Katie Boyle, who has died aged 91, was one of the last survivors of an era when popular television did not exclude airs of vivacious gentility. She was made by the BBC, for which she starred in many guises, from compering the Eurovision Song Contest to appearing in gameshows, was watched by millions and even appeared in cheerful commercials for Camay soap.
Boyle was canny as well as beautiful and managed to put the way she looked to good use in a television and modelling career that lasted more than three decades. She admitted at the height of her popularity that she had never been “good at anything, but I’ve always been enthusiastic and wanted to learn – like a sponge absorbing everything”. She declared that “if I were on a desert island I would find something to work at”. She prided herself in being professional, whether presenting fashion shows or opening shops (often) or appearing in films (rarely) and she brought bubbling vivacity and colour to a Britain made grey and austere by the second world war.
At her peak, she seemed to be everywhere on TV and radio, from Juke Box Jury, evaluating pop records, to presenting the Eurovision Song Contest four times between 1960 and 1974. She compered programmes such as Quite Contrary, a blend of sketches and songs, on which she first appeared in the early 1950s in a segment called the Beauty Spot, simply sitting on a gilded throne, wearing a £200 gown and saying nothing while an orchestra played Lovely Lady. At the last moment, she forgot the script (or lack of it) and spontaneously winked straight into camera. The following week, in their own TV show, the comedians Eric Barker and Pearl Hackney had Pearl on a similar gilded throne, holding a frying pan full of sausages.
She appeared throughout the 50s and 60s on gameshows such as The Name’s the Same, I’ve Got a Secret and Pick the Winner. She was in the TV version of The Goon Show and at the 1954 Royal Variety Performance with the Crazy Gang. Her marriages and domestic complications were avidly reported by the newspapers.
She was born Caterina Irene Elena Maria Imperiali di Francavilla in Florence. Her parents, Dorothy (nee Ramsden), a Yorkshirewoman, and the Marchese Demetrio Imperiali di Francavilla, an Italian aristocrat, divorced when Katie was five, and her mother returned to the UK. Katie was educated – or failed to be educated, as she was thrown out of four of the six schools she attended, she said – in Switzerland and Italy.
Relations with her father, who had custody, were complex. The war was on, with Italy then one of the Axis powers. Her father was a fascist on what he saw as patriotic grounds, while simultaneously hiding allied escaped prisoners of war and partisans’ equipment a few yards away from where he was entertaining Nazi officers. It was small wonder that he had an increasingly unpredictable temper, flying into bouts of violent rage which he sometimes took out on his daughter.
When at 18 she had an affair with a married member of the Italian secret police, he locked her in her room for several weeks, later admitting her to a psychiatric hospital. Then, with the allies advancing into Italy and Italy about to change sides, the policeman was executed by partisans. At 20, Katie was sent to Britain and her mother.
Her fascination for show business had started at school when, in a class containing the daughters of many aristocrats, she had been more interested in getting to know Marlene Dietrich’s daughter. On a day out in London, the author Beverley Nichols saw Katie trying on a hat in Bond Street and asked her to model for the illustrations of his Woman’s Own column, which was that week devoted to how a woman chooses a hat.
It set her on her modelling career and when she was offered a schoolgirl part in the 1950 film Old Mother Riley, Headmistress, she immediately agreed. She tended to accept a lot of the work that was offered, including, later, the TV commercials for Camay (“You’ll be a little lovelier each day, with …”) and a part in Dick Whittington at the Theatre Royal, Windsor.
In 1947 she had married Richard Boyle, Viscount Boyle, a captain in the Irish Guards who later succeeded as the Earl of Shannon. They divorced in April 1955. She met her second husband, the Lloyd’s underwriter Greville Baylis, just before setting off on a Vogue modelling tour in Australia: he followed her there, and they were married in August 1955. Even after his death in 1976, even after her marriage in 1979 to the Mousetrap impresario Peter Saunders, Boyle claimed to speak to Baylis, always believing that he “felt good” about her third marriage.
But it was her journalism that proved to be more long-lasting than her show business career. The Sunday Graphic first asked her in the 50s to write a weekly column on fashion and beauty; for 20 years she ran an agony aunt column in the TVTimes and from the 90s one for animal lovers in Dogs Today. A keen owner of Yorkshire terriers, she was a committee member of Battersea Dogs Home for more than 25 years.