Originally published in 1992, this new, expanded edition of David McGillivray’s history of the British sex film re-establishes the book as the pre-eminent, only essential history of the much-maligned genre. Certainly, in the quarter-century since the first edition appeared, this once almost forgotten side of British cinema has been probed and exploited in-depth, mostly by people who were directly inspired by McGillivray’s original writing. But while other books might have more specific detail and be more complete, none match the entertainment value of this one, written with an insider’s eye (McGillivray was very much a part of the British sex and horror scene in the 1970s) and with a cynical humour that makes the whole story a lot more entertaining that some dryly historical account.
The book covers the entire sordid history of British sex filmmaking, from the first hints at risqué comedy to the death of the theatrical sex film in the early 1980s, as well as looking at what has happened since then, with soft porn video production in the 1980s and 1990s, through the legalisation of hardcore in 2000 and up to the point where sex films more or less ceased to exist, as free-to-access internet porn took over. Though as McgGillivray points out repeatedly, claims of the death of the sex film – claims he himself has made in both the earlier edition and the project’s previous incarnation as a series of magazine articles – have regularly proven to be wrong. While the British hardcore industry is currently on its knees and the currently socio-political climate makes the idea of titillating sex comedies or dramas highly unlikely, we can never quite say never…
But if the era of the British sex film really is over, then this is a fine history. McGillivray covers the important figures – filmmakers like Pete Walker, George Harrison-Marks, Stanley Long, the notorious David Grant – in detail, mixing personal anecdotes with salacious tales in a narrative that is part admiring, part scoffing – but never ridiculing. Even the very worst film makers featured here are made to seem fascinating, eccentric mavericks, and you find yourself wondering where it all went wrong – why is Ken Loach still getting public funding for his turgid polemics while Pete Walker is in property development, having not made a film since 1983?
Along the way, there are tragic tales – none more so than the sad fate of Mary Millington – and unexpected turns for both directors and performers. Reading the extensive biographies of the main players that take up the last thirty or so pages, it’s striking just how many people slipped from the mainstream into softcore (or sometimes hardcore) sex films, and how a prudish and hypocritical film and TV establishment – most notably the ever-priggish BBC – punished them for it; and how many people behind the scenes moved from sex films to ‘respectable’ work, and back.
It’s sobering to remember than in the 1970s, household TV names would pop up in the likes of The Playbirds or the Confessions films – and how much money these films made. It’s easy to think of the British sex film as something that was at the margins of popular culture, but these films played mainstream cinema chains and were – for a while – huge cash cows for major distributors like Columbia. It’s hard to believe now, but people really were queueing around the block for these movies.
Of course, moralising sex dramas, laddish comedies, sexless nudist camp studies, striptease exposés and educational mockumentaries are unlikely to make a return – either they have been done to death or they are increasingly politically incorrect (I write this a couple of days after the editor of Loaded appeared on a BBC news programme grovellingly apologising for publishing photos of topless women, so the possibility of a remake of I Like Birds seems remote). A shame. I rather imagine life was much more fun when these films were at their peak, and McGillivray’s book – especially in this bigger, better, picture-heavy edition – is a great reminder of a simpler, sexier time.