❉ We Are Cult comes play with Mary, Mary, quite contrary…
The adult film industry in the 1970s was a funny old, two-backed beast. In the States and on mainland Europe, it was making in-roads into the mainstream with glossy hardcore efforts such as Radley Metzger’s The Opening of Misty Beethoven, Gerard Damiano’s The Devil In Miss Jones and Lasse Braun’s Sensations achieving commercial and critical success and the soft-focus, softcore antics of the likes of Just Jaeckin’s Emmanuelle and David Hamilton’s Bilitis brought erotica into the lifestyle pages of Sunday newspapers. This cinematic sexual revolution even pushed the boundaries of what was permissible in ‘respectable’ arthouse cinema, for instance Don’t Look Now, The Night Porter and Last Tango In Paris, while Russ Meyer made a clean breast of Uncle Sam with Supervixens and Up! And, as we have seen when we took a deep dive into Scorpio Films’ ouvre, T&A single-handedly turbo-charged the Netherlands’ cinema industry.
Back in dear old Blighty, the nation of saucy seaside postcards, No Sex Please We’re British, ‘nudge nudge wink wink’ innuendo and double-entendres, presided over by self-appointed moral guardians Mary Whitehouse and Lord Longford, never really caught up with the sexual liberation movement that was taking place on either side of the sceptred isle. At the peak of the so-called permissive society, us Brits liked our sex cheeky and furtive, our cultural mindset being a semi-puritanical, self-flagellating cocktail of prurience and prudishness; hence the popularity of theConfessions films and farces such as Percy and The Love Ban, where no randy deed goes unpunished, and grubby cautionary tales like Cool It Carol, Permissive or Take An Easy Ride.
Enter Mary Millington – or just shake hands with her, if you prefer. If one woman embodied the contradictions at the heart of post-war Britain’s uneasy relationship with sex and smut, it was the diminutive, blonde with the Colgate smile who would become the UK’s first lady of sex. Her appeal can be simply summed up as the girl-next-door, whose beguilingly wholesome looks betrayed her public image as a voracious, insatiable fantasy figure in continental hardcore 8mm quickies such as Miss Bohrloch and in the pages of Whitehouse and Playmates (If there was a US equivalent, consider Marilyn Chambers). She was also a high-end sex worker who felt no shame in her chosen trade, being an enthusiastic, controversial, advocate of sexual liberation, with all the unwelcome attention from the authorities such a stance attracted, as attributed in her suicide notes.
With the aggressive marketing and publicity skills of Playmates’ proprietor David Sullivan, Millington became a household name, principally through a trilogy of low-budget British films whose audience exceeded that of the ‘dirty mac brigade’ of Soho’s square mile; and it’s these films (restored in all their grubby-turned-pinsharp ‘70s glory) alongside a bountiful bevy of posthumous productions and specially-made bonus documentaries that comprise Screenbound’s gorgeous box set The Mary Millington Movie Collection, curated by Mary’s biographer Simon Sheridan.
Come Play With Me opens this box set, and it’s a curio inasmuch as although it’s the film whose title is associated with Millington in the public mindset, thanks to Sullivan’s publicity blitzkrieg – the sex thimble barely appears in the film compared to the screen time devoted to her pulchritudinous co-stars such as Sue Longhurst, Suzy Mandel, Nicola Austine, Suzette Sangalo Bond and the striking Sonia Svenburger.
Leaving the plot to one side (it’s the best place for it), Come Play With Me follows the template set by the Confessions films and other ‘cheeky romps’ of a similar stripe, by mixing up the scenes of scantily-clad antics with painful turns by veteran character actors coining it in such as Ronald Fraser, Alfie Bass and Irene Handl (reunited with Mary in The Great Rock N Roll Swindle).
It’s a sex comedy that’s neither sexy nor particularly comical, with the blame laying squarely between producer David Sullivan – who supplied the readies – and writer/director George Harrison Marks, the former king of the ‘nudie pics’, who litters the film with antiquarian music hall gags, a cheesy song’n’dance number and mugs shamelessly in the lead role defacto as Cornelius Cornworthy. It’s no Eskimo Nell.
