The producer and distributor Tony Tenser is most associated with British sex and horror films of the Fifties and Sixties. A jovial character who was blatantly commercially driven, he said, "I would rather be ashamed of a film that was making money than proud of a film that was losing it."
He was described with some justification by the writer David McGillivray as "the Irving Thalberg of the exploitation movie", but he also produced two films regarded as classics, Roman Polanski's chilling psychological thriller Repulsion and Michael Reeves's stylish horror movie Witchfinder General. A former publicist, he also was largely responsible for the early success in the UK of Brigitte Bardot, for whom he coined the description "sex kitten".
In an era when strict censorship was slowly being eroded the Lord Chamberlain's authority to censor or completely ban plays was challenged by the formation of club theatres to stage such works as Cat on a Hot Tin Roof and The Children's Hour, and the book Lady Chatterley's Lover survived a notorious court case Tenser was the first to open a private club cinema to show uncensored films.
The son of Lithuanian-Jewish immigrants, Tenser was born in 1920 in Shoreditch, east London. He served in the RAF as a repair technician during the Second World War before establishing his flair for publicity while serving as the manager of an ABC cinema.
Joining the small but respected distribution company, Miracle Films, he worked on La lumire d'en face (The Light Across the Street, 1955), starring Brigitte Bardot, and capitalised on the star's considerable appeal with his phrase "sex kitten" and such publicity stunts as having a huge cardboard cut-out of the star outside the cinema. Et Dieu cra la femme (1956) was an even bigger Bardot hit, with Tenser modifying the title to And Woman Was Created ("You can upset people using 'God' in a title"). Miracle's next Bardot film, En Effeuillant la Marguerite (1956) translates as "while stripping the petals off a daisy", which Tenser cannily rendered as Mam'selle Striptease, devising a stunt in which Soho strippers picketed the film. He told his biographer, John Hamilton,
I was introduced to Michael Klinger, who owned the Gargoyle, a strip club. I said, "I want to borrow half a dozen of your girls to do a demonstration, going through the West End on Friday lunchtime and finish up picketing outside the cinema." It was a very good stunt, all the press were there and it worked very well receipts went up.
When Klinger told Tenser that he wanted to get into the film business, Tenser suggested the idea of a cinema club, and the pair acquired a basement in an office block in Old Compton Street, which they opened as the Compton Cinema Club. "To make it more legitimate, we had a number of well-known founder members, including the censor John Trevelyan, Bryan Forbes, people like that." Klinger and Tenser then moved into distribution, their prime showcase being the prestigious Cameo Poly in Regent Street and, in partnership with Cameo's directors, they produced their own first feature film.
Films about nudist colonies were discreet enough to survive censorship but still attracted audiences, and Compton-Cameo's first production was Naked as Nature Intended (1961), directed by a leading photographer of nudes, Harrison Marks, and starring his wife, a noted pin-up of the time, Pamela Green. It was followed by That Kind of Girl (1963), which dealt with the subject of venereal disease, and The Yellow Teddybears (1963), about the activities of pupils at a girls' school.
In 1964 Compton-Cameo made their first horror film, The Black Torment, an effectively eerie period thriller ("Like sex/nudie films, there is always a good audience for horror movies"), and the following year they were asked by the director Roman Polanski and his regular producer Gene Gutowski to finance their next film, then called Lovelihead. Tenser persuaded Polanski to cut his budget from 90,000 to 60,000 before agreeing that he and Klinger would be executive producers. "In the end it came to more than 90,000, but it was such a brilliant film." Titled Repulsion (1965) and starring Catherine Deneuve as a psychotic young woman whose ambivalent reactions to sex slowly unhinge her mind and make her homicidal, it is an exceptionally disturbing and frightening film that has been favourably compared with Hitchcock's Psycho.
Tenser was also a producer of Polanski's next movie, Cul-de-Sac (1966), a bleakly black, comic gangster film which proved perplexing for audiences but won the Golden Bear at the Berlin Film Festival. Tenser had greater success with a Sherlock Holmes adventure, A Study in Terror (1965). He adapted the title from Conan Doyle's A Study in Scarlet, and asked his writers to come up with a story in which Holmes would discover the identity of Jack the Ripper. Critics pointed out that the result was a lot gorier than the average Holmes yarn, but praised James Hill's fluent direction and the British cast headed by John Neville and Donald Houston, with Judi Dench, Robert Morley and Barbara Windsor also featured.
In 1966 Tenser and Klinger, hearing that Sheila Van Damme was selling the Windmill Theatre, famous for its tableaux vivants nudes and for having kept open throughout the Blitz, succeeded in purchasing it, and they opened it as a cinema with their production Secrets of a Windmill Girl (1966), starring Pauline Collins as a performer who becomes corrupted by success. Intended as an homage to the theatre's bygone past, it ended with a song that stated, "The Windmill girls, they were so gay, but now it's over, they've gone away", but it was a fairly shoddy production that found only limited release.
Tenser and Klinger then dissolved their partnership, and Tenser formed Tigon films, which was to specialise in horror, starting with The Sorcerers (1967), starring Boris Karloff. It was the second of the three films made by the director Michael Reeves before his suicide, and Tigon also produced Reeves's last film and the one on which his cult reputation rests, Witchfinder General (1968), starring Vincent Price as a 17th-century tyrant who uses the pretext of witch-hunting as an excuse for torture and treachery. Based on Edgar Allan Poe's Conqueror Worm, it is a ghoulish and haunting work, and the best of the Tigon horrors. Others included The Curse of the Crimson Altar (1968), The Blood Beast Terror (1968), The Beast in the Cellar (1970), The Blood on Satan's Claw (1971) and The Creeping Flesh (1973), the latter featuring the popular team of Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing.
Outside the genre, Tigon produced Monique (1969), the first British mainstream movie to feature a lesbian mnage-a-trois, a version of Black Beauty (1971), the comedies What's Good for the Goose (1969) and For the Love of Ada (1972), and, the company's most prestigious production, the Spanish-filmed western Hannie Caulder (1971), made at the height of its star Raquel Welch's popularity.
Tenser retired from the film industry after executive producing Frightmare (1974), and started a business selling wicker chairs in Lancashire. In 2005 John Hamilton's book Beasts in the Cellar: the exploitation career of Tony Tenser, was published, and in the same year Tenser attended the Festival of Fantastic Films in Manchester, where he was honoured with a retrospective.
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