Sunday, 27 July 2014

Review: Sex with the Stars (1980, Anwar Kawadri)

There are certain British sex films that appear to have an immediate read on their audience, tapping into their fantasies, hang ups and secret anxieties, then playing up to all these on the big screen. For older geezers we’re talking here about films like Secrets of a Superstud (1975) and Pete Walker’s School for Sex (1968). It’s not hard to imagine gentlemen of a certain age buying a ticket to either of those films and imagining that they were Anthony Kenyon or Derek Aylward for an afternoon, what with storylines that not only saw those two aging bachelors constantly surrounded by gorgeous women, but in the case of School for Sex living a privileged lifestyle through them. Neither of these films can quite resist taunting their target audience with moments of uncomfortable reality though. The spectre of male impotence trails the narrative of Secrets of a Superstud, and in School for Sex there is the scene where Aylward stops by a strip club to observe the clientele: old men decaying away in the darkness, balding heads, grey mackintoshes on laps to mask the obvious, stationery save for occasionally rising from their seats to make a snail’s pace grab for the talent on stage. When Mr Grey Mac watched School for Sex and saw Derek Aylward-smooth, smoking jacket wearing charmer to the ladies- he saw the man he wanted to be, when he saw the men in the strip club scene he saw the man he really was. Just P. Walker having fun at his audience’s expense, but such a sadistically funny scene to include in the film, no wonder he ended up making horror films.

1980’s Sex with the Stars, might have its eye on a younger male audience than School for Sex and Secrets of a Superstud, but it is no less perceptive when it comes to knowing what its audience was all about, and why they flocked to films like this. For an audience of men in their twenties, addled with unfulfilling city jobs and having had limited contact with the opposite sex, the appeal here lay in seeing the sexual misadventures of someone just like them. In fact for that crowd the experience of watching Sex with the Stars in a cinema must have felt like one of their own had got up from their seat, walked on into the screen and became the star, nay, hero of his own British sex comedy. Peter Bates (Martin Burrows) is a timid, sexually repressed 24 year old virgin, who to add to his woes is stuck in a humiliating Fleet Street job ghost-writing his aunt’s astrology column ‘Clara looks at the stars’. Peter’s emasculating job coupled with a non-existent sex life making it at least easy for him to pass himself off as an astrological spinster in print.

 Enter his new boss Mr Terson (Thick Wilson) an aggressively ambitious, grossly overweight American media mogul. Seemingly a long lost American cousin of Eskimo Nell’s Benny U Murdoch, as with that character, Terson’s comedic appeal stems from his relentless crassness and unshakable belief in the selling power of sex. Terson’s smart, expensive office –where a great deal of Sex with the Stars’ plot plays out- is awash with character defining details: big tit magazines scattered about his desk, a cut out photo of Joan Collins in The Bitch glued to one of the walls, a painting of a charging rhinoceros hanging in the vicinity. The latter being a particularly apt piece of set design, for Terson is that beast: horny, and rampaging despite all the excess weight he is carrying. Explaining his success in turning around the fortunes of a staid publication called Wife and Family, Terson tells Peter “I fired everybody, changed the title to ‘John Thomas Weekly’, and wham up went the figures, you see that’s a title for the Eighties”.

Convinced a similar makeover is needed on ‘Happy Homes’, the publication Peter ghost-writes for, Terson changes the title to Horny Homes and goes about firing the staff, Peter only being spared the axe after a moment of inspiration sees him pitch the idea of a sexed-up astrology column for the revamped mag. Inexplicably Sex with the Stars then briefly adopts a faux vox-pop format as Peter takes to the streets of London, microphone and tape recorder in hand, to record Joe and Josephine Public’s thoughts on whether a person’s astrological sign affects their sex life. “My sex life is only affected by the availability of contraceptives” quips one saucy Cockney woman to him. The authenticity of these sound bites comes under question when one of Peter’s interview subjects turns out to be Max Roman, a chubby Greek porn filmmaker who resembled Telly Savalas’ brother George, and who four years later would give the definitive portrayal of a Santa Claus who has his penis cut off in Don’t Open Till Christmas. Seen here outside of the Santa costume, and fortunately allowed to keep his genitals intact, Roman basically appears to be playing himself, a gregarious Greek pornographer doing battle with his second-language English in order to sing the praises of sex “I need…a woman…every day… fantastic….it’s a good…fantastic…very beautiful”.

