Whatever happened to the great British sex comedy?

It's back and it's as bawdy as ever! Ooo-er missus, gasps Matthew Sweet
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I wonder if I'm the only person for whom the cinema listings of the Manchester Evening News, circa 1979, were a window upon a strange world of darkly adult possibilities. Every day, on a page facing the stars and the three-frame "Flash Gordon" strip, ran a bank of columns crowded with smudgy ads for the films screening in the fleapits of Oxford Road. Some were for horrors that still stick in my head: a crude image of a glittering spike, surmounted by the shrieking tagline, "Johnny will never eat a shish kebab again!"; an airbrushed painting of a woman, goggle-eyed with terror, clutching a telephone receiver, above the words, "He Knows You're Alone". And below these, swarming in greater numbers, were clusters of miniaturised posters representing a different class of film: pictures of nurses, WPCs and French maids, pursing their lips as if sucking down strands of invisible spaghetti; actors got up as milkmen and plumbers, smirking from beneath titles such as I'm Not Feeling Myself Tonight, The Ups and Do

I wonder if I'm the only person for whom the cinema listings of the Manchester Evening News, circa 1979, were a window upon a strange world of darkly adult possibilities. Every day, on a page facing the stars and the three-frame "Flash Gordon" strip, ran a bank of columns crowded with smudgy ads for the films screening in the fleapits of Oxford Road. Some were for horrors that still stick in my head: a crude image of a glittering spike, surmounted by the shrieking tagline, "Johnny will never eat a shish kebab again!"; an airbrushed painting of a woman, goggle-eyed with terror, clutching a telephone receiver, above the words, "He Knows You're Alone". And below these, swarming in greater numbers, were clusters of miniaturised posters representing a different class of film: pictures of nurses, WPCs and French maids, pursing their lips as if sucking down strands of invisible spaghetti; actors got up as milkmen and plumbers, smirking from beneath titles such as I'm Not Feeling Myself Tonight, The Ups and Downs of a Handyman, Can You Keep It Up for a Week?, Confessions of a Window Cleaner and - less logically - Confessions of a Naked Virgin.

The Seventies British sex-comedy film has been stiff in its coffin these past 20 years. Read that decade through these productions; use them as a tool to measure the difference between then and now, and you'd conclude that life in Wilson, Heath and Callaghan's Britain was one long Hi-Karate advert; a time when voracious housewives in blue eye-shadow threw off their bri-nylon nighties and peeled off the towelling y-fronts of the monkey-faced pub studs who came to do odd jobs around their homes. The Home Counties, you'd deduce, were a Tudorbethan Polynesia in which Britons leapt around performing curiously indeterminate sex acts on a succession of candlewick bedspreads.

So if, in 1979, I'd nipped past the ticket booth, through the swing doors and into an auditorium screening one of these pictures, what would I have seen? Along with the cellulite and monstrous pubic fuzz - the sight of a generation of British light entertainment stars surrendering their dignity for a few days in front of a movie camera. John Le Mesurier - the soft-spoken, affable, thanks-awfully-sir Sergeant Wilson in Dad's Army - cupping the breasts of the secretarial dolly-bird sprawled on his mahogany-effect desk in Au Pair Girls (1974). Diane Keen - wholesome just-scrubbed Diane Keen from Rings on their Fingers - rolling around on a fluffy sheepskin rug in The Sex Thief (1973), demanding: "Will you please rape me?! Go for me as if you were going to rape me!" Charles Hawtrey - poor pusillanimous Private Jimmy Widdle from Carry On Up the Khyber - torturing a semi-naked victim in Zeta One (1969) with the assistance of James Robertson Justice from the Doctor films. Melvyn Hayes - who sang "By a Waterfall" so sweetly on It Ain't 'Alf Hot Mum - trying to blag a sperm sample from the fecund hero of What's Up Superdoc (1978), insisting: "It's not for me, it's for my sister." Enough, I think, to send me home on the 157 bus to Stockport with a head full of incurable neuroses.

"Actors like to work," shrugs Peter Walker, director of I Like Birds (1967) and School for Sex (1968), when I ask him about the respectable casts he managed to assemble for his work in this field. "There was an agent who I used to work with a lot, who was always offering me a young man named David Jason. But somehow I never got round to finding a part for him..."

Let's begin with the genealogy of the genre. Since the coming of sound, British film comedy has enjoyed an intimate relationship with smutty innuendo. "Can I have a look at the lady's trinkets?" asks the society reporter from the Morning Star, in a wedding scene from Josser in the Army (1932). "I don't know about that," replies the star, Ernie Lotinga. "I'm only the best man." Two decades later, in Doctor at Large (1957), a patient walks into Dirk Bogarde's surgery: "Big breaths, Eva," he urges, loosing his stethoscope. "Yeth," she lisps. "And I'm only sixthteen."

