On Location: Diana Dors’ Fantasy Manor

One of my oldest friends lives in Sunningdale, a village on the Surrey-Berkshire border, in the Royal Borough of Windsor. I went to visit her recently and, as a bonus, re-traced some of Mary’s steps. Traditionally well-loved by celebrities – due to its proximity to London – Sunningdale has, since the 1960s, played home to Cliff Richard, Bruce Forsyth, Richard Beckinsale, Ringo Starr and John Lennon. Its most infamous residents, however, were Diana Dors and Alan Lake, who lived here for 17 years. My friend lives next to the Catholic Cemetery where the pair are buried side-by-side. The graveyard is a small, bleak paddock and Dors’ and Lake’s joint-plots sit at the furthest point, facing the main road. The white marble gravestones are now stained leaf green, and at their bases sits a jumble of faded plastic flowers, cheap trinkets and spent candles left by fans, but nobody has tended these plots for a long time. It’s been over 30 years since Dors and Lake died, but their memorials promise they are still ‘only a whisper away…’

Diana Dors & Alan Lake at home

Dors first discovered Sunningdale in 1967, having just divorced her second husband Richard ‘Dickie’ Dawson. Reluctantly signing over custody of her two young sons, Mark and Gary, to her ex-husband in America, the actress suddenly found herself homeless; she immediately sought out a house in easy commuting-distance of London. Sunningdale is home to many fine Georgian mansions, but it was a modest mock-Tudor house, in three acres of grounds, which initially caught her eye. The house was called Orchard Manor, standing at the far end of Shrubbs Hill Lane. Snaking off from the busy A30 – which now constantly thunders with the sound of heavy traffic on its way into the capital – Shrubbs Hill Lane is a pleasantly green, access-only road (in places little more than a gravel track), and about as rural as Berkshire gets.

Dors quickly purchased the house and, over the next few years, set about converting it into a residence befitting a movie star, albeit a faded one. With Lake’s help (the couple met and married in 1968), Dors knocked two bedrooms together to make a master-suite with sunken bath, and extended the lounge to include a bar area and enormous 5-feet-high back-projection TV screen. Orchard Manor’s most impressive feature, however, was the vast indoor Egyptian-style pool, with art-deco glass windows, multiple pillars, en-suite jacuzzi and sauna. Next to the side of the pool stood Dors’ bamboo throne, as seen on the cover of her 1984 book Diana Dors’ A-Z of Men. To top it off, the entire house was adorned with Dors’ trademark fake leopard-skin furnishings and luxurious white shag-pile carpet throughout.

Diana Dors pool

When Dors met Lake, her career was in the doldrums, and Lake was a relatively unknown actor nine years her junior. Their relationship was tempestuous, explosive and occasionally violent; on the set of 1972’s Swedish Wildcats Lake flew into a jealous rage and tried to strangle her. Dors’ friend Jess Conrad also recalls Lake often carrying a gun in his jacket pocket, but the couple stayed a partnership for 16 years, bound together by some inexplicable attraction. In a strange way, Dors and Lake were completely addicted to each other, despite the fact that as a duo they were dangerous and unpredictable. Diana fought her own demons, namely an addiction to food, and Lake was an alcoholic and recreational drug user; they also shared a joint love of sex parties. As with Dors’ previous house in America, Orchard Manor had guest-bedrooms fitted with two-way mirrors and spy cameras, so she and Lake could watch, and videotape, their friends having sex. Orchard Manor’s lavish parties were legendary and Jason Dors-Lake, Diana’s youngest son (born in 1969) remembers taking drugs with his father at the age of nine, and watching porn films with him. Diana just turned a blind eye.

Orchard Manor 2015

During his April 2014 trail at Southwark Crown Court for indecent assault, publicist Max Clifford told the jury he attended several ‘sex parties’ at Orchard Manor, which were attended by groups of escort girls especially invited to entertain the high-profile guests, like Richard Harris and Oliver Reed. One of those young women was Mary Millington. Dors first befriended Mary during the shooting of Keep It Up Downstairs in 1975. To the outside world Dors and Lake were Mary’s loyal showbiz friends, but behind closed doors the couple ruthlessly exploited her; allegedly supplying her with drugs, and using her contacts to get as many women to the Orchard Manor parties as possible. By 1978 Mary was socialising with the Lakes on a very regular basis and Jason Dors-Lake recalls occasions where Mary was seen running around the garden totally naked, pursued by male guests. The showbiz couple were also frequent visitors to Mary’s beautiful home at Walton-on-the-Hill. For a long time, the Lakes seemed utterly obsessed with Mary; even after her death Dors and her husband endlessly re-played the sex scene between him and Mary from Confessions from the David Galaxy Affair on their huge television screen.

There are other more sinister tales from Orchard Manor, which have recently been reported in the press. In February this year, a woman who had alleged that Jason Dors-Lake had physically assaulted her, made sensational claims at Highbury Magistrates’ Court that Dors and Lake were actually paedophiles, who had abused her when she was a child. The case was subsequently thrown out by the judge, and Jason calmly insisted outside court: “I was exposed to a lot of things when I was younger, but never anything between adults and children.”

Orchard Manor, Sunningdale

Walking up Shrubbs Hill Lane now, past the newly-built million-pound mansions, it’s easy to imagine Mary driving here in her little yellow Triumph, parking up outside Orchard Manor and being taken inside by the Lakes. Dors died of cancer in May 1984. Five months later Lake committed suicide by blowing his brains out in Jason’s bedroom; astonishingly, he had kept his gun hidden amongst his son’s things.

Orchard Manor, and its contents, was sold in 1985 for £284,000. Tragically, Jason came away with virtually nothing, and has had to rebuild his life from scratch. The Manor remained pretty much unchanged for the next 20 years and was last on the market in 2007, when it sold for £1,550,000. Strangely, unlike many of its stylish neighbours, the house has not been demolished and rebuilt as a totally new modern home; it looks much the same from the outside. Incredibly, the peeling, painted sign on the entrance pillar is the exact same one from Dors’ time living at the address. The pool may still echo with the sounds of parties, but, ultimately, Orchard Manor was not a happy place for Mary. David Sullivan told me: “Mary was totally star-struck by Diana. She was seduced by people in the showbiz world, but they weren’t really her friends. They were her downfall…”

All words and original photographs strictly © Simon Sheridan 2015-2016

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