X appeal: Britain's oldest living sexploitation star tells all

By Matthew Sweet
Sunday 29 January 2006 01:00

It's very peculiar position to be in: kneeling on the bedroom carpet of a 75-year-old woman as she shows you a poster-size monochrome close-up of her torso. All I can think of to say is "oh, hello", in a feeble imitation of Leslie Phillips in Carry on Teacher. Pamela Green, however, isn't batting a false eyelash. Here she is in her portfolio, naked except for an embroidered sun hat, leaning on a pillar pox, squeezing her thighs together. And here, splashing about in a rock pool with her head thrown back, the water spuming over her prodigious curves. And here again, spilling out of a scarlet corset, arms akimbo, fringe lolling over her left eye.

Not all of her reliquary is photographic. Rising from the floor, she disgorges the contents of her underwear drawer, inviting me to admire the paraphernalia of her film career: a green nylon negligee, spattered with tiny pink flowers; a ruby-red wig, rather faded; a brace of beady-eyed fox furs, dyed a lurid cobalt blue. "And this," she declares, waving a wispy little thing in front of my face, "is the negligee that I wore for Michael Powell."

In the summer of 1959, the director of Black Narcissus paid a visit to 4 Gerrard Street, Soho. It was a property full of dramatic possibilities. The basement housed an after-hours drinking club, the ground floor a pornographic bookshop, and the attic a veteran prostitute. The floors between were the studios of George Harrison Marks, a photographer and film-maker who supplied the raincoat market with pocket-sized jazz-mags and 8mm glamour shorts for home projection. Powell was searching for an actress to play a nude model in Peeping Tom (1960), a study in psychosis and sadism that would, six months later, encourage reviewers to plunge a large spike into his reputation. He had fixed upon a model named on the pages of Marks's Kamera magazine as Rita Landré, a statuesque figure with marmalade curls and a wardrobe of tight-laced waspies. He was not the only reader who had to be told that Rita was Pamela Green in disguise.

Green, who was Marks's lover, business partner and chief model, was delighted by Powell's interest. The director examined the Parisian street scene that she had constructed on the studio floor, surveyed her racks of chiffon shorties, and invited her down to Pinewood to be gored to death. "There's only one word for the way that he treated me," she reflects. "Sadistic."

Peeping Tom is set in Soho, the shared territory of the film business and the skin game. These two industries, both a little less sanguine than they were in 1959, still exist here, side by side. Mike Leigh's Thin Man Productions shares a Greek Street staircase with a number of tarts. Alan Parker's offices on Lexington Street are within gobbing distance of a drag of peepshows and lap-dancing bars. Walk north up Wardour Street and you can track the history of this cohabitation. Pass the dingy row of clip joints that occupies Tisbury Court, cross the junction with Brewer Street, where the neon of the Raymond Revuebar lies lifeless under a patina of grime, raise your eyes above the façade of the Las Vegas pool hall, and you'll see the words "Urbanora House" chiselled into the limestone façade. Here, in 1908, the American émigré Charles Urban set up his production business and inaugurated the film industry's colonisation of Soho.

And, in rooms on the upper storeys of many of these buildings, the life of a shadow film business was conducted: a world in which Pamela Green and George Harrison Marks were leading figures. Its stars were paid by the hour, and put on performances that their Rank Organisation equivalents would never have countenanced; its productions, shot in small film formats on black-and-white stock, were rarely shown in cinemas; its directors did not receive a screen credit.

Little of this work has survived into the 21st century. Why would it? These films were unsophisticated sketches intended to provide solitary entertainment. Boredom or guilt consigned them to the incinerator. Their performers were art students, call-girls and teenage runaways who took cash payments to go through some simple comic routine, climb out of their underwear and blink into the lens. Few of the surviving personnel associated with these productions can be persuaded to speak about their experiences - not least because many of them spent time in jail on obscenity charges. And yet, the collapse of the studio system represented by Korda and Balcon and J Arthur Rank affected a productive collision between these cinematic cultures, of which Peeping Tom is only the most obvious example.

