The untold story of the 18-rated adult VHS release – the lowest creative point of British adult entertainment, but one still worth recording for posterity.
In recent years, there has been a revival of interest in the British sex film – the curiously unique form of BritSmut that existed from the early 1960s until the early 1980s and was hugely, inexplicably popular at the time. Thanks to the pioneering efforts of David McGillivray with his book Doing Rude Things, and others who subsequently climbed on board, this most disreputable genre has been repackaged and re-released on DVD and blu-ray for a new audience who see it less as erotica and more as kitsch cult cinema. There is now a Mary Millington blu-ray box set available – whoever would have imaged that back when these films were seen as little more than a national embarrassment?
However, while the sex films that played British cinemas in the 1960s and 1970s have been re-evaluated, there seems little chance of the 1980s and 1990s adult movies made in the UK ever having the same interest shown. These really are the bottom rung of British filmmaking, made with little creative skill and possessing zero artistic value. They were made because they were all that could be made, and once the laws changed and allowed hardcore to be legally released, they were abandoned by everyone almost overnight. This is an almost entirely forgotten, unrecorded era of British filmmaking, the filmmakers, stars and labels behind them little more than distant and not particularly fond memories for men – always men – of a certain age.
Back in the second half of the 1980s, what passed for an adult movie in British video shops was pretty embarrassing. As the BBFC took control of what could and couldn’t be released on VHS after the Video recordings Act (VRA) came into law, pretty much anything resembling sex was excised from any movie hoping to get an 18 certificate. We’re not just talking about just cutting hardcore sex scenes, but rather the already-edited and alternative cable TV versions, which would be further cut to the point where more than half the original running time was lost. Softcore films were equally frowned upon, with overly vigorous thrusting or simply too much suggestion that people might actually be having sex facing the chop before the films were deemed suitable for public consumption. Men were not allowed erections; women had to keep their legs firmly clasped together lest the viewer discovered that they actually had genitalia. It was an extraordinary period of censorial paranoia and repression, as BBFC head James Ferman took the wording of the Video Recordings Act to heart, combined it with his own particular moral quirks and unique ideas of feminism and essentially removed from adult movies anything that might have been unsuitable for children or appealing to adults. British porn was, legally, taken back to the early 1960s as far as video was concerned.
Unsurprisingly, British adult producers were forced to rethink their ideas to find material that would pass the censors. What that would involve, for the most part, was female nudity. As if we’d never progressed from the days of Harrison Marks 8mm films, filmmakers would point their cameras at women who would simply strip, dance and oil each other up – baby oil was ubiquitous in 1980s British erotica, perhaps as a substitute for other, forbidden fluids. Men, by and large, were conspicuous by their absence. One of the main producers of this sort of thing was Peter Kay (not the comedian) who ran the company Strand International. Kay would – under various label names (Piccadilly Video and Action Essential would follow or co-exist with Strand) – grind out a series of softcore titles that were astonishingly cheap and unambitious. Films like Chinese Take Off, The Will of Ebenezer Grimsdyke and Riding School Ravers would clock in at under an hour and have the sort of production values that the rest of the film industry had left behind in the 1930s, but the presence of busty glamour stars like Stacey Owen and Charmaine Sinclair, not to mention the lack of anything better being (legally) available, ensured healthy sales.
Interestingly, not all of Kay’s work was awful. When Strand first started, Kay and regular collaborator Jim Deans (who would have a long career in the porn industry, later shooting hardcore as Phil McCavity) seemed to have an interesting take on how to make titillating tat that didn’t have to worry about containing sex. Home Town Girls Volume 1 (there was no Volume 2) featured models stripping off in public, mixed with staged Candid Camera-style stunts, and was more naughty fun than erotic. The tape gained some unexpected publicity when Strand was sued after claiming to feature a nude Torquay traffic warden – unfortunately, Torquay only had one female traffic warden, and it wasn’t her. Naturally, she was not pleased about this.