Alas, transcripts of people talking about sex isn’t enough for Terson who demands that Peter go out into the field for a bit of first hand research into the sexual characteristics of the twelve signs of the zodiac. Seeking out and sleeping with twelve women each with a different star sign then writing about it is a task that a bespectacled, prematurely balding 24 year old virgin isn’t exactly suited for. “You’ve been given an assignment that would make a sex maniac hesitate” remarks Terson’s secretary, Suzy (Janie Love). Fortunately Suzy takes pity on him, and touched by his ‘little boy lost’ demeanour seizes the opportunity to have his cherry and grant him insight into the mind and body of the Sagittarius woman. “Sagittarians often wear themselves out in their anxiety to get the job done” is Peter’s post-coital observation, at which point the real life Peters watching Sex with the Stars in a cinema probably wished real life could be like this.

A transcript of Peter and Suzy’s erotic encounter is summarily typed up and delivered to Terson, who regards it as porn gold. Wanting more of the same, he hands Peter a fortnight deadline for bedding the other 11 women “one a day, and three days to spare” he estimates. Bagging a Gemini turns out to be easier than expected after Suzy reluctantly leaves Peter at the mercy of her man-eating best friend Shirley (Susie Silvey) the subject of the funniest (but most uncomfortable looking) sex scene in the film that involves Shirley and Martin going at it against a piano. Shirley’s arse banging down on the keys and ensuring that the pair of them make anything but sweet music together. It is one of Susie Silvey’s few memorable British sex film roles, probably in part because as a post-1979 role she didn’t feel the need to….. (CENSORED).

Growing in confidence, Peter goes it alone for the remaining ten sexual encounters, due to the discovery that advanced knowledge of astrology, and talking to women at great length about their star signs is –according to this film at least- the best way to get inside their knickers. Peter’s leap from “Christian Surbiton to Sodom and Gomorrah” comes at a price however, jeopardising his relationship with Suzy, and when one of his later conquests is revealed to be Terson’s wife (fucked on the bonnet of Terson’s Rolls Royce no less) it looks as if he’ll be out of the running for an ‘employee of the month’ award.

Sex with the Stars was a truly multinational affair, bringing together a Greek producer (future cannon films honcho Panos Nicolaou), Syrian funding and a Syrian director in Anwar Kawadri, a Frenchman on soundtrack duties (Pierre Bachelet, best known for his musical contributions to the original Emmanuelle film) and home-grown talent in the shape of scriptwriter Tudor Gates and director of photography Peter Jessop. The presence of overseas filmmakers is evident from the get-go thanks to an opening title sequence that is reminiscent of 1970s giallo thrillers and their tendency to boast about having briefly filmed in the UK by giving just about every London landmark they could spot a visual name check. The excitable, tourist guide visuals here practically shouting through a megaphone “first up we have Big Ben, then if you look to your left you can see Westminster Bridge, now we find ourselves on Fleet Street, and just over there is St Paul's Cathedral, and now we’re back on Fleet Street just in time to see our lead actor getting off one of those jolly double-decker buses”.

  Peter Bates and Terson embody every cliché going concerning British and American men, and their cultures’ attitudes towards sex. Bates, clueless, and embarrassed by the subject. Terson, loud, massively obese, a mind obsessed by sex and artless ways to commercialise it. These two messes are the main source of comedy for the overseas filmmakers sniggering away behind the camera with a sense of cultural superiority. As Terson, actor Thick Wilson is spectacularly used in a scene that finds him attempting to hurry Peter up to the payoff of one of his sexual anecdotes, Thick hollering “did she screw, did she screw” over and over as his considerable weight shudders in sexual frustration. Presumably in reverence to its producer’s nationality, Sex with the Stars then finds a way of shoehorning Greek dancing into the proceedings when Peter and Terson get dragged into a group Sintaki dance at a Soho nightclub, only for Terson to get carried away and fall on his arse at the end. As in the earlier ‘did she screw’ scene, the extremely committed Thick Wilson looks as if he is seconds away from a heart attack. Perhaps due to the levelling input of a British scriptwriter and a predominantly British cast though, the ‘outsider’ filmmaker take on the London of the era, and the often impenetrable nature of British culture to others, isn’t as greatly felt here as in, say, An American Werewolf in London or Boys and Girls Together.