We have already seen how independent film-makers were offered new themes by exploitation cinema's lucrative pursuit of violence. The marketable qualities of nudity did not escape their attention. They searched energetically for contexts in which naked flesh would be acceptable to the censor, and produced travelogues exploring naturist clubs, documentaries in which men in white coats conducted grave discussions about sexual positions.

By the start of the 1970s, the sleazy sensibility of the stag loop and the blue movie club had entered mainstream British cinema. Newspaper listings were dense with titles of productions such as I'm Not Feeling Myself Tonight, The Ups and Downs of a Handyman, Let's Get Laid and - less logically - Confessions of a Naked Virgin. At the end of the decade, there was no discernable difference between the two worlds of Wardour Street.

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British sexploitation cinema is now a forgotten embarrassment. Participants who went on to more respectable things - the composer Michael Nyman, the novelist Justin Cartwright, and the musical theatre star Elaine Paige, for example - would probably prefer it to remain that way. Harvey and Bob Weinstein, founders of Miramax, rarely mention that one of their first forays into the movie business was acquiring the US distribution rights to Can You Keep it Up for a Week? The genre remains despised and obscure.

However, such productions, irrespective of their badness and vulgarity, require restoration to the narrative of our national cinema. This restitution will necessitate a lot of academics sitting down to watch flabby pub studs in towelling Y-fronts trade weak puns and simulate sex with pasty-faced models dressed up as nurses and traffic wardens, but it will be worth it. As much as anything that emerged from Michael Balcon's Ealing, British sexploitation films - Naked - as Nature Intended; The Yellow Teddy Bears; Confessions of a Window Cleaner; Emmanuelle in Soho - were engaged in the business of projecting Britain, and the British character.

Although the era of sexploitation is comparatively recent, many of its leading participants are already in their graves. Mary Millington - "the Pamela Green of the Seventies" - swallowed a lethal dose of gin and paracetamol in 1979; five years later her regular leading man, Alan Lake, put a gun to his head; George Harrison Marks's liver finally gave out in 1997; the director Robert Hartford-Davis died in an elevator in 1977. Heather Deeley, who shot five sexploitation features in 1975, was last spotted in a Soho peepshow in the early 1980s. Minah Bird, the only significant black British sex star, suffered a fatal heart attack in 1995: her body remained undiscovered for several weeks.

Barry Evans, the leading man of The Adventures of a Taxi Driver (1975) had been reduced to pursuing the same career as his character when he was found dead on his living-room sofa in 1993, an empty whisky bottle and a split container of aspirins - priced before decimalisation - by his side. As his credit cards were missing, his phone line cut and his car had been driven on the day of his death, the coroner returned an open verdict.

David Hamilton Grant, a prolific producer of domestic skinflicks and the first man to give a directing job to Jonathan Demme, suffered the most mysterious fate. For years he kept himself in roulette chips by overseeing hard and softcore titles such as Sinderella (1972) and Snow White and the Seven Perverts (1973). When the bottom fell out of the sexploitation market, however, he switched to video distribution and became the subject of official investigation when he issued Romano Scavolini's notorious slasher flick, Nightmare in a Damaged Brain (1981). A publicity stunt in which he invited punters to guess the weight of a real damaged human brain - procured from who knows where - did not endear him to the tabloids or to the jury at his obscenity trail. He served 18 months in jail, fled to Cyprus, opened a delicatessen called Mr Piggy, and was expelled from the island in 1988 after assaulting his girlfriend's husband with a spade. In the same year, The Sun identified him as a cocaine dealer and child pornographer. Neither charge was substantiated, nor will they ever be. He is thought to have been the victim of a contract killing in 1991.

It is fortunate, therefore, that Pamela Green, the first British sexploitation star, is still alive to tell her story. Since 1986, she has lived in a modest Victorian villa on the Isle of Wight, crammed with mementoes of her career in modelling. In the 1950s, however, Green rarely left the network of narrow streets on either side of Shaftesbury Avenue. As a student at St Martin's College of Art, she funded her course by taking off her clothes in life classes. As a semi-nude showgirl in Norman Wisdom's comedy revue Paris to Piccadilly, she acquired a different repertoire of poses. As a dancer in Latin Quarter at the Prince Edward Theatre on Old Compton Street, she met her husband, a stage-hand named Guy Hillier, whose fondness for drink, drugs and post-pub assaults did nothing to prolong the marriage. As a nude model in dozens of photosets and "glamour" shorts, she dressed and undressed in a variety of upper-room studios, under the gaze of a Bolex camera.

