SEAT AT THE BACK

SEAT AT THE BACK - SCRIBBLES! ~ Films on the Seat at the Back playlist right now: KIDS IN LOVE; JUNE; CURVE; WILD, BARELY LETHAL; GODDESS OF LOVE; THE VATICAN TAPES .. What a night in!

Monday, 20 June 2016

BOMBA, THE JUNGLE BOY (1949) // In which Bomba is smitten, Peggy Ann Garner smoulders and the stock footage shocks!

                      

* Plot spoilers and skimpy loincloths ahead - watch before reading! *

The best screen Tarzan  has always been, for me, the legendary Johnny Weissmuller - star of numerous jungle adventures featuring the Edgar Rice Burroughs-penned, vine-swinging hero. It's a close run thing as I also greatly  admire the late 60's borderline 'bit trashy' but all round fun guy and gaudily colourful small screen  hero - Ron Ely (always a bit too sweaty - or rubbed on-oily, but that's what this new thing called colour TV does to you!).

Ely was a Tarzan who always looked more like the geezer bloke who lives next door to you, come over to fix your dad's car (in a loincloth from the local joke shop) than proper Tarzan, but he was still really knowledgeable and cool - at least through a child's eyes!


RON ELY - HE CAN FIX YOUR FAN BELT!  


Weissmuller was kind of a real life Tarzan though - an Olympic champion swimmer, he proved an athletic and endearing jungle man and wore the loincloth that god gave him as naturally as a baby wears a nappy; he also did not ever fix your dad's car. He jumped on top of - and wrestled - crocs instead, and chatted up a nearly naked Jane. He also looked like he didn't want to be your friend and far preferred cuddling up to wild animals with big trunks, if not making a treehouse for his jungle mate (the girl lost in jungle kind - not the best mate down t'pub kind that Ely would have taken!). Yes - Weissmuller was proper Tarzan.

The life and times of Johnny Weissmuller may not have been perfect, and he may have craved or been seduced by success too greatly for comfort (he divorced his first wife on the instruction of MGM - to appeal more to the girls that adored his new sexier take on the Tarzan character) but he was never less than convincing when swinging through the trees with his trademark Tarzan yodel and chimp hanging off his shoulders.








In the second Tarzan movie, Tarzan and his Mate (1934) that was just about still pre-Hays Code (which means we got all the naughtier stuff before the powers that wanted to be, and censor film across states, became more enforcing) we even had newly arrived girl about jungle - Jane (Maureen O' Sullivan - doubled by Olympic swimmer Josephine McKim) swimming with Tarzan . . in the nude! Oh yes - believe it! Those black  & white pictures may seem tame to modern cinema-goers, but back in the day there was all manner of titillation on display.

Of course the nude Jane scenes were eventually cut  after protest from religious groups and in the climate of good taste creeping in across the US states able to make their own decisions on censorship at the time, and only later found and restored to the film at the turn of the century - but at least the extra scenes were never destroyed, as so much snipped material at the time often was.



Eventually MGM decided that Tarzan didn't just need a mate - he needed a boy too. Being the now far more restrictive era of film-making (or rather - film screening)  by that point (in which Jane had to now wear far less revealing outfits and a more decent 'one-piece') Tarzan didn't get to 'make' baby. He adopted. And so - 'Boy' (great choice of name!) was born. And he was played by a young Johnny Sheffield in the film Tarzan Finds a Son! (1939) and in subsequent sequels (the best of which being the quite deranged - Tarzan's Desert Mystery, in 1943).

LIKE FATHER, LIKE . .

Eventually the film studio decided that Boy had grown a bit too big for his boots, and certainly his loincloth, and he was sent away to school - in England. Hurrah! Now that would have made a great film saga . .

The Tarzan movies had already became increasingly fantastical (brilliantly so - Nazis, giant spiders and mermaids all making cameos) but all good swingers have their day, and Tarzan had also had his. Without Boy or even Jane to perk him up (even MGM had quit and handed the films over to RKO) life up in the trees was a little bit duller for Tarzan, and within a few years Johnny Weissmuller was given his swimming orders. The actor swam across to another film studio (Columbia) to make more Tarzan-like films as rugged wild animal tracker and fully-clothed hero Jungle Jim (1948 - 1954) that finished its life as a TV series (1955/56).

APE WITH ROCK, WAITS FOR CUE . .




'Boy' got his own series as well: twelve features within six years as 'Bomba' - teenager of the jungle. It proved to be his final bow in acting, or at the very least - his final swing.





While Weissmuller had ended up post-Tarzan at Columbia and Cheeta the chimp had started work on his autobiography, poor Johnny ended up down 'Poverty Row' - at Monarch Films (one of the super-low budget action movie studios of the day) which meant that 1949's Bomba the Jungle Boy, the first film in the new showcase film series for Sheffield, was shot on a jungle-dressed studio backlot and had a whole film reel's worth of stock jungle footage shoved up its trunk to boost (not entirely unsuccessfully - making stock footage insertion something of a minor artform here) the exotic jungle boy vibe.





The script from Jack DeWitt (later best known for the Richard Harris ritualistic, sympathetic Sioux classic - A Man Called Horse from 1970, and a couple of sequels) isn't terrific, but does the job. It all starts off with a father and daughter-led photography team travelling on location to Africa (which is more than Monarch Films allowed Bomba!) to shoot (with a camera - not a shotgun, although . .) the exotic local wildlife.

Meet the supporting players: there's intrepid, and slightly devious, grumpy old dad - George Harland (played by horror regular Onslow Stevens from the pleasingly ghastly delights of  House of Dracula, The Creeper and giant ant-terror - Them!) and his even pluckier, fiery but doe-eyed daughter Pat (Peggy Ann Garner who had already been praised at a very young age for such films as Jane Eyre and A Tree Grows in Brooklyn).




JANE EYRE (1943)


Father and daughter are shown around the parts of the jungle that other tourists can't reach by a resident glorified 'Scottish' gamekeeper (well, with an accent like that . . !) called Andy (played by Irish supporting player Charles Irwin who had numerous 'uncredited' roles in famous movies from 'Tin Polisher' in The Wizard of Oz to 'Cardiff Police Constable' in Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man ). And then there's enigmatic character actor Smoki Witfield on board as the resourceful and loyal local chap - Eli (and like Andy, our favourite 'Scottish' gamekeeper - a recurring role in the Bomba films).

Pat gets lost in the jungle while chasing wildlife, but never looks all that scared, in fact quiet Pat soon turns into a plucky and brave, lagoon-swimming, dress-shedding, b-movie adventuress by the time the tribal drumbeat of the end credits kicks in. Pat, even before meeting up with Bomba, has already tried her best to persuade dad to let her join him in capturing those ever more dangerous-to-shoot photographs of wild beasts (that they spend most of the film looking for - in ever increasing circles around the well-dressed studio backlot).




Dad is bored of all the usual kind of wild jungle beasts they encounter on their shoots (on that old familiar stock footage - and who can blame him?) and wants to capture something really unusual. He also doesn't want his daughter going with him into any properly dangerous places - like the mysterious faraway matte painting of her father's favourite rocky (and completely forbidden to all teenage daughters) danger zone seen on the distant horizon where great danger may lurk (or just 'Boy' from the Tarzan movies).


Of course, his daughter goes walkabout, nearly gets eaten alive by a stuffed leopard, is saved by a boy in a loincloth who fights and kills the stuffed leopard and then runs off after she tries to shoot him. It's not long before she also ends up in the forbidden zone that Daddy forbade her to go near as well (Sigmund Freud - take note!). Her punishment: a swarm of killer locusts. Ok, say what you like about this film and its scathingly low budget, but it sure is a heady trip when it wants to be!

Tarzan love Jane - Bomba love all girls!


Luckily for everyone, especially those still missing Boy from the old Tarzan films, Pat is soon rescued by Bomba the Ape Teen, who - luckily for her - is about the same age (if dressed in less clothing). Pat, in a violent rage of symbolic teenage hormonal angst, tries to shoot Bomba when he gets too close.



To make up for this unfriendly welcome (in yet another rage of symbolic teenage hormonal angst) she later decides to take off all her clothes behind a nearby bush. Bomba watches with interest - he's already nobly offered the girl his only loincloth and been rejected. Pat then changes into the handy and rather fetching Jungle Jane bikini kit that Bomba has made - for just such an occasion as this. Not surprisingly, it's a perfect fit and Bomba saves the day! The End. Oh hang on - that's not the end . .




