Sex leaves the smut behind

John Walsh meets Erotic Review founder Jamie Maclean, whose new publication Sex is about to make a splash in the somewhat bare market of magazines aimed at those who take erotica a touch more seriously

It's hard to know what to make of modern sex magazines. Once it was simple. Smut was on the top shelf of the newsagents. The magazines were unlike any others around, and their Unique Selling Proposition was clear. They were called Mayfair and Men Only and Knave and Fiesta, their pages were full of disrobed women, in wildly varying degrees of loveliness, showing off their intimate regions, and they were, to be blunt about it, masturbation aids for the lonely, single male. If you aspired to suavity and well-read sophistication, you could buy Playboy or Penthouse, wherein you could also read golf articles by John Updike or short stories by Truman Capote, once you'd finished what the Americans called "self-dating" with the help of the centrefold.

Today, the old onanists' gazettes have mostly disappeared. The internet has become the favourite picture gallery of the furtive peeping tom, seated at his laptop with his left-handed mouse. The lower shelves of your high street newsagent are ablaze with the utterly predictable orthodoxy of lads' magazines: an interchangeable roster of girls called Kelly or Jennifer or Charlotte, clad in swimwear or their knickers or (daring variant) with their hands strategically concealing their nipples. The more expensively produced (GQ, Maxim) may feature famous actresses, like Jennifer Aniston or Angelina Jolie, pouting in their smalls. The more blokeish magazines, such as FHM or Front, deal in the D-list glamour models. The rock-bottom, weekly chav duo of Zoo and Nuts (which can be found, at railway station newsagents, on sale just beside the till) cram the covers with a multiplicity of breasts. In a, possibly unconscious, recognition of how low the collective brows of its editors and readers can be, Zoo recently published over 100 pictures of its readers' girlfriends' breasts - glossy acres of disembodied tits. To anyone brought up on the guilty excitement of Mayfair and its stable mates, these "men's lifestyle" magazines seem rather pathetic, with their teenage drooling over girls in bikinis.

It was into this throbbing market that the Erotic Review tried to introduce its lovely body a few years ago. For a while, it was a breath of fresh air - or at least a hefty whiff of essence de boudoir - in the sex-mag world. Under its second editor, Rowan Pelling, it flirted for eight years with a readership of mostly middle-aged arty and literary chaps, many of whom became its scribes. Its prevailing tone was light-hearted, red-blooded, public-school-confessional, and dedicated to the proposition that everyone would benefit from a jolly good rogering. It featured rude line-drawings, sweat-inducing illustrations and funny comic strips. Its themed features (cars, hotels, schooldays, food and drink) were imaginative, and the fantasies which were its stock in trade were Updike-lite. It closed down in January 2005. And now the man who started it all, Jamie Maclean, is back with a new erotica project. It's called Sex.

After the high-gloss quality of the Erotic Review, it's a bit disappointing: a small (A5), 24-page collection of sober and reflective essays - on the Government's proposals for the legalising of brothels, the demise of top-shelf magazines, the re-branding of sex and politics - along with some melancholy smut from John Gibb and a splendidly obscene comic strip called The Young Governess by Paula Russell. Little of it would raise a laugh, let alone anything else, although the zippy style of "Tilly Johnson" (the magazine's supposedly up-for-it secretary) is very promising.

"Just give us a chance," says Maclean, "we're only starting out." Who is the target audience? "We're aiming at a broadsheet audience of 35 to 65, in the middle ground between Zoo and Prospect." Who on Earth would they be? "People who feel slightly appalled by the continuing hypocrisy about sex in this country, how it's taken seriously in all the wrong ways and none of the right ones." Wrong in what sense? "We still treat sex with a snigger. The English are incapable of treating sex as anything other than a dirty joke."

Or as something wholly confined to the chest region, according to the lads' magazines? "I have no problem with Zoo and Nuts," says Maclean, "I just think they're for a limited age-group. They represent the 'Phwoar!' reaction to sex, which is fine in its way. But as people get more mature, their attitude to sex should mature, and I think there's room for a magazine or journal which concentrates on that." His voice purrs along in a patrician growl. With his rubicund features and exophthalmic gaze, he is the very model of the modern sex connoisseur. His interest in the female form may derive from his father, Sir Fitzroy Maclean, the soldier, spy and adventurer whom Ian Fleming took as an inspiration for James Bond.

He has run the Erotic Print Society for 12 years. It evolved out of a straightforward art dealership. "I had a gallery for six years, right behind Sotheby's, and we put on lots of exhibitions. In 1985, I opened one called Forbidden Images, the first exhibition of themed erotic art in this country. It was a big success."

With Tim Hobart, an art-dealing colleague, he started the Erotic Print Society. From publishing one or two books a year they now do 20. The audience were the same 35-65 demographic that he's now chasing with Sex magazine - "mainly men, but quite a lot of couples. Counting couples, there's probably a 10-15-per-cent-female readership, something we feel needs addressing." The EPS's bestsellers were "a bit depressingly, the more obvious photographic ones. People also love retro-porn - that top-shelf stuff which has all but gone now. Anthologies of material from the Paul Raymond era have been enormously successful. And books on bottoms are always very popular with the British."

In Christmas 1995, everything changed. The office manager, a starchy matron who'd seen one too many pictures of posteriors, left and Rowan Pelling took over, initially to take calls. Entranced by the Donald McGill humour of the office, she stayed, adopting the persona of a flirtatious saucebox when speaking to society members on the phone. Soon she was running the EPS Newsletter - and in winter 1997, the Erotic Review was launched. Jamie Maclean was its founder and first editor, before handing over to Ms Pelling in 1999, and selling the title to her in 2002. It flourished. Her networking skills were phenomenal. Subscriptions went up to 30,000 copies a month. Contributors were paid little, but basked in Pelling's approval. They also enjoyed visits to the ER offices, where the staff disported themselves in basques, corsets and Agent Provocateur suspenders. But the magazine's debts had mounted up alarmingly, and Pelling sold the title to Felix Dennis, the magazine mogul behind Maxim. The Review came down in size, upped the glossy photographs and lost its unique spirit of innocent rumpy-pumpy. Within a year, Dennis had sold it to the publishers of Penthouse, Pelling and her staff promptly resigned, and the magazine was declared officially dead.

"Beauty is best maintained under a regime of poverty," says Stephen Bayley, the design maestro and a contributor to the new Sex. " Rowan Pelling helped make it all into a cheerful adventure, with flirtatious commissions and an exhilarating air of middle-class talking-dirty larkiness. As soon as the Erotic Review fell into clammier hands, the formula became more calculating, it reverted to type: like an illustrated full-colour catalogue of a cheap nude package holiday."

Now Jamie Maclean is back where he started in 1995. His new editor, Chris Peachment, is a seasoned ex-Time Out journalist, former Editor-at-large at the Erotic Review and the author of the endearingly titled The Diary of a Sex Fiend. "Unlike most magazine launches, which start off spending millions, we're starting small. But for the second issue, we're going to 36 pages, with more pictures from Jamie's vast back catalogue, and probably a bigger page-size. We have got a stable of writers from the Review who we'll be using. Unlike Rowan, I can't flash my cleavage and get people to write for nothing. And whereas she was keen on young women flirting with older men, we'll be aiming to be more, um, head-on."

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