JOHN Clinch gazed at the towering, aluminium-alloy structure that was radiant in its freshly applied coats of pinks, yellows, oranges and sky blues before revealing that his work in Swindon was not yet done. He had another idea and it was a good ‘un.

Diana Dors,” he announced, flatly. John is holding court in ‘J’ Shop, The Iron Foundry at the former Great Western Railway Works. It is a huge, cavernous building which, despite the presence of a handful of people and some pigeons conveys an almost otherworldly eeriness.

Once a maelstrom of shouts, clatters, laughter and curses, it was vacated 14 months earlier on Black Thursday, March 27, 1986, when the shutters finally fell on Swindon Railway Works following nearly 150 years of state-of-the-art technology.

After the production of innumerable locos, rolling stock and wagons, the very last item to roll out of the complex was, bizarrely, a sculpture depicting two acrobats, one standing on the other’s shoulders waving an umbrella.

It is intriguing to wonder what Mr Brunel would have made of it all.

Created by John – a sculptor and principal arts lecturer at Nottingham – in association with some former Swindon railway workers, The Great Blondinis was bound for a pride-of-place location in the town centre where it would attract some fondness and occasional derision.

But John was not finished with our town yet. At least, he hoped not. He had done his homework and, convinced everyone would agree, he felt that Swindon needed something very special in honour of someone very special.

What he was thinking was a pumped-up, louder than bombs, heavy metal (ok, bronze) no holds barred statue of Our Favourite Daughter – the Fifties dream queen who illuminated dreary post-war Britain and became the only Swindonian to adorn the world’s most famous album sleeve, Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.

John was surprised that there wasn’t already a statue of Diana Dors in town. A bust yes, by no statue. We certainly had one of Brunel, but sexy it wasn’t.

“It’s a great ambition of mine to sculpt Diana and I’ll be approaching the necessary authorities,” he told us at the redundant rail works in May 1987 while applying the finishing touches to The Great Blondinis.

John, 52, was of an age when visions of a Young Diana would have seriously messed with his teenage mind not to mention other regions. “Diana was a local person and I think a statue of her somewhere in Swindon would be great.

“I hope to create something that would capture all that amazing vitality Diana had.”

And so, eventually, he did… It is 15 years since the death of John Clinch, 66, who left behind an impressive CV of striking sculptures that grace cities and towns including Liverpool, Glasgow, Cardiff, Milton Keynes and Barry Island.

Among them are two large-scale pieces that have enhanced Swindon’s not unimpressive collection of public works-of-art.

John was head of sculpture at Trent University in 1985 when he was selected by a 20-strong panel of judges from a short-list of four to create a major work for Swindon town centre in the £14,000 Great Thamesdown Sculpture Contest.

Models of the quartet’s proposed works went on display in Debenhams’ window to gauge public reaction.

The comments of more than 1,000 who bothered responding were deemed “encouraging and helpful.”

Judges eventually went for John’s idea based around a big-top act which regularly appeared at Swindon’s annual children’s fete (a 1939 programme lists The Great Blondinis as going on between The Revolving Ladder Act and The Laughter Pedlars.) They liked his “colourful figurative style” and felt something along those lines would do much to enliven the town centre.

The casting was undertaken at the ex-railworks site and the project took 18 months.

In July 1987 the lofty sculpture, which John envisaged rising majestically above the shops, was installed amidst some hoo-ha at Wharf Green… but not without a spot of Pythonesque whimsy.

The piece was draped in a huge cloth which had become so entangled in the sculpture’s upper regions that Mayor Peter Owen couldn’t yank it off.

Luckily, a couple of busking stilt-walkers happened by, as is often the case, to gently unveil The Great Blondinis without mishap.

Over the years attempts by nocturnal carousers in time-honoured tradition to place a traffic cone on top of Ms Blondini’s blue polka-dot ribbon headpiece were thwarted by the structure’s sheer 17ft stature.

And so to Diana… Three years after planting the seed of an idea in 1987 John Clinch, then a full-time sculptor, was tasked with re-creating in bronze the former Diana Fluck of Marlborough Road as a £25,000 focal point at the new MGM cinema at Shaw Ridge.