In a rush of even more symbolic, but middle-aged, testosterone-fuelled paternal rage, when nice boy Bomba goes and tells the half-dressed girl's father that he has 'rescued his daughter' and is keeping her safe 'in his treehouse' - daddy shoots Bomba as payback (and this time doesn't miss).


With the odd savage lion attack to come (or more like a native tribe's attack on a poor defenceless lion as part of a crop-saving ritual - this film is clearly not vegan-friendly) as well as the aforementioned deadly locust swarm (and that's about it for the action stuff) we have to get our thrills more from Pat and Bomba taking a swim in the river together (but unlike the original Weissmuller/ O'Sullivan 'Tarzan and Jane' swim - everyone keeps their loincloths on this time). 'Bomba the Jungle Boy' keeps it simple on a limited budget and doesn't do much to raise the stakes, but it does try to get some decent momentum going, when it can afford to.

And if you were a teenage groupie of Tarzan-type movies back in the day - then Boy sure has grown up since playing chase with Cheeta in the treehouse while Tarzan 'make love - not war' with Jane in the lagoon, and there was probably some curiosity factor at the time in seeing what the former child star was up to these days. And these days, Boy's in love! It's all very innocent love and entirely unchallenging stuff of course, but still ridiculously endearing somehow and well-played by Sheffield and Peggy Ann Morgan.





I wonder if Sheffield made for a worthy, if a bit bric-a-brac, pin-up for bedroom walls across America before James Dean came along and did Rebel Without a Cause in 1955 and cool quiffs replaced crappy loincloths. Bomba doesn't have any annoying parents to bug with his bad behaviour but he does run wild on his own, and is a confirmed loner. He's always a bit too well-behaved, if a bit prone to sulking, to be a genuine rebel though, but does still make a stand for rebellion against untrustworthy adults, attacks the hunter and protects their prey, and when offered the chance to return to civilization at the end of Bomba, the Jungle Boy - he refuses.




And here lies the main theme at the heart of this film, above all the lion and locus attacks: will moody teenager Pat stay in the jungle with Bomba and become the next Maureen O'Sullivan? Will Bomba go to New York and become king of the urban jungle? Will there be another Bomba movie? Well, the answer was yes to more Bomba films as this one had been a huge success. The other exciting plot spoiler (what Pat does) I will let you find out for yourself . .




It's easy to gently mock a film clearly designed for a more youthful audience than the grown-up Tarzans were. The Bomba films were the Twilight vampire flicks of the jungle film world and Johnny Sheffield the Robert Pattinson of his day (I'm just guessing this really: is it more likely that young filmgoers at the time, like many critics of these films today, also thought Bomba was a little bit second rate to the big budget Tarzans; a bit too worthy and the lead  now dressed in a bit too big a loincloth to care?).

"I like you Bomba, but I'd rather be saved by Tarzan!"

As directed by veteran action and TV serial director Ford Beebe (Buck Rogers/ Flash Gordon/ The Green Hornet) this Bomba debut always moves along at a brisk pace, but it is a bit too talky for its own good. The chatter is broken up by being blended with huge chunks of stock location footage, although the end result is far more seamless than you may expect - in fact, while not being entirely convincing, and occasionally not at all convincing, it's still pretty neat that the stock footage doesn't kill the film outright but keeps it holding on for dear life when there's barely a decent plot to cling on to.


The script vine being swung on here is well and truly greased with long spells of aimless chatter and the actors have to work their safari hats (or loincloths) off to get to the good stuff (or at least a bit better stuff). The editors on this movie (Roy Livingston and Otho Lovering) also deserve a medal, if not an Oscar - the film's dramatic finale, in which the main cast watch a lion hunt and are surrounded by a whole pack of the wild beasties out to eat them alive, relies almost entirely on stock footage for its kicks.

This stock footage occasionally may appear rather dubious to a modern day audience, especially one lingered-on killing of a lion by tribal leaders that can make for uncomfortable viewing. But this scratchy footage is seemingly filmed by documentary makers at the time and from some respectful distance and not (as far as it's possible to tell) for the purposes of entertainment (unlike the kind of self-shot footage some Italian zombie filmmakers in the 70s especially, allowed - resulting in an often increasing burdening of guilt in the years ahead, as public consciousness changed and grew increasingly outraged).  


WHERE'S BOMBA WHEN YOU NEED HIM?
'CANNIBAL HOLOCAUST' SHOCKS IN 1980 . .
The Bomba films often have our hero protecting wildlife and appearing devastated when he has to kill another animal to protect the stupid tourists from certain death. In Safari Drums (1953) Bomba has to kill a lion to stop it suffering further, after a member of a visiting film crew deliberately shoots it, mortally wounding the King of the Jungle.




Bomba reveals how the animals all listen to him and respect him - even converse with him, but now he will be their prey as he has killed one of their own. When Bomba says that: 'Remember - if you kill one of them, the rest will trample you to death',  it's hard not to feel a slight shiver shooting down your spine! The film's finale lingers on a real fight between a lion and a tiger, and far more consciously exploits animals for our entertainment than anything seen in Bomba the Jungle Boy.




Some other startling wildlife footage edited into Jungle Drums was originally used memorably in the first Bomba: a lion creeps up on a warthog (I've been told, although to me it looks more like some creature out of Doctor Who - I mean, what the hell is that thing?) minding its own business and then plucks it out of its resting hole in the ground like it's a person-sized, newly-shaven rag doll. It's astounding, even quite upsetting footage, and stays in the mind long after the film has finished. But that's the reality of nature and the wild: often naturally raw and brutal when played as a code of survival.

EASY TIGER! 



The supporting cast in Bomba, the Jungle Boy are especially effective, despite few lines of much worth to work with. Onslow Stevens as Pat's caring but oppressive father and Charles Irwin as their friendly guide and gamekeeper (and warner of imminent stock footage danger) are often a joy to watch: exchanging dire warnings and thinly-veiled threats to each other to do things 'my way - or not at all'! The sparky patter does get a bit repetitive and isn't consistently endearing, if only because there's so bloody much of it - the cast do their best.



Sheffield as Bomba is striking of body frame and really looks the part. Ok, his hair may be a little too heavily blowdried to entirely convince as a wild child of the jungle but his toned muscles will still cause certain bulge envy or appreciation in watching males sunk on a sofa worrying about their waistline and the lord of the chattering chimp's hesitant words of jungle wisdom are endearingly coy and refreshingly self-conscious.

Sheffield's accent here veers between that of a shy young New Yorker lost on a low budget film backlot and a feisty jungle man putting on his best baritone for the Jungle Janes in the audience: it's a strange combination and in later films he drops the hesitant Tarzan-style monotone yap. But this is a star turn, and Sheffield  probably knows it - you can imagine all the girls sittng with their families at the original theatrical screenings going all weak at the knees, and others of all ages and all persuasions feeling much the same way, but with less of a fanfare back in the days of the Hays Code restricting all minds of most impure thoughts!





There's a lot of humour to be had between Bomba and Pat, especially the now rather infamous scene where Pat tears her nice (but entirely impractical) dress strolling around Bomba's jungle hideout that teasingly reveals the top of her stockings. Bomba offers his loincloth and starts to untie it (they're saying bum di di bum di di bum bum bum) then brings Pat the perfectly stitched leopard print dress that he keeps out back (one would feel so much safer with a strong, fearless man beside one). Jane goes behind the hut to change, throwing her underwear to the nearby chimps as she does - who all get to try on her knickers (I wonder if we'll ever get to seven?).


And if you are wondering about all those random quotes scattered around just now - it's my tribute to 1970's Carry on Up the Jungle (with Terry Scott as a plumper than your average Tarzan star) that this Bomba sequence reminded me of, and way before Terry's time in the loincloth!

BOMBA & PAT
 
UGH & JUNE 

It's pretty racy, this first ever Bomba movie, for the time. You can almost imagine the filmmakers sniggering off camera. Peggy Ann Garner who plays Pat, was well known to filmgoers as an enigmatic former child star (she was only 13 when she starred in her most famous film - A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, in 1945) and her mildly saucy jungle antics in Bomba a few years later may have raised a few eyebrows at the time, if only because her previous work had been far more serious and startling than appearing in a (very) b-movie jungle actioner with another former child star beside her.






