Wednesday, 27 July 2016

Carry On Blogging Interview: Simon Sheridan


In the latest of my Carry On Blogging interviews, I caught up with the writer Simon Sheridan to ask him about some classic seventies British film. Amongst Simon's titles is the wonderful Keeping The British End Up which takes an entertaining and informative look at the saucier side of British film back in the day. 

I really enjoyed your book Keeping the British End Up. A lot of the films you featured were completely new to me. What was it like to work on that project?

Keeping the British End Up has been my favourite book I’ve ever written, and people really seem to enjoy it, and they keep writing to me about it. Alongside my book on Kylie Minogue it’s been my best-seller, so I’m very pleased for the kind comments I still receive. I won’t lie, it was a hard slog writing it – there were so many films to watch, archive materials to go through and people to interview. I recall, half-way through the project thinking to myself, how on earth was I ever going to finish it! But I did, and it’s run to four editions so far, so that’s wonderful. I got to watch some really obscure British sex comedy films like The Office Party (1976) and Under the Bed (1977), as well as more well-known movies like Come Play with Me (1977). Matthew Sweet called my book ‘the Wisden of British smut’, which was very funny. Jonathan Ross actually says Keeping the British End Up is his favourite book ever written about the British film industry. I’m very flattered by that!

You obviously love the slightly fruitier side to British film in the sixties and seventies. Where did that come from?
I just recall seeing the garish posters for movies like Adventures of a Plumber’s Mate and Confessions from the David Galaxy Affair outside my local cinema when I was very small boy at the end of the 1970s. Those images really stuck in my mind and, later, as a teenager, I became really fascinated by the life of actress Mary Millington, the biggest sex film star of the period. When I went to university I wrote my dissertation about the history of British sex films and the Carry Ons. It’s just evolved from there – writing books and now making my first movie. It’s a period of home-grown filmmaking I really love. There’s always something new to write about, and I’m very lucky to have become good friends with so many interesting people from that era – Pete Walker, Stanley Long, Ken Rowles, Michael Armstrong, Robin Askwith, Sue Longhurst, Francoise Pascal, Nicola Austine, David Sullivan and the family of Mary Millington.

Some believe the later Carry Ons went too far to keep up with changes in the film industry and British society. Do you agree?

Carry On Emmannuelle has such a bad reputation, doesn’t it, but by 1978 what else could Peter Rogers and Gerald Thomas actually do? They saw how the Confessions and Adventures films were demolishing all the competition at the box office and they had to respond to cinemagoers’ desire to see racier material. I don’t blame them in the slightest for trying to compete. I’ve always had a sneaky admiration for Carry On Emmannuelle, actually. Genuinely, it’s the Carry On I’ve watched more times than any other, because it absolutely fascinates me. I get the feeling Gerald Thomas felt very self-conscious directing it because it has a totally different tempo to his other comedies – it doesn’t quite work. I think it would’ve been far funnier if Barbara Windsor had played the lead character. It would’ve been hilarious to cast her as a French nymphomaniac! I met Gerald and Peter on the set of Carry On Columbus at Pinewood Studios in 1992, when I was still a student. They invited me to watch the filming, which was incredibly kind of them. Gerald was a very shy man, but a real gentleman – one of cinema’s unsung heroes.

One of the more interesting figures from British sex comedies in the late 1970s for me was Barry Evans. I think he was a really talented actor. What are your thoughts on him?

My friend, and mentor, Stanley Long directed Barry in 1975’s Adventures of a Taxi Driver, and knew him pretty well. He said that although Barry was best known for TV comedies like Doctor in the House and Mind Your Language, he really didn’t like being typecast in those knockabout roles. Barry really wanted to do Ibsen and Shakespeare, and be taken seriously. I think his youthful looks probably were a hindrance to him, because it meant he was denied much meatier roles. He was a great actor; you only need to see him dominate the screen in Clive Donner’s Here We Go Round the Mulberry Bush to see that. You know, nobody ever has a bad word to say about Barry. Everybody just loved him. I think that’s why the circumstances of his young death are all the more tragic.

The emphasis in many of those ‘X’-rated comedies from the 1970s was very much on the female characters. Do you think it would be the same story if these films were made today?

No, you just couldn’t get away with it now, because, of course, society has totally changed. I think filmmakers would still enjoy making those kind of movies if they had the chance, but they’d never get proper distribution nowadays. The world is s very different place now. I’m very interested to see how a new medical Carry On movie would work today. Will female doctors be lusting after scantily-clad male nurses? Only time will tell.

For those who don't know much about Mary Millington, how would you sum her up?

