❉ A selection of saucy postcards of 1970s British sex comedy, on Blu-ray for the first time.
“Looked at through 21st century eyes, it can be hard to understand how popular these films actually were but the British sex comedy performed well at the cinema… It’s strange to think that the Adventures series and other sex comedies pulled in huge numbers of paying punters, and that some people would’ve chosen to see Adventures of A Taxi Driver over the actual Scorsese/DeNiro Taxi Driver…”
There’s an old saying that suggests the past is a foreign country. That often gets applied directly to old TV and cinema. Changing attitudes and tastes have made some things hard viewing, but few things now seem quite as alien to modern audiences as the British sex comedy. At its peak, the genre performed well at the cinema – Confessions of A Window Cleaner was the top grossing British-made film at the box office in 1974 – but as the years have passed, it has become the fashion to write the films off as cheap, misogynistic junk that’s best forgotten. That might be a little unfair, and Indicator – one of the UK’s best boutique labels – certainly thinks so. Their Adventures box set brings together Stanley Long’s trio of films of the same name, presents them on Blu-ray for the first time, and affords them a similar wealth of bonus materials as their much celebrated Hammer box sets. Despite the disposable nature of the films themselves, it certainly isn’t a package that’s been tossed off.
Looked at through 21st century eyes, it can be hard to understand how popular these films actually were upon release. They’re not especially funny, and there’s little about them that appears to be particularly sexy. It’s strange to think that the Adventures series and other sex comedies pulled in huge numbers of paying punters, and that some people would’ve chosen to see Rosie Dixon Night Nurse over The Deer Hunter, or Adventures of A Taxi Driver over the actual Scorsese/DeNiro Taxi Driver. Although the Carry On film series was its death throes during the mid ‘70s, the Confessions series and various other lowbrow comedies kept the British end up with a full quota of slapstick and nudity, and British cinema found itself amid a sex comedy boom. Pure escapism obviously had a lot answer for.
The fact that Britain had a “sex comedy boom” at all, of course, was spurred on by the draconian censorship laws surrounding pornography at the time, as much as a public appetite for the bawdy. Many Europeans were allowed to view actual sexual material; even the US enjoyed a movement dubbed “porno chic” where scenes of a sexual nature were given a high gloss send-off for those who wished to see these things at the cinema of a Friday night. As for Britain, a bit of nudity and innuendo was all most cinema goers could hope for, usually on a cheap double bill. And so the film-makers obliged – often to the disgust of Mary Whitehouse and other self-appointed moral guardians – churning out flicks like Eskimo Nell (d. Martin Campbell, 1975) and Keep It Up Downstairs (d. Robert Young, 1976) by the dozen. Once in a while, something a little more risqué like Mary Millington vehicle Come Play With Me (d. George Harrison Marks, 1977) would escape the censors’ grubby clutches, but any chance of genuine excitement would soon be quashed by Irene Handl doing one of her funny old lady routines, ensuring everyone from our buttoned-up little island didn’t get too hot under the collar.
Looking back, the popularity of the genre seems as curious as the general conceits of its typical setups: Did the writers genuinely think that all housewives were gagging for a bit from the local tradesmen? Or that your average bloke always hoped that Mrs. Jones from number 32 would give them the wink? Did a core of the audience gaze with a wishful glint in their eyes? Whichever way you look at it, these films occupy a place like no other; a slightly warped world of celluloid where the over-sexed and over-confident dwell side by side with the socially awkward, neither party helping anyone’s domestic happiness. The British sex comedy is a saucy postcard of the past, from a place that never really existed.
Long’s Adventures films aren’t mentioned as often as the similar Confessions series. The scripts don’t have the lightness of those Timothy Lea written works, nor are they as funny as the best Carry Ons. For anyone not old enough to have seen them the first time around in the mid ‘70s, it’s likely that a first viewing would have been in the late ‘90s when the fledgling Channel 5 seemed to wheel out sex comedies with regular abandon. Watching the films through a very poor TV signal made the experience an odd one, almost as if the being beamed in from another place in secret, like some strange tit and bum contraband.