And Peggy Ann steals the show with her seething need to rebel and escape her mundane life (if being an exotic wildlife photographer travelling around the world can ever be called 'mundane'!). There's some real moral dilemma-raising in Pat's uncertainty at the end of the movie as to whether to stay with Bomba lost in the jungle and leave her father - forever wondering what became of her.


Clearly Pat wants a life alone with Bomba, and the boy himself also clearly believes there's enough space for her back in his hut (maybe they could even adopt a baby one day - just like Tarzan did with 'Boy'!) or should she go back home to America to help with her father's rather naive idea to 'make a fortune' with slow-mo film footage of animals which he decides schools: 'will pay a fortune for'. Ah - bless his cotton socks! (Cue: lots of footage of animals jumping through the jungle like hairy ballerinas in slow-mo to prove how amazing this footage could be. And I do mean lots . .)


The young actress imbues her character with steely-eyed, butter wouldn't melt, (but could bubble and flame if you don't watch out) charisma. Bomba is smitten. As he waits to find out whether Pat will stay in or leave the jungle in the film's final moments, there's real edginess and impending fear of regret shining through his brooding gaze as an over-protective father tries to tilt the balance.


Peggy Ann Garner's career never really topped her iconic performances in favourites like A Tree Grows in Brooklyn or Jane Eyre and soon shifted into mostly TV work after her Bomba role, and she died young - at 52 - of cancer.


After the Bomba films reached the end of their jungle road in 1945, Johnny Sheffield tossed his loincloth into the flames of the past and never acted again. He's still far better remembered as Tarzan's playful, mischievous - but fiercely loyal - 'Boy', but Bomba was his chance at a starring role, and even though he is still upstaged at times in his debut by a pretty girl ripping her dress and a whole load of stock footage, without Johnny there would have been no Bomba. And without Bomba there'd be no more use for stock footage of lions being chased by tribal leaders in the long grass. Instead, that footage will have, by now, rotted away.

The Bomba books were written by a team of writers (the same team that gave us the Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew) called the Stratemeyer Syndicate (created and initially written mainly by Edward Stratemeyer) under the pseudonym of Roy Rockwood. These stories fired the imagination of younger readers and later spawned a series of comic books as well as the films.




In older age, Johnny Sheffield, pruning a tree at home in California, slipped and fell - in 2010. The fall wasn't thought serious at first, but it triggered a fatal heart attack and he died aged 79. The irony of Sheffield, the former 'Boy' and 'Bomba' of the jungle, being up a tree when he lost his footing (something he never did on camera) probably wasn't lost on anyone. The accident was a tragic end card to have for such a well-loved child star and who was a continually warm and generous recipient of fan adoration throughout his life - talking and writing about those jungle epics of the past with huge affection.

Johnny Sheffield never really hit the big time, second playing to a tall man in a loincloth, a skinny-dipping Jane, or random - but thrilling, to audiences of the day - stock wildlife footage. A pilot for a new TV series created for him by his father that was to be called 'Bantu the Zebra Boy' only reached pilot stage. Sheffield's career in the movies was over.


LOOK - ZEBRA PRINT LOINCLOTH!


Johnny Sheffield remained, as close contemporary James Dean would remain too - a forever youthful genre icon in cinema history (Johnny just a bit less famous than some of the others!). This was an actor who had spent most of his career swinging aimlessly and joyously through the trees, saving - and then chatting up - lost American girls in danger in the deepest jungle without ever so much as a farewell kiss in thanks, or forever having a bloody scene-stealing chimp swinging around his neck in just about every damn film he appeared in: respect is due!

Bomba's two year bask in the b-row spotlight was relatively brief but still full of broody, sulky, jungle angst and charm. And he was certainly a decent enough rival, if not quite to Tarzan, then certainly to Jungle Jim . .












WORDS: MARK GORDON PALMER


Monday, 18 April 2016

A TRIBUTE TO GARETH THOMAS (1945-2016) - DEEP SPACE FREEDOM FIGHTER 'BLAKE' FROM THE BBC'S SCI-FI EPIC: BLAKE'S 7 (as told by Kerr Palmer)





. . KERR PALMER REPORTING FOR THE NEW FEDERATION GAZETTE ON SPACE STATION ANDROMEDA 7 . .  

Blake (or Gareth, more accurately) is trying not to laugh at this alien from the classic Blake's 7 episode 'The Web'. But he can do it - this man has the stiffest upper lip in space!



They hardly ever 'did' monsters in Blake's 7. Instead, the BBC's outstanding TV sci-fi epic was more likely to focus on: faux leather shoulder pads (and that's just the men; you should see what Servalan wears - full crow costumes made from real crows!); eye-patch wearing villains; freedom fighting (when not in-fighting) crew; space-age love rats . .  and a boxed-in brainy 'Orlac'.


BRAINY THING IN A BOX! 





AN OUTFIT MADE OF FAUX CROW!






Blake's 7 ran on the BBC from 1978-1981. When they did actually do monsters, like their rival Doctor Who (the man who gave us the Daleks also gave us Blake's 7) then they'd be creatures that should only inhabit the kind of trippy, deeply weird corners of your very worst nightmares (think: monsters from hell, not space). The kind of creatures you'd be far more likely to spot climbing up your bedroom wall - or standing at the end of your bed - as you ran a life-threatening temperature that threatened to bust the thermometer and explode a mix of mercury and glass all over your bed sheets (hey - that was the late 70s, and mercury was still safe. just like asbestos pads on your Bunsen Burner). Yes, the monsters in Blake's 7 were bonkers, but brilliantly so - even freakishly and deliriously so!

 I remember one particularly disturbing alien creature (also from 'The Web') being a rather simply-designed rubber-bodied thing stuck in a water tank with an actor's head on the top poking through the gauze in the back and trying to look serious (or not in any pain). Or was that me running a childhood fever again? But I always loved the occasional monster episodes of Blake's 7, regardless. Secretly, I kind of wanted all the episodes to be a bit more like 'The Web'. 




YOU HAVE FLU/
YOU HAVE A FEVER/
YOU ARE NOT WELL MY BOY . .


We can laugh in retrospect at some of the effects and arch staging of Blake's 7, but not much, because the model work and space landscapes (and set, weaponry and costume design) in the show was outstanding and still memorable 35-ish years after it first screened. And the often po-faced archness? Well, that was why we loved the sci-fi epic so much - it so wasn't kidding around. Blake's 7 was serious sci-fi for much of the time: often underlyingly dark, resolutely political, impulsive, grand in scale and even unafraid to kill off its leading cast (or spaceship) when it wanted to. It could also be catty and over-sexed (for sure - thanks mainly to Avon, Cally, Travis and Servalan), but even that felt different to other sci-fi shows of the time.








And it was a cast stoked with more character, hidden agenda and delicious motive than the players from a lavish Agatha Christie whodunit (or a deeply back-stabbing Greek comedy or Shakespearian tragedy) whether running around secretive, state-controlled space stations or going deep under an alien sea, climbing up futuristic superstructures or exploring abandoned spaceships.

I think Gareth Thomas was always playing Blake with deadly serious grace: a man stuck rigidly in a Shakespearian body and trapped in a futuristic tracksuit (or semi-hoody) and mostly repulsed by the universe around him - especially the idiots who often roamed it alongside him (even if they were, supposedly - and sometimes even reluctantly - on his own side!). He sneered at the charms of arch enemy Servalan. He would never have snogged her like Avon did.




'SEXY, FLIPPANT, ANTI-HERO' AVON, 'NO BULLSHIT' BLAKE & 'SCAREDY-CAT BUT LOVEABLE' VILA. 

Nobody took freedom fighting (or TV sci-fi) more seriously than Gareth Thomas. Sure, he probably went home after shooting to a fine glass of red and to read a serious good book by the fireplace. But up on screen, he was never anything less than deadly serious and utterly enthralling; there was real gravity and pathos to the lines he spoke, even if there was none intentioned in the script. Equally, his co-star (Paul Darrow as Avon) matched Gareth Thomas's impassioned stance with flippant observation and distrust to such a level that you began to wonder how much of this was for the viewer's benefit and how much of the sparring was for real (but they were actually good friends off screen).