The impression you get is that the filmmakers regarded the Tudor Gates script and its astrology based premise as Sex with the Stars’ chief weakness, based on the manner in which they become marginalised as the film progresses. Set aside in favour of the perceived strengths; an uninhibited female cast, the greater sexual freedoms afforded filmmakers by the late 1970s, and the sensual Pierre Bachelet soundtrack, part of the era’s ‘space disco’ musical sub-genre. Towards the end of the film scenes between Peter and Terson, and Jane and Peter serve as little other than dot-to-dot connecting links between a series of erotic set pieces. As if the filmmakers took to heart Terson’s orders to hurry along to the raison d’etre of it all; “did she screw, did she screw” etc. Fortunately given this decision to emphasize explicitness over everything else, Anwar Kawadri proves to be up to the job of being an inspired, erotic filmmaker. Typical male fantasy scenarios and time honoured female sexual stereotypes are in abundance here, as Peter goes from having libidinous designs on the working class female, as in the case of his bathroom seduction of a cleaning lady, to playing about above his station by also sleeping with her employer, a rich socialite, from being a lothario to Stud-era disco dollies within his own age bracket to acting as sexual liberator to older women. These sexual conquests are largely played by also ran, wannabe sex symbols who arrived too late to British sex films to make a great deal of impact on the genre, but the film can lay claim to two standout appearances by the only fleetingly in the spotlight Rosemary England and long-time Brit sexploitation fixture Nicola Austin.

Rosemary is a visual delight here, cast as a mystery woman who meets Peter in a park then leads him on a teasing chase through misty woodlands, losing her symbolically white dress in order to run naked through the forest, culminating in the couple making love against a tree. Capitalising on soft focus lensing and natural lighting techniques, it is a beautiful sequence that allows Rosemary to fully live up to the ‘English Rose’ connotations of her name, and the use of slow motion to capture the bouncing sight of Rosemary’s melon heavy breasts. Suffering for their art, Rosemary and actor Martin Burrows do show considerable dedication to the noble art of onscreen kit-offery, taking into account the sight of their frozen breath in the preceding dialogue scene hinting at a chilly, early morning shooting schedule.

Equally stunning is Nicola Austin –the face that launched a thousand pop chart cover version albums- playing Peter’s older woman conquest, Mrs. Doyle. It speaks volumes about the sheer longevity of Nicola’s career that it began with young dolly bird roles in the late 1960s and drew to a close with her being eroticized as a ‘mature woman’. Classily attired and initially haughty in her altitude towards Peter, it doesn’t take much of Peter’s astrological mumbo jumbo speak to get Mrs Doyle to change her mind. Deciding to trade in her respectably for multiple orgasms, she straddles Peter on top of a waterbed, the pair’s exhaustive sex session causing the bed to rupture and water to gush out and rain down on them- a piece of money shot symbolism if ever there was one. It’s a performance that has last role written all over it (Nicola actually had one further, forgettable bit part to go), a career best sexy turn and what a decade’s worth of prolific but undistinguished nude walk on roles had been building up to. Sex with the Stars finds Nicola going out whilst –figuratively and literally- on top. Her character proving that, as Doris Hare might have put it “just because there is snow on the roof doesn’t mean the fire has gone out”.

The casting of Rosemary and Nicola is made all that more special by the fact that neither would be around films a great deal longer, Sex with the Stars being Rosemary’s cinematic swansong and –as noted- Nicola’s penultimate film appearance. Soon the pair of them would walk away from this period of their lives, and haven’t stopped walking since. Nicola and Rosemary being two ladies who maintain a closed mouth stance on discussing the sex film era to this very day. Although only Rosemary had the foresight to use a fake name on the film, billing herself as ‘Poula-Grifith Jada’ in the end credits. A one-shot pseudonym apparently constructed by Rosemary by using her real first name Jada as a surname, and adding it to Poula-Grifith a ‘foreign’ spelling variation on the name of a fashion model called Paula Griffin, whose name and profile often appeared in close proximity to Rosemary/Jada’s own in model directories.
‘Poula-Grifith Jada’ is born

For cinema audiences of the time, astrological themed sex comedies may well have seemed like buses, they waited for one to come along, only for two to show up at the same time, what with Sex with the Stars and Confessions from the David Galaxy Affair being released within months of each other by Tigon. To confuse matters Tigon quickly re-issued and re-titled the two films, giving them new names that were sound-alikes of each other’s original titles. Thus Confessions from the David Galaxy Affair became ‘Sex Star’ in late 1980, and Sex with the Stars was rechristened ‘Confessions of the Naughty Nymphos’ around the same time. As if that wasn’t confusing enough, Tigon’s Naughty Nymphos poster campaign plagiarised the poster for ‘The Ecstasy Girls’, a 1979 American hard-core film which Tigon was also distributing –in heavily cut form- in 1981. As a result not even consulting their horoscopes probably helped a perplexed public decipher if they were going to see a retitled Sex with the Stars, a bowdlerised version of The Ecstasy Girls, or –if they’d really done something bad in a past life- the wretched David Galaxy film.

