Confessions of a sex-farce writer: Timothy Lea's sexual misadventures to be published as e-books
The sexual misadventures of Timothy Lea are to be published for the first time since the 1970s. But is there an audience for low-rent smut in the wake of the Savile scandal? Yes, says their author. And put the books on the GCSE syllabus too...
The year 1974, history reminds us, was a pretty good one for cineastes. There was Jack Nicholson in Chinatown, Gene Hackman in The Conversation, and Al Pacino in The Godfather Part II. Robert Redford was starring in The Great Gatsby, and Albert Finney was investigating Murder on the Orient Express. Jack Lemmon won an Oscar, Walter Matthau a Bafta.
But none of these fine actors could hold a candle to that year's biggest star, in that year's biggest film: Robin Askwith in Confessions of a Window Cleaner.
It prompts a strange sensation, in 2013, to type a sentence like that and not feel compelled to check the facts again; the overwhelming conviction that, surely, this is nonsense. But, no. It's quite right. Halfway through the decade that taste purportedly forgot, Confessions of a Window Cleaner, a puerile sex comedy about a randy handyman called Timothy Lea, had the biggest UK box-office takings of the year, and helped confirm to the watching (if not gawping) world that, when it came to matters of sex, we Brits were a peculiar, and possibly unique, breed.
The film's success prompted sequels – Confessions of a Pop Performer, Confessions of a Driving Instructor, Confessions from a Holiday Camp, and, in 1978, a variation on its mono-theme but told from a woman's point of view, Rosie Dixon: Night Nurse. These became, in their own way, a seminal episode in British screen history.
They were memorable for lots of reasons, and cherished by at least one generation of adolescent boys as the X-rated films you could watch with your parents. Quite why anyone would watch an X-rated film with their parents is another matter, but as the series' producer, Davina Belling, tells me, Confessions… proved box-office gold because it was essentially "porn for all the family". Or, more accurately, a sitcom with boobs. And we always did like a good sitcom.
While the films quickly ran out of steam, the books that inspired them didn't. Written by a former advertising executive called Christopher Wood under the pseudonym Timothy Lea, they ran to 19 titles, and Wood penned a further eight under the name of Rosie Dixon. They were overwhelmingly of their time (and there can be no better excuse), but it seems they are about to have their time again. Over the next 18 months, HarperCollins imprint The Friday Project will reissue all of them as e-books.
Good god, but why?
"They are wonderful nostalgia pieces," argues publisher Scott Pack. And, he says, there is a discernible market for them, too. Many of the original paperbacks go for serious money on Amazon, an important litmus test for this kind of thing. "They are out of print, and collectors' items, so they are perfect for e-books. And £2.99 can't be bad for a slice of nostalgia, can it?"
The Confessions… films may be fondly remembered by certain people for certain reasons – an evocation of simpler times, a reminder of saucy postcard humour – but to others, reviving such a creaking cultural dinosaur can only trample on our national pride. There is good reason, after all, that Danny Boyle didn't feature a Timothy Lea segment in his Olympics opening ceremony.
Sandwiched as they were between the laboured innuendo of the Carry on… films and the juvenile high jinks of Benny Hill, Wood's creation unwittingly branded us sexual buffoons. In European cinema, they rarely laughed at sex. Instead, they made films such as Emmanuelle and Last Tango in Paris, in which sex was a serious, sensuous subject, often soft-focus, occasionally better with butter. We would watch these films to be illicitly aroused, yes, but all the while having our very deepest suspicions of filthy foreigners comfortably confirmed.
Kate Fox, author of the brilliant 2004 tome Watching the English, in which she both celebrated and arched a critical eyebrow at our myriad idiosyncrasies, interviewed hundreds of Britons for her book. She found them to be generally forthcoming on all subjects but one.
"Trying to interview people about sex [was difficult]," she says. "The English simply cannot talk about it without making a joke of it. It seems to be a knee-jerk reaction." It is not that we find sex itself funny, she adds, but embarrassing. "Some cultures celebrate the erotic, others try to neutralise it in various ways – by censorship, with po-faced earnest political correctness. The English do it with humour."
And a rather hapless humour at that, as Henry Hitchings, author of Sorry! The English and Their Manners, points out. "Confessions… suggests that we are not just bad at anything to do with the erotic life," he says, "but also window cleaning – and even making films! It's as if ineptitude were our secret pride."
Because they did such good box office at a time when the British film industry was in tatters, the Confessions …series attained a curious level of cultural and social importance. Dr Sian Barber, a lecturer in film at Queen's University Belfast and author of the book Censoring the 1970s, has picked over its carcass and found that, "It is definitely one of the low points of British cinema in terms of culture – but one of the highest in terms of exploring popular taste." Barber
that the books, and screenplays, were actually rather cunning, written in a deliberate way, for a very particular audience. "They were patronising," she says, "because who was being sent up here? The lower classes, people with supposedly low cultural expectations."
It was, nevertheless, merely part of a long-running British tradition that isn't over yet. As recently as the month before last, a new British sex farce hit the big screen, a revival of Ray Cooney's Run For Your Wife. Critics were unanimous in proclaiming it the worst film of the year.
