible dedication to the soldiers who fought in the Second World War.

As a member of ENSA, Phyllis put on shows both at home and abroad to raise the spirits of the men facing the Nazis.

Famously, when a show she planned for troops in Cardiff was banned, Phyllis, at her own expense, had the entire performance relocated to the Phoenix Theatre in London, where she sang and danced to a packed house of soldiers.

Dixey also had a set of raunchy Tableaux made for the troops to take back with them which, as you can imagine, were received very well in the trenches.   

During the early 40s, her golden years, instead of cashing in on her fame, Dixey sacrificed her career to perform for the people risking their lives for Britain.

By 1948, despite her many successes on stage and screen, Phyllis had been ruthlessly muscled out of the West End by rival organisations that she herself had paved the way for.

Penniless, she ended her days as a cook for an army officer and his family in Guildford.

Posthumously she has received more recognition, with a well received biographical movie being made in 1978, The One and Only Phyllis Dixey, with Dixey being played by Lesley-Anne Down.

Phyllis Dixey was a woman who stood up and tirelessly defended her right to perform shows that she believed in.

She paved the way for modern pop stars, actresses and dancers all over the UK.

And yet, at the height of her career she was willing to throw that all away to perform for people in a more dangerous and less fortunate position than herself, at great personal expense.

So maybe that’s what Surbiton parents should tell their kids.

Because, as far as British spirit goes, I think Phyllis Dixey is deserving of a statue in Whitehall, let alone a plaque in Surbiton.

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