She spent her career being chased by vampires, 007 and David Hasselhoff. And she also found time to sing with Cream and Gary Numan. Was it all as much fun as it looked?
Stuart Jeffries – The Guardian
One day, 50 years ago, a solicitor walking to work through Waterloo station in London noticed a 30ft-tall woman. She was dressed in an unzipped scuba top and was brandishing a knife drawn from a scabbard strapped to her bare thigh. It was his daughter. “Dad knew I was going to be the Lamb’s Navy Rum girl, but not that I would be on a billboard,” says Caroline Munro. “He said it was a bit of a shock.”
Over the next decade, Munro’s parents got used to seeing their daughter writ large and wearing smalls. There she was on the cover of the Music for Pleasure Hot Hits 11 album, practising archery in a bikini and knee-high suede boots. There she was with Peter Cushing, exploring the underworld, in minimal clothes but lots of eyeliner, in At the Earth’s Core (1976). And there she was opposite David Hasselhoff in the 1978 movie Starcrash, her limbs swathed, but only in cellophane.
For a decade, she remained the face of Lamb’s Navy Rum. “Join the Lamb’s Navy,” went the slogan. “It’s where the action is.” The Office for National Statistics holds no data on whether naval recruitment rose during the 1970s, but intuitively it seems likely that squads of would-be sailors signed up after seeing Munro wearing a naval jacket with epaulettes and little else.
“I loved the job,” she says. “We had shoots in all kinds of exotic places.” And Cornwall. “I remember being in the sea in the winter. Not a good day.”
Didn’t her religious parents object to their only child getting into the scanty end of modelling? “I think they were pleased that I found a career that I enjoyed. I had dyslexia which, for a long time, really undermined my confidence. I think my mother hoped I would become a window dresser.”
The unexpected path first opened up in the mid-60s when a photo a friend took of her when she was 16 won the Evening News’s Face of the Year competition, which was judged by David Bailey. She doesn’t remember the snap, other than that she was freckly. Modelling gigs came quickly, including a shoot for American Vogue in which, she says, she had to sit in the sea off Malta modelling knitwear.
I am agog at the news: Roger Moore – her co-star in The Spy Who Loved Me – also started off as a knitwear model. “Oh that’s right! I knew there was something about him I liked. His knitwear was very classic, really.”
In 1967, Munro, who had sung in her church choir, released her first single, a breathy ditty called Tar and Cement, recorded at Abbey Road. Her backing band was Eric Clapton, Jack Bruce and Ginger Baker, better known as Cream, alongside the future Yes guitarist Steve Howe. She remembers Baker driving her up the Mall in an open-topped Jaguar to the photoshoot; an image in keeping with the Austin Powers-ish tang of her life at this time. But it’s the B-side, This Sporting Life, the 70-year-old Munro sings to me today over coffee. “‘I’m getting tired of hanging around / Think I will marry and settle down / Because this old night life / This old sport life / Is killing me.’ I was only 16, just out of convent school when I sang that. It was ridiculous, really. I didn’t know anything about living a sporting life.”
Earlier that year, her dad had dropped her off at Elstree studios to play one of Woody Allen’s gun-toting guards in the James Bond spoof Casino Royale. “We all wore chain mail dresses and gladiator boots. My mum was thrilled. She loved Woody Allen’s work.”
Her first speaking role came in the 1969 comedy western A Talent for Loving. “They wanted someone who looked Mexican. I had to speak with an accent.” What was the story? “My father has to marry me off because of the family curse – we love too much.” Essentially, the plot demanded that Munro’s character be cured of her ancestral nymphomania. “My love interest in the film was Derek Nimmo.” You mean Just a Minute’s Derek Nimmo? “That’s him. Lovely Derek!”
But Munro’s big acting break, in 1972, was thanks not to such screen work but her continuing efforts for booze and seamen. James Carreras, head of Hammer horror, had also been transfixed by a Lamb’s Navy Rum billboard. As a result, she became – like Ingrid Pitt, Joanna Lumley, Kate O’Mara – fated to spend aeons being nibbled by gaunt men with false teeth.
She signed a contract at the studio and starred with Christopher Lee in Dracula AD 1972. “That was when I realised I wanted to be an actor. It made me get serious and study for it.” In Captain Kronos – Vampire Hunter, she played the barefoot Gypsy girl Carla whom the eponymous captain saves from bloodsuckers. It has some fabulous dialogue. “What he doesn’t know about vampirism,” says the captain of his hunchbacked assistant, “wouldn’t fill a fly’s codpiece.”