You should never get on the wrong side of Roj Blake, whoever you are and whatever dreams of leadership you may have. Avon, his only real rival in the gang of 7, was all sex, initial selfishness and borderline sleaze - but Blake was only ever about stability, seriousness and resolute command. Another crew member - Michael Keating's Vila was the opposite of both men; he was out for a laugh and a cowardly figure, who had to learn how to become as brave as main man Blake (even though he didn't really want to, and never really did). Vila represented us - everyman. He didn't take life too seriously (even though he always wanted to protect his own).




Blake, on the other hand, never had much of a laugh as a freedom fighter and was more like the highly-political friend you may have who doesn't come down from his ranting about the state, even after all the rest of your friends have - or at least not long enough to pause and have a laugh before getting back to the fight. But Blake's smile, when he did smile, was so all-enveloping (if a little bit condescending) and as powerful as his rage, that there was never any doubt that this man was our leader.


BLAKE WAS FRAMED BY THE FEDERATION AND HAD HIS BRAIN MESSED-WITH AT THE START OF THE SERIES . .  


And I remember lying in front of the TV, on the carpet - mesmerised by Blake's 7: Episode 1, in my PJs, thinking that the opening music (and almost pop art visual recruitment to a cause) was the most heroic sounding theme music I'd ever heard. And later thinking that the locations visited in those formative episodes - all creepily empty, concrete and steel-structured, futuristic factory-like places - were magical and mystical and fantastical. Concrete and steel was never so tragically poetic, evocative and representative of the future as it was when used in Blake's 7.






Gareth Thomas's equally serious, slightly reluctantly investigative (but fiercely protective) family role in the classic Children of the Stones made that lovingly remembered BBC drama about ancient stone relics that pulse with life and death and roar with the voice of a sweet choir, probably the greatest children's television horror - ever (and absolutely believable and appealing to adults as well). I watch it all the time. I'm also a huge fan of the downbeat, epic, How Green Was My Valley (possibly my guilty secret!) that Gareth Thomas brought such gritty power to, and of course the much-maligned Star Maidens, and classic Hammer House of Horror, and so many more (often offbeat) TV classics. . .

I never hiss when a hero dies, but today when I read the news of the death of Gareth Thomas, I hissed out loud: "No . ." at the screen and at the BBC. I remembered all the Blake's 7 annuals and books I collected, and the massive box of VHS tapes that I still keep to this day: double bills with gorgeous artwork covers stacked like a space age construction in a storage room at home. All kind of now rather ancient - old plastic relics of the past - but that still buzz with long life and arouse glorious feelings of escape into space and rebellion.






The shock of Gareth Thomas's passing, was just as shocking to hear about as his death in Blake's 7 was to witness on screen - a televisual death that he made sure was final and unreturnable from (unlike the rest of the cast who had a little more hope - especially Avon, for whom the final uncertain death blast was witnessed blind, as the screen went black and the credits rolled silent). He's only gone and done it all again though has Roj Blake - gone and left us again.








Kerr Avon always had the last laugh on Blake. But today, even he will probably be shedding a tear. Or even just cracking one last, wry smile:

Avon: So it's goodbye then, at last - Blake! (I can imagine him spitting out that name with so much sarcasm.) You outran the Federation. And you almost outran me, in the end. We may, just may, even miss you - .


(He looks into the distance. Then grins.)

A little . .


 




GARETH THOMAS (1945-2016)


BLAKE'S 7
© BBC 

Monday, 11 April 2016

RESPECTABLE - THE MARY MILLINGTON STORY (2016) // WORLD PREMIERE OF SIMON SHERIDAN'S LABOUR OF LOVE TO THE ULTIMATELY TRAGIC, BUT MOSTLY JOYOUS, HARD LIFE AND TIMES OF A SEXY SUBURBAN SUPERSTAR!




WARNING: THIS REVIEW CONTAINS SPOILERS ABOUT THE MARY MILLINGTON STORY - WATCH BEFORE READING. THIS REVIEW IS NOT SUITABLE FOR THOSE UNDER THE AGE OF 18 - OR READERS OF THE DAILY MAIL . .  BEST READ NAKED (AS NATURE INTENDED).




RESPECTABLE: THE MARY MILLINGTON STORY, is a labour of love from respected film author and now filmmaker, Simon Sheridan - a quite obsessive fan and historian of both Millington (the X-rated movie superstar) and the Soho-shot sexploitation films from that same era. Simon's books about those heady, often censored, but still super liberal days: 'Keeping the British End Up: Four Decades of Saucy Cinema' and 'Come Play With Me: The Life and Times of Mary Millington' (and 'X-Rated: Adventures of an Exploitation Filmmaker' about director Stanley Long's 'Adventures Of . .' films - and others) have become definitive reference works on all things naughty, nice and partly clad in a nurse's uniform (or permanently clutching at a stiff policeman's truncheon). Ah, those were the days . .

Millington was a household name in the 1970s and starred in the longest-running UK theatrical film screening ever - 1977's COME PLAY WITH ME (which ran for almost 4 years continuously at the Moulin Cinema, West End). Mary went from the quiet and leafy (if swinging) Dorking to the bright, shady lights of sex shop city Soho and, in her final years, enjoyed some quieter times as a resident of leafy Walton-on-the-Hill in Surrey where she eventually committed suicide (probably - although tonight's film also reveals that some of her friends and family still have doubts) at the age of 33.



It's now the 7th April, 2016, and a very rainy day in Soho . . 


I rush to catch a bus to Piccadilly Circus from Victoria Station, and just miss it. Out of breath, I take out a rather large blue card from my back pocket and check the times printed underneath (actually underneath the wide open legs of famous glamour model and cult saucy film star - Mary Millington) before realising I'm being watched intently by a hook-nosed elderly lady sitting at the bus stop next to me, and whose glasses now appear to be rapidly steaming up . . 









Could this fellow passenger - I wonder - be the reincarnation of the much-feared anti-pornography and anti-anything too scary for kids stalwart Mary Whitehouse (who found an especially easy target in Tom Baker's gothic Doctor Who of the late 70s)? That woman was a tireless campaigner against sex films across the country, but especially in Soho where they were rattlingly projected (censored mainly) onto screens such as the Cannon Moulin on Great Windmill Street (where there would be a sleazy selection of naughty, often imported, shortened and dubbed sex films on triple-bill screenings every single day - even on Sundays!).


As much as I see 'moral' campaigner Mary Whitehouse as an enemy of sorts, at least to freedom of artistic expression, she's also quite iconic and quirkily memorable in her own way (compared to others of her kind!). The butt of many jokes over the years (even in tonight's documentary there are a number Mary Whitehouse jokes - mainly about how she would have been less angry had she dropped her knickers occasionally) it's also true that, without this woman's tireless opposition to pornography, the British sex industry would never have become quite so excitingly enraged, energetic and sometimes (through necessity) subversive.

A wonderful recollection in the documentary tonight tells of how Mary Whitehouse once turned up at a sex film screening in a Soho cinema with her husband beside her. As soon as the action started getting steamy, she strutted down the aisle, slammed open the exit doors and screamed about the movie being ABSOLUTE FILTH - or words to that effect. Of course, every critic has a right to an opinion, even bloody Mary!



The Soho sex industry got its own back. Headed by porn publisher David Sullivan, of whom some talking heads in the new documentary claim that to get inside one of his magazines (which included Playbirds and Private, oh - and Whitehouse, named after you know who!) you had to: "Give a blowjob to get a job!". Linzi Drew, a starlet of that era, and former partner of a more modern day adult film star and director - Ben Dover (the man who made the kind of 'reality sex films' that gave the British film censors heart palpitations throughout the 90s and beyond) revealed that she never stooped so low as to give Sullivan what he wanted (that blowjob for a new job thing) -"I'm the one that got away, David" she says with a wry smile.


I spot Linzi herself at the Regent Street cinema's packed and rather warm bar prior to the RESPECTABLE screening. She's there with her rather towering-over-everyone son Tyger Drew-Honey (from the BBC sitcoms OUTNUMBERED and CUCKOO) and who is offering mum some bar snacks while Ed Tudor-Poll (from Mary's last film - 1980's THE GREAT ROCK 'N' ROLL SWINDLE, and also a pop/ punk legend and TV's Crystal Maze guider) chats to a few old familiars, just a short Millington-style long arm of the law's length away. How often . . just how often, do you get a gathering like this!




