“A 4, Wanker, Times.”: Sex Under Cover.
The first job in a theatre that the actor Kenneth More had was in the Windmill Theatre in London. It was the 1930s and he started there as an Assistant Stage Manager. The Windmill was unusual for a London (and British) theatre in that it had women in its revue shows who revealed their bosoms. This was not the Folies Bergère of Paris, or the pre-1933 Berlin revues that had moving women – the Windmill’s theatrical licence strictly depended on the showgirls not moving. They were rigid on the stage in tableaux set pieces.
Part of Kenneth More’s job as the Assistant Stage Manager was to spot where potential trouble-makers were sitting. They would try by various means – sneezing loudly, for example – to make one of the semi-naked showgirls move, thus causing their breasts to move. This would cause a ripple of pleasure in the all male audience. Whilst many rippled in pleasure, other’s were self-pleasuring.
“We had a little peephole covered by a small piece of dark velvet. I would lift this velvet and look into the auditorium without anyone in the audience knowing I was doing so… Middle-aged men, usually wearing raincoats, would place the Evening News and The Times on their laps… and do the same thing when the tableaux was in progress… This sort of behaviour could be embarrassing to other members of the audience, and also might result in our licence being revoked if anyone complained to the police about it.
I was told to keep a lookout for these undesirable activities and I had a simple code with the front office when I spotted anything. I would pick up the house telephone and say: ‘A4, Wanker, Times. C17, Daily Mail.’
The commissionaire would then stride down the aisle to Seat A4, and then to C17, tap the man on the shoulder, and say, ‘The manager wishes to see you in his office.’
The commissionaire, an old soldier, was under strict instructions not to say ‘Stop wanking’, or some other more forthright comment, in case there had been a misunderstanding, or the client denied the charge. His defence could be, ‘I was just scratching myself’ but always the men concerned realised that they had been rumbled, buttoned up their flies and left quietly.”
– More or Less, Kenneth More, Hodder & Stoughton, 1978.
UK Sex Under Cover: 1950s and the early 1960s.
Obscenity Laws governed the display or mention of sex in Britain, whether on stage or in print or on film, and had done so since the 1857 Obscene Publications Act. Criminal obscenity was defined as “tending to deprave and corrupt”. Even in the early 1960s Customs & Excise could take off a returning visitor from the continent a pin up magazine bought at a French, German or Danish newsagents if it showed pubic hair. (Most likely the blokes at Customs & Excise were removing the magazine to prevent moral corruption so that they could have a good gander at the contents. And with a cough – “Ahem” – retire to the staff toilet for a quick one.)
One area of erotic interest for gents was the underwear garments section in the Littlewood’s and other Mail Order catalogues, which by the mid 1960s were reproduced in glorious colour. The section on outsize bras and the women modelling them was a well visited page. Incidentally, this mail order catalogue viewing activity was not confined to UK males starved of tit-illating viewing. There were outposts on the Continent as late as 2001.
In the film Amélie (2001) Collignon the greengrocer claims that his assistant Lucien has been sticking photos of the lately deceased “Lady Dee’s” head onto the shoulders of lingerie models in a mail order catalogue.
Another source of stimulation, this time the printed word, was the weekly magazine Exchange and Mart.
In the section selling cine film and cine film apparatus was a sub-heading where vendors advertised 8 mm films (including the now defunct and almost by then anachronistic French 9.5 mm cine film). Five or ten minute 8mm spools of cine film with suggestive titles such as Halfway Inn were offered, sent “Under Plain Cover”. An assistant bank manager in the London suburb of Gants Hill would probably be sweating blood with the thought of his career downfall, or marital shame if the packet arrived at the family home damaged in a peek-a-boo state so that the saucy title could be read. He’d then go from relief that the contents hadn’t burst out of their confines to fury when, in the back room he set up the projector (the wife gone on the London Underground Central Line for her weekly visit to her friend Maureen in Newbury Park), stared aghast at the images on the viewing screen, and then fury as he watched a five minute travelogue of the Malverns, that in a few shots lingered on a picturesque pub called the Halfway Inn.