After Green's separation from Guy Hillier, George Harrison Marks's studio in Gerrard Street offered her escape and employment. Marks, a photographer with a Beatnik beard and a vivid imagination, liked to pretend that he was the last of a celebrated music hall clan. He lived on the premises with a menagerie of cats and a mynah bird which had learned to mimic his smoker's cough. Green moved into his bed, became his principal cover girl, oversaw his financial affairs and changed her name by deed poll to match his.

Here, in 1957, the pair launched Kamera, a discreet little journal of nude photography which sold out its first print run in a matter of days. Although Marks's name was on the cover, his former partner insists that she was the motivating force behind the publication. ("George was a liability, quite frankly," she asserts.) She recruited the models, designed and built the sets, colour-checked the prints and retouched the pictures, using a scalpel to marshal the last suggestions of pubic hair from the pages.

For the sake of profitable variety, Green concocted a number of alternative identities - about whom she speaks in the third person, as if they actually existed in their own right. Rita Landré was the scarlet-haired temptress who attracted the attention of Michael Powell; Princess Sonmar, despite sounding like a Grimsby herring-lugger, was an equatorial temptress conjured with the liberal application of Max Factor and baby oil. In 1958, with the success of Kamera confirmed, these three women, Pam, Rita and Sonmar, became 8mm movie stars. Marks operated the camera and called the shots; Green designed the backdrops, illustrated the title cards and gave the lead performances. Only her diligent preservation of these films has ensured that they have not been lost to history.

The earliest surviving British blue movie was shot by Esme Collings in his studio in Hove in 1896: a simple, casual, one-shot subject in which a woman removes her frock and hat and settles down with a book. Watching Pamela Green's glamour reels from the 1950s is much like watching early cinema. They share a common silence, a common cinematic grammar, a common disinclination to name their performers. Their textural similarities - caused by the blossom of decay in one case, and the modest width of the format in the other - give the illusion that they might have been made during the same period. Xcitement - its title adhering to the eye-catching convention of Val Guest's The Quatermass Xperiment - is a simple striptease reel, in which Green reclines on the attic set reproduced for her scenes in Peeping Tom.

Green and Marks conducted their operations under difficult conditions. "The police were always dropping by for a chat," she remembers. "They wouldn't ask for a bribe, exactly, but they'd pick up some photographs or a new camera and say, 'this is nice' and there was very little you could do to stop them taking it. It was a kind of tax. If you refused, you knew that you were in for trouble."

Organised crime also applied unfriendly pressure to their activities. The near-beer joint in their basement became the focus of a battle between two rival groups of hoodlums - the Elephant and Castle mob, and Jack Spot's gang - who would sink their chivvy blades into each other on the studio's doorstep. ("The street," she recalls, "was sometimes wet with blood.") On more than one occasion, thugs pushed their way on to the premises in search of the cash box. To Green's dismay, Marks procured a sword to fend them off.

By 1961, violent incidents like this - in combination with Marks's increasingly chronic drunkenness - had prompted Green to move herself and the cats out of Gerrard Street and into a one-bedroom flat on the Charing Cross Road. She retained her position at the studio and her editorial interest in its films and magazines, but her sexual relationship with Marks was over. (As she departed, a former member of Jack Spot's gang commiserated with the photographer for his loss of his lover, and offered to restore his self-esteem by murdering her.)

Removed from her influence, Green claims, Marks then began to use the studio facilities to shoot more explicit material, after-hours. "He would insist on being in them himself," she recalls, with a shudder. "I remember him showing one in the studio, and there he was, this rather plump man, going up and down, up and down, with this girl in a bed. And he had this terrible habit of looking round into the camera and saying 'A-ha!'"

