The long and winding road of British smut cinema came to a bitter end in 1983 as the genre bowed out on a new creative low.
It began in the late 1950s with nudist romps and over the next twenty years, the British sex film – that oddest of concepts in a nation where sex on screen remained highly regulated and censored, at least when it came to public display – went from docudrama to lighthearted comedy romp to vaguely star-studded glamour and seemed, at one point, to be the unstoppable force of British cinema. The sex film outlived Hammer and Carry On and at one point was pretty much all the British film industry had left other than James Bond. But home video put a stop to it all with a remarkably sudden finality. Until the mid-1980s, home video in Britain was unregulated and uncensored. The market was flooded with the sort of thing that the BBFC would never have approved for theatrical release – not just a slew of imported US hardcore movies that could be bought mail order (it was estimated that the Swedish Erotica titles sold the best part of a million copies in Britain between 1978 and 1982) and the homegrown productions of John Lindsay and Mike Freeman, but the explicit softcore of titles like Electric Blue and other productions, all of which made the sort of thing playing in your local cinema seem very dull indeed. Why would anyone attend a public screening of Come Play With Me or Sex in the Stars when they could watch Debbie Does Dallas in the privacy of their own home?
By the end of the 1970s, the theatrical sex film was already – in retrospect – on its last legs. Production had slowed and while films like The Stud and The Bitch were big hits and made it look as though the British sex film was oddly gaining a degree of respectability and sophistication (both being extremely relative statements, of course), in reality, the market was collapsing. Where once there was a constant slew of production taking place, the traditional British sex film was now increasingly represented entirely by the productions of David Sullivan. But Sullivan could also see the writing on the wall. As his theatrical work became less ambitious – from The Playbirds to Mary Millington’s World Striptease Extravaganza in a couple of years – he began to churn out more explicit video productions for the home market. Titles like The Whitehouse Video Show, Group Sex Orgy and Blue Climax matched the ‘almost hardcore’ levels of his print magazines – spread legs and erections, brief teasing moments of fellatio and cunnilingus scattered amongst floppy-dicked non-penetrations scenes of the sort that the BBFC wouldn’t pass until the end of the 1990s.
These video productions – shot, we presume, on equipment that was at the low end of professional standard and so have a garish, blurry appearance that was pretty horrible looking even at the time – were sold in Sullivan’s Private shops and via mail order ads in both his own mags and some regular video magazines and were available for years. In order to scrape every penny that could be made from these, as the Video Recordings Act took force after 1985, they were repackaged with the soundtracks replaced by music and foreign-language titles added to the haphazardly re-edited tapes – foreign language releases were the last batch of tapes to require certification and so these could be legally sold until September 1988 (obscenity rules notwithstanding). They presumably sold in vast quantities but are now hard to find – only a few seem to have been digitised and the tapes almost never turn up for sale.
Nevertheless, Sullivan continued to make and release theatrical films of decreasing value long after everyone else had given up, for reasons known only to himself. The final two are odd little conundrums that barely qualify as movies at all. That one of them actually played UK cinemas as the main feature despite only being 45 minutes long is a mystery that only Sullivan could answer – but nevertheless, it did and so Hellcat Mud Wrestlers became the dismal full stop in the story of the British sex film.
Now, we should point out that, of course, the British sex film continued apace – in fact, there were probably more made after this point than were ever shot during the glory days. But these were home video productions and while I’m not saying that a shot on, shot for video production is not a real film (apart from not being shot on film, obviously) the distinction between theatrical movies and video movies is a significant one when it comes to the British sex film. Neither is necessarily more valid than the other, but they feel like separate entities. If you want to read about the strange history of British softcore video, we’ve covered it in detail here.
