Adventures in the skin trade: How did a film director from north London get the hookers of Manhattan to turn tricks before her camera? Beeban Kidron felt particularly close to the subjects of her disturbingly intimate new television documentary

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SHE DID not stop filming when Mistress Scarlet, the dominatrix, demonstrated 'the helicopter' on the penis of a whimpering client. Nor did she quit when Maurice, Mistress Scarlet's 86-year-old slave, sipped his mistress's warm urine, rolling it thoughtfully round the glass like a decent hock. Hiding under a rug on the floor of a limousine with her sound man and camera woman, she continued to film as a happy hooker peeked through the window and offered a menu as varied and costly as the one at the Four Seasons. She didn't seem that perturbed, either, when the Bronx whore with the wrecked face showed her the rubbish skip where she slept, although a quaver in the voice betrayed her. She held quite still in the red room during the matter-of-fact coupling: they were doing their job, and she was doing hers. The cheese-grater, however, was enough to make anyone jump.

Beeban Kidron's Hookers, Hustlers, Pimps and their Johns hits our screens on 29 December as part of Channel 4's Xmas in New York. All things considered, it is just as well that Mrs Whitehouse has laid down her binoculars. Kidron's personal view of the city's thriving sexual marketplace contains some of the most troubling erotic material ever seen on British television. Last weekend, I watched a rough cut with Kidron's co-producer, Christina Burnett, in a dark booth in Charlotte Street, and it wasn't only Mistress Scarlet's helicopter that had me lifting off my seat.

'That scene is still under discussion,' said Burnett. 'Oh, God, and so's that one. We're hoping they'll let us keep the pee-drinking because it's so strong, don't you think?' The trick, she explained, was to fight like hell for what you would be devastated to lose, while being prepared to make tactical sacrifices - we'll trade you one blow-job for the cheese- grater, that kind of thing. I had already gathered that the channel was edgy about Hookers when the promised videotape kept not showing up. Then I was told that I could only see it if I went into the Channel 4 offices, accompanied by someone. The lawyers had gone through it the day before, and John Willis, director of programming, had led a discussion on possible changes: 'We must preserve Beeban's film,' he said, 'while making sure that we are able to transmit that film.'

At first glance, this all seems a long way from Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit, Kidron's award-winning BBC serial made in 1990. But in its own way, that too was a study of human bondage: think of the front-parlour exorcism in which the young Jess is bound and gagged with what Pastor Finch calls 'the Cords of Love'. The new documentary is making explicit Kidron's abiding interest in the pressures under which the libido struggles to find expression, sometimes to explode.

Back in the viewing room, Beeban herself was hopping with energy, but her eyes were buried in gaunt sockets after days in the editing suite. She apologised to me for the quality of the sound, the quality of the pictures and the quality of the quality. 'Wait till you hear it with the music,' she said. It looked pretty good to me already. The following evening, a bike turned up at my house with the revised film. Some of the offending parts had been smudged and the happy hooker's perky Margot Kidder face blurred to anonymity. The helicopter had mercifully been pixillated into jittery fragments: the scene hadn't lost any of its power, though. The man's yell when Mistress Scarlet pulled the rip-cord told you everything you needed to know. To get on air, the film had been neutered, but it was clear that many viewers and the entire tabloid press would still have kittens.

I HAD met Beeban Kidron in New York in October. She and the crew were holed up in a warehouse in TriBeCa, an area of the city that had recently come up fast in the new-bohemian stakes. So fast that nobody had time to tell the lowlifes who still stood glowering in its doorways. Climbing up the stairs from the festering production office - dunked cigarette butts, a snake-pit of wires - I reached Kidron's spacious eyrie. The room, with its blowy white drapes and heavy, eclectic furniture, was the incarnation of monastery chic. Kidron was buoyant and friendly: a north London girl, she rattles away in an accent that now owes as much to California as Camden. She has a warm, wonky Bette Midler face and intent, inky eyes. When Kidron travelled to Paris to persuade Marcello Mastroianni to appear in her first feature film, Used People, he had said: 'I do your movie, because you have intelligent eyes.' Seeing them for myself, I realised that Marcello was not quite the shameless schmoozer I took him for.

Kidron said she was now feeling relatively relaxed about Hookers, after a frustrating start when nobody but nobody would agree to be filmed. Accustomed to working with compliant fiction, she had actually considered reconstructing events: 'I felt I'd gone too far down the road as a director to be thwarted in saying what I needed to say by the lack of opportunity.'

The break from her flourishing Hollywood career came about because she was watching television one night in her small flat near Oxford Street and got incensed at a documentary about prostitution: 'All that badly lit social realism. Made the women look like victims, made the pimp look like an evil bastard and the police like heroes. And I thought oh, sod that. When Channel 4 said they were doing this New York series, and would I like to do something about prostitution, I didn't even hesitate.'

A few days later her new movie for Steven Spielberg's Amblin company, about three drag queens crossing America, got the green light. 'I needed like a hole in the head to come to New York for three months.' She shrugged: 'Sometimes you have to put back in the community.' This seemed an odd thing to say - what community was she putting back into and why? She started making coffee, and I let it go.

