Flour bombs and a football rattle were all it took in 1970 to cause chaos at the 20th Miss World beauty pageant at the Royal Albert Hall in London.
As US comedian Bob Hope compered the event with a relentlessly sexist narrative that was part of the cultural wallpaper 50 years ago (“I don’t want you to think I’m a dirty old man because I never give women a second thought. My first thought covers everything”), a sudden clacking sound rang out.
This was the signal for dozens of women seated amid the mainstream audience to take action. Sarah Wilson’s football rattle disrupted the event earlier than planned. She could no longer stand it.
At her signal, flour bombs and smoke bombs were launched, bouncers were squirted with ink from water pistols, wilted lettuces flung towards the stage, and a blizzard of leaflets protesting the event floated from balconies like a ticker tape parade. Hope legged it to the wings, as chants of “we’re not beautiful, we’re not ugly, we’re angry” echoed through the hall.
One of the protestors, Sally Alexander, propelled by fury and adrenaline, leaped over seats towards the stage.
She got as far as the front barrier before being stopped by security. She was carried from the building by her arms and legs.
Only when all of the protesting women, fashionably dressed to blend in and gain access, their handbags full of flour bombs, were removed from the venue could the contest resume.
Hope was shoved back on stage so reluctant that the event’s co-organiser Julia Morley reportedly had to physically hold onto him to prevent him absconding, and afterwards disputing her husband Eric’s claim that Hope was “a brave man”.
The 58 contestants pleaded with police to leave the protesting women go free, just as the protestors insisted they had no quarrel with the individual women taking part in the pageant.
Earlier, the Angry Brigade had blown up a BBC van broadcasting the pageant from outside the venue. It was an eventful evening.
And now it’s a film. Misbehaviour, starring Keira Knightly as Sally Alexander, is out in March, and co-stars Gugu Mbatha-Raw as Jennifer Holsten, the first black woman to win the competition. Hope had a fine line in light-hearted racist banter too, as was culturally acceptable in 1970.
Keeley Hawes plays the steely Julia Morley, former beauty queen, and wife of Miss World founder Eric; Mrs World, as she is known, has run the event since her husband’s death in 2000.
Eric Morley is played by Rhys Ifans, and Greg Kinnear and Lesley Manville play Bob and Dolores Hope. Directed by Philippa Lowthorpe (The Other Boleyn Girl, Three Girls), the film is edited by Úna Ní Dhonghaíle, who won a Bafta for her work on Three Girls.
What a 2020 audience may find incomprehensible is how enormous the 1970 audience was for Miss World.
This was mainstream family viewing, with 25 million people in the UK gathered in front of their tellies, part of the 100 million audience worldwide, all gawping at 58 women sashaying around a stage in sashes and swimsuits.
More people were watching Miss World than the Moon landings the previous year, or the World Cup final. It was the height of glamour, so long as nobody (female) expressed an opinion.
Professor Sally Alexander, then a 26-year-old mature student and parent of a small child, remembers the “sense of exhilaration and excitement” as she and her peers in the fledgling Women’s Liberation Movement planned the best way to interrupt the idea that watching women in swimsuits, required to measure 36-24-36, was a good idea.
“If we could disrupt the spectacle going into everyone’s homes, it would make an impact,” she recalls in a BBC interview.
She describes how she “had to climb over people who were horrified” in her bid to reach the stage. Women were not meant to behave like that. Women were decorative, passive, docile. domestic.
She says it was “one of the most spectacular conscious raising episodes” of the Women’s Movement. “It did leave its mark.”
One Londoner watching the contest at home on television was so excited when the flour bombs went off that she ran from her sitting room to the Albert Hall, to join in.
Although we are still, and always will be, suckers for beauty, the determination and guts of people like Sally Alexander helped reframe cultural attitudes.
Hope symbolised and personified the chasm of gender inequality as a favourite of the US presidents and a regular visitor to the US armed forces then trashing Vietnam, he embodied the patriarchy.
As well as his Benny Hill-style patter, he believed that women were “born to be defined by their physical attributes” and “born to give birth”.
In his defence of beauty contests, he said that if a woman was “born pretty, [she was] born lucky” which made it “possible and acceptable, within the bourgeois ethic, for girls to parade, silent and smiling, to be judged on the merits of their figures and faces”.
And he wondered why women threw flour bombs.
The Miss World format — “charm, grace, deportment, swimsuits” — began in 1951 in London, initially as a one off event connected with the Festival of Britain.
There were 20 UK entrants and six from overseas. Eric Morley, the TV presenter who also founded the long-running show Come Dancing, realised he was onto a good thing.
By 1964, there were endless double entendres from male presenters and prize money of £2,500 for the winner. The event had corporate support and BBC coverage until the 1980s.
In 1996 in India, 1,500 people were arrested during protests, mostly from members of the conservative Hindu nationalist party the BJP, that the contest was demeaning to women; one man set himself on fire. (He died).
The Morleys kept calm and carried on.
Alongside other outmoded cultural institutions like James Bond, Miss World has since been rebranded by Julia Morley as Beauty With Purpose, with contestants judged on “intelligence and personality” as well as their face and body.
Morley, described by the producer of the Misbehaviour movie Suzanne Mackie as a “very pragmatic woman” who was “prepared to change the show and how the women were presented”, took the events of 1970 onboard, and made significant efforts to modernise the contest, even though the core idea — women’s appearances in competition with one another — remains unchanged.
Miss World still exists today, and there are still swimsuits. It was won by an Irish model,Rosanna Davison, in 2003, although the countries which have produced the most winners are India and Venezuela.
In 2015, The Telegraph asked, “What’s so wrong with being a beauty queen?”
In an era of internet porn and Harvey Weinstein, of Donald Trump and right-wing conservatism, swimsuits seem the least of our problems.
It’s what the swimsuits represent is the problem — something as naff, dated and sexist as a 1970’s James Bond movie. No amount of 21st century rebranding can gloss over that.