There is an argument for saying that Hellcat Mud Wrestlers – or, to use the actual on-screen title from the copy I have, Hellcat Female Mud Wrestlers – is something of a crossover production because although it played cinemas, it has the production values and style of a home video. It’s shot with the same grisly videotape look as Sullivan’s VHS releases and is both non-narrative and what you might call a ‘special interest’ title rather than the feature films that Sullivan had previously made for theatrical release; you might argue that Mary Millington’s World Striptease Extravaganza fitted that bill too, but there was at least a long history of striptease movies by that point. Mud wrestling seems a curiously specific taste to hang a theatrical release on (Electric Blue had previously released Nude Jello Wrestling on tape as a novelty title). It’s easy to believe that this was originally planned as a video release before Sullivan realised that the complete lack of sex in the film perhaps made it more BBFC-friendly and decided that it would be worth floating out on the still-existing sex film circuit – while production and distribution of new movies more or less ground to a halt, low-rent cinemas across the UK would continue to programme sex film double or triple bills for several years in the 1980s but it was no longer enough to sustain actual feature film production.
There is another reason why Sullivan’s ambitions to build a movie empire might have crumbled around this time. In 1982, he was convicted – on trumped-up charges based around his magazines’ classified advertising – of living off immoral earnings and served 71 days in prison before winning an appeal. Such things often have the effect of taking the wind out of one’s sails and perhaps it made Sullivan reevaluate his priorities. What’s more, the suicide of his main star and girlfriend Mary Millington in 1979 robbed him of both the pleasure and motive behind the movies. His films after Millington’s death either feature old footage of her or were projects already in the works, with her planned as the star. Once these were finished with, perhaps his interest in being a movie mogul also ended. The looming threat of government censorship meant that even the less creative world of home video began to seem less of a lucrative market with the risks outweighing the benefits.
Hellcat Mud Wrestlers also seems to have been a project that was in the works before his time in prison. Apparently, Sullivan had encountered the phenomenon of female wrestling during a trip to the USA in 1981 and had toyed with the idea of bringing Queen Kong (real name Dee Booher and also known as Matilda the Hun in G.L.O.W.) and her troupe of wrestlers over to the UK for a tour. There was only one problem – while women’s wrestling was not illegal in the UK as many have claimed, it did come up against local objections and licensing restrictions in various towns and cities. A tour being promoted by a pornographer was likely to face the same problems as Sullivan would later face with sex shops from local councils, with no guarantee of success. But a film… well, that might work. So Queen Kong and her American stars were shipped over to appear at the one and only night of the 1983 Mud Wrestling World Tour, which took place at a run-down nightclub in Croydon (visitors to Croydon will probably be able to spot this venue on a stroll through the town). Whether or not the crowd of shifty-looking men in attendance were actually paying customers or just employees of Sullivan’s company Roldvale is anyone’s guess – no one looks to be really enjoying themselves and at times they look positively terrified. The venue was spruced up with a poster for a Russ Meyer double-bill and a small paddling pool full of mud and that was the extent of the production values. Even by British sex film standards, this was cheap and underwhelming.
The Kong contingent were real wrestlers – sure, they knew what their appeal was and they were happy to wrestle in mud, but they were actually wrestlers. Not something you could say of their British opponents, the Roldvale girls – a collection of glamour models including Vicki Scott as the “Scottish welterweight champion”, a title that we are assured she has held for a year rather than the reality of ‘about half an hour’. These models were added to the film not out of some sense of national pride but simply in order to get some nudity into the film. Because despite Sullivan’s belief in the inherent sexiness of mud wrestling, the simple fact is that this film fails to deliver even by the limited erotic standards of the British sex film. No one is stripped of clothing during the wrestling bouts and so having a few models sat nude for leering interviews by the always-appalling John M. East – a particularly cadaverous presence in many of Sullivan’s later films and video productions – was as good as it was going to get. There might be five minutes of nudity in the film; probably less, and it’s all very chaste and innocent. Even by the standards of 1983, it’s hard to see how this small amount of nudity would justify a BBFC ‘X’. However, the BBFC was predictably troubled by mud wrestling, which they saw (correctly) as more titillation than sport and so (incorrectly) considered to be ‘sexual violence’. A few years after this film was released, the videotape Stag Show Girls became the first release to win an appeal against a BBFC decision after the Board slapped the film with a sex-shop only R18 certificate based on the rather racier mud wrestling scenes. The decision seemed to set a precedent of sorts – subsequent mud, oil and jello wrestling VHS releases have all been passed 18 without a problem.