I find myself chatting to David Benson of THINK NO EVIL OF US: MY LIFE WITH KENNETH WILLIAMS fame (one of the first stage shows I saw in London, when I was of age!) and who will be appearing on stage in a few weeks as London mayor Boris Johnson. He tells me he doesn't really know all that much about Mary Millington. At the Q&A after the screening, he applauds Simon's work and admits to some tears by the end (and there are many others in the audience feeling the same way). I can also vouch for much laughter throughout the film from the audience as well (the humour in the documentary mirroring Mary's own often bubbly personality, as well as many of the slap and tickle films that she appeared in).


On the way to the premiere - Soho's Raymond Revuebar (RIP!)


Simon Sheridan tells us that all the former glamour models and X-rated cinema stars he interviewed for the film, spoke - perhaps surprisingly - of all the fun they'd had in that heady 70s sex industry heyday in Soho, and never once felt exploited: they did it for themselves.


Mary wasn't a shy girl snared by the seedy sex industry as she walked back home from college. After she moved to Dorking, she was an enthusiastic member of the local swinging set long before her saucy smile (her favourite and often only item of attire) became so well known. Apparently it's an activity that's apparently still very active in the Dorking area, even today: "I go to Dorking quite a lot," says Simon, to much laughter. "And many of the people you speak to on the street do seem to be swingers." I'm not sure why he is asking strangers in the street such questions in the first place - let's just assume it was for . . research!



"Hello. Is that Miss Bohrloch?"

RESPECTABLE doesn't shy away from the downside of the British sex industry. Although Millington probably would have headed into glamour modelling, and even sex cinema, anyway (according to Sheridan) the move was sealed when her beloved mother became ill and Mary had to help pay the bills for her treatment.



Growing up in Kenton, Mary had always been an exhibitionist - perhaps due to not having a father around and being 'illegitimate' and taking ridicule at school (in the days when it seemed to matter). Her need for attention meant that she would be likely to open the front door to strangers topless or - in later years - go on family holidays and parade around on boat decks completely naked and happy to pose for any passing lens. It was, for those that knew her, just Mary being Mary!



She met a local butcher called Bob Maxted, married him young and they lived together in Dorking. It was probably, many say, a marriage of convenience - but Mary still stuck with him for the rest of her life. I read a story the other day from a former colleague of Bob's (they worked in the same supermarket) about how he once told some fellow workers that he was married to a porn star. Presumably this was greeted with some scepticism as Mary apparently then did a strip for them all in the warehouse to prove it!

Some of Mary's family still blame Bob for the spiralling out of control of Mary's lifestyle at the end of her life, and there's even the occasional suggestion he let her down by arguing about finances on the night of her death, and for not checking on her as she lay dying of an overdose in the upstairs bedroom. But there's only so much blame one man can take for a life that had so many strangling strings pulled from all directions on this vulnerable sexpot puppet of the hugely rich and famous.




NOSTAGIA LIVES! On the way back from the premiere - more published retro sex in a Soho shop window!


Some speculate Mary's death may not have been suicide and the documentary addresses this subject with some palpable caution (not surprisingly as this is supposed to be a celebration of Mary's life and a sadness for her early death, rather than a 'conspiracy theory' expose).


But her tragic end, clearly can't be entirely ignored. On the night of her death, Mary swallowed all the tablets she had taken with a large amount of vodka and there is a claim in the documentary that Mary never drank any alcohol and had a strong aversion to it - apparently she couldn't even bear the smell of beer if someone had been drinking it near her. But I also read a report, shortly after watching the documentary, from a former co-star of Mary's claiming that she often enjoyed a Campari and lemonade on set . . 


Whether Mary's death was suicide or not, we will probably never know with absolute certainty. Most seem to think it was a suicide, due to her state of mind at the time and the notes that she wrote to some of her friends as she lay dying. Simon Sheridan himself has said that he keeps an open mind on the suggestion that Mary's death was not a suicide and refuses, in public at least, to take any one definitive side. A family member at the Q&A states that she is certain Mary's death would not have been of her own free will. There's a decided chill, and a sudden pause in the room as this vehement assertion is taken on board by everyone present.

Feelings naturally still run deep, but there is no animosity tonight from any of those attending the screening - although many do wish to make clear their views. I meet some of Mary's family in the corridor after the movie and they are polite and friendly, delighted with the film and dignified when talking about the cherished family member they obviously still care so much about, and wish to protect the memory of.




What we do know for certain about Mary's final day is that she approached the end of her life convinced there were many people in high places out to get her. In a letter written to David Sullivan on the night that she died, she wrote: "The police have framed me yet again. They frighten me so much. I can’t face the thought of prison." Mary had been arrested by police for shoplifting and for obscenity (her 'Whitehouse' sex shop in Norbury had been raided often, and eventually emptied) and there was a suggestion that Mary was on the verge of bankruptcy. In the words used in her final letter: "The Nazi taxman has finished me". 





Bob Maxted, Mary's husband,  didn't want to appear in the documentary. Simon Sheridan did approach him, but he has a new life now - a new name and a new family. When Simon went to visit him, it was clear that he wasn't welcome and Simon pauses for a considerable few seconds (that feel, while on tenterhooks, like minutes) to consider whether to expand on why and what happened - but the evening isn't about snitching.
You can understand, perhaps, why Bob would wish to stay clear of all the fuss - this man has, over the years, had a lot of negative press directed at him (even a family member of Mary's admits this to be the case) about not being able to save his wife from suicide, or suspicion about what happened on Mary's final night.


Maybe Bob was just a regular guy caught up in the pitfalls of fame almost as much as Mary herself had been - a regular guy with an unconventional lifestyle and marriage (and what is conventional anyway?). But the person he was married to was every fan's obsession, and for many - a fantasy lover: their secret desire . . That must have been difficult at times to take on board. At others - probably fabulous!

Suicide at 33 was not an entirely unexpected conclusion to Mary's short, but often joyous, life. In her final years she was destroyed by drug addiction and depression, facing a shoplifting conviction with an almost certain prison sentence and huge debt . .







Starting off in glamour modelling, Mary most famously posed for David Sullivan's top shelf magazine range. It's admitted - from Simon Sheridan himself (thanks to an observation from a member of tonight's audience) - that Sullivan may not have been that pleasant a man all the time (but surely at least some of the time!) back in the day. But he has mellowed considerably and is now Vice-Chairman of West Ham FC - so he must be ok, right?

Sullivan, although a ruthless player, also seemed to treat Mary with a lot of respect and love, even though he did cultivate, very shrewdly (as he freely admits on screen) her image (changing his fledgling star's name from Mary Maxted to Mary Millington because he already had a Doreen Millington as an editor on one of his top shelf magazines, and he wanted to pretend that Mary was her sister!).





Sullivan was executive producer of a highly controversial, cheaply-made 'tribute' film to Millington shortly after her death, called MARY MILLINGTON'S TRUE BLUE CONFESSIONS (1980) which loosely dramatized parts of the star's life alongside interviews with those that knew her. But it was shots of a double (Mary Harper) for Mary in a coffin that caused some outrage and the film has been mainly kept hidden under the shag carpet ever since. Mary's friend and co-star John East came up with the idea, and the entire project irked fans.

Still, it's a rare curio and of some considerable interest to fans of the star, and of that era, today. In it's own weird way, the film could also be viewed as document of a coping mechanism for some of those that loved her - a revival of sorts as a way to blank out the fact that Mary was no more, even if it was a misguided and crass project in retrospect, in the eyes of many.
 



David Sullivan wasn't - in a campaigning sense - as liberal as Mary. While she tirelessly campaigned to stock whatever she wanted in her sex shop, he was more cautious about restrictive UK laws on pornography at the time. Sullivan often irritated the authorities and was hounded for providing even the regulatory, if often pushing the boundaries, sex entertainment to those who sought it - but he was careful (he says!) not to do anything that really crossed the line.


And Sullivan was, after all, a businessman first and foremost - not the campaigner against pornography laws that Mary and many others in the adult industry that she worked in (including 8mm sex loop director John Lindsay) seemed to be happy to defend themselves in court to fight.





