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Rock and rollers: Britain’s other, seedier film history

Short, amateur porn movies aren’t preserved in respectable archives. Perhaps they should be
March 1, 2023

Oliver Carter was  barely a teenager in 1994 when he realised that the tapes of “the latest Mike Tyson fight” his dad’s barber used to hawk contained hardcore porn rather than boxing highlights. Where there’s muck there’s brass: soon he was scouring the classified adverts section of Video World, sending off for titles such as An American Buttman in London, which he duplicated and sold at a profit to his schoolfriends. The internet spelt the end for his enterprise, but he never lost his interest in what he calls “pariah capitalism”. Now an academic at Birmingham City University, he’s just published Under the Counter, a riveting account of the making and selling of British hardcore films between 1960 and 1980. 

“Porn is the archive’s dirty secret,” Carter tells me. “A lot of archives don’t know what they have—or whether they should even have it.” The British Film Institute doesn’t hold any “rollers” (known outside the UK as “stags” or “loops”). Perhaps that’s no surprise—not only did individual rollers last barely 12 minutes, but they were illegal, often made by non-professionals, printed in amateur or semi-professional labs and produced in small runs. Collectively, they’re important documents of the dream life of postwar Britain. For Carter, who has tracked down more than a thousand titles (among them Kinky Les, Couch Vibe and Carpet Layer), they represent “a forgotten film history that no one’s ever talked or thought about.”

The real drama of roller films happened off screen. Under the Counter teems with misfits, chancers, oddballs. Tom Fletcher, the owner of a Soho “bookshop” selling “Soho Bibles” (aka, rollers), and described as a “bohemian character with shoulder-length hair and a Gauloise cigarette permanently drooping from the left corner of his mouth”; John Lindsay, a former student at the Glasgow School of Art, later a photojournalist, director of Jolly Hockey Sticks, and a blue movie “freedom fighter” who claimed, “I risk my freedom to give YOU the right to buy them”; David Sullivan, now chairman of West Ham United, who bought old softcore magazines and repackaged them with new covers to hoodwink customers into thinking they were hardcore.

Getting rollers out into the world was a tricky business. Some producers added innocuous footage at the start and end of their films to reduce the risk of being rumbled by processing labs. Rollers from Denmark were concealed in lorries carrying bacon. One distributor, Carter learnt, not only used a list of off-radar landing zones, but “would have films dropped in the ocean where they’d be collected by boats. It’s the kind of thing you’d expect to see in Miami Vice!”

Rollers were not the preserve of sex shops in red-light districts. They were screened above pubs, in working men’s clubs, after hours in car factories. Officers from the Scotland Yard Obscene Publication Squad would settle down with beers and watch them together on Friday nights. There was even a Cotswold travelling film show. The judge who sentenced its two organisers harrumphed, “How two men with your background and previous good character could descend into this morass of filth which you have been propagating in this part of England I don’t know.”

For me, the heart of Under the Counter lies in its account of the Watford Blue Movie Trial in 1974. Police investigating the producer Anthony Collingbourne tracked down performers in his films who were living together in a commune that doubled as a studio. Eleven arrests were made. At the time, it was the longest obscenity trial in British history. A solicitor’s clerk climbed onto the court’s roof and threatened to set off a cylinder of laughing gas in the ventilation system. Four defendants married each other. One performer told the press that the trial was more degrading than the films. Bathos, squalor, comedy, the state versus cultural “subversion”… it’s all here.

Hardcore pornography was decriminalised in 2000. Most of those involved with it are untraceable or have died. Celluloid has been replaced by digital, clandestine screening rooms by smartphones. Power is in the hands not of male producers but, increasingly, of female “pornpreneur” performers. I ask Carter if he feels nostalgic for the old days. “Funnily enough, Lindsay Honey [better known as Ben Dover] told me he preferred it when hardcore was illegal. He told me, ‘I wish they would leave it to us people who were brave enough to make these films and risk getting in trouble with the law. There was more money to be made back then.’”