In the days before legalised porn, the restrictive laws in Britain proved to be a huckster’s paradise, with scams, cons and rip-offs the order of the day.
Back in the 1980s, the twin repressive legislations of the Video Recordings Act and the Obscene Publications Act proved to be an unexpected goldmine for the unscrupulous and the shady in Britain. The former meant that any videotape uncertified by the BBFC was illegal to sell, though the gradual implementation of the rules – necessary because of the sheer amount of existing content that would have to either be certified or not – meant that not only could those older tapes remain on sale until a series of staggered deadlines finally declared them out of bounds but also that opportunist distributors could release uncertified material in that time period.
David Sullivan’s Private organisation of publishers and sex shops had made a series of low-rent video productions from 1980 – 1982 that were not hardcore in the accepted sense (and we’ll come back to that in a moment) but came as close as was legally possible, much in the way their print equivalents like Whitehouse, Playbirds and so on did. These films, sold through mail order and the Private sex shop chain, were as crude as could be, shot on what seemed to be 1980 domestic-level video equipment – but while never quite as explicit as the advertising implied, movies like Group Sex Orgy, Blue Porn Video and Porno Model all had material that would never have passed the BBFC – erections, brief moments of fellatio and cunnilingus etc – and so managed to placate the eager punter who might not have had access to actual hardcore (even though this was readily available mail order as both imported American titles and home-grown releases from Videx and Taboo until 1982).
How many of these videotapes were sold? No one knows. In the essential 1988 look at the industry, Porn Gold, a representative of Germany’s Beate Uhse Organisation confirms that they sold 10,000 copies of a single title in Britain between 1979 and 1983. The Private titles were promoted with full-page ads that not only appeared in the company’s own magazines but also rival adult titles and mainstream video publications like Video Today. Common sense dictates that they must have been selling like hotcakes, which makes it all the stranger that the tapes have effectively vanished from sight – few have ever shown up on the collector’s market, suggesting that they are either sitting, gathering dust in the attics of the original buyers or else were shamefully disposed of. Porn is an ephemeral product – not because it is inherently worthless but because it is the sort of thing that tends to be trashed, either by the original buyer or by embarrassed families of said buyer when they are clearing the house of a deceased loved one. The entire history of these films has effectively been lost, with only the odd title cropping up here and there.
But clearly, Sullivan’s company still had the master tapes in the 1980s, when the Video Recordings Act effectively rendered them worthless. It goes without saying that there was no market for these badly made, blurry and compromised titles outside the UK. Mike Freeman’s Videx had found that out when trying to sell their movies – which had comparable production qualities but were, at least, actually hardcore – to international distributors, none of whom were interested in these low-rent efforts when there were glossy 35mm and professional video productions coming out of the USA and Europe. What, then, could he do with them? The details of the Video Recordings Act offered a solution.
The last batch of tapes that required either certification or withdrawal by 1988 was unsubtitled foreign language releases – those imported titles aimed at Indian, Chinese and other ex-pat communities. Sensing the chance to make more money out of existing sex products that would never be approved by the BBFC, Sullivan’s Private organisation came up with a wheeze that was impressive in its shamelessness.
The tapes were re-edited in what seemed to be a fairly random manner, taking scenes from different titles and throwing them together in some sort of haphazard compilation that would make no sense to anyone watching. I’m not saying that these tapes came with complex narrative structures to begin with, but now they were completely incoherent. But that hardly mattered, given the next step in reconstructing these titles in order to continue selling them. The soundtracks were replaced – all existing dialogue, grunting and groaning being replaced with a generic synth score. Characters on-screen might still be talking, but the viewer no longer had to listen to the dialogue because it was all gone. Then, the films were given foreign-language titles and inter-titles. I believe that this was Swedish – because Sweden was still seen as the land of sexual freedom back then – but it might have been any Scandinavian language. And voila – the films were now unsubtitled foreign-language titles and so could continue to be sold, subject only to the Obscene Publications Act for another year or two before being forced into obscurity. The experience of watching them was a little like a fever dream, so bafflingly incoherent were they – but that was beyond the point. This was a product that had had its shelf life expanded and that’s all that mattered.
This was a moment of genius, I must say, albeit one born of complete contempt for the customer. The films were sold as ‘genuine hardcore’ and ‘uncensored’, and if anyone questioned this, the law was not on their side. We all know what ‘hardcore porn’ is, but there is no legal definition – ‘hardcore’ is, legally, in the eye of the beholder and anyone can sell anything using that description. Equally, the films were indeed ‘uncensored’. The advertising was technically accurate even though it was clearly misleading. There may have been a case to answer on that front but trading standards were only interested in busting people who were actually selling ‘illegal’ and genuine hardcore – in any case, they would need public complaints to act against these misleadingly sold tapes and who was going to do that? Most punters simply chalked it down to experience and kept quiet.
