ROOM 37 @ THE NICE ROOMS presents
"Respectable - The Mary Millington Story"
An Interview with Simon Sheridan
Date of Article: 25th September 2016
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Simon Sheridan is a Bristol-based writer, filmmaker and broadcaster who has worked extensively for the BBC, Sky, Channel 4 and Five, as well as channels in Canada and the USA. He has written seven books on popular culture including Come Play with Me – The Life and Films of Mary Millington (1999), The A to Z of Classic Children’s Television (2004), X-Rated: Adventures of an Exploitation Filmmaker (2006) and Keeping the British End Up – Four Decades of Saucy Cinema (2011).
In April 2016 Simon’s début film (which he wrote, directed and produced) entitled Respectable – The Mary Millington Story opened in London’s West End, and is now available exclusively on Netflix in the UK, US, Canada, Australia and New Zealand. Shot at Pinewood Studios, the movie has been described as “a fascinating documentary” (The Independent), “beautifully made and very revealing” (London Evening Standard) and “genuinely compelling” (BBC Radio London). The film was also Kim Newman’s ‘Pick of the Month’ in Empire magazine.
Simon, welcome to The Nice Rooms. Where do I start? Writer, broadcaster, film maker and a man whose encyclopedic knowledge ranges from home grown X-Rated cinema to Abba and Kylie Monogue via the A-Z of classic children's TV. As we're focusing on Mary Millington, how about I start with the question: Why the fascination with the kinkier aspects of 1970s' British Culture?
Well, I'm a child of the 1970s, so that era particularly resonates with me. I've been many asked many times before where my interest in X-rated films come from - and I can only think that it dates back to seeing very colourful, and garish, sex film posters outside my local ABC cinema in Gloucester. Films like Confessions of a Driving Instructor, or Come Play with Me, played all the mainstream cinemas and I recall staring open-mouthed at the saucy posters and thinking to myself that 'X-rated' meant something very rude indeed, but not really knowing exactly what! That interest developed at full-pelt through my adolescence. I loved the irony of people like Harry H Corbett, Diana Dors and Jon Pertwee appearing on 'family' programmes on TV, whilst at the same time having roles in soft-porn movies. I still think that's fascinating. When I went to university in Bristol in the 1990s I ended up writing my thesis on British sex films. The rest is history, I think...
I'm interested in what you mentioned there about the posters advertising the film. They played such an important role in the marketing of the film in the seventies didn't they? The X certificate symbol on the poster just added to the overall intrigue and mystery.
Back in the 1990s, I knew the legendary Tom Chantrell (pictured). He was Britain's most prolific commercial artist of the post-war era, and he was responsible for painting hundreds of cinema posters, including some Hammer Horror stuff, a couple of Carry Ons and the vast majority of X-rated British sex films. One of his most famous and enduring images was the painting of Mary Millington on the Come Play with Me poster from 1977. It is a beautiful piece of work and was unquestionably London's most visible cinema poster in the West End for many years. He once told me that looking at the cinema poster was more entertaining than watching the actual film!
Mary Millington's story is a poignant and sad one. An English model and pornographic actress, she was bullied at school, cared for her terminally ill mother, battled drugs and depression and committed suicide at a young age..
Well, I think Mary was actually bullied by her teachers more than the other children. She certainly hated school. She was considered stupid by her tutors, which must've been very demoralising. And yet she became the most successful British porn star of all time, even more remarkable in an era when doing porn was totally rejected by the vast majority of British society. She really was a pioneer and a free-thinker. I take my hat off to Mary. She was an inspirational woman, and totally unique. It's just tragic - and utterly unforgivable - that she lost her life at such a young age. Her story is so poignant and affecting; it has stayed with me virtually all my life. I never met Mary, of course, but genuinely not a day goes past when I don't think about her.
A photographer spotted me and asked to take my picture which I found was highly amusing because nobody in the world would want a 4’11” model. I said, I wish you luck in selling the photos, but he sold them which amazed me and booked me again and again. Then I started doing the ‘rounds’ of magazines. I could only do nude modelling because I was so small!
Mary took on the Government, didn't she, for the right to buy, sell and view pornography?
Yes, she did. Mary's view was that why couldn't British people legally buy hardcore pornography, when it was freely available in most European countries? It just didn't make sense in the 1970s. Mary wanted British people to have the choice, but the authorities and police put obstacles in her path at every turn. She was vehemently anti-Establishment and despised 'anti-filth' campaigners like Mary Whitehouse, who in many ways was her nemesis. Whitehouse was a ghastly self-publicist who genuinely thought she was speaking for the vast majority of British people, because she was a family-orientated Christian do-gooder. She was such a narrow-minded, intensely patronising old bag, but she had the ear of so many MPs, and that's the tragedy of it. Mary Millington was considered 'dangerous' by the authorities because she openly proffered an opinion so at odds with government and police policy. Mary was continually persecuted for her beliefs; a pretty 4'11" tall blonde, who just wanted people to enjoy sex. The authorities broke her spirit, and that still makes me feel very angry.
How long has the film Respectable - The Mary Millington Story been in the planning stages?
I'd always wanted to make a film about Mary. In fact, I've been approached by a few producers over the years, both in the UK and US. I recall one guy in America wanted Reese Witherspoon to play Mary in a drama! I mean, it was completely ridiculous. A very successful James Bond director also approached me about 10 years ago, but for various reasons that didn't happen. Then a few years back I was offered the chance to make a documentary about her life. The title 'Respectable' was my idea, and after a bit of a false start I ended up writing, directing and producing the whole thing - a totally new experience for me, but totally exhausting. A lot of it was filmed at Pinewood Studios, which was fantastic. There I was shooting my little £250k-budgeted documentary right next door to Star Wars: The Force Awakens! I shan't ever forget how thrilling that was.