Other leading lights of the Soho filmmaking contingent, including Willy Roe (who directed Mary's THE PLAYBIRDS in 1978, and 1979's CONFESSIONS FROM THE DAVID GALAXY AFFAIR and QUEEN OF THE BLUES) or 8mm glamour and comic sex-shooter (and relentless censor-spanker) - George Harrison Marks (COME PLAY WITH ME) were happy to shoot additional hardcore scenes for the export market, free of the UK's harsh censorship laws on hardcore (or even too much softcore - before the internet broke all the rules and film classification laws became more relaxed at the start of this century).




Throughout the screening of RESPECTABLE, snippets from Mary's hardcore early shorts are screened, and you know what - nothing feels sleazy. This is, after all, just sex and nostalgia now, and mostly quite endearing. Why film censors were so riled-up and ran scared stiff from stuff like this seems ludicrous to a modern audience who generally believe that, if legal and not harming anyone else (and we are over 18 and all that) then why should we not have the right to watch what we like - including actual sex on screen?

Today, explicit sex is allowed in cinemas, so long as it's not there for the purpose of 'arousing' the viewer it seems. So 'artistic films' like 9 SONGS (2004), ROMANCE (1999), NYMPHOMANIAC (2013), STRANGER BY THE LAKE (2013), Q (2011), CLIP (2012) and LOVE (2015) are allowed to tease us with real sex, if not actually dwell on the sight too long or too often!








Actual sex films are now allowed to be sold in sex shops uncut of course, which they couldn't back in Mary's day - or even throughout the 80s and 90s on VHS and then on DVD (unless heavily edited and blurred into slow motion sequences when things got too sweaty - so that viewers didn't get too aroused, even under a special 'R18' certificate: for sex shops to sell only).

Uncut adult film releases sold in the sex shops of Soho were only ever kept 'under the counter'. Those early VHS tapes sold on the shelves, didn't revolutionise the industry's permissiveness (although the new, easy format revolutionised the black market side!) and were only really a little bit ruder than an '18' found on the shelves of HMV (that were also often cut). This heavy censorship on the rise and fall of VHS (despite an initial sense of liberation) lasted from the late 70s/ early 80s all the way up to the start of the next century and into the DVD era.






Maybe there's some nostalgia to be relished from all that under-the-counter nonsense back in the day that kind of defines old-school Soho, as it once was, to many lovers of the retro sex industry and the wild practitioners of the day - often more sleazy than the films they were making and working to low or no budgets before partying with the rich and famous in luridly-lit underground strip clubs and seedy massage parlours.

"This story is true, but actual names and places are fictitious . ."



Even the Soho filmmakers lampooned the era, as it happened - Pete Walker's quietly subversive COOL IT CAROL (1970) being almost a premonition of the life of Mary Millington and perhaps even her husband (or one of her boyfriends!) albeit with a more bittersweet, redemptive ending than the tragic last bow of Mary's ended up being. The 'Cool it Carol' story was based on a newspaper report that Walker had read in the News of the World . .



COOL IT - CAROL!


Without censorship in British 70s sex cinema, there would have been no need for rebellion, subversion, enemies like Mary Whitehouse (and for many in the Soho sex industry - the politicians, judges and the police!) and some of those films, often then banned or frowned upon but now widely available and respectable (including a newly remastered DVD of COME PLAY WITH ME) may not have become so defining of the era (or have played at the Cannon Windmill for such a record-breaking run!).




Horror films were also heavily restricted and criminalised at the time (and eventually labelled as video nasties) after the initial freedom of videotapes without certificates in the late 70s/ early 80s saw those 'pre-cert' tapes push boundaries. Of course, many of those once banned films, such as THE LAST HOUSE ON THE LEFT (1972) are now available uncut in the UK. But not all, and some classic so-called nasties - such as the still intense and disturbing (and defining of an era) I SPIT ON YOUR GRAVE (aka: DAY OF THE WOMAN) are still heavily censored (but also available uncut in many other countries).



Censorship in the UK has relaxed, but is still often determinedly restrictive, especially if a film mixes sex and violence. Which rules out an uncut release for Derek Ford's (who worked with Mary Millington on 1978's WHAT'S UP SUPERDOC?) 1976 sex shocker - 'DIVERSIONS' that actually did push real boundaries, some would say too far!




Mary's oft-feared boys in blue are represented in Simon's documentary - older and wiser perhaps, but with a former officer looking back on those giddy times quite matter-of-factly and discussing how they would often have to raid Mary's sex shop. That was the law though - pornography was not allowed to be sold on the shop shelves so it led to owners keeping their illegal material under the counter, never on display. Customers would have to choose a movie, perhaps from a well-thumbed catalogue, and get out quick - their brown paper bags tucked under their macs!
 



And so, looking under the counter, of course, was the first thing the police would do on a raid - we are reliably informed! Nobody cared about the stuff on the shelves. And Mary was targeted relentlessly.

Millington wound up the establishment, for sure - but she was also abused by it. She was passed around from celebrity to celebrity and even, it's rumoured, had her wicked way with Harold Wilson one time, but whether that was consummated with or without his pipe in his mouth, nobody seems to know for sure!



According to David Sullivan, Mary did talk about this rumoured affair (or maybe more, it seems - just a one night stand!) with the then prime minister to him, but he doesn't know whether it's true or not - it would seem like a very odd story to want to make up, is all he can say further.  

Without doubt, Mary did canoodle with the cream of TV, film and radio. Actor Dave Cash from 1972's THE DAVE CASH RADIO SHOW talks poignantly about his relationship with the star and how she argued with him just before she died and his regret at this being their final farewell - Mary accused him of running off with some other floozy as he walked away from her. Other familiar faces of those linked with Mary flash up on screen before us as we watch the documentary dip a toe in darker waters  - including a brief flash of Bob Monkhouse. Oh - the scandal!







Mary was married, but she had an open marriage that included swinging, other longterm boyfriends and fleeting lovers and, in her magazine PLAYBIRDS, she would travel the country to places such as Leeds or Sunderland to 'meet the people' - a David Sullivan idea (who also revealed that Mary loved meeting everyone - the uglier or older, most geeky or boring the better as this made her fans feel like: 'It could be me too!'). In RESPECTABLE, Sullivan reveals that he suspects Mary 'probably did sleep with some of the people she met' on those pictorial assignments of hers that proved so popular with readers (with the magazines still very collectable today). That was Mary, being Mary again . .


 



She would also be pictured on film sets (famously on the set of ALIEN) or (David Sullivan laughs as he remembers . .) unexpectedly with Russian submarine crews, refuse collectors, firemen - you name it; Mary was there with a smile, and nothing else. At auditions, she would also strip off without being asked and tell film producers uninhibited reasons to hire her, such as the fact she had a very smooth bottom - and would anyone like to check! Neighbours and friends of Mary also speak of how she would often walk around naked, as if it was entirely natural and far more decent than being clothed - truly naked as nature intended!



Throughout RESPECTABLE, we also get snippets of footage from Mary's 8mm films. The most famous of these is probably 1970's MISS BOHRLOCH from jolly hockey sticks-fame adult filmmaker John Lindsay. MISS BOHRLOCH starts with two men calling Mary from a red phone box and then going up to her flat - she wears both of them out with her sex prowess and eventually makes them do the dishes! The film includes a slow-motion and rather surreal money shot and is streaked through with a sleazy suburban humour (the psychedelic climax is sadly not shown in the documentary, but far more than you would have been allowed to see just a decade and a bit ago, definitely is).


Mary's participation in these explicit films (she would also travel abroad to countries such as Sweden and Germany to make films for less restrictive countries as ours) meant that she also found in harder to get into mainstream filmmaking and the softer glamour pictorials - it was soft sex comedy films or nothing as her next move (except for 1975's EROTIC INFERNO from Trevor Wrenn, which was a far darker and more sinister film than any of Mary's other movies).


David Sullivan admits that models who had appeared in hardcore shoots would then be very unlikely to move on to the lucrative likes of the Page 3 spreads in The Sun. Even Benny Hill apparently drew the line at having such girls appear in his shows, however much he liked them in person. I think, had Mary lived beyond 33, she would have gone on to appear in more mainstream cinema though, especially the horror genre.



