The Erotic Review uncensored

It was edited by 'IoS' columnist Rowan Pelling. She'll be played by Rachel Weisz. But there is more, so much more. By Anthony Barnes
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Cue titles. This true story could serve as the opening scene in a film being made about one of the most remarkable magazines to have been produced in the eccentric history of British publishing. The young woman writhing on the table was experiencing an ordinary working day at The Erotic Review, an up-market publication designed to get the blood flowing to the head as well as the groin - the story of which is now to be told by Hollywood. Oscar-winner Rachel Weisz has been lined up to play Rowan Pelling, former editor of the saucy organ and now contributor to The Independent on Sunday.

This, says Ms Pelling, will be a tale of double lives and endless double entendres, pervy old buffers and intercourse on office sofas, on the photocopier or wherever else the fancy takes. Joining the small staff at the cramped offices in Soho meant being prepared to work quietly, and for very little money, while sounds of ecstasy came from close by. And serving at the regular lunches - or marathon drinking sessions - for contributors, at the risk of being whipped. The unofficial dress code for the largely female staff was stockings and suspenders, except for when there were bikini parties on the roof. Or when they posed nude for photo shoots.

But while Ms Pelling may be delighted at the prospect of becoming a screen character, she is aware the story may not look or feel the same after it has been honed by scriptwriters, directors, producers and marketing departments. "This is not the kind of art-directed sex with beautiful people that Hollywood is used to," she says. "It's old gentlemen who like spanking, and people from middle England buying PVC outfits and dog collars at the Erotica Fair, rather than Sharon Stone uncrossing her legs in Basic Instinct."

Hollywood seems unlikely to want to see pale English suburban flesh jigging about as swingers get down to it in living rooms, or hear the grunts of a couple copulating while aspiring artists grip their pencils tightly and scribble furiously at a life drawing class. Both these scenes were chronicled, with affection, in the now-defunct magazine.

Sold through bookshops and subscriptions, the Review could publish material stronger than anything available on the top shelves of newsagents at the time - including the occasional photograph of oral sex or penetration. But artwork and words were as important to the Review, whose contributors over the years included Boris Johnson, Auberon Waugh and the Booker Prize-winner D B C Pierre.

Besides being a little more high-brow than the popcorn crowd demands, says one woman who worked on the magazine, life there was far more intense than a British sex comedy, and may prove too strong for American tastes. "The problem is that all the best stories have some sort of immoral or illegal slant to them."

At its peak, the Review had a circulation of 30,000. It began more than a decade ago as an eight-page newsletter for a mail-order art publisher. The Erotic Print Society had been founded in 1994 by Jamie Maclean and Tim Hobart. "I wanted to bring something out that made people think of sex in a more responsible way," said Mr Maclean. "Or even an irresponsible way, as long as it made them think."

Ms Pelling arrived as the "office dogsbody" at the society, helping out after the previous incumbent walked out. Oxford-educated and with stints at the offices of Private Eye, GQ and the Westminster Tory party under her suspender belt, she settled in quickly, and for fun took on the fictional persona of Emily Ford, a saucy posh secretary who flirted with callers. By issue eight, her duties had expanded to editing the Review, initially alongside Mr Maclean and later alone. Artwork was added to the cover, pagination went up and higher-profile writers were persuaded to contribute.

"Rowan had that wonderful knack of getting crusty old literary types like Bron Waugh to write for her," said Mr Maclean. "A few people were a bit reluctant. I remember ringing up my aunt, Antonia Fraser, to see if she would do something. She said send me a copy of the magazine, which I did, and I never heard anything more." Other potential contributors made the obvious demands. Ms Pelling grew used to a long lunch with a writer ending with the suggestion that she become his mistress, or even "I wonder, my dear, whether you would be interested in spanking at all?". She declined.

Collective lunches were held at Mr Maclean's house before transferring to the Academy Club in Soho. "It was very conducive to people sitting around a table, drinking and losing their inhibitions," said Mr Maclean, who has now returned to the erotic magazine trade with a new publication called Sex.

Cash was tight. When Annie Blinkhorn joined the magazine she did not even have a seat. "I sat on a couple of cardboard boxes which were full of old Erotic Print Society catalogues," she recalled. "I went from work experience to editorial assistant to assistant editor to deputy editor. They kept changing my job title but curiously they didn't increase my pay."

With the magazine running at a loss, the society and the Review signed an amicable divorce deal. Ms Pelling and business partner Gavin Griffiths bought the magazine and its debts in 2001 for £1, remortgaging their homes to keep it going. A vast stock of Rampant Rabbit vibrators was built up in the office, and brought in extra cash when the Review hired stalls at erotic fairs. But it was not enough. The true story of The Erotic Review had an unhappy ending. It was sold to the publisher Felix Dennis, who sold it on only months later to the company that produces Penthouse. The staff resigned en masse in protest, not least because the offices were being moved to Surrey.

"I think it's a terrific waste, what has become of it," said Mr Maclean. But that will have to change. In Hollywood, stories seldom end on the down beat.