From the opening minutes of Hookers, in which Kidron cheekily asks builders, bankers and a prissy lady in a hat if they've ever paid for sex, it is clear that she is coming at the subject with a strong personal view. She is too tough- minded to condone the dewy parable of Pretty Woman - whore with heart of gold rescued by love - but neither does she see consenting adults selling their bodies as being degrading or unnatural. She keeps telling me she doesn't want to make a film about victims, she's interested in what makes people choose to buy or sell sex, and the complex nature of that transaction - what exactly is the comfort of strangers? 'The majority of men - up to 80 per cent - have at some point paid for sex. And if you ask women, they haven't paid for sex, but a lot of them feel they have been paid for sex. You know that play Six Degrees of Separation? Well, I kinda realised there's only one degree of separation between me and this industry.'

To demonstrate the scope of the industry, Kidron went on a sex tour of Manhattan with a sweet, smiling pimp whose name - Junior - is at least six sizes too small for his body. Filming secretly from the floor of the limo, Kidron and her crew cruised from 'the parts of town where you can buy a blow-job for five bucks to others where it costs you three hundred. What I discovered is that the more you pay, the more you are paying to fulfil the fantasy of normality. You are paying for someone you can take out for dinner, introduce to your colleagues. Someone who dresses like your wife.'

So why not stay home and save money? 'It's quite extraordinary, but you're paying to be as close to normal, but not with your own partner. The difference is being able to have the power to say fuck off.'

Kidron ended up finding an extraordinary range of sex workers whom she calls 'characters', although no writer would dare create people so implausible. There is Junior and his business partner, Michael, who are filmed setting up a whorehouse, and bickering like fond newly-weds over the colour scheme ('He likes mauve'). There is Adam, who has achieved the American Dream by using his body - he may not have had collateral but, boy, did he have pectorals - to hustle his way from teenage crack addiction to a life of cocooned wealth.

Discretion is the better part of Adam, though all of him is pretty gorgeous. We are never allowed to see his face or his eminent male clients, but Kidron exploits the sexiness of that secrecy, giving us tantalising snatches of him snared in silk sheets, or mingling at the opera. Even more startling than Adam's body is his wit and intelligence. 'Hustling,' he notes, 'is the one career where you have to get them to give you the gold watch when you start, because they sure as hell aren't gonna give you one at retirement age.'

Janet, who has springy Crystal Tips hair and sings madrigals, talks about turning tricks in hotels to put herself through college while, down the other end of town, women like Anna, a ravaged redhead, do it anywhere they can to pay for their crack habit: 'My ball and chain, right?' Kidron seemed to have a particular feeling for these women, asking them the questions we would all want to ask, and occasionally reaching out a hand to them: 'One girl got really upset and I gave her a hug and a kiss, and she said, 'You really humanise us by touching us in this way,' because, of course, most people give her 10 bucks and get their rocks off.' She deliberately filmed each character in a different style. 'They interweave,' she says,'so it's either gonna look like a complete mess or a great cacophony. No guesses which one I hope.'

It actually looks beautiful, in striking contrast to the usual treatments of this subject, which are invariably filmed through a car window darkly. And the whole piece is pungent with New York. The only ugly sequences are in Mistress Scarlet's torture chamber - and that is not the director's fault. It was here, during a session involving Maurice, the consenting octogenarian, that Kidron hit her own pain threshold: 'She whipped him, put nipple clamps on him and pulled till he went tttsssss. Even though the guy wanted that treatment, I said to the crew 'We've done this, let's get out of here.' I couldn't stand it.' The film does have its comic moments - not least when Mistress Scarlet asks for someone to help her revise biology: she is studying to be a vet.

Philippa Giles, producer of Oranges and a close friend of Kidron, had told me that Kidron was obsessed with the nitty-gritty of production. During the making of Oranges, she said, Kidron had spent hours looking through Fifties wallpaper to find a pattern with bars on it for the room where Jess was to be exorcised. For Hookers, getting it straight from the whore's mouth wasn't enough: Kidron had to experience the market first-hand. She talked Junior into teaching her how to hook.

'He sent me out on the street. It took less than two minutes to pick up a guy. I was astonished. My boyfriend, who's here with me, was appalled at the idea. He and Junior were on the other side of the road. What you do is you walk as if you've got nowhere to go and you catch the men's eyes. As you do, they turn towards you and you smile. Sometimes they don't know if you're working or not, so they try to pick you up just to pick you up. They ask if you'd like a drink, and then you tell them you're working. Then you get into negotiation about the price and then you say where it is you're gonna go. And at that point, I have to say, I split.'

So, what kind of man did she pick up? 'Not man, men,' she laughs, a low, jubilant laugh. 'Three no less. The first was a guy in his forties, quite handsome with a foreign accent. He'd just been to see The Age of Innocence. We had a long talk about that and about Dan Day-Lewis. Then he did the classic, you know, what's a nice girl like you . . . He said: 'You seem to know rather a lot about the movies.' '

At which point you said, well, actually honey, I'm a famous director? 'I have to admit that I was in such a state of shock I said, 'I've gotta tell you I'm doing research for a film.' Then he just starts burbling on about how he wasn't really looking for anything. I told him that I made Used People and he said, 'Oh, what a marvellous film, please can I take you for a cup of coffee?' I said no thank you, shook his hand and walked away.'