Marks's bad taste, however, proved no obstacle to his career in this specialised form of film-making. Shortly after he was abandoned by Green, Michael Klinger and Tony Tenser approached him with a proposition for a 35mm feature. The subject would be the health benefits of nudism; the star would be Pamela Green; the title would be Naked - as Nature Intended.

In common with most other nudist pictures, Naked - as Nature Intended has the earnest tone of a wartime propaganda short in which the exhortation to dig for victory or to be like dad and keep mum has been replaced with an appeal to the audience to take off its clothes and live - or at least watch other people doing it. Pamela Green leads a small group of young women in an interminable tour around the beauty spots of south-west England. "How did these three different types become nudists?" inquires the smoothly conventional narrator. Eventually, the women stumble across a nudist colony and after a short period of uncertainty, they undergo an ideological shift. "To take off everything has always seemed to her somewhat wrong or improper or unnatural," says the narrator, as Pamela, shielding her labia with a wicker shopping basket, exchanges pleasantries with the elderly proprietor of the camp. "Their fine brown skins and healthy complexions and obvious sincerity show Pam how mistaken she's been to think that only peculiar people become nudists."

Divorced from their context, these films read like essays in a specialist form of utopianism: they offer a vision of the Home Counties transformed into a wholesome Polynesia in which clean-limbed young people gather marigolds and play net sports, unencumbered by the guilty association of nudity and sexual voyeurism. For their makers, however, the earnest tone was expedient. It was a way of swinging the censor; of selling pornography to the public in a pristine package. On the screen, there was health and exercise and sunshine. In the darkness of the auditorium were the punters, grinding their teeth and staring with dilated pupils at the gentle undulation of the volleyball players.

Nobody was fooled. "While we know perfectly well that the people who make nudist films do so for commercial sex exploitation," wrote John Trevelyan in 1964, "we can keep this within reasonable bounds by making them put up the pretence of advocating naturism."

The marketing strategies employed to publicise these pictures, however, tended to expose the pretence. For instance, The Isle of Levant (1958) was refused a certificate by the British Board of Film Classification, but passed without comment by the London County Council. "We had boards made," recalls Tony Tenser, who managed the film's publicity campaign, "which said: 'the film that has been refused by the censor.' They couldn't stop me doing it, because it was the truth." When the same film was rejected by councillors in Birmingham, Tenser placed the film in a cinema regulated by the more liberal regime in nearby Walsall, and covered the buses travelling between the city and its satellite town with posters advertising its suppression. "It ran for 12 weeks," says Tenser, with satisfaction. "It was a phenomenon."

Other films posited upon the same hypocrisies soon tripped knickerless into British cinemas. Anna Karen, a stripper from the Panama Club who would later star as the buck-toothed Olive in the sit-com On the Buses, bounced around the Spielplatz in Nat Miller's Nudist Memories (1959); Michael Winner made his contribution to the genre in Some Like it Cool (1961); Valerie Singleton, a future presenter of the long-running children's magazine programme Blue Peter, supplied the po-faced narration for Nudes of the World (1961), though it was left to the Hungarian starlet Jutka Gotz to sing the smutty songs around the campfire: "Slide your trombone, play upon your fiddle, blow the clarinet, ooh la la!"

The disingenuous nature of these pictures was nicely exposed by the directions taken by the careers of their makers after the vogue for such productions had passed. Having spent several years urging their audiences to cast away their bourgeois inhibitions, the principal producers of the genre - Tony Tenser, Michael Klinger, Stanley Long - discovered that there was profit in the adoption of a more censorious, conservative position. The second wave of sexploitation pictures abandoned bracing outdoor pursuits to deliver sermons on social problems familiar from the Sunday newspapers: underage sex, wife-swapping, abortion, prostitution, pornography. Fortunately for their audiences, these films were just as dishonest as their predecessors.

We're used to reading the Sixties through iconoclastic, oppositional, freewheeling sources; films that were made by (or under the influence of) Lindsay Anderson, Tony Richardson, Karel Reisz and John Osborne: If..., Kes, The Knack, A Taste of Honey, The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner and the like. These films have shaped the way that we look back upon the period in which they were made, leaving us with an impression of a cinematic culture dominated by progressive and uncommercial projects.