Regardless of the artistic merits (or lack thereof), Come Play With Me is of historic interest for its huge commercial success, running for four years non-stop at London’s Classic Moulin.
Things take a dramatic upswing quality-wise in the second film in this collection, 1978’s The Playbirds, which sees Millington receiving a larger slice of the action here. Never the world’s greatest actress, Mary is perfectly cast as the prim and proper policewoman who goes at it with both barrels when chosen to go undercover as a newbie model as part of a police investigation into a series of murders of glamour models, with the prime suspect being self-styled stud and hardman Alan Lake as Harry Dougan. It’s notable that the more layers of clothes Mary sheds, the more comfortable she appears before the camera , appropriate for her skill set.
The Playbirds is fascinating for a number of reasons. Foremost, the entire film is a feature-length publicity exercise for producer David Sullivan’s Playmates jazz mag – indeed, Lake effectively plays a Sullivan manque with his burgeoning porn empire and penchant for horse racing, and barely a scene goes by without digs at pornographer Sullivan’s betes noire – God-bothering puritans from the Whitehouse/Longford school of thought as embodied by civil servant Ransome and doomsday peddler Hern, played by the much-missed and always reliable Britflick veteran Dudley Sutton (The Devils, Lovejoy).
Sutton is just one of a number of stalwarts who grace The Playbirds with their aspect, and with scenes propped up with the likes of Windsor Davies (It Ain’t Half Hot Mum), Glynn Edwards (Minder), Kenny Lynch (Dr Terror’s House of Horrors) and Ballard Berkeley (Fawlty Towers), there’s something reassuring about these dependable figures propping up this bizarre, and largely successful, mix of sexploitation, crime caper and light-hearted comedy.
If that sounds tonally all over the shop, The Playbirds just about holds it together through sheer chutzpah. Imagine, if you will, The Sweeney as directed by Pete Walker or Derek Ford, with just a tang of giallo as detective Gavin Campbell (Yes, that’s right – one of ‘Esther’s boys’ from That’s Life) races in hot pursuit of the mystery assailant, not to mention the film’s downbeat ending.
The Playbirds is a fantastic piece of pop culture history, sure to intrigue and fascinate anyone with a genuine interest in the saucier, seedier side of ‘70s entertainment, with Millington’s deceptive innocence at the heart of its appeal. Indeed, it’s a worth a look purely for how it captures pre-yuppie London – the backstreets of Soho and Piccadilly, the high-rise Thameside flats (some of which seasoned cult film fans may recognise from Theatre Of Blood), the fashions, the endless parade of Austin Rovers, Ford Granadas and Triumph Dolemites – and it’s never looked cleaner or sharper than in this Blu-ray remaster. And just to put the cap on it, one also gets a glimpse of Throbbing Gristle’s Cosey Fanni Tutti doing her thing at Mayfair’s Burlesque Club. The whole thing couldn’t be more ‘70s if it came with a Green Shield stamp.
No such caveats for the last major feature film in this collection, Confessions Of The David Galaxy Affair. In The Playbirds it’s fair to say that Alan Lake’s charisma was put to great use, and he visibly relishes every scene he appears in, with charming brio; by comparison, Confessions Of The David Galaxy Affair is what happens when you give your lead actor free rein for all his most appalling excesses – problematic ain’t the word for some of ‘em – and Millington’s character barely troubles the narrative. A sad, depressing film, released two months prior to Millington’s suicide, and Lake’s last lead role before his tragic death by his own hand in 1984, Confessions Of The David Galaxy Affair is the twitching corpse of the British sex comedy at a time when its star had fallen, Columbia having pulled the plug on the Confessions series a year earlier. One wonders if the cunning stunts of Michael Armstrong or David McGillivray could have salvaged this turkey, but it’s doubtful. It’s sad to see the potential of The Playbirds squandered in this embarrassing dud – even Lake’s missus, the wonderful Diana Dors, phones it in.