the org. Ecstasy Girls poster and sex with the stars revamped

For a last minute addition to a near dead genre, and one extremely short on plot, Sex with the Stars does deliver several twists on the tried and tested British sex film formula. The pairing of the shy, well-educated sounding Peter with the extroverted and down to earth Suzy going against the established, ‘Confessions’ derived genre penchant for romantically bringing together cocky working class lads with reserved, posh girlfriends. As played by Page 3 girl and bit-part actress Janie Love, Suzy’s no-nonsense personality and unapologetically low-class accent guarantees she always dominates her and Peter’s verbal slanging matches. Sex with the Stars is one of few British sex comedies to realistically consider the consequences of its hero’s job leading him to quickie sexual encounters, and the detrimental effect this would have on forming meaningful relationships and keeping hold of a girlfriend. Racked with guilt over his inability to be faithful to Suzy and terrified by his own, suddenly very active sex life (“I used to think it was bad enough when I had a quiet wank, but now I’m a sex maniac” he frets)…that man, he sure got the British sex film blues.

Sensitive soul Peter even attempts suicide at one point, only to botch the job and inadvertently find himself in the midst of yet another anonymous sexual encounter. On account of moments such as that Sex with the Stars certainly goes places other genre efforts feared to tread, although the uneasy tone born out of switching from light comedy to suicidal thoughts and back again, does illustrate why British sex films often and wisely shunned the idea of having a ‘serious’ side to them. Sex with the Stars can also claim to be the only British sex film to feature a rubber, used during a scene where Peter saves a woman (Loretta Smith) from drowning, then tries to convince her that removing her clothes and having protective sex is all par for the course during artificial respiration (she remains sceptical, but appreciative of this extra ‘concern’ for her wellbeing). As an apparent stab at espousing a responsible, safe sex message, it is a little hard to take seriously within the context of a film that has our man Peter frequently engaging in unprotected sex with women he has just met, and if I were Loretta Smith I would feel rather insulted at being cast as the sole female character that the hero obviously must consider an STD risk.

Even so, the use of a condom and acceptance that contraception isn’t just a woman’s responsibility is one of a number of factors that points to Sex with the Stars being conceived as a more mature take on the British sex film. It’s a film that is open minded enough to the idea that women can be as predatory as men, and in the case of the Peter/Suzy relationship that women can possess greater sexual knowledge and experience than the man. Refreshingly Sex with the Stars is notably allot more comfortable, and less prone to moralising, around the subject of female promiscuity than British sex films of old. The laid back attitude shown towards Susie Silvey’s bed-hopping party girl and Terson’s unfaithful wife here is a far cry from the dirty looks and hydro themed revenge afforded the Olivia Munday and Linda Hayden characters in Confessions of a Window Cleaner. Sex with the Stars even acknowledges that by 1980 women could hold positions of power, beyond of course being on top in sex scenes taking place on waterbeds. In the climatic twist Terson’s wife takes control of the company, demotes Terson, spits in his mouth (Andy Milligan would’ve loved that bit), dismisses ‘Horny Homes’ as puerile male nonsense and reverts it back to the original family friendly, Happy Homes format. A topical plot development for a film roughly made around the time of Thatcher first coming to power, and an unfortunately prophetic one in the way it unintentionally predicts the rise of conservative, moral majoritism in the 1980s. Something that would spell the end of the line for films of this nature. Its genre- like Horny Homes- thrown into the trash bin at the start of the decade.

At risk of being accused of pretentiousness, I will reign in the temptation to comment at length about how another of Sex with the Star’s subplots, where Peter’s sexploits briefly come to a halt after he falls ill and takes to bed with flu like symptoms now sits uncomfortably with the knowledge of the real life sexual plague that would be terrorising the world a few years later. Lest I should pick up my horoscope tomorrow and find Clara is advising me “this month Pisceans are at risk of disappearing up their own backsides, as this has been known to occur during the writing up of thirty odd year old British sex comedies that nobody really cares less about, interpreting their subplots as ‘really’ being about the AIDS crisis is therefore best avoided. Piscean males should however complement themselves on the restraint they’ve shown in not divulging the potentially libellous story they know about Susie Silvey, and opting to write the word censored in block capitals instead”.

Sex with the Stars wraps up with another reoccurring theme for the genre, that of its hero hanging up his sex comedy hat in favour of a life of monogamy, marriage and fatherhood. Earlier British sex films ‘Girls Come First’ and ‘Secrets of a Superstud’ had carried the exact same conclusion (minus the astrological observations that Peter signs off with here). The last minute grabs for respectably sort by these ‘happy endings’ never really ring true though, at best feeling like an empty gesture designed to appease the censors, or maybe ease the audience’s guilty conscience, or even the filmmakers’ own. Sex with the Stars, Girls Come First and Secrets of a Superstud all revel a little too enthusiastically in the preceding 80 minutes or so of fun and games, and their protagonists getting their leg over with the likes of Rosemary England, Nicola Austin and Susie Silvey, to then successfully sell the idea that the men onscreen could give up those kind of horizontal pleasures and settle for a mundane family life instead. Still it is a reminder that films like these were the products of men who while embracing and commercially profiteering from 1970s’ permissiveness, couldn’t entirely break free from the conservatism and conformity imposed on previous generations.