Decades on, and in high definition, watching them still feels sort of…strange. The attitudes depicted are difficult to take; each film is littered with the kind of humour long deemed politically incorrect, and yet, for those well versed in old comedy, these comedies should still have their place. Each one features a whole world of familiar faces, and even at times when the material is dubious – which is often – there’s always enjoyment to be had spotting various heroes earning their crust with a strangely dignified lack of dignity. Whether it’s Ian Lavender as a concerned husband or best friend (depending on the job description), Stephen Lewis playing Blakey (despite whatever name is written on his script), or the legendary Liz Fraser propping up everything with her always likeable presence, these friendly presences definitely improve the viewing experience.
The first of the films, Adventures of A Taxi Driver (1976), boasts a fantastic cast. Barry Evans plays ever hopeful cabbie Joe North whose everyday adventures invariably lead to him losing his trousers, or ending up in bed with someone’s wife. Evans had already charmed audiences as Jamie MacGregor, a sex-obsessed teenager in the brilliant Here We Go Round The Mulberry Bush (d. Clive Donner, 1968), and …Taxi Driver could loosely be viewed as “What Jamie Did Next”. This is amplified by the decision to cast three of his Mulberry Bush co-stars – Adrienne Posta, Angela Scoular, and Judy Geeson – all of whom help to make the film more enjoyable in different ways. Posta puts in a superb turn as the over talkative, ditzy blonde; Scoular, very much typecast as “posh totty”, ends up in the bath with Evans for some cheap thrills, and although Geeson’s performance is a little nondescript by comparison – perhaps realising this mightn’t have been the best career choice – her ability to light up the screen should not be underestimated.
Throughout a casual journey around London that provides some great location footage of a mid ‘70s capital, we witness a suicide attempt that’s actually a ruse to get our cheeky chappie cabbie back to a young woman’s house, much to the chagrin of her husband; see him indulging in afternoon delight with a well to do housewife, and ultimately end up in bed with a young woman and a snake. In between times, Joe bickers with his actual girlfriend (for whom he seems to have little regard) and various family members, including mum Diana Dors. None of this is particularly funny. It can be bizarrely entertaining, yes, but not really funny.
It’s easy to imagine that some the era’s cinema goers might have tittered at the sight of Evans running away from a convent, naked from the waist down with his bits waggling in the wind on an overcast day in Bayswater, or amused by a suspenseful climax involving the police, but it’s hard to imagine a time when it would have been riotously funny. In an already very low-brow piece of cinema, a set up featuring an old-style female impersonator lowers the bar further, and a crime sub-plot is so cartoonish and heavy handed it almost derails everything before settling into a solid farce, so it’s really to the lead actor’s eternal credit that he manages to make the film so enjoyable. …And for all of its tackiness, crassness, even pure tastelessness, there’s a heart to it all that is strangely enjoyable.
With Evans unwilling to commit to sequels, any further Adventures might’ve been rendered unwatchable with the wrong lead. Luckily, Christopher Neil – charged with playing the everyday hero for the remainder of the series – makes a decent stab of things. Like a young Hywel Bennett blessed with the some of Robin Askwith’s haplessness, he’s often awkward without being too much of a clown. His first romp, Adventures of A Private Eye (1977) is actually the best of the Adventures thanks to a plot that’s a really fun farce. It’s so loaded with old fashioned comedy fun (that’s fun, as opposed to things that might be funny) that any attempt at titillation actually gets in the way. A country house, a blackmail plot, some saucy photos, a corpse in an old oak chest, a creepy butler – it’s all here in fine clichéd form, and it’s down to the clumsy Bob West to put everything right inside of a tightly packed ninety minutes. A hard job indeed when pestered by policemen, kinky housewives and Pogo Patterson from Grange Hill.