As I speak to you now, I note the film is returning to London's West End on 27th September (2016)
Yes, well, Respectable actually opened in the West End on 7 April at the beautiful art deco Regent Street Cinema and has played a few dates around the UK, but I'm very happy that it's returning to London, this time at the Prince Charles Cinema off Leicester Square. It's wonderful that so many people have got behind the film and want to see it. It's been on Netflix in the UK, US, Canada, New Zealand and Australia since April and getting positive responses from all over the world has been very heartening indeed.
Respectable - The Mary Millington Story Trailer (Run time: 30 seconds)
Is Respectable out on DVD?
People can watch Respectable on Netflix right now, but, yes, there's also a DVD available with extra content on it. I made a couple of short featurettes about Come Play with Me actress Sue Longhurst, actor Ed Tudor-Pole, and Mary's ex-boyfriend David Sullivan. It was fun putting it all together because we had so much material we weren't able to include on the main film. I think we had something like 42 hours worth of extra material and archive stuff, which was pretty overwhelming. Maybe one day I'll do a director's cut! You can order Respectable now from Amazon.
And it's thanks to yourself that there is now a memorial to Mary Millington by way of a blue plaque..
For a very long time I've wanted a permanent memorial to Mary in Soho, and to celebrate the longevity of Come Play with Me, her 1977 movie, which holds the record for longest-running British film of all time. We thought a blue plaque was probably the best idea, so I negotiated with the owners of 42 Great Windmill Street, which is now a bar, but until 1990 was the Moulin Cinema - London's most famous sex cinema - where Come Play with Me enjoyed its record-breaking run. It ran for 201 continuous weeks, which is no mean feat! No film, before or since, has ever done that.
What was English Heritage's response?
I'm glad you bring that up, because I'd like to clear up a misconception about Mary's plaque. As you can imagine getting a plaque erected in London's West End is not an easy task. I had to get Westminster City Council on board, plus Soho Estates who own the building to which it is attached. They both agreed without hesitation, but there were a lot of emails, phone-calls and paperwork. Over many months, I had a lengthy dialogue with my contact at English Heritage, who advised me on wording and the manufacture of the plaque, and they were totally supportive of what I was trying to do. One or two bitchy, and uniformed, critics claimed it wasn't an 'official' blue plaque. Let me tell you, English Heritage do not own the copyright to blue plaques; anybody can erect one. The first plaque was erected in London in 1867, over a hundred years before English Heritage even existed. When Mary's plaque was unveiled, The Sun newspaper erroneously claimed that it was "an English Heritage plaque", so it caused a bit of a fuss with traditionalists. But ironically, it was great publicity for Respectable, as the story went viral. Daily Mail readers were frothing at the mouth about the indignity of it. Mary would've really loved pissing them off! I am massively proud of getting a permanent memorial celebrating Britain's most famous porn star erected right in the centre of London. If people don't like that, well, then they're as bad as Mary Whitehouse.
I’ve had lots of obscene phone-calls but I get them round to my way of thinking. When someone rings up and ask what colour knickers I’ve got on, I tell them I’ve got a sex shop and if you want to visit me you can discuss it in person, rather than over the phone. And they talk to me and ask what hours the shop is open and they forget it was an obscene phone-call to start with!
The authorities continually raided her sex shop and Mary repeatedly complained of police threats and harassment. After the death of her beloved mother, Mary sank into depression which manifested itself in kleptomania and mild drug abuse. After being arrested for shoplifting at a jeweller’s shop on 18 August 1979, the police informed her that it was highly likely that she would be sent to the notorious Holloway jail. A court appearance for an earlier offence had already been set for the following Tuesday.
Her husband Bob, collected an exhausted Mary from Banstead police station and took her back to their beautiful home in Walton-on-the-Hill, Surrey. A row ensued and Mary retired to her bedroom (for some considerable time the couple had been sleeping in separate rooms). Later that evening Mary made a series of desperate phone-calls, including one to her old ‘friend’, the publicist John M. East, who dismissed her very genuine worries as paranoia. Mary rang off abruptly and on the morning of 19 August her estranged husband, allegedly, found her dead in bed. The cause of death was a cocktail of paracetamol and vodka. In a rambling, and poignant, note to David Sullivan she wrote: ‘The police have framed me yet again. They frighten me so much. I can’t face the thought of prison.’
Mary was just 33 years old.
Simon, do you think she would have felt vindicated if she was alive today?
Pornography is ubiquitous nowadays, isn't it? Everybody can access it. Youngsters are looking it on their phones at school - it's never been more accessible and portable. I think Mary would've been astonished by that. It was so different 40 years ago when she was fighting for acceptance. Yes, I think she would feel vindicated now. If she were alive, she'd be 70 now - hard to believe. But she was proved right all along. There's nothing wrong with sex; everybody has the right to see pornography if that's their choice. Mary was Britain's first household-name porn star and a true pioneer. She displayed incredible strength and determination. She was a true Great Briton, and I salute her.
What's next for Simon Sheridan?
I've just started pre-production on a new documentary, which I hope will happen next year. It's another story entrenched in Britain in the 1970s with some sex and drugs, so there's some similar threads to Mary's tale. It's also a story that's never been told before, so I'm quite excited about that. Plus I've been asked to write a TV drama, so that's something to look forward to as well. It's nice to be kept busy!
SS / gR 2016