* Prices may differ from that shown
This Odeon Entertainment DVD is a rather overpriced £11 on amazon at time of writing.
The humble British sex comedy is one of the most maligned of all film genres. There is a perfectly good reason for this, i.e. they're almost all complete rubbish. But somehow they still exert a strong pull, the combination of down-on-their-luck sitcom stars and depressing urban backgrounds at least partly making up for the leaden plots and unbridled sexism of the films.
The biggest ever British sex film, in box office terms, was Come Play With Me, financed by porn baron David Sullivan. It featured his girlfriend, British porn legend Mary Millington, in a tiny role. Millington was popular with readers of Sullivan's top-shelf magazines, and had made hard-core porn loops earlier in the 70s. The Playbirds (1978) is a kind of follow-up to Come Play With Me. Thankfully it ditched the director and co-star, the alcoholic George Harrison Marks, and has a plot that almost makes sense. Unfortunately, by giving Millington one of the lead roles, as opposed to her cameo in Come Play, it does ruthlessly expose her lack of acting ability.
Millington committed suicide in 1979. She suffered from depression, was a drug addict, worked as a prostitute, and was frequently arrested by the police for selling illegal smut (she also ran a sex shop). This, of course, lends an unpleasantly exploitative air to what is already quite a grotty little film. It's impossible to see Mary Millington stripping off without wondering how much damage this kind of work was doing to her.
Playbirds borrows the plot of a much earlier British thriller, Cover Girl Killer. The centrefold ladies from Playbirds magazine are being strangled by a serial killer. The police investigate, with suspicion falling on the magazine's sleazy owner, Harry Dougan. As more and more girls get murdered, the police decide to send a policewoman into the porn world, undercover.
This is only partly a comedy. It's hard to know what tone it's striving for, as it combines softcore titillation, witless comedy and murders that are almost unpleasant, if not perhaps for the reasons the film intends them to be. Most of the titillating scenes are in the context of photoshoots for Playbirds magazine. A sleazy red herring photographer gets to shoot all kinds of antics. One tableux, representing 'the Hellfire Club' is an utterly witless display of decadence, including a naked lady riding a rocking horse. Another one has a man in a 'satanic' mask being orally pleasured by a naked acolyte (we never see any kind of hardcore action, happily.) These are utterly banal and obviously unerotic. If that was really the kind of material on offer in Playbirds, it says a lot about the way the magazine regarded its readers. But I guess the British have a strange obsession with pretending to be stolidly unimaginative when it comes to sex, so possibly the kinds of people who bought Playbirds were willing to imagine this was daringly decadent.
There are also some lighter hearted nude scenes - or at least, I think that's meant to be the case. The two detectives on the case eventually have to audition some of their female colleagues for undercover work. This, of course, involves them sitting there and watching while the ladies strip. But although the policemen are comically uninterested in the nudity, the poor acting talent of the women involved means that they probably were real-life strippers, so can't play up the comedy of the situation. And the bizarre, sad circus music that plays over these scenes is not saucy in the slightest. As my flatmate said, it would be an appropriate accompaniment to the death of a circus bear; striptease is meant to be raunchy, not melancholic.
Otherwise, there isn't a lot of humour in Playbirds. There's a sort-of semi-comic subplot involving Dougan and his racehorse - except that it isn't funny, and is probably just put in to make David Sullivan seem really, really cool (Sullivan's name is heard being called over a tannoy in one of the racing scenes. There are a lot of racing scenes.) Most of the cast - the ones you'll recognise, anyway - are comedy actors. Small parts go to Windsor Davies and the Major from Fawlty Towers, while the two main cops are played by Glynn Edwards (Dave from Minder) and Gavin Campbell (later a presenter on That's Life). But they don't get any real jokes to tell. It feels horribly like this was largely intended to be taken seriously, perhaps as a reaction against the dreadful humour in Come Play With Me.
Dougan is played by Alan Lake, Diana Dors' husband at the time (he committed suicide after her death). He is absolutely terrible, unfortunately, not finding a way to make anything of the part. Fading tough guy actor Derren Nesbitt has a pointlessly small role. Dudley Sutton from Lovejoy gives the only performance I'd describe as competent, as a ranting religious maniac.
