Can we talk about filth for a moment? Everyone okay with that? Vicar, you okay with that? Excellent, then we’ll begin. See, I’d like to talk today about one of those oddities of British cinema, a strange and slightly embarrassing dead-end that film historians rather like to pretend never happened. Namely, the British Sex Comedy.
Sex and comedy go well together. The human attitude to sex (generally speaking) is a very paradoxical thing. We’re not supposed to talk about it, but nevertheless it’s something that goes on all the time. Most of the population are either doing it or after it, whether they’ll admit it or not. The hypocrisy and repression surrounding it have been fertile grounds for humour since, well, literature was invented. Certainly Aristophanes managed to get a few gags out of it.
Few nations not actively under a theocracy were quite as repressed as Britain in the 19th and 20th centuries, and so a culture of innuendo-laden humour developed. A fine example is the rise of the saucy seaside postcard, one of which is shown on the right. Then, of course, you got the Carry On films, whose humour was heavily reliant on innuendo and which were sometimes funny. There’s a lot of nostalgia for this sort of thing now, with the Carry On films being practically respectable.
In the 1970s, however, British cinema ran into a problem – the American money that had funded the domestic product since the 1960s dried up, and so a pressing need developed for movies that would be cheap to produce, but which would make an awful lot of money. The solution was simple – comedy was cheap and sex brought in the punters.
The result was a slew of cheap, badly-made sex comedies made by Soho-based companies that somehow managed to be neither sexy nor funny. The plot was pretty much immaterial, just so long as you could get a few aspiring actresses to get ‘em out for the lads. All that was really necessary was a setting that could be produced on the cheap. Basically, you were pushing the boat out if you filmed it beyond the edges of Greater London. If you were really lucky, you might get a derelict holiday camp or a condemned country house to play with. A common scenario, notably in the Confessions of… and Adventures of… series as well as many, many imitators, was that you would have a lovable and hideously ugly loser who would somehow be irresistable to attractive young women and… well, that was about it. Basically, invent a scenario into which naked women could be inserted and polish off the script in a day or two, we start filming Monday.
The humour, such as it was, tended to be weak innuendo and witless slapstick. Bear in mind that this was an era when On The Buses was considered hilarious, and you’ll understand that the bar for hilarity in Britain was set pretty low.It didn’t really matter, in any case. I don’t think anyone from the 1970s to the present day has ever watched a British sex comedy for the humour.
Oddly enough, given that the majors selling point was sex, there’s something peculiarly unsexy about these films. Maybe it’s that the comedy isn’t exactly a turn-on – speeded-up footage and swannee whistles are alright for Benny Hill, but they don’t exactly say “steamy love scene.” Maybe it’s the gloomy, low-budget settings. If I were to offer my own personal suggestion, maybe it’s because they’re set in a universe in which Robin Askwith is a sex symbol.
There’s also something peculiarly tragic about watching them today. Due to the state of British cinema, these films were often able to obtain the services of actors who you’d think could do a lot better – John Le Mesurier, Windsor Davies, Charles Hawtrey. Some of them were clearly at the end of their careers and desperate for a buck - Alfie Bass in Come Play With Me being a particularly depressing example. This film is also notable for featuring Mary Millington, who would be dead of suicide two years later, and for starring and being directed by Harrison Marks, a man who never quite achieved the artistic credibility he so desperately desired. Once you know the background, it’s about the most miserable comedy ever written.