Call it hypocrisy, call in cowardliness, call it a copout, call it wanting your crumpet and eating it, with Sex with the Stars the genre goes to its grave without fully resolving this inner conflict, but then again if we’ve learnt nothing else from our sex films it is that the British take on sex can be a complicated affair.

Friday, 20 June 2014

Getting the Urge

Derek Ford’s last film, Urge to Kill aka The Attack of the Killer Computer is –for now at least- currently up on youtube in all its time-coded glory. Your chance to see a veteran showbiz hoofer face off against a nude green babe, is here:

Sunday, 15 June 2014

Captain X and the mystery woman

In 1972 my actor pal Emmett Hennessey (‘Captain X’ in Harrison Marks’ Aphrodisia, and also the bloke who eats cat food in London in the Raw* and the bloke standing behind Philip Madoc in the classic ‘don’t tell him, pike’ scene in Dad’s Army) ventured to Denmark to appear in the film ‘The Loves of Cynthia’ aka Cynthia’s Sister, acting alongside fellow brits Maureen Flanagan and Paul Kirby. During filming Emmett was talked into making a brief appearance in a second film that the makers of Cynth’s Sis were shooting at the same time. Emmett was never told the title of this second film, and it has been a mystery title in his filmography ever since, however recently Emmett has managed to unearth a photo of himself and the lead actress from this film, and hopes that if anyone can ID her this will also lead to uncovering the name of the film they both appeared in (feel free to let us know if her face rings any bells).

Emmett sez: “doing a bit of sorting out and found this, never even knew i had it. A still from the 'mystery movie' in Denmark , including my co-star who i believe was quite a well known actress there at the time. I thought maybe if anyone recognised her (name)it would be starting point to trace the movie.”

*it wasn’t really cat food, just a tin of tuna with a cat food label stuck on it.

Friday, 23 May 2014

Hell Up in Charing Cross Road

For all of the critical mud that can be thrown in the direction of David Sullivan’s Hellcat Mud Wrestlers, this cinema display from August 1983 is a lurid work of art

Dereks Don’t Run

Mr.Ford’s ‘Suburban Wives’ playing the ABC Mile End, March 1972


The Lustful Vicar in Great Yarmouth

X-rated double-bill from April 1973, check out Bedabbled 4# for my article on the co-feature “Sweet and Sexy”
Photo c/o Flickr

Sunday, 13 April 2014

Confessions of a Taste Breaker

The subject of the critical mauling dished out to the ‘Confessions’ series over the years recently came up at one of my internet haunts, and reminded me of that brilliant defence of the film series, originally published in the September 1976 issue of Films and Filming, as well as causing me to offer up my own two penneth worth on the subject, which I thought was worth reposting and expanding on here (to the degree that ‘offering my own two penneth worth on the subject’ may now have bloated into ‘endlessly pontificating on the subject’ but so be it.)

At the risk of sounding like Citizen Smith here at times, I do find myself grimly drawn to the conclusion that loathing for the Confessions series by film critics –both then and now- could well be ‘a class thing’. As the Films and Filming letter suggests the Confessions series were the 1970s continuation of a tradition of British film comedies aimed specifically at the working classes. A part of British cinema, which by its very nature has tended to be looked down upon by middle class critics, who give the impression of not only being unable to relate to the people being depicted on screen, but of being embarrassed-or even offended- over that section of British society getting its own cinematic mouthpiece. To Brian Evans’ list of early comedy stars whose big screen vehicles act as the forefathers to the Confessions series, I’d also personally add Old Mother Riley and Frank Randle (whose ‘Holidays With Pay’ is very proto-Confessions in its centring around a dysfunctional working class family).

For the majority of the time the British sex film, of which the Confessions series were an important part of, was a predominantly working class genre of film, especially in terms of audience demographics and what you encounter up there onscreen. Now admittedly, you can punch a few Joan Collins and Pete Walker sized holes into that argument, the genre had its fair share of notable toffs both in front of and behind the camera, but it is the explicitly working class ‘Confessions’ side of the story which the genre will forever be associated with in the minds of the public. Not to mention the chief point of reference whenever the genre is up for parody (The Fast Show, Tramadol Nights, the films of Jan Manthey) or pornographic emulation (it could convincingly be claimed that 1990s/early 2000s porn stars Ben Dover, Dr Neil Down, Phil Mycok, Omar Williams, all carried the Timmy Lea gene, their hardcore videos serving as a meeting of Confessions ethos and the American originated ‘gonzo’ school of pornography).

