Doing Rude Things: Five Slices Of British Cinematic Smut

David McGillivray is both a writer and connoisseur of the British sex film – a much-maligned genre that was hugely popular in the 1970s. Here, he explores the strange world of this genre, from its start to its final days. For more on this vital cinematic genre, read his essential book Doing Rude Things.

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The Wife Swappers – Derek Ford 1969

Historically one of the most important British sex films ever made, The Wife Swappers is unquestionably required viewing for fans and students alike. It is the ‘best’ of three early sex films made jointly by two men who went on to become giants of the genre, Derek Ford and Stanley Long. Ford was a writer with very little experience as a director. Long was a producer and cameraman who had previously dealt with wife swapping in one of the documentaries he made with his previous partner, Arnold Louis Miller.

By 1969 wife swapping, or ‘swinging’ as it was also known, was very big news indeed, but was far too hot a potato for the major British film studios to touch. The sexploitation industry tackled the subject in the same way as the News of the World. In my book Doing Rude Things, Long summed up this approach very aptly as “look at this, please, but it’s terrible isn’t it?”. The Wife Swappers is the only film to accurately depict the British attitude – official condemnation, secret fascination – to a burning issue of the day.

Long talked to me about the arduous process of getting the immoral theme past the British Board of Film Censors. The Board dictated exactly how the narration (and a phony on-screen psychiatrist) should disapprove of everything the film set out to exploit. Watching the film today, it sounds as though it was scripted by Mary Whitehouse. Impressionable couples in the early Seventies must have left cinemas convinced that extra-marital sex leads directly to ruin and damnation. Despite this, The Wife Swappers was considered hot stuff. It was one of the biggest grossing British sex films of all time.

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The film purports to be a documentary. Disc jockey David Gell makes the usual promise that everything we will see is true. The truth is that almost everything was fabricated, not only the obviously dramatised case histories (the actors are credited at the end) but also the long analyses by the ‘psychiatrist’ (another actor) and even the interview with the editor of an ‘introduction magazine’ (contact mags, with titles like New Friend and Swingers, were another Sixties sensation). Gell insists that one sequence, showing a woman, supposedly a member of a ‘Thrill Club’ who strips in a restaurant, was shot with hidden cameras, but the man dancing next to her is an extra with whom I worked on several films of the period.

The only genuine material is the vox pops, including a vendor selling contact mags at Piccadilly Circus, and the interview with a shadowy woman who started swinging and became a prostitute. She is the only person in the entire film who says she has fun and no regrets. Otherwise the tone is suffocatingly moralistic. One happily married couple recoil in horror when they visit friends on a houseboat and realise the sordid situation. Other marriages break up because of the husbands’ disgusting demands.

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“The winners gain nothing and the losers lose all” warns the last line of the commentary. What is being preached is the 1969 equivalent of family values, but by hypocrites even more transparent than in the last government. Thankfully puritans are unlikely to want to make anything of the fact that Ford’s real life obsession with sex (he was a swinger himself) happened to lead him to great unhappiness and ultimately to a lonely death.

Ford’s direction is typically flat and uninspired. Some of the performances are wonderfully bad. One swinger is played by Larry Taylor, who went on to become Captain Birdseye. I will go out on a limb and say that this was the first British film to show a video recorder used in a domestic situation. The 82-minute film has very little sexual content, some female tits and bums, but no frontal nudity. It is still rated, unbelievably, ’18’.

Eskimo Nell – Martin Campbell 1975

If Eskimo Nell didn’t exist, the lives of students on Exploitation Media courses throughout the country would be much the poorer. No other film paints such an accurate portrait of the British exploitation film industry in the mid-Seventies.

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Veteran smut peddler Stanley Long gets an ‘idea’ credit and, if he’d developed it himself, Eskimo Nell might have gone the banal way of his Adventure… films. But, impressed with The Sex Thief (1973), Long called upon the talents of its director Martin Campbell and writer Michael Armstrong, and a trash classic emerged.

As Armstrong tells the story, he and Campbell were called into Long’s office and handed what constituted Long’s ‘idea’, the anonymous Victorian erotic poem Eskimo Nell. Armstrong could not see how it could be adapted for the screen and instead wrote an outline for a film in which the film-makers fail to adapt Eskimo Nell for the screen. Thus the Armstrong version begins with Armstrong himself (playing idealistic film school graduate Dennis Morris) being given the Eskimo Nell project by a disreputable sex film producer. What follows is based largely on Armstrong’s experiences in the exploitation industry up until this time, particularly the interference by financial backers determined to get their ideas and their protégées on the screen.