The Carry On films, however, were the immediate progenitors. They share themes, images, fixations and personnel. The Carry Ons are populated by W C Boggs, Dr Nookey, the Rumpo Kid and Private Syd Fiddler; their successors by Miss Slenderparts, Mellons the gamekeeper, Peregrine Cockshute and Bob Scratchitt. The Carry On team, however, never felt comfortable with the cruder material of the X-rated sex comedy. Watch a bare-buttocked Kenneth Williams being ravished by Suzanne Danielle in Carry On Emmanuelle (1978), as Joan Sims listens at the keyhole and declares, "they're having a phonographic orgy!" and you'll sense their collective air of humiliation.

Another point of information: although the British sex comedy had plenty of nudity - the production of shots of breasts and buttocks was the principal object of its existence - it was never in any danger of turning anybody on. The explicit material pledged in the publicity dope always failed to materialise. Once the lights had gone down on Come Play with Me (1977), for instance, those punters who had slavered over the ads which promised "10 girls being screwed by 10 guys at the same time culminating with a group of Hell's Angels coming to an orgy party," found themselves watching Alfie Bass capering about in long-johns, bowler hat and Hitler moustache, droning his way through a weak music hall number; Irene Handl, mumbling her way through a script upon which she has only the slightest of grips; and production values so low that when Henry McGee dries up and looks into the camera for help, the shot stays in the picture.

The genre has been ignored by film historians, forgotten by the public, policed from the false historical consciousness constructed by those four-hour TV shows on which Stuart Maconie tells us what Spangles and Spacehoppers were. And yet, the sex comedy sustained film production at a time when the studio system was in terminal decline. It yielded some of the most profitable British films, and it provided breaks for all kinds of unknowns who moved on to better things: Michael Nyman supplied the musical score for Keep it Up Downstairs (1976); Elaine Paige made her acting debut in Adventures of a Plumber's Mate (1978); and, years before Silence of the Lambs (1991) and Philadelphia (1993), Jonathan Demme took his first directing assignment on Secrets of a Door-to-Door Salesman (1973).

The archive, moreover, offers reams of evidence for the cultural and economic importance of the genre: a full-page ad in Screen International, congratulating Robin Askwith - star of Confessions of a Window Cleaner (1974) - on being named as "Most Promising Newcomer" in the Evening News British Film Awards; the Guardian report on the four-year occupation of the Classic Moulin cinema by Come Play With Me (1977) and the film's presence on a thousand screens nationwide; photographs of the massive neon marquee for Confessions of a Driving Instructor (1976) looming over Piccadilly Circus; the figures that demonstrate that in 1975, Martin Scorsese's Taxi Driver was comfortably outgrossed at the UK box office by Adventures of a Taxi Driver, a low-budget sex comedy starring that bloke from Mind Your Language. That's the kind of nation we were. Lest we forget, the Seventies was a decade in which people bought salted pub-nuts in the hope that the landlord might pull the staple on the bag that would reveal a small square patch of Page Three stocking-top; in which millions of satisfied viewers watched speeded-up footage of Benny Hill chasing models around a car park; in which cinemagoers made Come Play With Me Britain's longest-running and most profitable domestic movie - a record it still retains. Whether you consider them evidence of depressing ideological backwardness or a refreshing absence of modern prudery, these phenomena are just as much part of the fabric of the period as Arctic Roll, Anthea Redfern and Hector, Kiki and Zaza.

So, how, I wonder, should we greet the news that the genre is making a modest comeback? Two months ago Sex Lives of the Potato Men lurched on to our screens with its pants around its ankles, and generated an unfeasibly large amount of publicity. Not many went to see Johnny Vegas and Mackenzie Crook in pursuit of knee-tremblers in the chippies and sink estates of Walsall, or gaze upon its close-ups of dog poo and bogies - but the press coverage was a furious success. Anne Widdecombe declared the film a national disgrace. The red-tops gave front-page space to copy that tut-tutted over its scenes of characters masturbating with fish paste and strawberry jam. Film critics competed to construct sentences of extravagant opprobrium. ("This sump of untreated dung," steamed The Times, guaranteeing the picture another hectare of free publicity.) Not even Snow White and the Seven Perverts (1973) created such a furore.

Next month, School for Seduction will bust out all over the multiplexes: another resolutely unerotic sex comedy in which cinemagoers will be able to see Kelly Brook - a scaffolder's daughter from Rochester whose photograph has offered succour to many a reader of Nuts magazine - make a memorable contribution to the genre. The scene in which she stands behind the counter of a Tyneside chippie, driving male customers into a tumescent frenzy by staring at them and caressing their saveloys, is quite as gruesome as anything from the Seventies canon. As painful as watching Askwith and Danielle in Confessions Of A Window Cleaner at it like knives in a spitball of Fairy Liquid; or a naked Bob Todd spanking his wife in The Ups and Downs of a Handyman (1975); or Tony Booth - future prime ministerial father-in-law - gurning in pleasure in Confessions From The David Galaxy Affair (1979), as he eavesdrops on Alan Lake and Mary Millington slapping against each other.