I do find it significant that the few films from the British sex comedy era that fared poorly at the box-office –Keep It Up Downstairs, Mistress Pamela and the two Koo Stark vehicles- were all period pieces based around the affairs of upper class characters, and possibly for those very reasons were unsuccessful in connecting with audiences in the way that the Confessions and rival ‘Adventures of a…’ series were.

A sense of reverse snobbery existing within the core British sex film audience doesn’t look to have gone completely unnoticed by the filmmakers themselves. Once private but recently made public correspondence between Confessions honcho Michael Klinger and Confessions producer Greg Smith, sees the former voice concerns that with the first Confessions sequel ‘Confessions of a Pop Performer’ the series was in danger of drifting into the realms of escapist fantasy and away from the realistic, working class environment established by the first film ‘Confessions of a Window Cleaner’. A likely reason as to why the two remaining sequels saw the Timmy Lea character dropped into the believable, down to earth occupations of driving instructor and holiday camp entertainment officer. Klinger’s anxiety over Pop Performer might not have been without justification if you cast an eye over the genre as a whole. Even films with contemporary 1970s settings that diverted away from working class surroundings were prone to the curse of poor box-office returns. Adventures of a Private Eye’s central occupation likely being an alienating factor for audiences, never as relatable as the occupation of the previous film in that series, Adventures of a Taxi Driver. Likewise Private Eye’s middle-section which sees its hero plunged into some sub-Rawlinson End antics involving a faux-haunted house and its eccentric aristocratic owners, may well have been another obstacle for cinemagoers, it’s just too removed from anyone’s regular environment, even though these scenes are among the comedy highpoints of the Adventures series. Similarly miscalculated is the Confessions team’s Rosie Dixon-Night Nurse (1978). In spite of sharing Confessions’ producer and scriptwriter team in Greg Smith and Christopher Wood, it emerges as a considerably more middle class creation, both in appearance and P.O.V The trainee doctors who act as suitors to its forgettable bimbo heroine might be of a similar school of thought to Timmy Lea, but they clearly went to more expensive schools, and Rosie’s boyfriend –bespectacled, frequency seen trouser less and at one stage holding a symbolically flaccid bunch of flowers- is a nightmare vision of the bumbling, sexually incompetent upper class twit. Not even seasoned comedy pros John Clive and Bob Todd can work up much enthusiasm for this onscreen, and an equal amount of audience apathy meant that Rosie was a one movie wonder.


Less carefully considered critiques of the Confessions series regularly find class based prejudices rearing their heads. “Drab high streets, dull suburbs, tawdry holiday camps…Britain in all its glory” sneered one internet hack over the Confessions’ series landscape. A statement that –depending on the author’s background- either displays a deep distain for working class Britain, or self-hatred should the author have come from that background himself. All too often when the Confessions series –or films of a similar comedic ilk- come under scrutiny, the mask of film criticism falls away early on, revealing a frowning face of snobbery beneath. A recent Radio 4 piece on ‘Holiday on the Buses’ by Mark Gatiss and Matthew Sweet, saw that film produce a howl of disapproval from both parties. Not only did Holiday on the Buses fail to meet up to their high standards, but the physical appearance of characters, their holiday camp surroundings, occupations and indifference to bettering themselves socially, all proved to be an affront to Gatiss and Sweet’s sensibilities, with Gatiss at one point remarking that the main characters took to the setting of that film “like pigs wallowing in shit” (not his exact words, I’m quoting from memory here, but a toned down version of that expression was used.) A radio piece that was as joyless to listen to as Holiday on the Buses was for Sweet and Gatiss to obviously watch.