And so the second half of the 1980s – and into the 1990s – became a conman’s paradise when it came to porn. Magazines faced potential legal action for taking advertising from actual pornographers overseas – no one seemed quite sure what the legal situation was but everyone seemed to agree that it was better to be cautious – but could make a lot of money from companies and individuals that they knew would not be supplying the products that they were advertising. We’re talking about mainstream video magazines here, by the way, not adult mags. That they were happy to make money from their readers being conned by a bunch of advertisers that either delivered material that bore no resemblance to that which was being advertised or sometimes didn’t deliver anything at all is to their eternal shame (and they certainly knew what was happening – readers were less circumspect about complaining to the magazines carrying the ads if they felt ripped off, though nothing ever came of it).
The VRA and the OPA made all this possible because there were no legal sanctions for people who advertised hardcore porn and then failed to deliver. The law was entirely on their side. Had they actually supplied what they were advertising, however, then they faced prosecution, fines and imprisonment. The system spread to sex shops, legal or otherwise, where punters were often palmed off with softcore – or blank – tapes, and where only the most persistent complainers would be compensated with either ‘proper’ porn or a refund (and this is the best case scenario – more often than not, the complaints dept would be a thug who would give the customer a beating and send them on their way). The British sex industry of the era was thriving, despite attempts to clean up Soho and licence sex shops – and it thrived by ripping people off. Everyone knew this – the licencing authorities, the police, the trading standards, the BBFC – and all were happy with it because at least actual porn was being controlled. If people were being scammed, so what? It was what these perverts deserved, after all.
David Sullivan was always a master of hype and seemed to genuinely enjoy being a bit of a huckster. In 1977, he managed to sell his movie Come Play With Me as Britain’s Deep Throat even though it was, even by the pitiful standards of the British sex film, lacking in sexual content. As a result, it made a fortune and played for years even though word of mouth should’ve killed it within weeks. His magazines always hyped his other titles as the ones that went ‘all the way’ even though a cursory glance at those mags in a newsagent would show the lie of this. And famously, he advertised ‘women and animal’ magazines and then sent buyers a copy of Horse and Hound. It’s hard not to chuckle at his more audacious scams. But behind every con is someone being ripped off and his bootlegged versions of magazines like Private – which his company had lifted its name from, of course – and Swedish Erotica were disgracefully awful, both as shameless copyright infringement and shoddy, seemingly thrown-together content.
If you found yourself on the Private mailing list at this time – and believe me, it wasn’t hard to do – then you would be bombarded with catalogues, every couple of weeks if memory serves, that offered you all manner of imported and uncensored porn. These would sometimes present themselves as different companies, though the mailing addresses – usually in Bexley or Forest Gate – and the list of licensed sex shops that you could personally visit was a bit of a giveaway. None of the porn on offer, needless to say, was genuine. Not only was the ‘uncensored’ and ‘imported’ porn that you might receive heavily cut – because of course, ‘uncensored’ could legally mean ‘not cut by the BBFC’ rather than ‘already heavily edited’, though in most cases even this wasn’t true – but often the tape you eventually received was not the title advertised. Whoever was in charge of the mail order department knew that people would generally just put up with whatever was sent – one tape when two had been bought, a Euro softcore film from the 1970s – in a plain box, just to add insult to injury – rather than the XXX-rated spectacular advertised. It was all a shameless scam and Sullivan was the bane of European porn producers’ lives at the time, as they were the ones who would more often than not receive complaints from disgruntled customers. The illegality of genuine porn in Britain meant that the courts were uninterested in copyright claims from what they saw as criminal organisations (in fact, entirely legal European businesses) so Sullivan was free to rip off titles and artwork for inferior magazines and video advertising. In Porn Gold, the managing director of Private – the real Private, veteran producers of European hardcore magazines since the 1960s – said “a Royal Air Force wrote to us to complain and I wrote back and said ‘we are willing to pay for the bombs if you can bomb the damn place'”. The magazine’s founder Berth Milton added, “He is damaging my reputation in England. Inside, his magazines are just rubbish. Sullivan invited me for lunch one day. But I don’t meddle with people of his character.”*
Amongst the blatant scams in these mail-order listings were sometimes curios that seemed – potentially, at least – more genuine. While the hyperbole for these titles would still outweigh the reality, it nevertheless seemed as though there was the possibility of actually getting what you knew the product to be. Sullivan’s Sheptonhust label had issued a bunch of 1970s Euro softcore on tape, some of which were actually worth owning if you were a fan of Euro exploitation. There would be special offers on British softcore titles that, if you were aware of what they were, might be interesting for the connoisseur. Sometimes there would be oddities like the editions of Lady Chatterley’s Lover and Fanny Hill that were illustrated with soft-focus, softcore photographs. I might have been in the market for curiosities like that, but this is where the constant scammery came undone. I wasn’t going to send Private – or any other of the company’s alias and side projects – my money because I had no confidence that there was any more chance of receiving these products than there was of being sent an uncut edition of Happy Video Privat that appeared in the same catalogues. I have no doubt that Sullivan, Private and the various offshoot companies made a lot of money from misleading people but I doubt that many customers went back for a second try (though we should never underestimate the power of desperation and desire). I wonder how many sales they lost compared to those they made, especially for more esoteric releases that perhaps didn’t even need this level of hype and bullshit? All of these products have become as obscure as the early 1980s releases now, part of a lost world of British softcore that may as well have never existed for all the record there is of it. Did anyone ever actually buy Zeta’s Sex Video Show (released in 1988) or the illustrated Lady Chatterley?