Mary Millington was Britain’s first household-name sex film star. She appeared in Europe’s best-selling 8mm porn film of the 1970s, called Miss Bohrloch, and then became the UK’s number one pin-up in hundreds of magazines and, later, big screen sex films. She was the very antithesis of Mary Whitehouse. Sadly, Mary died aged just 33 in 1979, but she has a unique place in British social history. Mary was a pioneer and a trailblazer and I have enormous respect for her. Her 1977 movie Come Play with Me is still Britain’s longest-running film of all time. It played continuously in the West End for nearly four years! Earlier this year we unveiled a blue plaque to Mary, and the film, in Great Windmill Street, Soho. We had support from Westminster City Council, Soho Estates and English Heritage, which I’m very grateful for. It was a very special moment for me and her family when we unveiled the plaque. Mary’s name is in Soho forever now. I’m hugely proud of that. 

And for those who are new to the naughtier side of British film making from that era, what would you recommend as a starting point?

Confessions of a Driving Instructor is probably the archetypal British sex comedy. It’s got all the essential elements – a great central performance from Robin Askwith, a really entertaining supporting cast, a tightly-constructed script full of visual gags, and some beautiful leading ladies, including Suzy Mandel and the legendary Liz Fraser, who has never looked sexier on screen, in my opinion. My other favourites would have to be 1978’s The Stud, which portrays London’s West End in all its hedonistic glory, plus Mary Millington’s film, The Playbirds, released the same year, is an absolute corker. It’s not a comedy, but The Playbirds has everything you’d ever want from a sexploitation film. It’s pretty much perfect, and the script affords Mary the most screen time she ever had in a movie.  There are so many others I enjoy, though – Ken Rowles’ eye-popping Take an Easy Ride (1976) is pretty visceral compared to its contemporaries, and Stanley Long’s excellent Eskimo Nell (1974) will provide you with a comedic, and pretty accurate, insight into what low-budget 70s’ filmmaking in England was really like. Michael Armstrong wrote the script for the latter, and it is absolutely bang-on!

You recently wrote, directed and produced your first film, Respectable - The Mary Millington Story at Pinewood. What was that experience like and how did it feel to be making your own film at Pinewood Studios?

Pinewood is an extraordinary place. On the outside it looks like a cluster of anonymous aircraft hangers, but you look behind the doors and you genuinely see magic being made. I was shooting scenes for my film - and doing all the post-production - in a tiny studio, right next door to Star Wars: The Force Awakens, which was quite a thrill. We’d have Stormtroopers walking past our door, and in my lunchbreaks I’d wander onto the Star Wars set and see the most astonishing things going on. And, at the time, I couldn’t tell anybody what I’d seen! Pinewood is rich with history and I’m very fortunate to have made my film there. To have made my first ever movie at Pinewood was certainly an experience I’ll never forget.

Can you tell me about any projects you have in the pipeline?

Actually I’ve just started pre-production on my next documentary. It’s not set in the ‘X’-rated world this time, although it is based in the 1970s, and there are definite overlaps with my previous project. It’ll be a quite a departure from Respectable – The Mary Millington Story, but there are parallels with Mary’s life. There is sex, showbiz, drama and unbelievable tragedy. All I’ll say it’s a story which has never ever been told before and it’s going to surprise a few people.

Finally, what's your favourite Carry On film?

Well, I’d say without a shadow of a doubt it’s got to be Carry On Behind. I love the contemporary Carry Ons far more than the ‘historicals’. Films like Loving, Abroad, Girls and Behind are so anchored to that particular period of early-1970s’ England – drinking beer, smoking fags, betting on horses, ogling pretty girls. I particularly love Carry On Behind, because, with the absence of Sid James, it really allows Kenneth Connor, Kenneth Williams and Peter Butterworth to shine. The scene where the sexually-frustrated Connor is trying to seduce Joan Sims, with the military music playing on the record player, is one of my all-time favourite scenes. It’s probably Connor’s best-ever performance. However, it’s Elke Sommer who gets the best dialogue. Her speech about "I am keeping a, how you say, dirty caravan. Therefore, I am going round camp looking for scrubbers,” makes me laugh every single time I hear it. I have the poster for Carry On Behind hanging in my hallway. My postman loves looking at it! It’s also one of the best British poster images of the era – the beautiful girl on the bike, flashing her knickers. In many ways that’s exactly what 1970s’ cinema was all about!

Simon’s book Keeping the British End Up: Four Decades of a Saucy Cinema (Titan Books) and his DVD Respectable – The Mary Millington Story (Simply Media) are both available now from

Additionally, Respectable is now showing on Netflix in the UK, US, Canada, Australia and New Zealand.

You can follow me on Twitter @CarryOnJoan and also Facebook

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