Disc Four wraps up two posthumous films, Queen of the Blues and Mary Millington’s True Blue Confessions, and their inclusion is testament to Simon Sheridan and Screenbound’s dedication to present the cinematic CV of Mary, ‘warts and all’. Make no mistake, these two cheapskate epitaphs milk Millington’s name in an ethically dubious manner, but artistic merits aside, this is a once-in-a-lifetime heritage collection of the sex icon’s legacy, which would be rendered incomplete by their omission. There’s all the context you need in the form of Simon Sheridan’s accompanying, 80-page book, titled Mary!, which is a fulsome, liberally illustrated, account of the films in this set, rigorously researched and forensically detailed from gun to tape, with an introduction penned by David Sullivan himself. For devotees of ’70s pop culture, this box set is nothing less than a legacy piece. Bonus disc, Sheridan’s acclaimed documentary, Respectable – The Mary Millington Story, is the box set’s crowning glory, having received a premiere at the Regent Street Cinema in 2016 before debuting on Netflix in the US, UK and various Commonwealth countries.
Adding extra VAM are Sheridan’s new documentaries, produced specially for this box set, offering a diverse range of fresh new insights into the Mary Millington success story. Harrison Marks’ daughter Josie offers some frank and funny recollections about the Come Play With Me svengali and there’s a surprisingly touching and affecting tribute documentary devoted to Harry Knights, Millington’s ghost-writer for her horny escapades in Whitehouse and Playmates. On a lighter note, photographer George Richardson recalls snapping the iconic photo of Mary outside 10 Downing Street and actress Sally Faulkner (Doctor Who, Prey, Vampyres, I’m Not Feeling Myself Tonight) is hilariously candid and insightful on her involvement in the British film industry during the sexploitation era. A highlight of the special features in this set is Mary Millington On Location, a time travel capsule which takes the viewer on a ‘then and now’ tour of significant locations in Mary’s life and career, classily narrated by Judy Matheson (Lust For A Vampire, The Flesh & Blood Show). There’s also the option of commentaries with Sue Longhurst, David Sullivan, Willy Roe and more.
Curated firmly for a specific subset of cult film and pop culture devotees, The Mary Millington Movie Collection transcends its source material superbly, in order to plug a gap in the story of the British film industry’s ‘go for broke’ spirit of the 1970s and shed some light on a much-misunderstood icon of the permissive society and the world of adult entertainment, all in a suitable context. Farewell Mary, we barely knew thee.
Special Features and Technical Specs:
❉ NEW The Playbirds – audio commentary by biographer Simon Sheridan and director Willy Roe.
❉ NEW Queen of the Blues – audio commentary by biographer Simon Sheridan and actor Allan Warren.
❉ NEW Mary Millington’s True Blue Confessions – audio commentary by biographer Simon Sheridan and executive producer David Sullivan.
❉ NEW Ten Million Dirty Words – a brand new featurette about Harry Knights, the Nottingham-based porn writer who helped create Mary’s image.
❉ Confessions of a Pixie – an interview with Josie Harrison Marks, the daughter of Come Play With Me’s director George Harrison Marks.
❉ ‘Mary on Location – Then and Now’ travelogue revisiting the main locations in Mary’s life and films.
❉ ‘Respectable: The Mary Millington Story’ – audio commentary by director Simon Sheridan and the BFI’s Sam Dunn.
❉ 8mmillington – compilation of the ‘tamer’ sequences from Mary’s hardcore 8mm films.
❉ Short Films
❉ Come Play with Me original 1977 trailer
❉ ‘The Mary Millington Movie Collection’ Limited Edition Blu-Ray Box-Set (Screenbound Pictures) released 22 June 2020.
❉ James Gent is the Editor of We Are Cult, and is the co-editor of Me and the Starman, (Chinbeard Books, 2019) Available in paperback from Amazon: All profits from this book go toward supporting the work of Cancer Research UK.