For that reason, I propose to ignore them here and attempt, instead, to concentrate upon films that will never be released on DVD by the British Film Institute - but which reveal just as much about the ideological texture of their times.

For entirely commercial reasons, the post-nudist sexploitation film argued against either sexual or social revolution. The parade of flesh in films such as Naked - as Nature Intended had been legitimised by an insistence upon the desexualised nature of such images. If movie producers, who had no track record of an interest in aesthetic integrity - or, for that matter, studio backing and a university education - wanted to depict nudity in a sexual context, then their best hope of getting round Trevelyan was to convince him that their films would adopt a cautionary and clinical attitude to their subjects. Tony Tenser was quick to pursue this tactic. After reading in the News of the World about a sex scandal in a provincial school, he commissioned a script and rushed it into production at Shepperton.

The climax of Robert Hartford-Davis's The Yellow Teddy Bears (1961) takes place at a meeting of the board of governors in a provincial girls' school. A young teacher, Anne Mason, is being reprimanded for the way she has chosen to deal with the discovery that her sixth-form biology students have been badging their blouses with teddy bears to indicate the loss of their virginity. The film reveals as much evidence of their sexual activities as the certificate will allow. Mason stands her ground, blaming the media for bombarding young people with sexual images and suggesting that the education system might do more to help them survive in this high-pressure environment. "We can start by admitting that there's such a thing as sexual desire," she argues. "And by explaining the difference between that and love, we can clear up some of the confusion being heaped upon them by exploitative advertising."

Exploitative advertising, perhaps, like the material cooked up by Tenser for The Yellow Teddy Bears - a poster depicting a blindfolded Jill Adams being groped by a blond teenage boy; a newspaper announcement offering free admission to any schoolgirl over 16. The latter was denounced by an editorial in Films and Filming as "one of the most cynical, vulgar publicity gimmicks I can remember for a long time". The film was so successful that its writers were immediately contracted to turn their attention to the social problems of venereal disease (That Kind of Girl) and priapic sailors on shore leave (Saturday Night Out).

These cautionary dramas were played out in featureless suburban lounges, grimy city streets and cheerless hotel rooms. They depicted a Britain of amazing crumminess: the same dowdy world inhabited by the characters of 10 Rillington Place and Leo the Last, in which every bulb was bare, every landlord a Rachman, and every newcomer to the city gulped down like an oyster. Their directors put anonymous actors under flat, unflattering light, emphasising lank hair and bad complexions. With no money to spend on sets, they filled their films with seedy details - sweat soaking the back of a boy's banana-yellow nylon shirt; a pair of hangers-on sharing a ciggie under an abrasive hotel blanket; a bunch of nicotine-stained fingers grasping at a pale breast; a young woman and her pimp drinking mugs of milky tea around a Formica-topped kitchen table.

The reform of the certification system in 1970 raised the minimum age of admission to an X-rated film from 16 to 18, allowing sexploitation films to mutate into less stentorian forms. It brought the modern sex comedy into being, a bizarre and implacably profitable cinematic genre, which put a new and unglamorous generation of British film stars to work on top of a variety of ugly soft furnishings. Its principal actors were Robin Askwith, one of the schoolboys of If..., who transformed his career by baring his bottom and grinning his simian grin from under a shaggy mop of hair; Mary Millington, a butcher's wife from Dorking whose cheerful enthusiasm for performing in soft- and hardcore sex scenes offered producers some compensation for her inability to deliver a line convincingly; Alan Lake, the third Mr Diana Dors, whose eggs-on-a-plate eyes, flashing medallion and monstrous pubic fuzz contrasted with the pretentious delicacy of his acting style; and Barry Evans, a doe-eyed, boiler-suited slave to the much-mythologised sexual voracity of Seventies housewives, best known for taking the register in the cheerfully racist ITV sit-com, Mind Your Language.