Despite her star status, Mary Millington actually had very little self-confidence. Through the interviews we now have on record (thanks to flexidiscs from top shelf magazines) Mary has admitted that she couldn't act and would never watch a movie that she was starring in herself - certainly never wanting to see her silly little face on screen. And yet, as David Sullivan rightly observes, while she would often seem keen to avoid the limelight, and even be dismissive of her talent, Mary would then be out on the street and meeting her fans wearing her 'MM' necklace and living up to the character she (and Sullivan) had created: relishing all the attention and celebrity status (including a close but hugely destructive friendship with Diana Dors).


DELICIOUS - DIANA DORS!


Diana Dors was perhaps even more liberal-minded than Mary and we hear stories in RESPECTABLE about how she would organise, with her husband Alan Lake, sex and drug orgies at her home - endless pretty girls were drafted in for the night (Mary helping to arrange this). Millington became part of this high society set and it's probably where her final decent into drug abuse took place (cocaine being freely available and essential at these parties). Mary went spiralling into depression, hung up on her fading looks and dwindling modelling career: she was replaced for much younger models by the people she trusted and thought she had loved.




Despite starring in the record-breaking sex comedy hit COME PLAY WITH ME, and its follow-ups: THE PLAYBIRDS, CONFESSIONS FROM THE DAVID GALAXY AFFAIR, and QUEEN OF THE BLUES (a leading final role for Mary, but one that drained away on set as her ability to cope with the demands of a starring film shoot in the last hurrah of her tossed-around life became all too evident) Mary was only treading water, with no real shore to swim towards. There was also THE GREAT ROCK 'N' ROLL SWINDLE (1980) alongside the remaining Sex Pistols, right at the end - but Mary's life was just about over, to be outlived by her youthful fame and eternal notoriety.


David Sullivan recalls how his biggest star and lover would present him with expensive gifts and show him all the jewellery that she had bought, and all the designer clothing too. He didn't understand why she was buying so much, and told her so - Mary told him that he would understand one day, after her death. Many of those items she presented to him, were most probably stolen from shops. Others recall how Mary would visit hotels and restaurants and end up with half the restaurant in her large bag, rattling away alongside her as she left.

Without doubt, the life of Mary Millington was a whole lot of fun: she craved attention and loved sex. There was fun to be had on set too: we learn about how COME PLAY WITH ME was made as a labour of love, but mostly just in chaos. It still went on to huge success and just couldn't seem to stop making money. It was like Carry On with tits and bush and was only mildly sexy (ruder clips for an export version were shot but never screened - pictorials in David Sullivan magazines also made some use of  some rather more explicit moments not seen on the big screen but exact clarity on what was shot, and what was just pretended to have been shot, still provides fuel for debate in Mary Millington fan circles!).











But when the famous cast of old familiars, that included Irene Handl and Alfie Bass, found out about the more adult additional sequences being filmed, they apparently weren't as happy as the tempted punters were (even though the paying public never got to see any of that kind of stuff at the actual screenings anyway!).

Another well-thumbed rumour, tells how the late great, grand old dame of British comedy - Irene Handl, was supposed to have bonded on a film set with Mary Millington over a line of cocaine! Which leads into a story from 80-year-old actor Jess Conrad, at the Q&A after the screening of RESPECTABLE, who remembers how he was once pressured into taking a line of cocaine by some unidentified 'bruiser' while filming THE GREAT ROCK 'N' ROLL SWINDLE (that he featured in, alongside both Millington and Handl) and that he refused - he didn't do drugs (and was also supposed to appear in the pantomime Jack and the Beanstalk later that same day - so wanted to have a clear head!). He was basically told he had no choice - so he did, and it went (of course) straight to his head . . 

At the pantomime that evening, a lone member of the crew was heard to be hissing in some panic that: Jess Conrad is chasing the giant up the beanstalk - and he won't come down! Simon Sheridan quickly points out that Jess is actually one of the most clean-living of people you could ever hope to meet - but Jess's eyes are still glinting wickedly as he leaves the auditorium!


Prior to the screening of Sheridan's documentary, a blue plaque to honour the record breaking run of COME PLAY WITH ME and the life of its star Mary Millington is unveiled by David Sullivan at BAR GRACE - site of the legendary Moulin Cinema in Great Windmill Street where the film dug its heels into the fag-littered concrete, covered itself up in a shabby raincoat and stayed put for those 4 record-breaking years of continuous run!



Secrets, in front of the Windmill . . !


Friends and famous faces attend the unveiling of the plaque and the cinema screening a few hours later: Jess Conrad, director Willy (THE PLAYBIRDS) Roe, Francoise Pascal, Linzi Drew and son Tyger Drew-Honey, David McGillivray, Ed Tudor-Pole and, rather incredibly, the daughter of George Harrison Marks - Josie. Her dad was probably the most famous glamour photographer of Mary's era - director of shorts that included: HALFWAY INN (1970) and VAMPIRE (1963); the feature length sex comedies COME PLAY WITH ME (1977) and THE 9 AGES OF NAKEDNESS (1969); and the infamous naturist documentary (to get past the censor) NAKED AS NATURE INTENDED (1961).




I don't have a big extending lens (the man in front of me has though; a seven-incher at least, pointed rather boastingly at Mary's blue plaque) but I do have a little fliptop phone on me (hey - size isn't everything!) to record what's happening, as the curtain is pulled and the plaque reveals all. It's a rather surreal and truly a one-off gathering in front of me - famous faces from the 70s sexploitation era all gathered together in the heart of a Soho afternoon, and still looking as sprightly as ever!


In the pictures below: the man in the smart, probably hugely expensive overcoat unveiling the plaque (who looks like a football club chairman) is publisher and football club chairman David Sullivan; the man in the crumpled leather jacket (who looks like a 70s Soho sexploitation film director) is 70s Soho sexploitation film director Willy (THE PLAYBIRDS) Roe and the man with the white hair (who looks almost impossibly still youthful) is almost impossibly still youthful actor Jess Conrad! The tall man (with the best-looking hair) is Simon Sheridan (doing all the hard work in choreographing the event and speaking at some length about Mary and her legacy to Soho and the historic site of the famous Moulin cinema).


Oh, and in case you are wondering, the girls in yellow COME PLAY WITH ME t-shirts who look a bit like Mary Millington - are girls in yellow COME PLAY WITH ME t-shirts who look a bit like Mary Millington (and do a great job not looking even remotely frozen in the cold late afternoon breeze while the rest of us wrap up in our best thick coats!).
                                           


                                     


WILLY ROE - THIS CHARMING MAN!
SIMON SHERIDAN (at back) & GANG
                      






JESS CONRAD HOLDS UP THE BAR!
DAVID SULLIVAN COMES OUT FIGHTING!
             


GIRLS, GIRLS, GIRLS! 



WILLY & DAVID - FOREVER! 




Random strangers come up to me and ask what's going on - who is everyone taking pictures of? I tell them about the film and its star, but there's little recognition and I think to myself that once, on Great Windmill Street, Mary Millington's name would be known by just about everyone. But for those that do care, the unveiling of the blue plaque, with the rain miraculously gone and the sun just about shining for our star's big moment, is greeted with a huge cheer.

And it is, at this moment, a kind of justification for everything that so many moral campaigners out there don't want the likes of us to celebrate (a feature in the Daily Mail this week about the plaque is greeted with predictable rage by some readers claiming that it has been funded by taxpayers money - it hasn't, and was independently funded).


Also at the unveiling and the screening are many of Mary's family. At the Q&A, a family member thanks Simon for such an honest documentary that he says: really captured the way all the family still remember Mary. Another relative breaks down in tears as she recalls how Mary was really just an ordinary girl at heart and still remembers going berry picking with her - precious memories.



Mary was perhaps exploited to an extent, in that she became a character invented to sell copy. Mary Millington never really existed. She was always really just Mary Maxted from Dorking. But Mary Maxted was also just as naughty and mischievous at heart as the Millington persona that she became.



The films Mary appeared in, despite early loops being explicit, had a natural innocence and charm. Box office hits of the era, such as COME PLAY WITH ME, are best viewed today with nostalgia and wry appreciation. It's a film than many modern filmgoers may well wonder what all the fuss was all about! 

Reminiscences in the documentary share how the COME PLAY WITH ME cast were told they were supposed to be members of an exotic dance troupe stuck at a country hotel and health farm with only one change of clothing left on them (to help with the budget!). Nobody really thought there was much of a script as such, but the basic plot had lots of pretty girls taking up positions as nurses and even asked to perform in a random dance number (in their stockings and suspenders) - despite having no clue how to dance in time (and it shows). But do watch the film - it's great fun!

