Mary Millington and Francoise Pascal liven up a saucy costume drama from 1976.
By the mid-1970s, the British sex comedy had a reached a point where, if not exactly respectable, it was at least mainstream enough to attract the involvement of people who might have otherwise shunned such muck. Keep It Up Downstairs is an example of the slightly elevated status and ambition of the genre – a comedic costume drama with a cast of familiar names (not all of them sex film veterans) and expanded production values. It wouldn’t last of course, but for a few years, British sex films almost felt like ‘proper’ movies.
Indeed, Keep It Up Downstairs is one of the few entries into the genre to make it onto British TV – and the only one deemed suitable for the BBC, having enough plot and sex scenes mild enough to pass muster after some ruthless editing. If that broadcast version is the only one you’ve seen, this new DVD might be something of a revelation. While still hardly what anyone who isn’t British and of a certain age would ever call a sex film, it does have more nudity – almost all strictly tits and bums – and a couple of brief moments of sexual activity. Even so, it’s rather surprising that the film still qualifies for an 18 certificate.
Inspired by turgid 70s class drama Upstairs, Downstairs – the Downton Abby of its day – Keep It Up Downstairs takes place in 1904, when the formerly grand Cockshute Towers is now in a state of decay, the once wealthy Cockshute family unable to cover their debts (though they do manage to maintain a large staff of mostly nubile young women and randy men, including Mary Millington in an early role and the ridiculously cute Françoise Pascal). Perhaps the staff stay because Cockshute Towers is a hotbed of sexual activity, the class divide being breached regularly by Lady Cockshute (Brit Smut veteran Sue Longhurst) and servant Hampton (Neil Hallett), Lord Cockshute (Mark Singleton) and assorted serving wenches and remarkably-bosomed Lady Kitty (Olivia Munday) with Rogers (Simon Brent). In lieu of pay, it seems reasonable.
The stately home is under threat from Cockshute’s childhood enemy Snotty Shuttleworth (Willie Rushton with a dodgy Australian accent), who has returned monied and determined to collect his debts. He puts forward the proposal that he will let the family remain in the house if he can marry Kitty – something no one seems to be happy about. Instead, Hampton suggests marrying off eccentric son Peregrine (an awkward-looking Jack Wild), who spends all his time working on a seemingly useless rubber sheath invention, and so wealthy American Francis Dureneck (John Blythe) turns up with daughter Betsy-Ann (Seretta Wilson) and wife Daisy (Diana Dors) – who just happens to be an ex-music hall performer and an old flame of Hampton’s. Throwing a lavish party to impress their guests (with guests that actually include an actress and a bishop), things soon devolve into bedroom farce antics as characters hop from bed to bed and a clumsy burglary scheme is played out.
Keep it Up Downstairs turns out to be that rarest of things – a British sex comedy that actually holds up as a comedy, if not a sex film. It’s hardly sophisticated, of course, but on the level of crude 1970s sitcoms, it more than holds its own (so to speak) with cheesy innuendo and farcical humour that will still raise a smile, if nothing else. Shot at Knebworth, it looks suitably lush – certainly up there with any lower budget costume drama or gothic horror of the decade – and it’s helped immeasurably by solid performances from most of the leads. Jack Wild is, frankly, embarrassing, but Singleton, Hallett and Longhurst are all impressive. The sexy supporting cast, obviously not cast for their acting ability, all do well too – Françoise Pascal, who manages to keep her clothes on the for the most part (a brief, and possibly unplanned, nipple slip aside) is adorable as sexy French maid Mimi, and Mary Millington – a year or so before Come Play With Me but already a hardcore starlet – seems surprisingly natural; certainly less uncomfortable than she appears to be in her later breakthrough movie. She also bum-doubles for Pascal, and fans will recognise the much-photographed Millington arse immediately. Mary also gets to take part in the only two moments that come close to being sex scenes – a semi-naked romp under a table during a family meeting that has much humping but little flesh and a brief bit of pseudo-lesbian boob fondling with Munday.
The film was written and produced by Hazel Adair – who had form with the genre, having made the likes of Virgin Witch under a pseudonym before coming clean with this; she was also a writer of soap operas and created the ghastly Crossroads – something far more shameful than making lightweight sex films, I’d say. Robert Young, who’s other work ranges from Hammer’s Vampire Circus to Fierce Creatures via loads of TV, directs with fairly anonymous efficiency, and Neil Hallett contributes a suitably horrible theme song – music composed by Michael Nyman, who went on to have a more glittering career than anyone else involved!
While not the best the British sex film had to offer, Keep It Up Downstairs is, perhaps, one of the more accessible – not too sexy or downmarket, it still holds up fairly well, which is more than can be said for most of its contemporaries.