Strand also made pseudo documentaries like Photo Studio Girls and Scandalous Studio Tales, which interviewed glamour models as they stripped off for the camera, and The Stunners, a film based around Page 3 and glamour girls (for those of you not familiar with tabloid vernacular of the time, these were the ‘stunners’ of the title) that actually had some authentic documentary credentials, and featured top Page 3 girls Lu Varley and Debee Ashby. Ashby would also pop up in Sexy Secrets of a Sex Therapist, a production that was worthless beyond the title, which was very much of the tradition of the British sex film. If there is any creative connection between the video productions of the 1980s and the sex comedies of a decade earlier, it is the very, very British titles – Kay also made films called Miss Adventures at Mega Boob Manor, Jane and Janice Get Them Off and The Naughty Dreams of Miss Owen. His only really worthwhile films outside Home Town Girls are Sexy Secrets of the Kissogram Girls – which has the accidental feel of a glamour film from the early 1960s recreated – and Stag Show Girls, which has some historical significance as it was the first film to successfully appeal against a BBFC decision (the censors had refused an 18 certificate on the basis that the mud wrestling featured in the film was ‘sexual violence’).
Sadly, Kay’s films soon lost even the minimal sense of ambition shown in the early titles, and instead became plodding affairs in which second division models tried – unsuccessfully – to deliver clumsy dialogue before stripping and engaging in the lightest possible sapphic action – with lots and lots of baby oil, of course. The horror-themed The Initiants is no Death Shock, which is saying something, while the likes of Chinese Take Off and Busty Clips are even more useless. Watching these films is less an erotic experience and more an ordeal – the only sort of wank anyone could have to this stuff would be a hate wank, and rarely has an hour felt so long as it did sitting through these films, where oddly unattractive women jiggled unenthusiastically to a lame keyboard soundtrack, with things occasionally enhanced by the sort of video-generated effects that had seemed tacky in 1980. Even on fast-forward, these films were hard work. Yet this stuff sold like hotcakes and clogged up the shelves of video shops across the country for years.
And these films were positively filthy compared to other Strand titles. Viewers hoping for sexy thrills from The Miss Wet Tee Shirt Gala Final will be disappointed – a few girls eventually take their shirts off and Stacey Owen makes a guest appearance (the National Miss Wet T-Shirt Contest is a real event, later filmed annually by The Adult Channel, and presumably Kay was unsure that he would get enough nudity on-screen without throwing in a ringer), but compared to the wild American wet T-shirt contests you’ll find online, it’s both tame and clumsily made. It is, however, positively pornographic compared to Miss Stockings and Suspenders, another real contest that Kay and Deans filmed in 1988. Following the eponymous contest across the country and culminating in the national final, this tired and dismal offering fails to appeal on any level. Even the most desperate onanist couldn’t find much of interest in a bunch of fairly average looking women strolling across a downmarket nightclub dancefloor wearing none-too-revealing lingerie. And that’s about as thrilling as it gets, with no nudity whatsoever. But perhaps to emphasise just how difficult things were for British sex filmmakers at the time, the BBFC still managed to give the tape an 18 certificate.
It seems a ludicrous statement to make, but Kay’s films are some sort of gold standard for post-VRA British softcore. Even the once-upmarket Electric Blue series had been both emasculated (from Volume 20 onwards, only the sex shop only R18 editions bore even a passing resemblance to the glory days) and dragged downmarket, while other labels that popped up were even more basic in style than the crudest of the Strand titles.
The most prolific producer of softcore between the late 1980s and mid-1990s was Fiona Cooper, who – of course – was not a woman, but actually an extremely unpleasant convicted sex offender called Phil Sutcliffe, almost certainly the worst person ever to have worked in the British sex industry. Operating out of glamorous Halifax, the Cooper production style was as basic as you could imagine, each tape consisting of a single girl stripping out of a variety of outfits – regular clothes, nurses uniforms, school uniforms and so on – for an hour, with no editing. But of course, this proved hugely popular, as punters could pick a girl they fancied and know that there would be nothing but her undressing to put up with. The Fiona Cooper slogan was “sexy videos, not sex videos”, though the company also had a Swedish division that featured more explicit masturbation, lesbian action and, eventually, full hardcore with models performing with Sutcliffe in what might well be the most despairingly awful porn ever shot. It should go without saying that there was no actual Swedish division and that these mail order copies never left the UK.