In terms of performances, the film doesn’t skimp on some great scenery chewing either. It at first seems as if the gawky Veronica Doran will supply the best performance as an oddball secretary, but attentions are soon drawn by Anna Quayle as a heavy-handed psychic, complete with Ziggy Stardust-esque hair. Despite these larger than life screen presences, the honour of stealing the entire film goes to Adrienne Posta who turns in a fabulously over the top Liza Minelli pastiche that’s almost wasted on the material she’s given. Not to give too much more away, but with Harry H. Corbett, Ian Lavender, Jon Pertwee, Fred Emney, William Rushton, Irene Handl and a cracking theme tune (written by musician and future Marillion producer Chris Neil himself) added to the mix, this is the Ben-Hur of British sex comedies.
Neil may well have helped to take Private Eye to a dubious greatness, but neither he, Stanley Long, or various returning actors summon the same enthusiasm for 1978’s Adventures of A Plumber’s Mate. The final instalment seems a little too formulaic with heavy handed villains, a lot of threatening behaviour (all of which is far too grim for a supposed comedy), and a ludicrous plot about a gold toilet seat. As if to try and compensate for all of its terribleness, the full frontal nudity is increased.
The increase in uncovered women doesn’t cover up an awful story, or make up for the fact that Leon Greene, Jerold Wells and Arthur Mullard just aren’t as entertaining as Pertwee, Doran and Posta. Nevertheless, fans of ‘70s comedy will be pleased to see Christopher Biggins (then famous for I, Claudius, Poldark and a recurring role in Porridge) and Please Sir!’s Peter Cleall among the cast, and Cleall’s presence is definitely the highlight. Much has been said about Elaine Paige’s appearance as Susie the barmaid, so it isn’t worth covering again here, but for those approaching this film and its history for the first time, the supposed controversy surrounding her role is discussed in this set’s excellent accompanying booklet.
Adventures of a Plumber’s Mate might well be terrible, but you’re not necessarily buying this “sex comedy threesome” just for the films, of course, and its with the bonus materials that Indicator comes up trumps yet again. There is a bounty of supplemental features here, ranging from the merely good to the absolutely essential.
The commentary for Adventures of A Taxi Driver is incredibly wordy; there are relatively few silences, and Stanley’s anecdotes are purposeful and focused. He talks openly about filming on location without permission; tells amusing anecdotes about the cast – one of which inspired a key scene in the film itself – and remembers the problems that occur when directing a python. It’s impressive how positive he is. Aside from a couple of disparaging remarks about the young actor Marc Harrison (Poldark, The Onedin Line, HTV’s Sky), he rarely has anything bad to say. From a listener’s perspective, it creates an audio experience that’s absolutely joyous.
The commentaries for Adventures of A Private Eye and Plumber’s Mate aren’t as solid, but in the case of the former, there’s a few thoughts worth hearing regarding the film’s casting and filming on location. Those who’ve already seen Private Eye often will definitely find interest in Long’s opinions on working with Diana Dors and Anna Quayle, and filming on location. It’s very strange that he’s scathing of child actor Peter Moran, when Peter actually delivers the greatest (unexpected) one-liner of all three films. It’s also obvious that Long’s memory is occasionally fallible, as he mistakes Robin Stewart for Richard O’Sullivan in Man About The House, and also calls the sitcom ‘Three For All’. Comedy film buffs will be aware that the actual Three For All was a British comedy film shot just before Private Eye, starring Christopher Neil alongside Adrienne Posta, her then partner Graham Bonnet, Robert Lindsay (who subsequently appeared in Adventures of A Taxi Driver and turned down the lead in Private Eye) and his then wife Cheryl Hall. It would provide welcome viewing for any fans of the Adventures films but, at as of March 2022, it hasn’t been given a DVD or Blu-ray release.
It’s interesting that Long sounds tired and even disinterested during the commentary for Plumber’s Mate. This makes for an experience that’s often flatter than the film itself. Between long silences and fairly generic observations, there are occasional flashes of interest, though, including how William Rushton ended up making a return to the Adventures series after appearing in Private Eye, and a mention of an abandoned script. Long also sounds chirpy when his favourite actress Prudence Drage is on screen, and seems genuinely thrilled by Jan Manthey’s sex comedy homages (found elsewhere among the many extras), but, in the main, it’s a massive shift from the Taxi Driver commentary, despite being recorded at a similar time.