Oddly though, Sullivan was a genuine campaigner for sexual freedom and an opponent of censorship even as he was profiting from it. His magazines in the 1970s pushed as far as they could towards hardcore and he was a perpetual thorn in the side of the notoriously corrupt Obscene Publications Squad of Scotland Yard. He didn’t actually need to lie because his magazines really were the strongest available. Had he been able to resist his Carny tendencies, he might be seen as a true hero of the sexual revolution and the anti-censorship movement. It might be said that he made the best – for him, not for anyone else – of a bad situation and for all the criticism of his operations, it was Private that first pushed through the inclusion of hardcore footage in R18 releases and then launched the legal appeal that led to porn’s legalisation in Britain. There were many factors and other players involved in all this, but we should never forget that without Private’s determination and the chain of sex shops that existed to support R18 releases to begin with, things might have been very different. The Private organisation of the late 1990s was a very different beast than before and the sex shops themselves reflected that, becoming less seedy, menacing and downmarket as the 2000s began. I do wonder though, just how many people receiving advertising for those early R18 titles that included hardcore scenes thought that it was just another scam? When you’ve falsely advertised for years, it must be hard to convince people that you are now telling the truth.
Sullivan these days no longer has any official connection to the Private shops or the sex industry in general, other than popping up in documentaries to wax nostalgic. He’s almost respectable today, as chairman of West Ham United, though of course for some he will never be anything but a jumped-up little pornographer. You can never quite shake off that connection, it seems – at least not unless you become repentant and go down the ‘porn is evil and I regret my involvement in it’ route, which he is so far admirably unwilling to do. I rather doubt he cares too much about being accepted by the establishment anyway.
Private was not unique in the 1980s. It was the biggest and most prolific in terms of promotion, but it might not have even been the worst offender in terms of conning people. The entire system in Britain was set up to reward scammers and punish the honest supplier – is it any surprise that most people decided to go for the easiest and safest route? The scams and rip-offs of the 1980s had a lasting detrimental effect on the British sex industry, which not only had to deal with the censors, the moralisers and the politicians but which was forever seen as a den of thieves, thugs and conmen, from the sex shops to the clip joints to the mail order suppliers. It’s something that the industry still hasn’t really recovered from and perhaps never will.
* Milton’s son, who took over the family business and expanded Private from magazines to movies and a huge online presence, was more pragmatic. The early explicit R18 titles from Sullivan’s company were all movies licenced from him.
Porn Gold by David Hebditch and Nick Anning, published by Faber and Faber 1988.
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An excellent article. I was once conned into buying one of Sullivan’s mags with a pirated cover and a load of rubbish inside but it taught me an invaluable lesson, not to have anything to do with any product of his or associated companies in future. Surely there can’t be too many people who were daft enough to be conned twice, which points to the vast demand and interest in porn at the time.
He bunged the late David Webb, a real anti-censorship hero, a few quid and an old typewriter at a time he was making millions from his scams, but it seems to me that he only took a serious interest in challenging the authorities when the net, and the increase in genuinely uncensored tapes, threatened to make his old business model redundant.
On the credit side Sullivan made a genuine effort to push the boundaries for a time in the 1970’s and mags such as the wonderfully titled Whitehouse were perhaps the first real porno as opposed to ‘girlie’ mags on open sale. Even they were marred by too much material that tended to be sleazy rather than erotic.
I think you’re right that his anti-censorship campaigns were all self-serving – I’m not sure how much his interest in the whole industry went beyond how much money could be made from it. But sometimes you have to take the supporters you can get and he certainly played a significant role in the whole porn war. Mutual acquaintances back in the day suggested that he got a strange satisfaction from the whole huckerism – as though a pound made from conning people was more pleasurable than two pounds made by actually delivering what was promised. An odd mind-set, if true, but not a unique one.
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