Porn cinemas licensed to thrill: Esther Oxford explores the seedy film world spotlighted after a fire killed 11 men

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From the outside, Fantasy Videos looks like a funeral parlour. Only observant passers-by would notice the small sign in the window.

Give the residential-looking door a push and a whole new world of endless bimbos, bums and boobs opens up. And there is nothing discreet about it: the

television by the door bares all.

Fantasy Videos, a pornographic

cinema on City Road, Finsbury, has just been granted a licence by Islington council to show films - a reversal of its previous 'no tolerance' policy.

The move is a response to the fire in February at the Clerkenwell pornographic cinema Dream City. It left

11 people dead and about 10 seriously injured. 'We have decided it is better to issue licences. It makes it easier to regulate such cinemas, said a council spokeswoman.

Fantasy Videos is one of three known pornographic cinemas within the borough. It opens from morning to night, attracting a steady stream of mostly male punters who total about 150 a week on average.

A typical entrance fee is pounds 1 for membership, then pounds 6 a week for as-much-as-you-can-take. Women are allowed in - as long as they are with a man.

Two of the three have just been granted a licence to show pornographic films. The third application - from Archies in Newington Green Road - was deferred because the applicant 'became abusive during council proceedings. A decision will be made at the end of the month. Chances are the applicant will succeed.

No other council, as yet, plans to follow suit. Islington's change of heart is likely to throw up the debate, predicted

Westminster council, home to a number of 'underground porn cinemas. But it is unlikely to change its policy.

'Westminster follows a shut-down policy, said a spokeswoman. 'We find that confiscating cinema seats, projectors and tapes is effective.

There are two reasons for the turnaround, explained Tess Woodcroft from Islington council. One was the failure of the 'close them down policy; cinemas often reopened immediately under a different name. The second reason was the fire at Dream City.

'We looked at our procedures and decided it would be safer to licence these cinemas. Instead of pursuing a policy of trying to close them down we thought it would be better to concentrate on

improving the standards and imposing restrictions.

Dream City was unlicensed. Fire provisions were inadequate.

Fantasy Videos has taken notice. The owner, who uses the name Alan Croft to hide his occupation from his grand

children, is half way through a complete refurbishment. He is building a larger basement cinema with air-conditioning and 'comfortable seating.

He has to be prompted before he adds, 'and proper fire exits, but his heart is in the right place. At the reception a scrappy piece of paper taped to the wall warns: 'Pinpoint the fire exits before you settle down.

Mr Croft bought the cinema four months ago. He had worked as a cleaner there for some years and when the previous owner said he had had enough, Mr Croft offered to take it on. He did not have any qualms about the content of the films: 'It is much more healthy for men to go in there, relieve themselves and then go home.

'To be honest, Mr Croft said a bit later, 'I didn't really think about fire hazards at the time. It was only when customers started asking me where the fire escapes were, after the Clerkenwell tragedy, that I started looking into the matter. Some of my customers left after that fire. Then I got the letter from the council. I've tried to improve the state of the fire exits (there are three) but if someone decides to pour petrol into a building, there is little hope of escape. I don't think that will happen. No one has got any grudges against me.

The new cinema will not open for a few weeks. Until then a visit to Fantasy Videos is not recommended for the squeamish.

The first obstacle is Mr Croft. The no-lone-women policy had to be overcome. Ever genial, he conjoured up a young, articulate, freelance musician - who happened to be enjoying a blue movie in his few hours off - to come upstairs, escort his female customer downstairs, and fend off any unwelcome attention in the cinema.

Next obstacle was the staircase, which was poorly lit, with a low ceiling. A good head bash on descent is obligatory for getting into the swing of things.

The basement, where the cinema is housed, smells of urine. There are odd corners where members can relieve themselves in a bit of privacy while watching the films from the doorway. Lines of graffiti adorning the walls demand more hard-core movies. Some of it is written by homosexuals.

There is a choice of two cinemas. Members wander between them. Both are pitch black, with seating for about 30. Odd chairs lie scattered around and there is a fan in each room to ward off cigarette smoke and heat.

There were no ashtrays in sight; the staircase is narrow and wooden. But there is a back fire exit and hallways are free from clutter. There are no plans to improve the main staircase but the new cinema will have an escape door directly off it. At the moment both cinemas have no fire exit.

Islington is satisfied with the change of policy. But local residents, particularly around the Abcat Cineclub in

Caledonian Road, have objected. 'These people offend our staff and

customers by begging and making suggestions of an improper nature, said one company.

The council is quick to defend the cinema. 'There have been very few complaints, said Ms Woodcroft. 'This is an underground scene. Most people are barely aware there is a cinema there. But business hours have been limited. Abcat is open until 8.30pm

during the week and 8pm at weekends. Fantasy Videos has been granted a licence until 10pm Monday to Saturday and 9pm on Sundays.

Mr Croft accepts the restriction but says his cinema has never had complaints. 'The next door neighbours have been there for two years. They didn't realise this was a sex cinema until recently, he said.

There is no chance of 'innocents abroad venturing in, then finding themselves offended by the contents, Mr Croft said. New customers are warned that the films are blue. And there are no nasty surprises - bestiality, abuse and kinky sex are not shown.

In fact, the films are unimaginative and, according to the musician, inane. 'There are basic scenarios - costume dramas set in Roman or Victorian times - with little plot. Most are Dutch or German - it is hard to find English ones. The dubbing is terrible.

There has been demand for more hard-core films, but Mr Croft insists he is a family man. 'Most of our customers are family men, too. Many have lost their wives. They like to come here and remember what it was like in the past.

Besides, it is not worth taking the risk. 'No cinema in London would show hard-core films. There are prison sentences for people found with obscene publications or films on their premises.

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