Meanwhile, who knows, his wife – on the weekly pretence of visiting Maureen – (real name Maurice, president of the local amateur photography club and salesman in Bri-Nylon goods, including knickers) – was earning some pin money in a Newbury Park front room posing in her nylon “smalls” in front of a cold fireplace.
Other Sources of Titillation
If you lived in London a good source of printed ‘beyond suspicion’ titillation – and a safe respectable street to linger in whilst doing so – was the Charing Cross Road and the windows of the art and cinema book shops.
Titles in the above 1930s Charing Cross bookshop window include Curves & Contrast of the Human Form, Beauty’s Daughters and 28 Studies, 7/6. Not much had changed in Charing Cross art book shop windows in the late 1950s and early 1960s, except the prices. The common feature was an artificial line drawn between aesthetic appreciation (legitimate) and sexual appreciation (not at all legitimate, leading to moral corruption, blindness, nasty diseases, and, criminal court cases if it was a man’s love for a man).
Just off the Charing Cross Road was Soho, whose saucy reputation was a legend amongst men in the know throughout the British Isles. FA Cup finals at Wembley, rugby games at Twickenham and “chaps” down to see the Oxford – Cambridge boat race would, if they had time before the game or race, head in large groups to the fabled centre of sin. Kenneth More mentions this aspect in his More or Less. However the most erotic experience they would probably encounter in the late 1950s and early 1960s would be glimpsing at nude ladies with rigid permed hairdos and a disappointing erased vagina in British pin-up magazines such as Kamera.
But, and care was still needed, Soho was also home to a community of gay men and women, which included the artist Francis Bacon and the photographer John Deakin. Erotic imagery for homosexuals was even more coded – for men, male body building magazines was one source of sex under cover.
With all this Sex under Cover, contemporary readers – that is, 2018 readers born since say the ‘permissive’ 1970s – would perhaps imagine that sex, as practised, was like its depiction in British films spanning the 1930s to early 1960s period. True, the contraception pill, available in Britain from circa 1967, did mean there might have been more uninhabited “coupling” amongst heterosexuals without fear of pregnancy. The difference in the 1930s – 1960s period was that if an unmarried couple had been “doing it” and the woman became pregnant, they usually got married. The exception was the wartime circumstances of the Second World War where there was a marked increase in children born out of wedlock, often to departing Allied soldiers leaving British shores.
For swingers, their activity was not inhibited during the 1930s – 1960s period. One Scottish island had a post Second World War club that became known in island folklore as the “BBC” – the Bare Bottoms Club. The club was accidentally discovered by a village hall janitor when an external door into the village hall he thought was a bit stiff was wedged by a fornicating couple on the other side, whilst simultaneously other wife/husband combinations were also at it. Trades people and professional people were well represented in this island “BBC”.
An early 1960s work-mate of this writer detailed to him the pleasures to be had in the Union Jack Club in wartime Waterloo, London. The workmate was a regular soldier in the 1930s, mostly based in garrisons in India, and then drafted back to the UK to train up the new Second World War conscripts. With his bi-sexual drive, the Union Jack Club was a Mecca. One encounter he fondly remembered was a man and woman duo who swapped sexual roles, with him happily being piggy in the middle. “Oh, it was lovely” he said,”and what a shame for them. The guy really wanted to be a girl, and the girl really wanted to be a guy”.
Kenneth More, in his previously mentioned autobiography More or Less details how he lost his virginity in the early 1930s to a hormonally rampant nurse at her rented flat after a dance in Shrewsbury, a town where he was a young engineering apprentice. At the dance
I put my arm around her in a two-step and she pressed hard against me… At the end of the evening she mentioned casually that she shared a flat but her friend was away… would I care to go home with her?….