Benny U. Murdoch, head of B.U.M. Productions, who hires Dennis to make Eskimo Nell and agrees to pay £100 for the script (after profit) is a composite of Stanley Long and Tigon Films supremo Tony Tenser. Big Dick, the American producer who says “if I haven’t got a hard-on by the end of the first reel, I’ll want to know the reason why” is Louis ‘Deke’ Heyward, head of AIP’s London office (he had Armstrong’s The Haunted House of Horror re-shot in 1969), Armstrong’s wardrobe – psychedelic shirts and scarves – is inspired by Michael Winner’s.

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Armstrong also cast the film, largely with his college chums and drinking buddies. There are many topical references. King Boxer, first seen in Britain in 1972, had sparked the kung fu craze, which is why at one point Eskimo Nell is being made as a kung fu musical. Hardcore had been produced, mainly in London by John Lindsay, since 1970, and was the talk of Wardour Street. At the end of Eskimo Nell, the hardcore version is accidentally screened at a charity premiere organised by the Society for Moral Reform, a piss-take of the Festival of Light.

Throughout the film, Armstrong is very good at playing himself. Roy Kinnear is also top value as Benny U. Murdoch. The rest of the cast don’t get much opportunity as they pop on and off in mostly unresolved plot strands. By today’s standards, the comedy isn’t sharp enough, but it’s Ayckbourn compared to virtually anything else in the genre. Martin Campbell’s direction is clearly head and shoulders above the competition of the era, although no one could have predicted that he would go on to direct Goldeneye and Casino Royale. Apparently Campbell is quite happy to reel off anecdotes about Eskimo Nell in private. But the film still doesn’t appear on his C.V.

Come Play With Me – George Harrison Marks 1977

Come Play With Me is another exploitation classic, but for all the wrong, Plan 9 From Outer Space-style reasons. Inexperienced as a film-maker, publisher David Sullivan gave nudie pioneer Harrison Marks the go-ahead to shoot his long-cherished script on the strength of the budget. If Sullivan had paid equally close attention to the script itself, he surely would never have considered the project. Despite Marks’ reputation as Mr Erotica, he was at heart a music-hall comic, and his original version of Come Play With Me, about two forgers hiding from rivals in a Scottish health spa, contained virtually no sex or nudity.

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Marks loved working with his mates, mostly clapped-out old comics like himself. In the film, he takes the lead as forger Cornelius Clapworthy. Due to either his chronic alcoholism or ridiculous false teeth, Marks is pretty well incoherent throughout and knows almost none of the words of the comic song which crops up halfway through. He is partnered with Alfie Bass, who does his customary Jewish schtick. As she usually did when given half a chance, Irene Handl seems to have rewritten most of her own dialogue and at one point is cut off almost mid-sentence.

But the actor to watch for is the screamingly camp Ken Parry. During a night-club scene he and Talfryn Thomas, a kind of Welsh Ken Dodd, can be seen corpsing each other. Parry also features in a long, long sequence in Brighton, now completely irrelevant because it was intended to set up a later sequence in Stonehenge, never shot.

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When Sullivan saw the rough cut, he was gobsmacked. So was his distributor, Tigon, which ordered further shooting. Almost all the sex and nudity scenes, which have no bearing on the plot, were plainly shot much later in new locations. Sullivan’s lover Mary Millington, previously just one of the girls at the spa, was promoted to star billing on the strength of one hastily improvised scene in which she massages bodybuilder Howard Nelson, another Marks regular. According to cast members, a hardcore version was prepared at this time, but anyone who has seen it is invited to step forward.

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Promoted in Sullivan’s magazines as the first film to star Millington and ‘the strongest X-film ever released’, Come Play With Me opened in 1977 to record-breaking business. Because the plot about the forgers is so deadly dull, and because Millington appears so briefly, word of mouth should have closed the film down within weeks. But no, Millington’s allure proved irresistible and the rumours about hardcore footage would not go away.

Come Play With Me eventually ran in London for four years. In 1980, a completely unrelated Swiss film was retitled Come Play With Me 2 and also had a long run. A more benevolent producer may have forgiven Marks and let him direct another picture. But Sullivan wasn’t going to take the risk. Come Play With Me‘s associate producer, Willy Roe, took over the director’s chair for Millington’s subsequent features.

The Playbirds – Willy Roe 1978

In Come Play With Me, David Sullivan never missed an opportunity to plug his magazines, but his next film, The Playbirds, was virtually a 90-minute commercial for his organisation. Possibly as a sop to his animal-loving mistress Mary Millington, a subplot features a horse called Mr Playbird. The film was shot in several of Sullivan’s properties including the printers where presses churn out copies of Playbirds. Most valuably the main title sequence shows London’s Soho as it was in 1978, lined with Sullivan’s shops and cinemas.

