Bright Lights Film Journal

Book reviews: Keeping the British End Up, by Simon Sheridan & Hollywood’s Film Wars with France, by Jens Ulff-Møller

Keeping the British End Up: Four Decades of Saucy Cinema, by Simon Sheridan. London: Reynolds and Hearn, 2002. Trade paper. $24.95, 208pp. ISBN 1-90311-121-8.
For those not in the know, the phrase “Keeping the British end up” originated in the 007 movieThe Spy Who Loved Me (1977). At the end of the film when Roger Moore and Barbara Bach are getting it on in the pod unaware that they are being watched by M, Q, and General Gogol, the following exchange takes place:

Q: Really 007!
Gogol: Triple X!
M: Bond!! What on earth do you think you’re doing?
Bond: Keeping the British end up, sir!

As for “saucy,” well, it’s certainly not the kind of adjective anyone walking into the porn section of a video store today would use; nor in the fun, sleazy, B movie section in the U.S. (think Russ Meyer).

But it’s so perfectly British, and in a nutshell conveys what makes these films so special. In his opening to the book in a section entitled “Tits and Titters,” Simon Sheridan says that until the ’70s the British sex film was for the most part imbued with “fear and trepidation” and a sense of seriousness. He goes on to quote sex superstar Fiona Richmond: “The British have such an inhibition about sex. . . . They don’t like to appear interested in it so you have to lace it with humour. That way they can say that’s what they really came to see and that’s what they’re really entertained by.”

Well, certainly, with the exception of a handful of films that went a more serious hardcore route, the British “saucy” film stuck to a form tried and proved true in the early ’70s films. Sex and comedy mixed together was irresistible. Plus, can’t you just see those perky naked British ladies, volleying witty exchanges across beds or pools of bubbles or what have you? Sheridan lays out the history of the British sex film from its origins in the 1954 nudist film Garden of Eden through its various vicissitudes in the ’70s and brings us all the way to the present. The book is full of fascinating tidbits that span the gamut: from Koo Stark, who got so much flak from the Palace when her affair with royal Prince Andrew became public — it turns out she’s the daughter of an unsavory character, producer Wilbur Stark, responsible for the 1972 hit The Love Box. Her own career was rather tame and undeserving of the rap she got. Elsewhere we learn that Quentin Tarantino claims his favorite British film of all time is the 1975 The Sexplorer aka The Girl from Starship Venus much to the bafflement of the author of this book who sees the film as quite unpreposessing; one of Ingmar Bergman‘s daughters, we learn, had a career in porn. I could go on but will leave you to discover the rest for yourselves.

A string of names makes regular appearances, and the book includes an end section with biographical and other details about the main players from Queen Kong the mud-wrestling Amazon to Bob Godfrey, whose amazing animated “sextons” includedKama Sutra Rides Again and Pink Orgasm.

The best thing about this book is that it is utterly enjoyable to read. Whether you glance at just one entry or read it cover to cover, it’s bound to put a smile on your face. There’s tons of black-and-white photos. Sheridan’s writing style is easy, and he obviously knows his subject inside out. His observations are intelligent and often witty. How often do wit and sex appear anywhere together? I bet after you’ve read this book, all you’ll want to do is to get your hands on copies of Monique orPermissive aka Suzy Superscrew or maybe, The Pornbrokers and spend a lazy afternoon watching them.

Hollywood’s Film Wars with France: Film-Trade Diplomacy and the Emergence of the French Quota Policy, by Jens Ulff-Møller. Rochester, New York: University of Rochester, 2001. Cloth, $65.00, 250pp. ISBN 1-58046-086-0.

Mr. Ulff-Møller’s book, though academic, is a timely read and should prove to be rewarding in the context of this current climate as we daily uncover the misdeeds of U.S. corporations and wonder about both their accountability and the role of the government in their oversight. Additionally, the recent brouhaha surrounding the Vivendi empire and the fate of the now dethroned Mr. Messier and his ambitious — and retrospectively somewhat unfortunate — acquisition of the Bronfmann’s Seagram empire along with Universal Studios, provide an even more fascinating context in which to read this dense and exhaustively researched study of Franco-American business practices in the world of film.

Although the author clearly shies away from offering remedies, the book is edifying and intelligent in its analysis of the conditions that have allowed the United States’ dominance of the worldwide film industry. The book concentrates on France as a case study, and more particularly, on the specialized topic of the development of the quota system within the French film industry. Nonetheless, the discussion has great relevance and can be fruitfully applied to an examination of the wider international marketplace.

The development of the industry in both countries is documented, as is the early regulation of larger enterprises in the United States that began in the late 19th century with the passage of the Sherman Antitrust Act of 1890. Originally introduced to protect free enterprise, it was followed by a series of horizontal amalgamations within the business world. These, in turn, resulted in the creation of larger businesses; essentially cartels. According to the author, “The modern corporation, rather than Adam Smith’s invisible market forces, became the principle that ordered modern economic life.” Eventually, the FTC was established as a regulatory body, but it was hampered by its limited powers in the implementation of its rulings. In the case of the film industry it was mostly ineffectual. After the First World War and the Hoover administration’s pro-business stance, the relationship between government and corporations was further cemented. Corporate consolidation and especially motion picture export were strongly encouraged.

Through his examination of film history, diplomatic history and politics, businesspractices and trade policies and agreements, the author concludes that only with the backing of the U.S. government was the American film industry so able to dominate French screens. This support was at times tacit and at times overt. Specific monopolistic corporate trade practices such as block booking ensured the U.S. position. Meanwhile, the response of the French film industry, at once greedy, apathetic, and divisive, prevented the establishment of any unified barrier to U.S. expansionist practices. The quota system, the eventual outcome of this state of affairs, has proven ineffective, if not positively counterproductive to their national film interests.

If anyone could be bothered to pay attention, in spite of the dry, academic dress this book comes in, it is in fact the ultimate morality tale. Take heed! The application of its lessons both in global business practices and in nascent film industries worldwide could have a highly salutary effect. Sans doute, though, that will remain a Technicolor dream.