At the flat –
We undressed and climbed into a remarkably cold bed, the chill of which was speedily obliterated by her generous warmth. She instructed me in my part of the proceedings – or at least what she hoped my part would be. But my state of nervousness and excitement was such that it was all over before I really began.
There are three observations on this recollection by Kenneth More. 1. That he would not have written about this in his earlier autobiography Happy Go Lucky (1959). It was a sign of the times that he did in More or Less in 1978. And the sign of the times was legally ushered in by the unsuccessful 1960 Crown Prosecution of Penguin Publishers for their publishing the full version of DH Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover. 2. On the back of this unsuccessful Crown Prosecution, Henry Millers Tropic of Cancer was then published and contemporary authors in the UK and the US were more frank in mentioning, in writing about sexual behaviour, and publishers published. However in the world of film, British or American, it was to be several years after 1960 that films started to be equally frank, and in some sexual thematic areas over 30 years. 3. That the nurse’s hormonal biological imperative was not – in real life – untypical, but, as a theme, continues to be under-played in novels and films, as does the usually earlier age awakening of female sexual drive (when their menstruation starts) compared to boys. It was a curious and un-erotic experience for this writer in 1958 to have a girl take his hand and place it on her blouse/pullovered school breast and rythmatically squash his hand over it.
In the pre-1970s, most nice boys thought that “Sex” was something that boys did to girls, and it was usually nasty boys who did it to girls. There was no awareness that girls liked sex too. And anyway, any girls who did like sex were written off as Bad Girls, and this was clearly inferred in films that started to touch – even fleetingly – on this aspect from the late 1950s onwards.
The prosecution of Penguins by the Crown for publishing Lady Chatterley’s Lover was thrown out by the jury on 2 November, 1960, having been asked in the opening statement by the Prosecuting Counsel – Mervyn Griffith-Jones- if it was a book they would wish their wife or servants to read. The answer was obviously yes (did servants include Buckingham Palace staff ?) and so did large swathes of the British public who’d never read or heard of DH Lawrence. (1)
Between then and 1963 four British films that touched on sexual behaviour were released that Mervyn Griffith-Jones might not have wished his wife or his servants to see:
Saturday Night & Sunday Morning, general release early 1961; Victim, 1961; Greengage Summer 1961 and The Comedy Man 1963.
With the exception of the “A” certificate Greengage Summer, the other films were”X” certificated – which in those days “X” = seX. The British Board of Film Censors was a timid self-censoring Trade Body established in 1912, and down the years had had an informal and comfortable relationship with the British Governments of the day. During the 1950 – 1964 period the British Board of Film censors ratings were “U” – suitable for everyone, “A” – children must be accompanied by an adult and “X” – sixteen and over.
However, even they were aware the times were changing, particularly on the back of the Lady Chatterley trial, and a film like Saturday Night and Sunday Morning, based on the already published novel by Alan Sillitoe would be difficult to refuse a film certificate without making them look silly.
The film dealt openly with an extra-marital affair, but what was the real salt and pepper was the explicit mention of abortion and the strap of Rachel Robert’s slip on her naked shoulder as she and bachelor Albert Finney share her marital bed. In 1961 it was the third most popular film at the British box office. The Guns of Navarone with Gregory Peck and Anthony Quinn was the most popular.
In 1961, the same year that Saturday Night and Sunday Morning went on general release the ground-breaking film Victim, that dealt with blackmail of male homosexuals was released. It was the first ever English language film in the world that the word “homosexual” was uttered for the first time.
And then in the same year 1961, along came The Greengage Summer. At first sight, with jolly breezy, dependable Kenneth More it might not seem like a groundbreaking film, so much so that aspects of it slipped under the British Film censors prurient nose and they gave it an “A” and not “X” certificate. But it was probably the first film in the world to acknowledge a woman – in fact a 16 year old girl, Joss – was having a period. And on top of that her young brother Wilmouse makes dresses for dolls. And if that’s not enough we have dependable Kenneth More – the sort of dependable chap you could leave your teenage daughter with – finding himself getting the hots for the 16 year old Joss.