Ah, the undisciplined chaos and (slightly) rude health of those slap 'n' tickle days . .




But a darker side existed in the industry of which hardcore pornography was just a scapegoat. Mary recalls being hounded by establishment figures. She posed on the doorstep of No.10 and undid her top. The police demanded the film back and rather resourcefully, she hid it internally - thereby allowing the filmreel to survive to see another day! But times weren't always such fun, and her rumoured trysts with top politicians, celebrities and the police were legendary but also had repercussions (there's a claim in the documentary that the police would allow other officers to visit the station when they had Mary in custody and ask her to strip for them). Mary herself alleges that police officers were appearing in her films as extras as well - just to keep watch on her.


The truth about Mary's life and death is often threaded with rumour and uncertainty. Simon Sheridan warns in his introduction that the film includes plenty of sex - but the film isn't only about sex. It's also a story about love, family, friendship, success, failure, depression and the need to support those who suffer with deteriorating mental health through even their darkest days.


Because Mary probably was let down by not having the strong support that she should have had when she needed it most. That could be more the fault of society rather than the fault of friends and family, many of whom remained supportive. But the adult industry she had worked tirelessly for and had made so profitable had now moved on (the very worst stab in the back of all) and Mary was left floundering financially and in debt. She had been as good as hounded out of town by the police as well at the end. Or out of Norbury at least, where her sex shop was based, and where she would attract customers wanting to be served by the sex star herself, often only wearing a G-string while doing so.

We also hear how Mary could turn customer complaints over the phone into a request for her working hours in the shop, so they could visit and spend some more of their cash - forget the complaint! Now that's marketing . .

As she lay dying at her home in Walton-on-the-Hill, Mary asked one of her actor friends - John East (a co-star of Mary's in many of her films) to sing to her down the phone (he was unaware that Mary had taken any pills). The song he was asked to sing was Goodnight Sweetheart, so he did. Then she said goodnight. It was probably the last word she ever said. After being caught shoplifting again, Mary had been told that a prison sentence was almost a certainty. It was the final blow.

Nobody really knows why Mary shoplifted. Simon thinks, as others also claim, that it could have been a need for attention (being without a father during her childhood and then, most devastatingly, without her mother - after which Mary was never the same) and a need (as David Sullivan thinks) for possessions in her life, which she never really had when growing up.



8mm . . better than Betamax!


RESPECTABLE: THE MARY MILLINGTON STORY is an eye-popping and tear-welling true story about an attention-seeking pretty girl who had all her wishes granted but when those wishes grew and grew, they ultimately overwhelmed and destroyed her with an X-rated dagger to the heart.

The girl next door-looks became hardened and wide-eyed with drug abuse. This perky girl's tiny frame; this beguiling bundle of pure suburban naughtiness with that cheeky smile and a charming lack of self-confidence, were battered into submission by an industry too often more interested in profit than vindication or the war against censorship. Few in authority or in respectable society, or even many of those who used her along the way for their own ends, wanted to help Mary Millington survive her demons at the end - instead, many authority figures seemingly made it their main intention to make her life much worse: unliveable.



David Sullivan talks about how he first met Mary - she was served up to him on a plate as a birthday surprise which he unflinchingly agrees that, today: sounds pretty awful. But those were the times, and out of all those who knew her the best, Sullivan seems like one of the most constantly supportive and - perhaps surprisingly - caring (just as likely to try and calm down some of Mary's wilder impulses than encourage them). There are tears in David Sullivan's eyes of course, when he talks about her - throughout the film.






At the Q&A, a former 'Page 3' girl talks about how she has buried many friends ruined by the sex industry over the years - with a move into hardcore pornography often, she claims, being their downfall. Mary, however, did it in reverse - she started  off in the hard loops and then moved into softcore. Many other contemporaries at the screening sigh out loud as tributes to Mary flow. Most importantly, another family member thanks Simon personally for the closure the film has brought their family.






'RESPECTABLE' is out on DVD next month, available on Netflix now and will also be screened on London Live (maybe even uncut!). I hope the film gets more theatrical screenings at festivals as well, as it's best to watch this documentary on a big screen. It's incredible to see so many rare clips from Mary's movies and unseen pictorials shown tonight at the Regent Street Cinema (the site of the UK's first ever cinema) and still have the whole event feel thoroughly - respectable!







You know that thing called sex? It's not that shocking after all. And 70's Soho not as deeply seedy as perhaps you may have once thought (no, that's a lie - it actually once was!). But when you take the censorship away - censorship that makes you think you are watching the subversive and shocking - it's clear that much of the shock comes from the restriction on freedom, less so the content (a restriction on so many once taboo movies of the past). British censorship of adult cinema in Mary's day was excessive - and punishing. To adults, over 18, there should always be the right to choose what we watch, within the law and without harm to others. Because - why on earth shouldn't we be able to?



Mary herself always claimed she was 'born respectable' and to many of her fans, that was the case throughout her life: she loved people (perhaps too much!) and meeting her fans or looking after her family. More 'respectable' stars of the era who appeared alongside Mary in her films, only ever spoke of how lovely she was, or about having a cup of tea with her and having so much fun without even being aware that she was once an adult movie star (until they were told - and  then it didn't matter at all).

 
Mary, above all else, was a quiet soul at heart who cared most for animals (and was especially devoted to her dogs - she once even planned to train to become a veterinary nurse before the glamour modelling started up). But this star of the blue screen ended up obsessed with fading fame, her fading looks and ultimately (we are told) obsessed with death.


But now, many years after her passing, and with major editorials in the British newspapers about her life again making waves and rustling feathers (as the documentary premiers close to her old haunting ground of Soho) Mary Millington is back in the public eye. There has even been a full colour spread in The Sun this week (something that she never had in her lifetime). This revival is entirely down to one man, and a true champion of Mary's life and times - and that man is Simon Sheridan.




Narrated with calm enthusiasm by Dexter Fletcher and chock full of strikingly-realised visuals and playful depth of image (where even an erection leaves the page and floats before our eyes, and parts of classic exploitation film posters take on freedom of movement and drift  intriguingly towards us) the 111 minutes of this movie rush by.



It's an astonishingly reverent, nostalgic, heart-breaking, sexy and deeply poignant masterpiece of documentary film-making and deserves to be award-winning. It's a story not just of a girl who stripped her way to fame and film history, but also the story of a person with often low self-esteem and too many inner demons to be able to cope with, at the end - ultimately crushed by the weight of her own fame.








The film is also a document of a filmmaker's own personal obsession - for a strikingly beautiful suburban superstar's incredible life of fame and fortune in the sometimes seedy fast lane of yesterday's Soho. And most of all, it's a story that insists on the right to wear nothing at all - whenever you want!







Simon tells us, as a final word, that during the making of the film there were many strange coincidences - including Mary's favourite song being played on the radio as soon as he pulled up alongside the former site of her sex shop in Norbury. He also says he felt like Mary's presence was often alongside him, as he made the film - watching on. I think it's fair to say, if Mary Millington is also watching us all at the film's premier tonight, then she will be loving all the attention. She will be smiling at seeing so many of her friends and family remembering her life with fondness. And she will be at rest now, because this film really is a kind of closure and a new beginning in the Mary Millington story.


A family member had talked earlier in the night about how Mary often did get tutted at by some people back home for her sensational lifestyle, but mainly she was just loved and respected - it was (again!) just: 'Mary, being Mary'. And I think that sums up the whole life of Mary Millington. Mary - being Mary . .


Simon's film is a celebration of both sides of her far too short life (the suburban and the superstar) and the right of both to be at peace with one another.



And to never be ashamed - of anything.





Words: Mark Gordon Palmer

 


NOTE: THIS REVIEW WAS WRITTEN TO MATCH THE NUMBER OF MONEY SHOTS IN MISS BOHRLOCH AND FEATURED AT LEAST FIVE HAPPY ENDINGS. 

PICS BY MARK GORDON PALMER: SOHO PLAQUE UNVEILING, 'RAYMOND REVUEBAR RIP', 'SEX MAGAZINES IN SOHO SHOP WINDOW', 'Q&A' & '8mm - BETTER THAN BETAMAX!'

THE MARY MILLINGTON INVITATION IS THE COPYRIGHT OF SIMON SHERIDAN