English Heritage plans a really 'blue' plaque for stripper
It gives a whole new meaning to the term blue plaque – English Heritage wants to install one of its honours outside the home of a famous stripper.She was a pioneering performer whose daring routine pushed back the boundaries of public decency in 1940s Britian.
But a plan to honour Phyllis Dixey, the first stripper to appear in London's West End, with an English Heritage blue plaque has met with fierce resistance.
The government agency wants to place the award outside Dixey's former home in an art deco mansion block in Surbiton, the district which became a byword for suburban respectability when it featured in the 1970s comedy The Good Life.
However, the plan has run into opposition from residents of Wentworth Court concerned about the attention the plaque would bring to the building.
Dixey, a music hall entertainer, lived in the block during the late 1930s, just before she found fame as the "Queen of Striptease".
Her early shows attracted the attentions of police and authorities but were eventually tolerated and her performances at the Whitehall Theatre became a fixture of wartime and post-war London.
The wording of the proposed plaque is: "Phyllis Dixey 1914 to 1964, Striptease Artiste lived here in flat number 15."
English Heritage has contacted all residents in the block to get permission, but they have so far refused to grant it.
The residents' association has suggested to English Heritage a different form of words, such as "burlesque" dancer - but its request has been turned down, on the grounds that burlesque describes an American tradition.
Nigel Bruce, the head of the residents' association, said: "Eyebrows were raised when it was discussed at the AGM. Part of the concern was the title that they were thinking of putting on the plaque.
"It would certainly raise the eyebrows of passers-by."
He added: "We have asked if there is any other wording we could have in its place."
Mr Bruce said the association was still considering the matter and that a consultation process had just finished.
One resident opposed to the plaque said: "The word striptease leads you to a certain visual image. I know that is her history, but I would want it to be said in the nicest way possible.
"People would go 'It's the stripper building.'"
Dixey's family are also opposed to the plan, saying the current wording gives a unfortunate impression of their relative. They are also calling for English Heritage to change the wording.
Oliver Dixey, 34, from Pill, near Bristol, whose grandfather was the dancer's brother, said: "It has upset some of the family. To be fair, she was a stripper. There are no bones about it. But we would prefer for her to be called a fan dancer.
"A stripper in 2011 is completely different to what it was when she was doing it. We don't want her portrayed in the same way."
The Wentworth Court residents' association now say they want to support the wishes of the family.
English Heritage's blue plaques panel, which includes Stephen Fry, the broadcaster, shows no signs of backing down.
Minutes from a meeting say: "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."
They are being supported by the British Music Hall Society, which proposed the plaque in the first place. Terry Lomas, from the group, said: "I do understand residents' concerns, but 'striptease artiste' tells what she did.
"Burlesque wouldn't work, and fan dancing was just one of the things she did. She would love to be named as an actress, but that is too bland - and she wasn't a very good one."
An English Heritage spokesman said negotiations were still going on with the owners and the family over the wording.
"We always get consent for plaques from the owners," she said. "Often people are very happy to do it, but in this instance, we are just not getting that from the owners.
"It is about how to describe Dixey's occupation. We want to represent exactly how she was seen, otherwise you lose the meaning of it."
The process by which plaques are awarded is rigorous. In Dixey's case, it has lasted almost nine years since the application for an award was first lodged.
The panel commissions researchers to investigate the historical worth of proposed candidates before deciding whether to go ahead with a plaque.
In the 1930s, prior to Dixey's innovation, the display of nudity in West End theatres was restricted to displays of motionless women, under a ruling by the Lord Chamberlain summed up as "If you move, it's rude".
After her heyday in the 1940s with The Whitehall Follies and the Peek-a-Boo revue, Dixey's star waned as fashion changed and – as she saw it – more coarse nude shows took away her audience. She eventually fell into poverty and was declared bankrupt.
She later worked as a cook and died of cancer in 1964 at the age of 50. Her life was portrayed in the 1978 film The One and Only Phyllis Dixey, starring Lesley-Anne Down.