Joss herself is not unaware of her power of attraction to men, like many girls who have started their puberty. (Interestingly the England & Wales Age of Marriage Act 1929 defined the legal age of puberty for boys as 14, but for girls it was defined as 12.).
And then add the jealousy of the hotel owner Madam Zisi (Danielle Darrieux) who quickly realises that Joss’ hormones are lighting up her lovers hormones – the same Kenneth More. But why stop there, let’s keep going: the hotel manager Madam Corbet has a homosexual attachment to Zisi, which Zisi is aware of. And it is ambiguous whether Zisi and Madam Corbet were lovers or still are lovers. Meanwhile, with Joss’s sexual hormones ricocheting off the hotel walls, the porter-cum kitchen hand is also lusting after her. Imagine this film made by Luis Buñuel with Spanish sub-titles. The British censor would slap an X certificate on it as quick as you could say “Foreign Filth”.
It is a very deft scene where it is revealed that Joss is having her period, and period pains, and is under the weather. It is the first day after they arrived at the hotel the night before, and her sister Hester (played by a young Jane Asher) and her little brother have come into her bedroom to ask why she’s not up as it is such a lovely morning. She says she is ill. Her little brother frowns to which she responds “I’m not ill like Mummy”. In a tight close up on younger sister Hester, excluding the brother in the frame she asks, significantly “Is it…?” Also in a tight close up, her little brother not in frame, Joss nods meaningfully.
Kenneth More had the lead role in the downbeat The Comedy Man 1963. Nudity between male and female went way further in this film than in Saturday Night and Sunday Morning. More plays an actor having a mid-life career and mid-life relationship crisis. Early on in the film he and his ex-lover Billie Whitelaw are physically intimate in a fairly extended bed scene.
Dennis Price, who was also in Victim, plays a lecherous heterosexual agent. In his private, non-acting life Dennis was homosexual. And it is in The Comedy Man that we see for the first time ever, that this writer is aware of, two homosexual men dancing together.
The Comedy Man was finished in May 1963, but Rank, the distributors, were at a loss as to what to do with it, and it didn’t get released until 1964. Along with The Greengage Summer it was Kenneth More’s favourite film.
Homosexual practice was still a criminal offence when the film was made. There were various charges that could be brought, including “Lewd behaviour”. In England and Wales the Sexual Offences Act 1967 decriminalised homosexual acts in private between consenting men over the age of 21. It wasn’t until 1980 that a similar act was passed for Scotland; 1982 in Northern Ireland and 1993 in the Republic of Ireland.
By coincidence, when the film The Comedy Man starring Kenneth More was finally released in 1964, the Windmill Theatre in Great Windmill Street closed its doors and then re-opened as the Windmill Cinema.
And life imitated art for Kenneth More. In The Greengage Summer he is strongly attracted to a girl who is 21 years his junior; in The Comedy Man a source of discord between his contemporary Billie Whitelaw and himself is that she tires of him never wanting to grow up and always wanting to be 25. In the film a 21 year old would-be actress parks herself on him. Her film name was “Shrimp”. At the end of The Comedy Man he leaves Shrimp, and his mostly out-of-work London actor friends and takes a taxi for Kings Cross station and a ticket to the north, to try and get back into repertory theatre, leaving behind the empty experience of being a successful TV advertisement personality selling a mouth freshener.
In real life Kenneth More left his second wife who he had married in 1952 for “Shrimp”, actress Angela Douglas. They got married in 1968. She was 26 years younger than More. They remained married until his death from Parkinson’s disease in 1982, aged 67.
- Mervin Griffith-Jones was also the Prosecuting counsel in the 1963 trial of Stephen Ward at the time of the Profumo scandal.