Male characters in the Confessions series don’t really conform to the idea of the working classes as noble, politically aware heroes as found in the cinema of Ken Loach, they’re an apolitical bunch who –as might be expected from a comedy series- are riddled with characteristics we are meant to find funny (carnal clown Timmy, wheeler dealer brother in law Sidney Noggett, uncouth kleptomaniac father Walter Lea). In the academic essay “Confessions of a Window Cleaner: Sex, Class, Popular Taste” Sian Barber puts forward a case that a bourgeois agenda hides within the Confessions series, one that encourages audiences to feel revulsion at the working class Lea family, with narratives that put them in their place (heavily citing the wedding reception scene in Confessions of a Window Cleaner). Personally I wouldn’t be so quick to assume that anything which shows the working classes in a less than saintly light is evidence of a bourgeois/undercover snob agenda. If anything British culture has a habit of adopting life’s losers as its comedy icons- Arthur Daley, Del Boy, Steptoe, Old Mother Riley, etc. At first glance none are flattering examples of working class Britain, flirtations with petty criminality, making enemies of authority figures and being a sucker for get rich quick schemes are common characteristics here, but the public took these characters to their collective bosom anyway, maybe even recognising these characters’ failings in themselves. The Lea family of the Confessions series fits in perfectly in that company. As for the wedding reception scene in Confessions of a Window Cleaner, which sees a culture clash between the Lea family and the upper middle class family of Timmy’s girlfriend Elizabeth Radlett, and results in the Leas failing miserably to endear themselves to the prim and proper Radletts. It all really depends on which side you identify with and who you take against, I’d argue that the film itself strongly pushes the audience into the corner of the Lea family.

For virtually all of Confessions of a Window Cleaner, we are in the company of various members of the Lea family, and –if the film is successful in working its magic on you- have been entertained and amused by that family unit. The use of voiceover to allow Timmy to talk directly to the audience, furthering an alliance to that character and his family. In contrast the Radlett family are outsiders to the narrative, introduced late on into Confessions of a Window Cleaner and the subject of a critical eyeballing by the film. In their brief appearances the Radletts are portrayed as humourless and uptight socially (in the case of the father, a police inspector), spoilt and uptight sexually (in the case of the daughter/girlfriend) and horribly judgemental (“there are criminals abroad you know” remarks Mrs. Radlett, to which Inspector Radlett looks at the Lea family and chips in “not only abroad”). All are quick to find fault with Timmy (upon their first meeting Inspector Radlett’s chief concern is that the tires on Timmy’s van are worn down) or turn him into something he isn’t (“you’re too good for that sort of job” claims Elizabeth of Timmy’s window cleaner occupation “you’d make a good policeman”).

That in mind I’d argue the film encourages the audience to get behind the Lea family patriarch Walter as he quickly loses his put on airs and graces, reverts to vulgar type and inadvertently offends the head of the Radlett household. “I’ve got a lot of respect for the police” he unconvincingly tells Inspector Radlett “anyone ever calls them bastards, I deny it”. It is in keeping with the series’ routine ridiculing of authority figures, anti-police force sentiments are strong in Window Cleaner, and in Confessions from a Holiday Camp the chief villain/object of humiliation Whitemonk is another bogeyman of the criminally orientated working classes, an ex-prison officer.

Robin Askwith personifying the aspirations of beliefs of the working man

An inability to succeed in any walk of life –another reoccurring characteristic in British comedy icons- follows the Lea family over the Confessions series. For all of Sidney Noggett’s best laid plans, every one of his schemes is destined to fall apart thanks to his accident prone brother-in-law. A situation that brings poor Sid closer and closer to insanity with each passing film. By the end of the series with Confessions from a Holiday Camp, Sid has been rendered as barking mad as Inspector Dreyfus of the Pink Panther series or Dennis Hopper in The Texas Chainsaw Massacre Part 2 (the scene in Holiday Camp with a cowboy hat wearing, grass cutter wielding Sid might be what brought on that unlikely comparison). The comedy of failure is a series trait that puts the Confessions series at odds with another take on the British working class that has found favour with middle class audiences of late; that of the underprivileged outsider attempting to better themselves in areas perceived as being beyond their social status, succeeding and in doing so leaving their working class background behind. Exemplified by the popular ‘Billy Elliot’ (2000) and the loathsome ‘Starter for 10’ (2006). Confessions of a Window Cleaner however ends not with Timmy married, socially upgraded and tied to the Radlett family, but with the audience pleasing outcome of seeing him happily single, still working as a window cleaner and still chasing women on the same high street from the start of the film.

As tends to be the case with many exploitation sub-genres, little can be gleaned about the British sex comedy on the basis of initial critical responses. Searching through old Monthly Film Bulletins, Films and Filmings, and Films Illustrated leads nowhere but hostile pan after hostile pan. If anything the British sex comedy story acts as a reminder of how little attention the public actually pays to film critics (something that in itself is unlikely to ever endear the British sex film to critics). For if the public did listen to critics this is a genre that would have been strangled at birth, rather than have been a recognisable strand of British cinema for over a decade. Its remarkable then that Brian Evans’ Films and Filming letter slipped through their net, albeit branded with that ‘taste breaker’ title by the magazine, and followed by letters of condemnation in the October 1976 and January 1977 issues. The latter counter arguing “while my local ABC continues to show Robin Askwith, even if he be a modern George Formby losing his trousers, I will not enter their foyer at all”.