The rest of the cast are basically naked ladies. Their acting is abominable. They were presumably models from Sullivan's magazines, and perhaps made 'proper' porn on the side. You'll search in vain for a line delivered with any degree of competence. Millington herself is as bad as the others, although there's a slight fragility about her, which I'm doubtless imagining because of her later suicide. Perhaps encouragingly, given the way modern porn seems to emphasise unnatural looking pneumatic horror women, Millington looks completely normal, even ordinary. She looks a bit happier during the sex/nude scenes, but it seems wilfully perverse to build a film as a star vehicle for a star who can't do dialogue to save her life. One of her female colleagues delivers one of the most unfortunate lines in film history, greeting the strangler looming over her in bed with a cheery "Oh goody, I'm going to be raped! I've never been raped before!" before being dispatched. Even taking 70s attitudes into account, that's a particularly shocking lapse. Come Play With Me was offensively idiotic, but it wasn't offensive in quite that way.
The murder plot is just bizarre. The strangulation scenes are kind of nasty, as they usually involve naked or scantily clad women being murdered in ways that are clearly meant to be sexualised (I wonder if this was released uncut in cinemas). The police's investigation relies heavily on archaic looking computers in a desperate attempt to seem relevant. New suspects appear from nowhere and are dismissed just as quickly, and with dialogue like "Sex, witchcraft and horses - the unholy trinity" it's no wonder the actors don't make much of an effort. There's a totally unengaging chase towards the end that turns out to have no bearing on anything else that happens, and the film features a ludicrous, out-of-nowhere 'twist' ending. We're also expected to believe that a policewoman working undercover would happily prostitute herself and appear in pornography (although Millington was too short to be a policewoman anyway).
The film has a pop at hypocritical morality campaigners, and probably only puts Millington in uniform because of the trouble she'd been having with the law. A lot of the film seems designed to show off what a great life David Sullivan had, but his world ends up looking shabby and small. The swanky penthouse apartment his stand-in, Dougan, lives in apparently belonged to Richard Harris in real life (there's what looks a lot like a big framed picture of Harris in there. You have to love people who put huge pictures of themselves on the walls). We see a lot of footage of the printing presses running off copies of Playbirds magazine (Millington's on the cover, with 'Mary Millington' blazoned on the cover, rather than her character in the film's name.) It's all supposed to make us desperately jealous of Sullivan's great life and amazon porn empire (the word 'pornocrat' is used, unironically, at one point). It actually just makes me thank my lucky stars I'm not David Sullivan.
The only thing it has going for it is that the shabby locations have a grubby authenticity. We see a few streets in Soho (presumably the shops we see are Sullivan's) and a few other run-down power stations, bits of wasteland and suchlike. Other scenes are filmed in hilariously tiny locations which were presumably just cast and crewmembers' houses. Windsor Davies's scenes are set in a living room just like my uncle and aunt used to have.
The sound mix on the film is terrible, and it looks a bit washed out - I'm not sure if this is a problem with the film generally or just the print on this DVD.
There's a good leaflet written by Simon Sheridan, who wrote a Millington biography. There are trailers for various other smutty releases from the same DVD company. And the image gallery is actually quite interesting, containing a lot of publicity material from porn mags etc ("packed with authentic Danish and Swedish material!")
The two main extras, though, are more porn. 'Response', made in the early 70s, is a silent eight-minute scene in which Millington gets it on with another girl. It feels more authentically pornographic, being a great deal raunchier than Playbirds itself.
Mary Millington's World Striptease Extravaganza was made a couple of years after her death, and apart from a short clip of her right at the start, she isn't featured. It was presumably released under that name just to cash in on her posthumous notoriety. It purports to show a striptease contest and is a tedious 45 minutes long. The hilarious early 80s synthesiser music at the start is about the most endearing thing about it, and that isn't very endearing at all. Bernie Winters, mugging like crazy, pretends to compere it all. None of the strippers appears in the same shot as the audience, and neither does Winters, so presumably there was no audience for the actual strip show, and the raucous cheers and hoots were dubbed on later. This really is as close to worthless as anything I've seen.
Not that the main feature is much better. There's no reason at all, bar morbid curiosity, for wanting to see Playbirds. It is a film about which I can think of almost nothing positive to say.