The first time I saw the film ‘Poor Cow’ it made a massive impression on me. Many parts of it resonated with the memories I had growing up on a council estate in the late 1960s, which had the feel of an insular, territorial existence, of where ‘this was your lot, now get on with it.’
Within the film, the only way to escape a humdrum existence, like for a few on my estate, was through crime. Many of the older chaps us kids looked up to, had done a turn in borstal and it seemed certain a prison sentence was next for them. Wives and girlfriends that were left behind seemed lost and hopeless. What happened to many of them, I know not, though I still think of them occasionally. We as a family moved off the estate in the mid 1970s and though we only travelled a few hundred yards away, breaking the lock of estate life was like moving to another planet.
We all moved on, like you have to.
The stand out performer in ‘Poor Cow’ is without doubt, the actress Carol White. As ‘Joy’ she seemed real and not to be acting the part at all. When I started to research her life, I soon realised I wasn’t far wrong on that assumption.
Carol Joan White was born on April Fools Day in Hammersmith in 1943, the daughter of a scrap yard dealer. From a young age, she was a ‘stage school kid’ studying at the Corona Academy. If you keep a keen eye on UK films from the late 1950s to the early 60s, she pops up all over the place in a variety of small, often un-credited roles. Films such as ‘Kind Hearts and Coronets’ ‘Blue Murder at St Trinians’ ‘Carry on Teacher’ ‘Around the World in 80 days’ ‘All Night Long’ ‘The Boy’s’ and ‘A Hard Days Night.’
Her first real break came on television with her performance in Nell Dunn’s ‘Up The Junction’ in 1965, directed by Ken Loach. Her next project in November 1966 was part of ‘The Wednesday Play’ series on BBC TV. ‘Cathy Come Home,’ again directed by Loach, made national headlines with its hard-hitting storyline of an everyday couple sliding into homelessness and losing their children to the ‘state’ as a result. It attracted twelve million viewers and Carol became a star overnight.
She then teamed up with Loach and Dunn again on ‘Poor Cow’ in 1967. In many ways, it’s more of a social – realist study than a film. In it, White plays a down at heel young mum and wife of a jailbird, played by the notorious John Bindon. When he is imprisoned, she makes a few extra bob as a barmaid and then becoming a nude model for a local camera club – ‘I’ve got no film in my camera, have you’?
Eventually, she sets up home with ‘Dave’ (Terence Stamp) a crook himself and an acquaintance of her old man. For a short while, everything is idyllic, before he is also banged up and the cycle of despair continues once again. Complete with music by Donovan, the film achieved a good box office both here and in the States.
Big things were expected of Carol White after this performance, and she found herself described as the new Julie Christie. Sadly she began to lose her her way, making bad choices of film roles, even though she was now acting in the company of the likes of Alan Bates, Dirk Bogarde and Dean Martin.
Now living in Hollywood, there were also persistent rumours of alcohol and drug abuse, and a promiscuous sex life and affairs with names over the years, such as Adam Faith, Peter Sellers, Warren Beatty, Richard Burton, Frank Sinatra, and Oliver Reed, all of which brought the end to a couple of marriages, and all slowly leading to a spiral away from the spotlight.
‘I came to America thinking I was at the very top’ she recalled later ‘and that no one could touch me. But pimps, pushers, liars and ex-husbands brought me crashing down.’
She returned to the UK every now and again and took over the part of ‘Josie’ in ‘Steaming’ a play by Nell Dunn and received good reviews, when she turned up. Eventually though, her unreliability and poor time keeping gained her the sack from the production.
She returned to the States and her career continued to nose dive. Drink and drugs were part of her every day life. Abortions and suicide attempts followed. She died aged just 48 in Florida in September 1991. Her cause of death is disputed, with some claiming she died of liver failure and others saying she committed suicide. With no money to fly her body back to the UK, her ashes were posted back and interned in her parent’s graves. Her two sons Sean and Steve survived her from her first marriage to Michael King.
For a brief few years, for my two bobs worth, there were few who could match the talent of Carol White. Yes, she went completely off the rails and drink and drugs ravaged her looks and her work, but thankfully that body of work from the late 1960s will always be there, to be revisited and celebrated.
The Mumper of SE5
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