For those hoping to take an even deeper dive into Long’s work, an extensive audio interview with the man himself (recorded in 1999) covers a huge amount of ground. In three ninety-minute instalments, listeners are able to devour a complete personal history, beginning with Stanley talking at length about his early jobs, remembering his time in the services, and eventually becoming a professional photographer. It’s almost an hour before he even gets onto the subject of actually making films, but his reminisces of working for exploitation man Arnold Miller are remarkably sharp considering the passing years.
It’s good to hear a few tales regarding the start-up of his own film distribution company, the making of It Could Happen To You (1976) and Eskimo Nell, and work on Bread (1970). His long rambles cover also various topics including local councils and censorship, a Dutch porn festival, and the lack of good television in the late ‘90s. No matter how many deviations the conversation takes, it’s constantly entertaining. Naturally, Long gives mention of the Adventures films along the way, but any discussion of the films feels limited compared to the three separate commentaries featured elsewhere. Overall, the opportunity to hear him talk so broadly and enthusiastically is not to be missed, and this huge, sprawling piece of audio is undoubtedly this box set’s crowning glory.
Lovers of cult cinema will certainly enjoy a short interview with director of photography Peter Sinclair, who talks in a very open and friendly way about his involvement on the Adventures trilogy. Insight is given into how filming took place inside an actual taxi for the first film, along with a couple of other key points, and it’s obvious that Peter has nothing but love and respect for Long. He also holds Pete Walker in similarly high regard, and also shares tales about working on Madonna videos in the 80s. There’s no mention of his work on the lesser seen video for XTC’s Wonderland, but in terms of a friendly career recap, it’s a lovely featurette. Interviews with Long’s biographer Simon Sheridan and actress Prudence Drage lend more very friendly, personable chatter, but the most fun bonus is supplied by the short Can You Keep It Up, With This That & The Other For A Week starring Jan Manthey, the BFI’s Vic Pratt, and assorted friends. They absolutely nail the feel and tone of the ’70s sex comedy, right down to a perfect theme song. It’d take a very hard heart not to love this tongue in cheek homage.
The extras might have been improved further by the addition of something contemporary from Christopher Neil (fans will have to make do with an old magazine interview from ’77). However, as the (already exhaustive) bonus features stand, it’s safe to say they present a great balance between entertaining and informative, with more than enough to satisfy most interested buyers.
The source material has upscaled to Blu-ray quite well and although there’s some visible grain, the films look fine, and the original mono soundtracks sound bright and without too much distortion. It would be a stretch to call the audio and visual aspects perfect, but the Adventures are unlikely to look and sound better than they do here, and the copious extras are more than enough to justify the upgrade from the much earlier DVD releases.
When this collection was announced in January ’22, several eyebrows were raised and a lot of people seemed… displeased. True enough, it didn’t seem in keeping with Indicator’s usual style, but the doubters should’ve trusted that Sam Dunn and his associates knew what they were doing since this is a brilliant set. Whatever you feel about the films themselves – whether you choose to be appalled by the rampant sexism, repulsed by the lecherous and predatory behaviours (from men and women alike), or even perversely amused by some of the most heavy handed setups to ever exist in the name of farce – fans of bawdy ‘70s comedy should definitely take the opportunity to revisit these titles together with the copious bonus materials. The whole is far better than the sum of the (private) parts, resulting an interesting and offbeat addition to the Indicator catalogue. Don’t consider this a guilty pleasure – consider it an interesting but flawed slice of cult film history.
❉ ‘Stanley Long’s Adventures: A Seventies Sex Comedy Threesome’ (Indicator Series Limited Edition Blu-ray Box Set) released via Indicator Series, 25 April 2022, BBFC cert: 18. RRP £32.99. Click HERE to pre-order from Powerhouse Films/Lime Wood Media Ltd.
❉ Lee Realgone has been a keen viewer of cult cinema for decades. He spends a lot of time watching Blu-rays from Indicator and Arrow. At other times, he does pretty much everything at the music website Real Gone.
❉ Find REAL GONE on Twitter at @realgonerocks. Like REAL GONE on Facebook at www.facebook.com/realgonerocks
Leave a Reply