With considerable relish, John revealed he would portray Diana, who died at 52 in 1984, not as the comely character actress with a winsome line in comedy that she later became but as the steamy, voluptuous silver-screen siren of her heyday.

He would fashion this supreme example of sultry femininity as she appeared in the 1956 drama Yield To The Night – her finest hour as a celluloid heroine.

Clad in an ever-so-slinky silk gown and stole, John’s Diana would be seven feet tall…a tad larger-than-life, perhaps to emphasise the force of her physique and personality.

While completing the work at his Pembrokeshire foundry, John said: “I’ve become very fond of Diana Dors. She was a much more complex person than you could imagine.”

Lola Vavoom – as fantasy author Jasper Fforde enjoyed referring to John’s piece in his Parallel Swindon – can still be admired in situ quarter-of-a-century after her unveiling.

  • WHILE hardly ranking among Agatha Christie’s most puzzling whodunnits, a bronze bust of Diana Dors sparked mystery at the Wyvern Theatre 20 years ago.

    Created by local sculptor Enid Mitchell, it was bolted next to a stairwell at the foyer in 1986.

    Ten years later, in May 1996, the lady vanished. Someone had swiped it, said the Wyvern. Staff were quizzed, the premises scoured and police informed.

    But Ms Dors striking bust was nowhere to be seen. Theatre manager Wendy Hughes said: “We’re completely baffled.”

    Two weeks later, Diana’s eye-catching visage was back, having been located in the basement.

    Unlike Agatha’s yarns, its disappearance remained a “complete mystery.” Staff remained “baffled” though delighted to have her back. Cynics among us, however, may have smelt a publicity stunt… “DORS cast in permanent role” went the newspaper I used to work for on the morning after a little bit of Hollywood glitz sparkled in Swindon.

    ‘Diana Dors – Film Star’ was unveiled during a gala evening on Friday, June 14, 1991 by Britain’s leading film producer of the day, David Puttnam (Chariots of Fire, Memphis Belle, The Killing Fields…).

    He had worked with Diana in 1972 on The Pied Piper, one of her last films. “She was capable of outstanding performances,” he said.

    Lord Puttnam of Queensgate, as he is now, was joined at Shaw Ridge by Diana’s son Jason Lake, and her eight month old granddaughter Megan.

    It was a dicky-bow occasion during which Yield To The Night was screened to a specially invited audience.

    Also present, veteran singer Jess Conrad said: “Diana was the only platonic girlfriend I ever had. A day does not go by when I don’t think about her.'' 

  • BORN in Folkestone in 1934, John Clinch was training as an accountant when he discovered a love and talent for the arts at evening classes.

    Having served his National Service as a military policeman, he became an award winning student at Royal College of Art’s school of sculpture.

    Clinch both taught and created sculptures in the UK and abroad. One of his first major commissions Wish You Were Here (1983) in Liverpool depicts three relaxed sea-siders – a man enjoying a beer, and two girls waving and pointing at the sights.

    The Guardian wrote: “His personality was reflected in his sculptures. Accessible and populist – his own description. His work has an inherent wit.”

    He was an avid collector of tin toys which especially influenced The Great Blondinis.

    Clinch was elected an associate of the Royal Society of British Sculptors in 1992, soon after completing ‘Diana Dors – Film Star.’ Other works include Vox Pop – The Family (Milton Keynes), The Winchers (Glasgow), Beside The Seaside... Beside The Sea (Barry Island) and People Like Us (Cardiff.) Shortly before his death he was working on a statue of Bobby Moore for West Ham United when he became ill and could not complete the commission.

  • FOR 14 years The Great Blondinis had delighted, intrigued and perhaps irked town centre shoppers.

    It certainly ruffled the feathers of some Tories who refused to back any plan the Labour-run council came up to refurbish the area if it included our garish aluminium acrobats.

    Swindon Conservatives leader Mike Bawden fumed: “I wanted a sculpture showing three or four railwaymen at work, but we ended up with this.”

    One day without warning it was carted off while the area was revamped minus our metallic troupe.

    Eight years later, having undergone some restoration itself, it popped up in St Mark’s Rec at Gorse Hill like a long lost friend.

    Great to have ’em back. The expressions on the acrobats’ faces are priceless… it looks as though he’s going to drop her any second.