Published: 18:22 EST, 28 September 2014 | Updated: 21:13 EST, 28 September 2014
The first time I glimpsed Brigitte Bardot in the flesh - and those words are apt, as it turned out - I was still at school. I had been invited by an actor friend to visit Pinewood Studios, where Dirk Bogarde was filming the comedy Doctor At Sea.
For several minutes I was allowed to stand at the back of the set watching rehearsals for a shower scene. A young girl of devastating physical attraction, with provocatively pouting lips and large, inviting and smouldering brown eyes, emerged into view, clutching a bath towel which failed to conceal the fact she was naked underneath.
You could have heard a pin drop on that set. The attention of every man there was riveted on that sinuous figure, who raised and lowered the towel mischievously while a stills photographer attempted to get shots that could be decently published.
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French film icon and sex symbol Brigitte Bardot on the set of Les Femmes in 1969
As she romped with gazelle-like grace across the set, revealing more and more of her amazing body, it became apparent that she had strips of flesh-coloured sticking plaster concealing her nipples and her pubic hair.
In a gesture that would have seemed brazen but for her uninhibited merriment, she dropped the towel, ripped off the sticking plasters, and stood before us all as nature had made her, throwing her head back with explosive laughter, a free spirit, utterly defying convention.
As the film studio erupted with male wolf-whistles, a publicity man frogmarched me off the set at the speed of light, insisting: 'That was simply... um... improvisation. It will not be appearing in the film.'
Such was my astonished introduction to the 20-year-old Brigitte Bardot, described by Time magazine as 'France's most ogled export', who was to become the most incandescent and liberated screen sex symbol of her age. Yesterday, at her secluded home in Saint-Tropez, this legendary and increasingly reclusive figure, a grandmother twice over, arrived at the age of 80.
Bardot, born 100 yards from the Eiffel Tower, was essentially a French phenomenon
Screen star Brigitte Bardot in trailer for Two Weeks In September
There are other celebrated stars who have turned 80 this year, Shirley MacLaine and Sophia Loren among them, both of whom go on working without causing a furore over their lives and legends.
Yet more than 40 years after she made her last film and turned her back on movie stardom for ever, it is Bardot who continues to create headlines, command attention and arouse curiosity.
Why? The answer to that lies in the nature of her sexuality.
Marilyn Monroe, a woman who was entirely her own invention, and whose private sex life was an unmitigated disaster, is often credited with having changed the world's outlook on sex. That view is hard to sustain.
Looked at now, Monroe's performances seem contrived. The breathy delivery, the over-made-up lips, the tight dresses accentuating breasts and buttocks, all of it now comes across as acting sex.
But Bardot, born 100 yards from the Eiffel Tower, was essentially a French phenomenon with a Gallic and European attitude to sex, virtually unknown to British and American audiences in the Fifties.
The girl who cavorted in front of me on that unforgettable day at Pinewood wasn't acting sexy. Sex was an essential part of who she was.
Bardot never wanted to be an actress. She wanted to be a ballerina. The elder daughter of affluent and strait-laced Catholic parents, she studied for three years at the Conservatoire de Paris.
The elder daughter of affluent and strait-laced Catholic parents, she wanted to be a ballerina, not an actress
Bardot's status as a sex symbol meant that she struggled to hold down a stable relationship
It if hadn't been for the film director Roger Vadim, later her first husband, spotting her photograph on the front of Elle magazine, and recommending her to other directors, it is doubtful if her career would have happened. When it did, it is impossible to overstate the extraordinary impact she created across the world.
In an age of black and white television and banal popular music, she streaked across the showbiz skies like some fantastic comet, a genuine trailblazer and innovator.
It is no coincidence that among her devoted admirers were those other trailblazers, who changed popular music for ever, The Beatles.
In the post-war era, ruled by rationing and economic deprivation, Bardot was a truly emancipating influence on women. Prim housewives went to the cinema and learned suddenly that there was nothing unnatural with displaying their physical attractions.
Bardot, who has just turned 80, poses in a bikini on the set of 1963 film le Mepris
It is easy to forget that for decades, centuries even, unfettered expressions of female sexuality had been virtually taboo. This was, in its own way, a social revolution.
Up on the screen, there was this uninhibited, laughing girl, wearing flimsy garments and basking in male admiration.
And as I knew from our encounter at Pinewood, this was no act. Single-handedly, Bardot made the bikini a must-have fashion accessory for women everywhere.
Inevitably, the massive fame she achieved destroyed her private life and relationships.
It is small wonder that three of her marriages collapsed. Roger Vadim, who wrote and directed the steamy movie And God Created Woman, which made her a world star, managed to remain friends after their divorce and went on to direct her in three further films.
But publicity slogans such as '...and the Devil created Bardot', and the 'Sex Kitten', undermined and emasculated the men in her life. Her second husband, actor Jacques Charrier, consumed by jealousy, tried to hang himself, and she found herself unable to relate to their baby son, who was raised by his father's family.
Bardot, seen here smoking, was given such slogans as '...and the Devil created Bardot' and the 'Sex Kitten'
Even her third husband, the millionaire German playboy Gunther Sachs, gave up after three years. Many of her lovers - such as French singer Sacha Distel, who had towering ambitions of his own - walked away out of fear of ending up as merely 'Monsieur Bardot'.
Not surprisingly, this lack of stability had a deeply demoralising effect on her, leading to a succession of suicide attempts.
She had no respect for celebrity. She turned down film roles opposite Frank Sinatra, Steve McQueen and Marlon Brando. She complained of being unable even to open a window because a battery of telescopic lenses were trained on her every movement.
Small wonder that by the age of 39, after 47 films, she walked away from the spotlight and plunged headlong into campaigning for animal rights, beginning in 1977 with her efforts to end the killing of baby seals in Canada.
She has sold valuable jewellery to fund the Brigitte Bardot Foundation for the Welfare and Protection of Animals.
Over the years, her public pronouncements have become increasingly uncompromising. In 1994, she denounced Sophia Loren's decision to pose in furs for ads as 'degrading, repugnant, lamentable and unworthy to accept money stained with the blood of animals'.
Bardot at the Elysee palace in Paris, after a meeting with French President Nicolas Sarkozy in 2007
Five times in recent years, she has been fined by French courts for inciting racial and religious hatred by her statements on Muslim immigration and the 'Islamicisation of France'. (Her fourth husband is a wealthy industrialist and a supporter of the far-right French party Front National.)
There was an outspoken attack on modern art, and on contemporary homosexuals, some of whom she considered behave like 'fairground freaks'.
Taken to task, she wrote to a magazine insisting that gays 'for years... have been my support, my friends, my adopted children, my confidants'.
Today, invariably dressed in black, and often using a cane to counteract the effects of an arthritic hip, she emerges seldom from La Madrague, her secluded home off the beaten track in Saint-Tropez.
Famously, she has allowed the passing years to do their worst. She admits, without concern, to 'faded beauty'.
But if Bardot is without nostalgia for her glory years, there are millions who can never forget the joyous and captivating nymph whose bewitching charms drove men - and some women - to distraction, and who changed the world's vision of sexuality for ever.