Britain has never really been very good at porn. Perhaps the fact that it was ostensibly illegal until 2000 (the law didn’t specifically outlaw hardcore, but everyone knew that was what was considered ‘obscene’, even if actual court cases tended to end in acquittal) didn’t help. But erotica has always been treated with a snigger here, when not seen as causing the downfall of society. Not the sort of thing to be discussed in polite society, and definitely the sort of thing that will kill your career stone dead if you engage in it, even now. You can be a convicted drug dealer, or even kill someone, and you’ll still get a media career afterwards, but if you are filmed having sex on screen, then you can forget it.
Mary Millington was arguably Britain’s first – and for a very long time, only – sex superstar (we might make a case for Fiona Richmond, but she never did hardcore), and paid the price – police raids, arrests on trumped up charges, harassment, ridicule and a film industry that closed its doors to her (even though her films gave much needed work to technicians and jobbing has-beens alike) all pushed her to mental breakdown, compulsive kleptomania (which in turn led to more arrests), a cocaine habit encouraged by Diana Doors and, eventually, her suicide in 1979, aged just 33. A tragic end to a life that had once glittered with promise.
Millington was a sexual libertarian who had an open marriage, assorted boyfriends, worked as an escort and took to glamour modelling and then hardcore filmmaking like a duck to water. Her early short Miss Borlock, made by prolific British hardcore filmmaker John Lindsay, was one of the most famous 8mm loops on the 1970s, and her heavily promoted work in boyfriend David Sullivan’s magazines – Playbirds, Private, the cheekily titled Whitehouse – made her more famous than anyone might have expected.
In 1977, she starred in George Harrison-Marks’ Come Play With Me, a turgid, almost unwatchably bad softcore sex comedy that of course had them queuing round the block and ran in one London cinema for five years – making it the longest running British film of all time. More films followed, and Mary began to develop a degree of acting skill – but she could never break away from the sex film world, and the more famous she became, the bigger the target for the authorities she was.
Respectable director Simon Sheridan has, over the last decade and a half, determinedly built a career as an expert on British sexploitation and cult cinema. Starting with his biography of Millington, Come Play With Me, he has carved out a niche as the man to go to for sleeve notes, books and general expertise. Whether or not he actually is the expert on the subject is a matter of debate, but he’s certainly the most successful. This documentary has had a troubled production – disagreements saw the original director leave the project and Sheridan take over as director, and if the copyright date is correct, then it has taken three years from production to release. It now comes to DVD after premiering on local TV station London Live.
The film is a rather thorough telling of the Millington story, featuring interviews with Sullivan, family members, co-stars, fellow models like Linzi Drew and a rather annoying ex-boyfriend who says ‘fuck’ a lot and gets rather too much screen time. Death or a desire not to be dragged back into the story makes for a few notable absences (the late 1990s TV documentary about Millington, Sex and Fame, managed to get John Lindsay, but he’s notably missing here, as is Millington’s husband Bob and the deceased John M. East, erstwhile agent, sleazeball and the last person to speak to her), but this is probably as thorough a collection of faces as you could hope for. There are plenty of film clips, including a fair chunk of hardcore footage (justified by the documentary status of the film) and an archive audio interview with Mary allows her to speak for herself throughout the film.
However, the story is oddly uninvolving. Part of this might be the voiceover by Dexter Fletcher, which rather reduces things to the level of a Channel 4 documentary rather than an actual film, and part of it seems to be that it is too bloated – at almost two hours, this is woefully overlong. This might not be so bad if it wasn’t for the fact that while some parts seem overly padded, others – like the alleged liaison with Harold Wilson – are rather too quickly skipped over (Harrison Marks and The Great Rock ‘n’ Rill Swindle both go unmentioned). The film also rather desperately tries to introduce a conspiracy theory – was Mary murdered? The short answer being ‘no’, and the discussion of which leaves a bit of a sour taste.
Respectable isn’t a bad documentary – but it feels oddly unsatisfying. The story of Mary Millington, and indeed the underground porn industry, police corruption and dark side of celebrity in the 1970s should be a lot more enthralling and provocative than this is. As a lightweight telling of the story – the sort of thing you might find, in a tighter edit, as a DVD extra – this is fine. It’s certainly worth seeing. But it’s ultimately rather bland, and that’s the last thing that Mary Millington ever was. Compared to Orion – reviewed elsewhere this issue, and another documentary about a dead performer – it feels rather uninspired.
The DVD comes with additional interviews – they don’t fill in any gaps – and also has a 1974 softcore short starring Mary, Party Pieces (presented in a battered black and white print, though the film was almost certainly shot in colour), which is most welcome.