Mills & Boon - Plenty going on between the covers

A British film explores why readers the world over are still seduced by Mills & Boon. Geoffrey Macnab takes a peek

Every four seconds, someone buys a Harlequin Mills & Boon novel. This is the startling claim at the beginning of Guilty Pleasures, a new feature-doc exploring the Mills & Boon craze that receives a special screening at the Birds Eye View Festival this weekend.

The award-winning director, Julie Moggan, isn't the type of film-maker you'd expect to be steeped in the world of romantic fiction and bonkbusters. A student of social anthropology before she became a film-maker, she has made films about such subjects as the plight of Kosovan refugees in exile in Britain and British-Iraqi teenagers struggling to cope in the run-up to the Iraq war. After graduating from the National Film and Television School, she was a researcher on one of Nick Broomfield's documentaries. On the morning I meet her in London earlier this month, she has just come back from working as a camera operator on a friend's documentary... about nuns in Yorkshire. It all sounds a long way from Barbara Cartland-style yarns about virginal brides and millionaires' misbehaving mistresses. However. Moggan had her own reasons for embarking on Guilty Pleasures.

"Part of the reason I was attracted to making the film was that I had broken up from a very long-term relationship that I had been in since I was 17," Moggan reflects. "At 30, I broke up from the relationship and so I had a lot of questions and queries about long-term monogamous love and how you make it work."

Guilty Pleasures is a deceptive film. The swirling waltz music that opens the documentary (used also in Stanley Kubrick's Eyes Wide Shut) accompanies footage of Roger Sanderson, a balding, middle-aged man in spectacles who writes romances under the pseudonym Gil Sanderson. We see him typing away at his laptop and reading from one of his books on the soundtrack: "She unbuckled his belt and slid his trousers downward. He was wearing dark, grey boxers – his need for her instantly apparent." The language may be steamy but Roger's real interest is less in the sex he is writing about than in the cup of tea he is about to make himself.

Moggan's Mills & Boon-loving characters include Shumita from Delhi, a woman who pines after her hard-living, fast-driving ex-partner; Hiroko, a Japanese housewife with a crush on her dance teacher, and Shirley from Warrington whose partner, Phil, dotes on her but has his own demons to exorcise.

Initially, the tone seems playful and gently mocking. Moggan is highlighting the everyday lives of Mills & Boon writers, readers and models. However, an undercurrent of yearning and disappointment is very obvious too. "I knew that a film about real-life love could potentially have some sad elements to it," the director reflects. "As we all know, so often our dreams and expectations of love don't quite work out in reality."

The more we learn about these characters, the darker their lives seem. This is a film about loneliness and isolation as well as the pleasures of bodice-ripping fiction. Even the good-looking, narcissistic male model Stephen whose image adorns the cover of over 200 romances isn't content. "When women pick up the book, he is seen to represent the ideal man, the perfect partner, but as we discover in the film, although he is physically very beautiful and he gets many offers from women, he can't find the right person."

The writer-director steeped herself in the world of Mills & Boon before beginning shooting.

"I could understand the appeal. They're quick to read. A lot of the readers say they're a real escape. In London, I met accountants, lawyers and all sorts of women. They were different ages. Some were really well educated. They said they just liked getting home at the end of the day and escaping into a quick, easy read that makes them feel happy and warm at the end."

The director would read the Mills & Boon books on long train journeys or on empty evenings. "There are all different sub-genres of Mills & Boon as you may know. The most popular is the Modern (series). That was my favourite. It was the most glamorous, the most far-fetched. The heroes are always billionaires or princes. The cars are glamorous. The worlds in which they are set are very far from reality." She cites Penny Jordan as a writer whose fiction she enjoyed. "And Kate Walker... and Roger – his Medical Romances. I enjoyed many of Roger's. And then there is the Blaze (series), the more erotic ones, and the historical ones."

Moggan approached Mills & Boon early during preparation for the film. The publishers (who were taken over by Harlequin Enterprises in the early 1970s but maintained their identity) were open and helpful, putting the filmmaker in touch with their writers as well as some of their most devoted readers around the world. "They've been brilliant but we've never pushed for them to endorse the film or have an official collaboration. I thought it was important editorially to maintain some kind of independence. They've seen the final film and they've given it their blessing but we're not in partnership."

She learned from her visual anthropology studies that to win the trust of her subjects, she needed to be utterly frank with them. "In terms of my research methodology, in terms of building trust, there is a lot of exchange going on off camera. Off camera, we were spending time together. I was sharing my life with them. It wasn't just me interrogating them about their lives and asking them all about their relationships."

Mills & Boon novels are translated word for word. Japanese and Indian readers consume the same stories as their European counterparts. (In Japan, however, you can buy beautifully illustrated "manga" comic versions of the novels.) Women in Tokyo read the books on their mobile phones. Invariably, the heroes and heroines are white Westerners.

In Japan, Moggan points out, many women cling to the illusion that Western men are exactly as portrayed in the books: rugged, chivalrous types. "In Tokyo, I really felt the women who I met who loved the books had the idea that Western men were like the heroes in the books. They had very high expectations. They'd say, 'you're so lucky. The men in the West are continually saying 'I love you' and buying you chocolate and flowers'. I obviously put them straight on that!"

In India, Moggan discovered, the men like to read the novels too. When she described her documentary to taxi drivers or to people she met on the street, "as soon as I mentioned Mills & Boon, they would break into a smile. At least a couple told me that they had used Mills & Boon as a training manual on how to make love to a woman."

Guilty Pleasures features several male characters alongside the female Mills & Boon aficionados. Moggan believes that these men "were just as interested in love and falling in love as the women. They just have different ways of expressing that but I felt that all the men I met were yearning for love just as much as their wives and girlfriends."

The director was heartened by the way the couples she filmed were sometimes able to "bring elements from the romance novels into their real lives". Whether it was putting rose petals on the bed or a husband taking up ballroom dancing for the sake of his wife or even just someone buying chocolates for their partner, she captures moments in which the lines between Mills & Boon-style fantasy and real life begin to blur. More often, though, the gulf between the magical, escapist world of the novels and that of everyday existence simply can't be bridged. You notice the number of times the film shows kettles boiling or characters doing the cooking and washing up. The novels may be all chocolate and champagne but the reality for their readers is more likely to be fried eggs and Brillo pads.

As for Moggan herself, even if her own Mills & Boon habit hasn't outlasted the production of Guilty Pleasures, at least she now understands perfectly why women continue to consume the books in such huge numbers.

'Guilty Pleasures' screens at the Birds Eye View Festival on 13, 14 & 15 March ( 3151/docs/guilty-pleasures.html) The film will show on More4 later this year