Like the medical documentary redeployed to titillate rather than terrify, the sex comedy had its roots in the period before authorities had been formed to regulate the content of films; before managements had persuaded the affluent middle-class public that the picture house was not simply an environment in which amorous couples could secure their "four penn'orth o' dark". The coming of sound allowed the music hall tradition of verbal sexual innuendo to be imported to the cinema screen. George Formby smirked and winked as he documented the scopophilic pleasures of window-cleaning and drew attention to his little stick of Blackpool rock. In Sabotage (1936), Alfred Hitchcock gave a founder member of the Carry On team his first taste of double-entendre, allowing Charles Hawtrey to take his girlfriend to the aquarium at Regents Park Zoo and lecture her on the sex life of the oyster: "After laying a million eggs, the female changes sex," he announces. "I don't blame her," she replies.

The Carry On films offer a comforting, half-recognised encounter with the tradition of working-class humour identified by George Orwell in the Donald McGill postcard, the Max Miller quip, the end-of-the-pier revue. These were cultural artefacts which, in Orwell's words, "stand for the worm's eye-view of life, for the music hall world where marriage is a dirty joke or a comic disaster, where the rent is always behind and the clothes are always up the spout, where the lawyer is always a crook and the Scotsman always a miser, where the newlyweds make fools of themselves on the hideous beds of seaside lodging houses, and the drunken, red-nosed husbands roll home at four in the morning to meet the linen-nightgowned wives who wait for them behind the front door, poker in hand".

The Seventies sex comedies are closely related to the Carry On films. They share themes, images, fixations and personnel. They confer italic status to the same lexicon of trigger-words: balls, birds, bristols, dumplings, crumpet and the ubiquitous it. The archive offers reams of evidence of the cultural and economic importance of these films: photographs of the massive neon marquee for Confessions of a Driving Instructor (1976) looming over Piccadilly Circus; figures that prove that Robert De Niro in Taxi Driver (1975) was outgrossed by Barry Evans in Adventures of a Taxi Driver (1975); the full-page ad in Screen International, congratulating Robin Askwith 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, and the film's presence on 1,000 screens nationwide.

They ought to seem familiar, and yet, sitting through a screening of Adventures of a Plumber's Mate or Can You Keep it Up for a Week? is a baffling, alienating experience. They are neither funny nor sexy. It's hard to believe that they actually made anybody laugh; that the people who bought tickets for them through the 1970s watched in anything but glum resignation. It's harder to believe that they inspired a single lubricious moment. Were they a long series of blow-outs, advertised by posters which promised explicitness that they could not hope to deliver, by which customers consented to be cheated over and over again? Did their original audiences actually enjoy them? Or were they simply too depressed to leave the cinema?

Today, the most surprising characteristic of the post-Carry On sex comedy is the large number of cameo appearances by figures familiar from earlier periods of British film production: Diana Dors, a monstrous Zeppelin of blondeness, smoking at the breakfast table in The Amorous Milkman, waiting for the title character to inundate her cornflakes; George Baker waving a vibrator in front of the sexology students of Intimate Games (1975), and inviting them to document the erotic fantasies of any "visiting tradesmen" who might call upon them in the long vacation; Irene Handl, idly improvising her lines as the proprietor of a country-house bordello in Come Play With Me; James Robertson Justice and Charles Hawtrey torturing a semi-naked victim in Zeta One, as they attempt to force her to spill the secrets of the Angvians, a race of alien Amazons who are said, inexplicably, to live in "a vast supernatural ant colony".

What might explain the presence of these players in these films? In the Seventies, sex comedies accounted for the bulk of British production - if a film actor wanted to remain a film actor, then she or he was obliged to take a cheque from David Grant or Tony Tenser. Moreover, events in America briefly suggested that pornography was about to enter mainstream culture. If Sammy Davis Jnr was parking his limousine outside New York theatres at which Deep Throat was playing, then Richard Wattis and Joanna Lumley need not feel too ashamed about losing their clothes in Games that Lovers Play.

Participants in the terminal phase of British sexploitation - in which a company named Roldvale was the principal operator - can offer fewer pleas for clemency. At Roldvale's head was David Sullivan, a pudding-faced pornographer who had made his first million by refusing to overestimate public taste, and several more by refusing to let the truth undermine a smart marketing idea. Sullivan founded Roldvale's film production arm - which operated from offices above a porn cinema on Greek Street - to exploit the talents of Mary Maxted, the favourite centrefold model of his top-shelf titles, and his lover since 1975.