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Despite her star billing, Millington is only given the occasional line to say until the last third of The Playbirds. The true stars of the film are Glynn Edwards and That’s Life‘s presenter Gavin Campbell, who play detectives investigating the murders of models who appear in Playbirds. One is played by hardcore actress Suzy Mandel. Other noteworthy casting includes Fifties glamour girl Sandra Dorne as a receptionist and Kenny Lynch as a police doctor. John East, usually described elsewhere as Millington’s ‘friend’, interviews the porn queen in the Ristorante Concordia, where she had made some of her contacts as a prostitute.

As a murder mystery, The Playbirds goes nowhere slowly. Someone describes sex, witchcraft and horses as “the unholy trinity”, but anyone hoping for an exploration of that intriguing taboo is in for a disappointment. One of the many red herrings is an M.P. who heads the Decency League and says “pornography is the heroin of the soul” before being unmasked as a peeping tom (Sullivan, like Armstrong in Eskimo Nell, had good reason for grinding his axe). The revelation of the killer must have surely been intended as some kind of joke, albeit not a funny one.

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Just as Harrison Marks had failed to provide the flesh in Come Play With Me, so Willy Roe, otherwise a much more workmanlike director, proved surprisingly reticent to come up with the goods in The Playbirds. For nearly an hour there is no sex and, although there is occasional nudity, there are no close-ups. When Millington, as WPC Lucy Sheridan, goes undercover as a model to draw out the murderer, there are close-ups of her stripping and posing, one scene of her in bed with Alan Lake (no sex) and finally an obviously truncated lesbian scene. That’s it – apart from a quick bath scene at the end, which I’m sure you don’t want me to reveal.

Mary Millington’s True Blue Confessions – Nik Galtress 1980

How embarrassing. When it was first released in 1980, a year after Millington’s death, I said that “not even the BBC could have bettered” the tribute to Britain’s most famous porn star. Watching again proves how sophisticated documentaries have become in the intervening years. Now the film, replete with staged and irrelevant sequences, looks quite unlike anything you might see today on television. But its heart is in the right place, and it certainly contains more factual information than you’d expect.

The film is written and narrated by John M. East, who also appears briefly, introducing himself as Mary’s “last leading man”. Sure enough, the ageing perv was in Queen of the Blues (1979). His garish attire is explained by the fact that he made a kind of living impersonating music-hall comic Max Miller.

Being an in-house production by porn supremo (and Millington’s lover) David Sullivan, the film is pure eulogy. We’re told that Mary gave to animal charities and was good to her mother. Sullivan says that she “was probably… the finest actress this country ever produced”. Er… I’m sorry?? Naturally there is a lot of pro-porn propaganda, most of it in valuable sound recordings in which Millington talked about her life.

Her hideously decorated house is used for a long sequence supposed to illustrate the kind of orgy that Millington hosted here, but actually just an excuse for standard British soft-core fumbling. Footage shot in the new gay night-club Heaven is included for no apparent reason (Boy George’s mate Marilyn is visible here, three years before his flash-in-the-pan success). Most controversially, a Millington look-alike (British glamour model and Eighties softcore video icon Marie Harper) is shown in a coffin strewn with photos of Mary’s pet dogs.

But there is still plenty for students of the genre. Hard-core pioneer John Lindsay appears, as does an extract from one of his blue movies showing Millington getting out of a car and finding a parcel under a bridge. Name that film. Millington admits to her bisexuality, and Cathie Greene, said to be one of her female lovers, is interviewed. There’s no mention of Millington’s fling with Diana Dors, who was still alive at the time. An out-take (I think from The Playbirds) has a dozy-looking blonde failing to get Mary’s zipper undone.

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The film runs only 35 minutes. It was originally accompanied (in cinemas and on the original video release) by a six-minute prologue, showing more extracts from Millington films. This has now disappeared, possibly because of copyright problems, and the added attraction on the most recent video release is one of Sullivan’s last theatrical productions, Hellcats – Mud Wrestling (1983), a 45 minute documentary purporting to show ‘world championship’ fights between female wrestlers taking place somewhere in England.

In reality most of the wrestlers are all too obviously Sullivan models, who grapple feebly with each other in what looks like a kiddies’ paddling pool filled with grey gloop. There is also an American lard bucket called Queen Kong, who has scary dentures. The useless John M. East interviews the wrestlers, some of whom are naked. At one point he mistakenly refers to Selina Savage as Selina Scott!

The entire event including the interviews, is patently staged. Apparently it was originally intended as propaganda protesting the long-standing ban in London on female wrestling. Everyone, including the hellcats (who are continually laughing) seems to be having a great time. There are no credits on the print, but East may have been responsible for the ‘direction’. You’ll wait in vain to see the women in the showers, washing off the mud.

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Related posts: Mary Millington on the set of Alien

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