Over a year earlier in the October 1975 issue of the Monthly Film Bulletin the widening gap between the tastes of film critics and the tastes of the public was touched upon in the MFB review of the John Cleese comedy featurette ‘Romance with a Double Bass’. A write-up which resentfully acknowledges the words of the critics were falling on deaf ears with the public; “it is probably too much to expect that a whimsical comedy made with a measure of style will do as well these days as the current crop of lamentable but money spinning British sex comedies- but one can hope”. Fat chance, not only did that review fail to divert an audience away from those sex comedies and in the direction of Romance with a Double Bass, it couldn’t even deter that film’s director Robert Young from the allure of the genre, which saw Young later helm Keep It Up Downstairs and The World is Full of Married Men. In the years since the British sex film’s demise there has been a concentrated critical effort to denigrate the genre further and instil a sense of shame in the public for ever having held it dear, the films are called unfunny, miserable, unsexy, a forgotten embarrassment or “films from the darkest days of British cinema” as the Daily Mail dubbed the Confessions series a few years ago.

Confessions of a Driving Instructor playing Piccadilly Circus in 1976 (photo courtesy of Klaus Hiltscher)

Facts which inconveniently serve as a reminder of the popularity the films enjoyed with the public –Come Play With Me’s four year run at the Moulin cinema, and Adventures of a Taxi Driver out grossing Taxi Driver upon their release in 1975 – are therefore a source of torment, maybe even the odd sleepless night by the genre’s detractors. A response of head scratching, feigned confusion over these successes, chooses to ignore the glaringly obvious explanation for them, that people simply liked Come Play With Me and went to see it over and over again, and that as far as 1975 British audiences were concerned they’d rather spend money on seeing Barry Evans losing his trousers than they would on seeing Robert De Niro losing his marbles. In Shepperton Babylon, Matthew Sweet –an author whose fixation for British exploitation cinema is matched by his inability to say anything remotely positive about it- claims of the entire sex comedy era films “they are neither funny nor sexy. It’s hard to believe that they ever made anybody laugh; that the people who bought tickets for them through the 1970s watched in anything but glum resignation.” But if that is the case, why when I put on a DVD of Confessions of a Window Cleaner for an audience of working class males do they still laugh like a drain at Robin Askwith’s trouser dropping antics?

Despite the Confessions films boasting a series regular who was a known heavyweight when it came to left wing politics in Anthony Booth, and Askwith’s own close association with a highly regarded figure from the British new wave movement (Askwith’s roles in the Confessions films being bookended by appearances in Lindsay Anderson’s ‘If’ and ‘Britannia Hospital’) the series currently joins the ranks of many a form of 20th century British entertainment –bawdy and working class in nature- that are seen as suspect, threatening and a cause for concern amongst the more influential elements of British society. Their averse reactions to which can often boil over into calls for censorship or suppression- consider the persecution of Donald McGill over his seaside postcards in the 1950s, or the current middle class led backlash over Lad’s Mags and Page 3.

The knives have definitely been out for Confessions of a Window Cleaner in these last few years, likely singled out purely on the basis of it being a well-remembered and genre defining title. I’ve grown increasingly tired nay intolerant to hearing it described along the lines of ‘the nadir of British cinema’. A tag that feels unsuited to, and unfairly hung around, a film that on a technical level could hardly be considered an example of Ed Wood type ineptness. It is in fact a reasonably budgeted film, professionally directed by a veteran filmmaker, financed by a major studio, and with an experienced –and to a UK audience- well known supporting cast. As for nadir in terms of lack of success, we’re talking here about a film seen by millions of British cinemagoers, one that sold all over the world, spawned sequels, imitations (The Ups and Downs of a Handyman) and imitations of imitations (Close Encounters of a Handyman, The Ups and Downs of a Superstud), I daresay there are plenty of filmmakers around today who’d give their right arm to stumble upon such a lucrative ‘nadir’ as Confessions of a Window Cleaner.

For all the hundreds of unkind words spewed forth over the Confessions series by critics, and recent attempts by the likes of Sweet and Dominic Sandbrook to portray them as a cultural embarrassment, it is worth pointing out that the Confessions films have rarely been out of circulation since they were made, what with theatrical releases (and double-bill re-releases) in the 1970s, being pretty much everywhere on video in the 1980s, and in recent years the Channel 5 and Paramount TV airings and the DVD releases. Which when all is said and done, to me speaks volumes as to how the British public really feels about these films. So Mr Brian Evans of Sydenham, London, whatever else you did with your life, on account of that Films and Filming letter alone, this fellow taste breaker salutes you.