Just how many people paid good money to see Hellcat Mud Wrestlers in the cinema is a mystery – it’s probably more than you would expect because there would be no one to forewarn punters before they’d handed over their cash. Perhaps some of them didn’t feel ripped-off at seeing a badly-shot video production that didn’t even reach the length of an Electric Blue episode – after all, this is the audience that trotted along to see US and European sex films that had been shorn of half their length and all their sex scenes without complaint. Unusually, Queen Kong was flown back to the UK for a publicity tour – the film was arguably so removed from anything resembling a sex film that media outlets were more willing to entertain promoting it by interviewing the larger-than-life star.
In any case, Sullivan had a follow-up film set to go. Foxy Female Boxing was probably shot back-to-back with Hellcat Mud Wrestlers – it shares much of the same cast – and manages the difficult task of making that film look like a major production in comparison. Female boxing was, of course, a somewhat more problematic subject than wrestling. In 1983, it had even less of a clear legal standing and no official women’s boxing matches had been officially sanctioned. Nevertheless, the film took place in a gym where a handful of fights took place. Despite the best efforts of the breathless East as a commentator, it was harder to make this seem fun in any way and one fight, in particular, would provide the knockout punch for the film.
Sullivan’s then-girlfriend, the glamour model Zeta Whitehouse, was pitted against American Terrible Terry. Unlike the women in the other bouts, both women here were topless and despite the inference of the title, there was nothing especially ‘foxy’ about this. As connoisseurs of such things will know, ‘foxy boxing’ is not exactly brutal, usually involving outsize and soft gloves, head guards and a habit of degenerating into wrestling and stripping of the opponent. The match between Zeta and Terry, on the other hand, is hell-for-leather punching as if an actual world championship is on the line. It’s been a long time since I saw the film but I seem to recall bloody noses and body blows. Perhaps I imagined that but in any case, it all felt a little bit too much like real boxing for my tastes. Maybe they really didn’t like each other.
It was too much for the BBFC’s tastes too, it seems. Sullivan was told that the scene would have to go if he wanted an 18 certificate. Given that the film was, once again, just 45 minutes long, losing a big chunk – and the only part of the film with any nudity in it – seemed a bit much. Despite what you may have been told, the film was not formally banned. Sullivan simply withdrew from the certification process and cancelled plans for a theatrical release. This, as much as anything, might have been the sign he needed to finally give up on his theatrical ambitions. Instead, it was released on his Tobyward/Private label without a certificate, as was standard in 1983. It would later be reissued in the post-VRA era, slapped with an R18 certificate. It has been seen by few people and enjoyed by even less. I found the R18 edition being sold on a market stall and watched aghast. I no longer own a copy, which I now regret – someone should be archiving this sort of rubbish after all.
The two films were combined as Queen Kong: The Amazonian Woman for US release in 1984, the combination of footage making the release more commercially viable. Interestingly, the original version of Hellcat Mud Wrestlers was also released in the US on the Private Screenings label – what fans of the softcore import specialists made of it is anyone’s guess. In usual fashion, Sullivan would issue the film under different titles on his Private label in the UK – Queen Kong – Mud Wrestling at least seems honest, but the later release as The Sensational Queen Kong – with “rated XX” on the cover – was perhaps gilding the lily somewhat.
As the last gasp of the classic era of British sex cinema, Hellcat Mud Wrestlers seems pathetically fitting – a genre that had thoroughly exhausted itself going out with a whimper rather than a bang and somehow returning to where it began, with brief, sexless nudity representing the sum of its erotic parts. It’s as basic as filmmaking gets and the low-level early Eighties video production levels make it unlikely that the film will ever be seen again – making this palatable for a Bluray audience seems beyond the capabilities of even the most determined upscaling. Videotape editions are more likely to end up in the skip than on eBay and it doesn’t seem to have even made it to tube sites. Queen Kong was supposedly selling copies but a look on her site shows that it is a different tape that oddly uses a frame grab from this film as an illustration. It is, to all accounts and purposes, forgotten by everyone but the most determined BritSmut enthusiast.
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