“They were planning a sequel, but it never happened,” says Munro, sadly.
Despite a recent flip-flop-related fall that wrenched two fingers and left some nasty bruising on her face, Munro remains glamorous. Presumably she has been the victim of endless unwanted sexual advances? Again, her story is one of confounding sunniness. “I wasn’t! Everybody behaved very well to me. I didn’t expect anything else. I think it’s terrible what these women have had to deal with. I was treated with great courtesy throughout my career, though.”
There was one near-incident, in fact, involving a Hollywood producer who had rented the whole top floor of Claridge’s hotel in London. “I walked in, and I ran out.” Why? “He was with his girlfriend, but there was something wrong. Something I didn’t care for. I just made my excuses and ran. It was an instinctive thing.” She declines to elaborate, but mentions the film she was there to discuss: Two for the Road, the Stanley Donen-directed romcom starring Audrey Hepburn and Albert Finney.
In 1977, the producer of the Bond films, Cubby Broccoli, cast her as Bond villainess Naomi in The Spy Who Loved Me. In one scene, Roger Moore’s Bond arrives in Sardinia, posing as a marine biologist. Naomi, sporting a bikini and diaphanous peignoir, sashays to her boat, as Bond comments: “What a handsome craft – such lovely lines.”
Later, Naomi is tasked with killing Bond and his accomplice, which she attempts to do from her helicopter, shooting at the Lotus Esprit while Bond negotiates Sardinian corniches. Then 007 turns the tables: his car, souped up by Q, becomes a submarine, which fires a deadly rocket at Naomi’s chopper. What do you remember of the shoot? “Well, I didn’t fly the helicopter. That was a lovely stunt man in a black wig.” She filmed her scenes sitting in a helicopter in London.
No matter. Munro became a Bond girl. She talks enthusiastically about sharing memories with fellow members of that elite club on the festival circuit. “The roles are getting better for women. When you think about it, the most iconic Bond girl is Judi Dench.”
But after romping with Hasselhoff in space in Starcrash, whose spin-off merchandise includes a collectible Caroline Munro ray-gun-waving action figure (do leather bikini bottoms feature holsters as standard? Sure, why not?), she changed course. In the slasher film Maniac she played a photographer romanced by a New York serial killer who scalps his victims. It remains something of a cult favourite, although at the time it attracted some interest from some British police forces as a putative video nasty.
Munro’s musical endeavours also continued: in 1985, she recorded a single, Pump Me Up, with Gary Numan, a piece of electropop very much of its time. “It was a big hit in Italy,” she says. She would still like to make more records – country rock, would be her preference, she says, before cautioning: “You haven’t heard how out of tune I sound on some of my records. I’m not exactly Aretha Franklin.”
Her career could have taken a different turn had she moved to the US. “I went there to audition for some daytime soap in the 80s: Young and Restless or The Bold and the Beautiful – I forget which. But my parents were ageing by then and I didn’t want to leave them.” Her loyalty to them also meant she turned down the role of comic book heroine Vampirella, for whom she would have to shed her clothes entirely.
Instead, she became a hostess on Ted Rogers’ Yorkshire TV gameshow 3-2-1 and had two daughters, Georgina and Iona, with her second husband, the writer-director George Dugdale who directed her in Slaughter High.
The journalist and broadcaster Samira Ahmed once wrote an article about how being Munro’s neighbour made her re-evaluate her loathing of 70s objectification. “I saw her almost every day; those unmistakeable exotic eyes on a middle-aged mum: in the supermarket, walking her daughter to school, signing autographs on the street for bedazzled men. Perhaps she serves to remind us to be wary of sweeping judgments about decades and attitudes. For all the horrors that lurked within the 70s, many who were there did, after all, make their peace with it and grow up just fine.”
Ahmed is right: Munro made her peace and grew up fine. She is still wedded to 1970s horror, last year appearing in The House of the Gorgon, a crowdfunded Hammer homage movie directed by and starring a 23-year-old Texan, which was shot in six days. And she is also, with no apparent clash, “all for female empowerment” and recently went on the Women’s March in London. “I love the fact that women speak out now,” she says, even if she – remarkably – never needed to. “I never expected to become an actor. I’ve loved every minute of it and I’ve been very lucky.”
The Spy Who Loved me is screened at the Regent Street Cinema, London, on 16 June, followed by a Q&A with Munro