Further ahead, however, a film is on its way that aims to push the genre in a slightly more sophisticated direction. The Gigolos is British. It's low budget. It's a comedy. It's about sex. But it has no priapic tradesmen; no jokes about "it" or "crumpet"; and nobody looks into a shark-infested sea and asks "will they eat me whole?" to be told, "no, they usually spit that bit out..." Its director, Richard Bracewell, is learning the lessons of recent history. "Sex Lives of the Potato Men," he notes, "was similar to a Seventies sex comedy, in that the audience knew what it was getting. They put sex in the title. They put a job in the title, so people would have been able to guess that it was something like a Confessions film. I'm sure the people who went to see it got their money's worth. But I don't think there are enough people around who want to see something like that - because nobody goes to the cinema to be titillated any more and I can't see that happening again. Audiences are looking for something more. And we thought a lot about that when putting The Gigolos together."

Which makes the exercise sound rather chaste. Fortunately, however, when I turn up on set, I find one of Bracewell's stars, Anna Massey, all too ready to talk dirty. She has been reading a story in one of the papers about the crisis in the Californian porn industry precipitated by a recent blossoming of HIV infections. "Tell me," she says, saucer-eyed. "Do the actors in pornographic films really have sex?" I regretfully inform her that this is the case. "And they don't use condoms?" She shakes her head in silent dread at such recklessness.

The Gigolos explores the relationships between a pair of male escorts (played by Bracewell's regular collaborators, Sacha Tahta and Trevor Sather) and the four clients who keep them in brandy and cufflinks. The script is wholly improvised, and Massey has relished the opportunity to build up her character from scratch. She's been photographed by Cecil Beaton, she's decided, and modelled for Coco Chanel; she doesn't often venture out from her Mayfair apartment, but when she does, she likes to do so in style - and on the arm of a nice young man in smartly pressed suit. The last director for whom Massey did this kind of improvisational work was, she confesses, a tyrant with an unusually passionate interest in women's jewellery, who would interrupt his actors in the middle of a shot to tell them they were getting it all wrong. Bracewell, she enthuses, is "a million times nicer".

The dresser slides Massey's head into a green turban, and adds a little colour to her eyebrows. It's time for Anna to do her scene: turning away her gigolo - who has committed the cardinal error of rolling up at her door without an appointment, in search of a shoulder to cry on. (And, more seriously, perhaps, clutching a bottle of Croft Original.)

The scene plays tenderly. Tahta gallumphs up the stairs and rings the doorbell - a little too impatiently. Anna opens the door and peers through the crack, her hand gripping the safety chain. Sacha asks if he can come in, indicating the sherry. Anna frowns. She's taken a sleeping pill; soon she'll be dead to the world. Sacha tries again. "Have you got a pizza?" asks Anna, distractedly. There's an awkward silence. Shaking her head, Anna shuts the door. Sacha leaves the bottle as if it were a morning pinta, and trudges back down. After a few moments, the door judders open and Anna peers out. He's gone. She pushes it closed again. "I didn't milk it, did I, darling?" she asks, snapping out of character. She didn't. The shot is in the can.

"We want to tell a story about these four women," explains Bracewell. "They've all decided to do without a husband, and to fill that gap by using the services of a paid gigolo. I'm not sure if 30 years ago anyone would have been able to tell a story like that." Talk to the veterans of the Seventies, and they'll agree. For most, their involvement with the world of randy plumbers and traffic wardens was pragmatic. Tudor Gates wrote the screenplay of Intimate Games (1976), in which George Baker - the future Inspector Wexford - stars as a sexology lecturer who invites his students to document the erotic fantasies of any "visiting tradesmen" who might call upon them in the long vacation. "We didn't have any particular fascination for the genre," he admits, "but we made them because we wanted to make films and there was an enormous market for sex comedies." Alan Birkinshaw, who directed Roger Lloyd Pack as a breast-obsessed architect in Confessions of a Sex Maniac (1974) says: "It was almost impossible to lose money on a sex comedy," he recalls. "If you wanted to direct, that was the kind of work that was available - and you hoped it would take you on to better things."

For Bracewell, The Gigolos is not a means to an end, or a passport to something more prestigious. Unlike his forbears, he has no guarantee of making any sort of profit from the picture: he's doing it as much for love as money. "I'm not going to pretend that The Gigolos isn't a commercial idea," he argues. "But I'm making it because I want to tell this story with these actors." Let's hope this idealism is legible in the finished film - and also, perhaps, on the listings pages of the Manchester Evening News. *

'School for Seduction' opens in June. 'The Gigolos' follows next year. Matthew Sweet's 'Shepperton Babylon: The Lost Worlds of British Cinema', is published by Faber next year.

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