Remember when Zombieland came out a couple of years ago and all anyone could talk about was the “surprise” Bill Murray cameo in the film? The erstwhile Venkman’s presence dominated discussion of the movie at the time and gave its producers a thoroughly viable marketing hook.
Few movie-makers nowadays rely on “name” appearances to drum up headlines or box-office receipts, but the practice of propping up films with star cameos was very much alive in Britain back in the 70s, heyday of the British sex comedy.
As odd as it sounds, producers of saucy post-Carry On movies like What’s up, Superdoc? and Intimate Games managed to rope in a galaxy of stars familiar to British audiences, usually from popular TV sitcoms.
In his autobiography, sexploitation director Stanley Long admits that most of the TV personalities hauled in were nearing the end of their careers, but makes the point that a few celebrity names on the film’s poster was a guaranteed way of getting punters into cinemas.
And so, in a backhanded tribute to these stars of British stage and screen who went slumming in the 70s, I thought it might be fun to list a few of ’em and see what they got up to in the world of bouncing bums and creaking puns: the arena of the sex comedy.
Name: Jon Pertwee
Best known for: Doctor Who (he was the third Doctor)
Sexploitation movie(s) appeared in: Adventures of a Private Eye
Role: Judd Blake
Rough screentime: Couple of minutes
Quite honestly, the sight of the former Doctor reclining shirtless, smoking a cigarette and having his nipples rubbed through a veritable pelt of white chest hair by a young dolly bird, his navy tattoos on proud display, was a bit of a shock to a boy like me, raised on Day of the Daleks. Pertwee seems in his element, though, reclining with sultan-like calm to earn his one-day fee.
Name: Joanna Lumley
Best known for: Being something of a national treasure, Ab Fab, The New Avengers and political activism
Sexploitation movie(s) appeared in: Games that Lovers Play
Role: Fanny Hill
Rough screentime: Lots – she’s the lead
Apparently quite embarrassed about this movie nowadays, the future Patsy Stone arguably got her big break in this cheery sex-com that pitted John Cleland’s Fanny Hill head to head with DH Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley in a “who’s got the best brothel” competition. What heady times the 70s must have been…
Name: Bernard Manning
Best known for: Stand-up comedy
Sexploitation movie(s) appeared in: The Great British Striptease (aka An Unbelievably Dirty Night Out with Bernard Manning) (1980)
Rough screentime: Lots
As Simon Sheridan points out in Keeping the British End Up, this was big Bernard’s sole foray into cinema. And what a piece of class it is. Bernard comperes a stag night in Blackpool with Su Pollard as his mute sidekick, doling out an interminable stream of racist gags, while a parade of disinterested strippers wiggle for the club’s punters. The fact that Bernard decided to conclude the film by celebrating with a striptease of his own is reason enough that it shouldn’t reappear on DVD.
Name: Irene Handl
Best known for: Numerous TV and film roles, bestselling novels
Sexploitation movie(s) appeared in: Come Play with Me, Stand Up Virgin Soldiers, Adventures of a Private Eye
Roles: Lady Bovington, Mrs Phillimore, Miss Friggin
Rough screentime: A few scenes in each one
Poor Irene Handl was horrified to discover that the ramshackle “comedy” she’d been hired to film, Come Play with Me, was going to have hardcore porn inserted into it after shooting had wrapped, wailing, “I fear we’ve been deceived” to the nation’s press. The film went on to play in London for years and became one of the highest-grossing British movies of all time, which must’ve mortified the poor dear. Mind you, with credits in a few other saucy laugh-fests in the decade, one wonders how spice-averse ol’ Irene really was…
Name: Harry H Corbett
Best known for: Steptoe and Son
Sexploitation movie(s) appeared in: What’s Up Superdoc?, Hardcore, Adventures of a Private Eye, Percy’s Progress
Roles: Goodwin, Art, Sydney, Prime Minister
Rough screentime: Plenty
Harry H Corbett apparently wanted to break away from the character Harold Steptoe, who he played in the massively popular BBC comedy series Steptoe and Son, and immersed himself in film work in an attempt to prove that he was capable of more than bawling “you dirty old man” again and again. Alas, none of the films he featured in set the world alight, though his role as the prime minister in Percy’s Progress was an inspired piece of casting that the aspirational Harold would surely have approved of.
Name: Liz Fraser
Best known for: Hancock’s Half Hour/Carry On series
Sexploitation movie(s) appeared in: Confessions of a Driving Instructor, Adventures of a Taxi Driver, Under the Doctor, Confessions from a Holiday Camp, Adventures of a Private Eye, Rosie Dixon – Night Nurse
Roles: Many, many
Rough screentime: Tons
The veteran blonde bombshell carved out quite a niche for her latter-day movie career, appearing in a whole raft of sexploitation movies, playing everything from oddly made-up southern belles to taxi-hopping prostitutes and making up for all the glamour she was denied during her stints around Railway Cuttings on Hancock’s Half Hour in the late 50s.
Name: Stephen Lewis
Best known for: Playing Blakey in On the Buses
Sexploitation movie(s) appeared in: Adventures of a Taxi Driver, Adventures of a Plumber’s Mate
Role: Doorman (in Taxi), BA Crapper (in Plumber’s Mate)
Rough screentime: Three or four scenes
It’s Plumber’s Mate I’m talking about here, and Stephen Lewis is back in full Blakey mode, Hitler tache under his nose and cheeks puffing wildly. To all intents and purposes he’s just reprising his On the Buses role, though he does manage to end the film on a new low, having a superpowered toilet cleaning hose rammed up his backside. The glamour, eh?
Name: Arthur Askey
Best known for: Radio, TV, film and stage comedy from the 1930s onwards
Sexploitation movie(s) appeared in: Rosie Dixon – Night Nurse
Roles: Mr Arkwright
Rough screentime: Brief
A sorry end to a truly noteworthy career, Askey’s last film role – in this cheeky romp by Confessions author Christopher Wood – finds the legendary comic reduced to hamming it up as a sub-Wilfrid Brambell grubby old man. The sight of him rolling around in an electric wheelchair, pinching bums and leering his way through his final performance as a hospital patient is almost painful, not to mention somewhat ironic considering Askey had both legs amputated shortly after the film was made.
Of course, these are only a few surprising names that crop up in 70s sex comedies. Ian Lavender, Bill Pertwee, Brian Wilde, Patricia Hodge…the list is virtually endless. And thank god, because celeb-spotting in these things is half the fun of watching or researching them. The only question now is why there’s never been a modern-day sex-com parody, perhaps featuring Tony Robinson playing a Baldrick knock-off, Richard Wilson being tempted into announcing his disbelief or Ardal O’Hanlon as a nice-but-thick vicar. Any producers reading, feel free to nick the idea. But I want a cut…