The Cooper style would be taken up by other labels like the prolific and staggeringly basic Liquid Gold, owned by Jerry Whiting. After all, what could be cheaper than hiring a single model for an afternoon and filming her taking her clothes off? You could probably shoot two or three editions in a day. These films, which managed to make the Fiona Cooper tapes look like music videos in terms of editing and production values, would rarely bother the censors unless a girl briefly opened her legs and the camera caught it. Notably, the Liquid Gold tapes were often sold on the top shelves on newsagents rather than the usual video retailers – they were marketed as little more than a moving centrefold (though the images in most top shelf magazines were far beyond that allowed by the BBFC) and were presumably thought of as being as disposable as the porn magazines that they sat alongside. There’s a good chance that even the makers of these tapes didn’t bother to keep a record of what they made.
Mystique and Fantasy Blue, who came along as the pre-eminent softcore labels of the 1990s, were slightly more ambitious. Both companies churned stuff out, releasing several titles a month with the same performers cropping up time and again – films like this were ideal for models like my friend Isabella, who was happy to strip off and engage in lightweight pseudo sapphic fondling or mild fetishism, but who drew the line at hardcore or even boy-girl softcore. From what I was told, the pay was decent, the work was easy and the producers were well behaved. While they did their fair share of solo girl titles, both companies also followed in the Strand footsteps with vague narratives and multi-girl casts – they knew that the best way to placate the censors was to avoid having any men in the film, the BBFC being more inclined to believe that sex was not happening if everyone involved was female – lesbianism, it seemed, could be passed off as nothing more than two girls being friendly and helping oil each other up for some reason or other. Fantasy Blue, running out of Manchester, would rather cheekily submit films to the BBFC under an innocuous name and then outrageously rename them on the sleeve, often with titles that suggested that the film featured sixteen-year-old schoolgirls (a claim that a cursory glance at the sleeve would have seen fall to the ground). Clearly, the censors were aware of what was happening but chose to turn a blind eye, and at the time, sixteen was still the legal age to appear in porn in the UK – though within a few years the law would change that to eighteen, making these titles seem more of a liability than a come-on (should anyone be concerned, let’s be clear – the models in these films had generally not seen their teens for the best part of a decade). But of course, by that time, these films had long since been confined to the dustbin of history, and the men behind both Mystique and Fantasy Blue had moved on to shooting and distributing hardcore (which, in the case of Fantasy Blue at least, actually managed to be even more basic and grotty than their softcore titles).
There were other producers who also carved a niche within the confines of BBFC rules. Tamara Productions – set up by enthusiast Rob Hewitt who used his redundancy money to invest in a video camera and a couple of models – produced the Open Spaces and Public Places series, which featured exhibitionist girls in parks, bars, museums and train stations flashing for the camera. Public sex remains something that the BBFC will clamp down on, for legal reasons, but public nudity per se is not illegal, and so these films skirted around the restrictions. As with the other labels, Tamara’s tapes clocked in at around an hour and (outside of a one-off experiment with shooting hardcore for the overseas/illicit market) never allowed sex to interfere with things – in this case, the titillation depended more on the subversive naughtiness of the public exposure than the naked girls themselves. Soon, though, the label began to make more generic studio-based films and quickly lost their audience.