It was Sullivan who supplied her alliterative new name, Mary Millington - under which she appeared in his magazines and in small roles in a number of British sex comedies - and who decided, in mid-1976, that she deserved promotion from walk-on dolly bird to above-the-title film star. With a satisfying historical symmetry, George Harrison Marks was the man whom he charged with the task.

In 1976, Marks was a jobbing photographer providing sets for Sullivan's Playbirds and Park Lane titles. Since Pamela Green had terminated her business relationship with him in 1965, the photographer's recklessness and fondness for alcohol had lost him Kamera, his studio, his Rolls-Royce and an obscenity trial at the Old Bailey. Ignorant of this, Sullivan offered to fund any film project that Marks might have up his sleeve - on condition that it contained a large amount of nudity and a role for Mary Millington. The result, Come Play with Me, was the subject of an extravagantly dishonest advertising campaign in the pages of Sullivan's magazines. Readers were promised footage of unsimulated copulation; the chance to clock "10 girls being screwed by 10 guys at the same time, culminating in a group of Hell's Angels coming to an orgy party".

What they got was a musical comedy of gobsmacking technical slackness in which the star attractions were Irene Handl, Alfie Bass and Marks himself, prancing about under a huge square wig suspiciously like the one he wore as a hunchback in Witches' Brew. (Millington's appearance is limited to a sauna scene, in which she squats on the back of a paunchy client and offers a hammy simulation of an indeterminate sex act.) Sullivan's ballyhoo, however, ensured that the film's takings were soon attaining levels of obscenity not evidenced by the picture itself.

Roldvale produced eight more features before home video made the 35mm British sex film economically unviable - a story since made familiar by Boogie Nights (1997). The sleazy vulgarity of these films, the strong impression they give that everyone working on them knew that their audience was simply waiting in the dark for the next pair of floppy bosoms to be loosed from a nylon bra, helps to explain the romantic and conservative nature of many British films of the following decade, their emphasis upon starched wing-collars and tasteful homoerotica. The Roldvale films portray heterosexual desire in a variety of repulsive ways: Marks and Bass in Come Play with Me, their huge bellies rolling around in their long johns, going through the motions of a dance routine with a phalanx of bogus nurses; Alan Lake in Confessions from the David Galaxy Affair, delivering lines such as "I would spend the day in the members' enclosure, and the night enclosed in Susan's member", as if they meant something; John East as a dribbling pornographer in Emmanuelle in Soho, his office decorated with a London Evening Standard billboard proclaiming, "London rape: shock figures" and an advertisement for a double feature presentation of Playbirds and Violation of the Bitch. After exposure to these images, who wouldn't want to watch Ian Charleson in a well-upholstered costume drama about long-distance running, or Rupert Everett lolling in a provincial hotel, gazing across the spotless linen at some boy he fancies, but will never take to bed.

The life and career of John M East provides a way of understanding this most autocannibalistic phase of film production in Britain. During the last 18 months of John East's life, I spent many afternoons at his home in south London, discussing his researches into silent cinema. On my first visit, I arranged to take him out to lunch at a nearby pub and, knowing that his mobility had been reduced by a stroke, collected him from his house in a taxi. He was waiting for me at the front gate: an emaciated figure, as pale and withered as something the protagonist of an MR James short story might have glimpsed through a grimy fanlight.

His physical frailty, however, did not restrain his unconventional taste in small talk. During the three-minute journey, he reminisced about his success promoting surgical penis enlargements. He spoke enthusiastically about the "third-division model" he paid to attend to his physical needs.