CHUTZPAH and social conscience came with mother's milk. Kidron's parents ran Pluto, the left-wing publisher. Her home was, she says, happy and noisy - more socialist than Jewish. When she was 11 she had an operation to correct a cleft palate, which left her unable to speak for a year. It would be easy to read a lot into this, not least because Kidron read a lot herself - Jane Austen, George Eliot, Balzac, Dickens. 'They were real and wonderful places to be,' she said. She also turned to pictures, learning to use a camera for the first time.

In 1974, the family was on holiday in Portugal, just as Caetano's dictatorship was being overthrown. Beeban borrowed her parents' camera to record the fall, and sold the pictures back home, to the underground press. The pictures were spotted by Eve Arnold, the famous photojournalist, who rang Kidron and offered her a job. Everything was just fine, until Arnold suddenly said: 'Oh, how old are you by the way?' 'Fourteen tomorrow,' confessed Kidron ruefully. The plan was abandoned for two years while Kidron took O-levels at Camden High School for Girls. She eventually worked for Arnold for 18 months, picking up an obsession about composition that has never left her.

After Arnold, the Kidron CV is blank for two years. Past interviews mention travel, speculate on a difficult period of self-discovery. What is known is that she came home from wherever she was and signed up at the National Film School in Beaconsfield. With fellow student Amanda Richardson, she camped at Greenham Common for seven months, eventually producing Carry Greenham Home, which won an award at the Chicago Film Festival in 1981 and inspired Jeanette Winterson to ask her to direct Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit.

Winterson's story offered ample scope for Kidron's quirky gift - her ability to turn the world a few degrees. It was a great break - she won that year's Bafta - and bigger ones soon followed. In 1990 Kidron also made Antonia and Jane, a gem about an irritable friendship starring Imelda Staunton and Saskia Reeves, for the BBC. In the wonderful final scene, when the two friends come together in a relieved hug in an empty restaurant, Kidron circled the camera round the pillars at the edge of the room, a seamless shot full of grace: like much of her work it teetered just the right side of sentimentality. Hollywood fell in love with it.

At 31, Kidron was signed up to direct Used People. Everyone in the picture - Mastroianni, Shirley MacLaine, Jessica Tandy - had more experience than the director. 'I got by,' she says, 'by making things up from what I'd read in novels and attributing them to a good friend of mine. Jessica Tandy said to me once: 'You have a lot of good friends, Beeban.' I said, 'They keep me informed.' And she laughed because she knew.'

The film divided the critics. Romantics loved it; others were more cynical about its exuberant schmaltz. But in one respect at least, Kidron pulled off a small miracle - coaxing an understated performance out of Shirley MacLaine, an achievement that ranks with persuading Imelda Marcos to go barefoot.

After Used People, Kidron wanted 'to get back to the real world'. Hookers came along at just the right time. I asked her whether she didn't feel uneasy asking the people in her film to lay themselves so publicly on the line when many were already incredibly vulnerable.

She paused for a long while, the first proper silence of the interview, and then she said: 'The funny thing is, I've never really come out about this myself, and I feel like, having asked other people to come out, you know, maybe this is my moment, which is that when I was 17 I ran away from home and I went to San Francisco and I needed to make some money and I didn't have a work permit so, so . . . I worked as a stripper. That's the first time I've ever said it. I mean all the other girls in the joint were turning tricks, and I wasn't'

Ah, suddenly things made sense - the uncanny empathy with her subjects, the insistence that the story be told from their point of view. When she was working as a stripper, had she been tempted to turn hooker?

'Well, I never crossed that line, but I guess I've always felt that commercial sex has been misrepresented terribly by my own industry. I think that it's misrepresented in the world. It's not so far from any of us and that's really what I'm saying with this programme. I suppose the reason I feel that finally I can say I'm an ex- stripper is partly because I've moved on so far in my life - OK, I'm an ex-stripper but I've made 10 films. Also, I've asked people to come clean, and if they can say it in front of ther mother and father and their friends and neighbours, then so can I. I've filmed people turning tricks, I've filmed people having the shit beaten out of them. If I can't say I did something 13 years ago which seems pretty lame frankly it's not right, is it?'

Is that what you meant when you talked about putting something back into the community? 'I'm not sure whether I'm putting back in the community of the women that I used to know in San Francisco, or whether I'm putting back something for the fact that I'm now picked up in a limo when I go to LA. Whatever it is, I feel like this film gives a voice to people who wouldn't have one. Perhaps the difference between me and anyone else is I'm an ex-stripper and a sympathetic ear. That doesn't mean I'm uncritical, but I don't come with a whole moral baggage. I don't talk to the police, I don't talk to the mayor. I talk to the people who buy and sell and maybe that makes a difference. God, I hope it makes a difference.' -

(Photographs omitted)