The cast of that film might well wish to quickly forget their involvement in it, much as many associated with the Confessions… films do today. Tony Booth, who played Timothy Lea's brother-in-law, declined an interview (much, you suspect, to his daughter Cherie Blair's relief); likewise Lynda Bellingham and Jill Gascoine, both presumably reluctant to revisit their early, naked screen appearances. Robin Askwith, for whom Confessions… proved a career high point, was prepared to give us an interview, but offered us just 20 minutes of his time in exchange for £500 – a figure greater than he would ever have received for cleaning windows.
There is, however, somebody happy to talk, for free – and that is the author himself. I meet Christopher Wood on a cold Thursday morning in a chic London restaurant. Now 77, Wood, elegant in his tweed jacket and wispy white beard, is terribly well spoken (he pronounces "off" as "orf"), and emits the kind of carefree air so common in older people and so envied by younger ones.
This is the man who wrote lines such as: "She has fantastic legs that go straight up to her armpits, and her arse would trigger off a wop's pinching fingers like a burglar alarm," and describes a lady's nipples as both "dainty gherkins" and "wire coils" – in the same sentence. Today, he displays no shame, offers no apology. "They were funny then, and they are funny now," he says, less a statement of defence than matter of inalienable fact. "Then again, I always did like smut…"
A Cambridge law graduate, Wood saw in the 1960s in the advertising game, but craved to become a serious novelist. He cranked out a couple of books, but soon realised that serious novelists rarely make money. Recollecting the tall tales he'd hear during summer jobs on building sites, he told his increasingly exasperated publisher that if he committed them to the page, and passed them off as a Cockney geezer's confessions, they'd sell a million. "I could almost see the pound signs in my publisher's eyes." he laughs.
Confession of a Window Cleaner was published in 1971, and became an instant bestseller. His publisher ordered him to write another, then another. For the next few years, Wood knocked out a new title every five weeks, and five weeks sounds about right. These are slim books, with little or no plot development, each held together by an awful lot of silly sex scenes recounted in preposterous purple prose.
His father, he tells me, was aghast at his decision to give up his day job on such a whim, while his children were mortified ("Things did get a little awkward for them at school"). His literary Cambridge friends, meanwhile, weren't quite sure how to take his new-found notoriety.
"The books, and later the films, got terrible reviews, but they were successful, and success was its own currency," he reasons. Trouble was, any literary aspirations he still harboured were killed stone-dead. Presumably he was distraught? "Absolutely not!" he insists. "For the first time in my life I was able to pay bills when they came in, and not wait for the red letter. I was thrilled."
Anyway, he adds, perhaps in mitigation, he redeemed himself later when he wrote the screenplays and novelisations for two James Bond films: The Spy Who Loved Me and Moonraker. "My kids were particularly relieved. It made them terribly popular at school."
Now in semi-retirement and living in France, he is pleasantly surprised by the re-emergence of the Confessions… series. "Why not?" he says. "People still like to laugh, don't they?" But when I ask him to consider them from a modern perspective – not merely the emancipated world in which we now live, but a post-Jimmy Savile one at that – he looks bemused. He points out that there is nothing "dodgy" in his books, and that the sex was always consensual. "If anything, it was the women that orchestrated it."
I recount to him what Sian Barber told me, that their original success in the 1970s was due, in no small part, to increasing unemployment figures, the rise of feminism, and the purported decline of masculinity. Men in the 1970s were confused, lost, in mourning. And then Timothy Lea came ambling along, a carefree throwback, a fantasist figure in whom such men could find temporary escape. Did Wood, the erstwhile serious novelist, cunningly set out to capitalise on all this?
His response, when it comes, is a long, low sigh, a tyre deflating. "Jesus," he says. "That's a little deep for me, I'm afraid. Look, I had no idea what socioeconomic breakdown my audience was. All I can tell you is that I saw lots of people enjoying them, the books and films: workmen, pinstriped businessmen, the lot."
Rallying himself now, he retrieves from his bag an old paperback copy of Confessions of a Private Dick (1975), and highlights a paragraph for me to read. It is archetypal Timothy Lea, a collection of overexcitable double entendres in pursuit of a punchline. "I read that again just this morning, on the way here, and I laughed as much as I did when I first wrote it," he asserts.
"It's good, it's funny. In fact," he says, tapping the book, "I wouldn't be surprised if these ended up being used as GCSE texts. I'm serious! They are full of clever alliteration, onomatopoeia, metaphors and similes. Getting children to read has always been difficult, and these might start them off. They did in the 1970s, so why not again now?"
His new publisher, at least, has more level-headed ambitions for them. Scott Pack thinks that, just as so many women are reading Fifty Shades of Grey on their tablets on the way to work each morning, so men might be drawn to the Confessions… books, "for a giggle, a laugh."
Wood is aghast at the very comparison.
"Fifty Shades of Grey?" he thunders. "I picked that book up in an airport recently, but only managed to read one paragraph. Sorry, but it was risible in its awfulness. Risible. It made Confessions… seem like Aristotle."
The first five ‘Confessions…’ books are available as e-books now, priced £2.99. The rest will follow over the coming 18 months
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