David Sullivan was one of the few people of whom John East would hear no criticism. "Don't write anything bad about him," he urged me. "I like him very much, not for his money, for himself. We had a lot of fun making a lot of terrible films together." East's entry into film production was a consequence of a disagreement between Sullivan and George Harrison Marks. After Come Play with Me, Marks proposed a collaboration on a sequel, The Reluctant Pornographer - but made the mistake of asking for an increased budget. Sullivan promptly replaced him with the improbably-named Willy Roe, who wrote, produced and directed The Playbirds, a whodunit featuring Mary Millington as an undercover police officer investigating the murders of glamour models from the pages of Sullivan's own magazine. Millington, nervous about the number of lines she would be required to deliver, asked Sullivan to hire a dialogue coach. Sullivan remembered East, a BBC radio producer who had interviewed him for a series on young British entrepreneurs, recalled that he had some connection with Elstree studios, and employed him to give elocution lessons to Millington. The results, as evidenced in The Playbirds, are ludicrous: East has coached her to sound like Irene Handl on her best behaviour.

John had a number of well-rehearsed anecdotes about Mary Millington, which he would tell me on every occasion that we met. He described the fun they had together working on a depressing striptease picture entitled Queen of the Blues; he insisted that she believed in free speech and the abolition of censorship; that she worked as a high-class prostitute and counted Harold Wilson and the Shah of Iran among her clients; that she was introduced to cocaine by a DJ on a London music station; that her last months were marked by an increase in her kleptomania, which included the theft of a fistful of BBC cutlery and a lamp from the window of Liberty's department store.

His favourite and most practised story concerned their telephone conversation on the night that she committed suicide, which he would act out like an odd little play. Mary's voice would always be gruff and brusque: "I've been arrested for shoplifting again, John. They put me in a cell and beat me. And the tax man is after me. I can't stand it anymore." His own part, in contrast, was soft and reasonable, even if the words were not: "Mary, you're ill. You need psychiatric treatment. You're mentally ill." After this remark, he said, Millington asked him to sing her favourite song to her. He sang it to me, briskly and without sentiment, impatient to hit his story's melodramatic pay-off line. "Goodnight sweetheart, sleep will banish sorrow. Goodnight sweetheart, till we meet tomorrow." Millington, he claimed, cut him short. "'There's going to be no tomorrow, John,' she said, and slammed the phone down. I rang David Sullivan, but it was too late. She was already dead." Dead, but not yet incapable of making money. "I went round the next day," East said, cheerfully, "and I filmed the room in which she committed suicide."

This was an odd boast: John did shoot some footage of the room, but weeks later, after having pitched the idea of a Millington tribute film to David Sullivan and negotiated a £1,000 payment to her widower, Robert Maxted, for permission to take shots in the house. East restaged the scene, disarranging the sheets, scattering them with pills, laying out one of Millington's negligees and her suicide note to David Sullivan, in which she blamed the police and the Inland Revenue for her misery. Perhaps he thought that I would find the idea of straight reportage less ghoulish than this act of theatrical recreation. However, the result of his labours, Mary Millington's True Blue Confessions (1980), contains many comparable lapses of taste.

After Millington's death, East and Sullivan searched for a replacement. "Then," East recalled, with a hint of resentment, "Julie Lee, this high-class whore who worked the hotels on Park Lane, approached Sullivan and said that she'd do a film for nothing, on condition that she got the lead role. He agreed, so we were landed with this girl who couldn't act for toffee."

The story of John East, Julie Lee and Emmanuelle in Soho forms a bleak little coda to the story of British sexploitation. The film began life as a vehicle for Mary Millington entitled Funeral in Soho. Over the course of a weekend, East rewrote and renamed the script. It was not Roldvale's last film. John East brought the sexploitation genre to a close with Hell Cats - Mud Wrestling (1983), a documentary in which a troupe of thick-armed American women beat up some ill-organised British opponents in a child's paddling pool filled with sludge. But Emmanuelle in Soho is the firm's last narrative comedy, and a useful navigation-point in the history of British cinema. After this, there was nowhere to go but upmarket.

My viewing of the film has left these pictures in my head: the livid bruise visible on the back of the starlet who half-heartedly simulates sex with Julie Lee; John, with slicked-back hair and teeth as yellow as a sewer rat, licking the nipples of an unfortunate model and gabbling meaningless smut into the telephone ("I wouldn't handle his prick, never mind his business"); a lifeless dance routine performed by a bunch of third-rate hoofers in transparent PVC raincoats. It is a kind of end game for British cinema.

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