Like many a producer, Hewitt could subsequently retool his content for sale to The Adult Channel, which had an insatiable need for not-hardcore content to fill up the nightly schedules. During the 1990s and beyond, this and other satellite TV porn channels bought up as much solo girl striptease and lesbian softcore as they could. Notably though, the production values of the Strand titles meant that they were never in contention for broadcast. Instead, Strand films were sold to grubby distributors who gave them outrageous new titles (on the video sleeve – retitling the actual tape would have been too much work) and packaged them to look like hardcore – a trick that dates back to David Sullivan’s Sheptonhurst empire. You might think that no one would be fooled by this – especially with the inescapable ’18’ rating prominent on the sleeve – but you should never underestimate desperation and hope. This situation of bait and tease, false promises and false advertising might have carried on indefinitely – indeed, most of the producers probably assumed that it would. But things were about to suddenly change.
Once hardcore was legalised in the UK, the market for low rent, hour-long softcore immediately evaporated. Peter Kay had already moved overseas to make proper porn, Jim Deans was shooting illicit hardcore for sale through Amsterdam-based companies and other pioneers had moved on. For those remaining, the legislation change meant that, even though hardcore was restricted to licensed sex shops, the market for their minimalist films had suddenly evaporated. No one wanted to spend good money on these films when, for not much more, they could buy a two-hour plus glossy American hardcore movie. While these films managed to linger on through TV broadcast, high street video rental stores (themselves a dying industry by the early 2000s) and top-shelf magazine cover discs, their days were numbered. Even the 18 rated films that were released from this point onwards tended to be edited versions of the hardcore productions – BBFC rules having relaxed enough to allow at least the approximation of sex (though nothing resembling the real thing outside of arthouse films) to be passed at the more commercial rating.
Subsequently, the bottom of the barrel softcore video titles of the 1980s and 1990s have almost become lost films – unloved and unimportant other than as slices of social history (and so very important). There is barely any record online that these films, once ubiquitous in video rental stores across the UK, ever existed at all. Don’t believe me? Look these labels up online, and see what you find. As VHS gave way to DVD, there was less motivation even for the people who had bought the tapes and somehow enjoyed them to hold onto them, and I suspect most were junked. Little of this stuff has been archived in any way, either by collectors or producers. As companies went out of business or changed direction, and more pointedly as the men who ran those businesses grow old and die, there is every likelihood that the master tapes and artwork will be junked by family members too ignorant or embarrassed to understand the cultural value of the material; the same is true of those who own the retail tapes. Most families inheriting a box of cheesy porn will probably throw it away. It’s notable that although some early Eighties hardcore porn titles sold hundreds of thousands of copies in the UK, these tapes pretty much never appear for sale – either they are being jealously guarded by collectors or, more likely, have been destroyed. There’s barely a record of these films or their producers on IMDb or across the internet as a whole. Aside from the odd film appearing on XHamster, there’s little to show that this whole era of British filmmaking ever existed at all.
This is a bad situation because there is cultural value to this material. The history of human civilisation can be told through erotica, and these tapes – as artistically vacant as they are – tell the story of Britain in the 1980s and 1990s, through hairstyles, fashion, music, production techniques and, most importantly, moral and censorial attitudes. And this is the untold story of British filmmaking during the period when it was at its lowest point – it is the only part of the British film industry that was prolific and commercial and popular. The tapes are both worthless and indescribably valuable, and if they are lost forever, it will be a tragic loss of an irreplaceable archive of social history for future historians. Imagine trying to write a history of British cinema – or Britain as a whole – in the 1970s without referencing the popularity of the Confessions films? Sure you can do it (and plenty have) but it’s clearly not the whole story.
Let’s be fair – if films as unbearably dreadful as Come Play With Me can find a new audience, surely there is the hope that new generations could look at the likes of Sexy Secrets of the Kissogram Girls and find some new, kitsch entertainment value in them. It might already be too late to salvage this era of uniquely British smut for future generations to marvel over, but we really should try.
Anyone out there with copies of these tapes or discs who wishes to donate them to the Reprobate archives, feel free to contact us. We are doing what we can to preserve these movies and make them available to historians and researchers for the good of humanity.
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