Sunday, 27 July 2014

Review: Sex with the Stars (1980, Anwar Kawadri)

There are certain British sex films that appear to have an immediate read on their audience, tapping into their fantasies, hang ups and secret anxieties, then playing up to all these on the big screen. For older geezers we’re talking here about films like Secrets of a Superstud (1975) and Pete Walker’s School for Sex (1968). It’s not hard to imagine gentlemen of a certain age buying a ticket to either of those films and imagining that they were Anthony Kenyon or Derek Aylward for an afternoon, what with storylines that not only saw those two aging bachelors constantly surrounded by gorgeous women, but in the case of School for Sex living a privileged lifestyle through them. Neither of these films can quite resist taunting their target audience with moments of uncomfortable reality though. The spectre of male impotence trails the narrative of Secrets of a Superstud, and in School for Sex there is the scene where Aylward stops by a strip club to observe the clientele: old men decaying away in the darkness, balding heads, grey mackintoshes on laps to mask the obvious, stationery save for occasionally rising from their seats to make a snail’s pace grab for the talent on stage. When Mr Grey Mac watched School for Sex and saw Derek Aylward-smooth, smoking jacket wearing charmer to the ladies- he saw the man he wanted to be, when he saw the men in the strip club scene he saw the man he really was. Just P. Walker having fun at his audience’s expense, but such a sadistically funny scene to include in the film, no wonder he ended up making horror films.

1980’s Sex with the Stars, might have its eye on a younger male audience than School for Sex and Secrets of a Superstud, but it is no less perceptive when it comes to knowing what its audience was all about, and why they flocked to films like this. For an audience of men in their twenties, addled with unfulfilling city jobs and having had limited contact with the opposite sex, the appeal here lay in seeing the sexual misadventures of someone just like them. In fact for that crowd the experience of watching Sex with the Stars in a cinema must have felt like one of their own had got up from their seat, walked on into the screen and became the star, nay, hero of his own British sex comedy. Peter Bates (Martin Burrows) is a timid, sexually repressed 24 year old virgin, who to add to his woes is stuck in a humiliating Fleet Street job ghost-writing his aunt’s astrology column ‘Clara looks at the stars’. Peter’s emasculating job coupled with a non-existent sex life making it at least easy for him to pass himself off as an astrological spinster in print.

 Enter his new boss Mr Terson (Thick Wilson) an aggressively ambitious, grossly overweight American media mogul. Seemingly a long lost American cousin of Eskimo Nell’s Benny U Murdoch, as with that character, Terson’s comedic appeal stems from his relentless crassness and unshakable belief in the selling power of sex. Terson’s smart, expensive office –where a great deal of Sex with the Stars’ plot plays out- is awash with character defining details: big tit magazines scattered about his desk, a cut out photo of Joan Collins in The Bitch glued to one of the walls, a painting of a charging rhinoceros hanging in the vicinity. The latter being a particularly apt piece of set design, for Terson is that beast: horny, and rampaging despite all the excess weight he is carrying. Explaining his success in turning around the fortunes of a staid publication called Wife and Family, Terson tells Peter “I fired everybody, changed the title to ‘John Thomas Weekly’, and wham up went the figures, you see that’s a title for the Eighties”.

Convinced a similar makeover is needed on ‘Happy Homes’, the publication Peter ghost-writes for, Terson changes the title to Horny Homes and goes about firing the staff, Peter only being spared the axe after a moment of inspiration sees him pitch the idea of a sexed-up astrology column for the revamped mag. Inexplicably Sex with the Stars then briefly adopts a faux vox-pop format as Peter takes to the streets of London, microphone and tape recorder in hand, to record Joe and Josephine Public’s thoughts on whether a person’s astrological sign affects their sex life. “My sex life is only affected by the availability of contraceptives” quips one saucy Cockney woman to him. The authenticity of these sound bites comes under question when one of Peter’s interview subjects turns out to be Max Roman, a chubby Greek porn filmmaker who resembled Telly Savalas’ brother George, and who four years later would give the definitive portrayal of a Santa Claus who has his penis cut off in Don’t Open Till Christmas. Seen here outside of the Santa costume, and fortunately allowed to keep his genitals intact, Roman basically appears to be playing himself, a gregarious Greek pornographer doing battle with his second-language English in order to sing the praises of sex “I need…a woman…every day… fantastic….it’s a good…fantastic…very beautiful”.

Alas, transcripts of people talking about sex isn’t enough for Terson who demands that Peter go out into the field for a bit of first hand research into the sexual characteristics of the twelve signs of the zodiac. Seeking out and sleeping with twelve women each with a different star sign then writing about it is a task that a bespectacled, prematurely balding 24 year old virgin isn’t exactly suited for. “You’ve been given an assignment that would make a sex maniac hesitate” remarks Terson’s secretary, Suzy (Janie Love). Fortunately Suzy takes pity on him, and touched by his ‘little boy lost’ demeanour seizes the opportunity to have his cherry and grant him insight into the mind and body of the Sagittarius woman. “Sagittarians often wear themselves out in their anxiety to get the job done” is Peter’s post-coital observation, at which point the real life Peters watching Sex with the Stars in a cinema probably wished real life could be like this.

A transcript of Peter and Suzy’s erotic encounter is summarily typed up and delivered to Terson, who regards it as porn gold. Wanting more of the same, he hands Peter a fortnight deadline for bedding the other 11 women “one a day, and three days to spare” he estimates. Bagging a Gemini turns out to be easier than expected after Suzy reluctantly leaves Peter at the mercy of her man-eating best friend Shirley (Susie Silvey) the subject of the funniest (but most uncomfortable looking) sex scene in the film that involves Shirley and Martin going at it against a piano. Shirley’s arse banging down on the keys and ensuring that the pair of them make anything but sweet music together. It is one of Susie Silvey’s few memorable British sex film roles, probably in part because as a post-1979 role she didn’t feel the need to….. (CENSORED).

Growing in confidence, Peter goes it alone for the remaining ten sexual encounters, due to the discovery that advanced knowledge of astrology, and talking to women at great length about their star signs is –according to this film at least- the best way to get inside their knickers. Peter’s leap from “Christian Surbiton to Sodom and Gomorrah” comes at a price however, jeopardising his relationship with Suzy, and when one of his later conquests is revealed to be Terson’s wife (fucked on the bonnet of Terson’s Rolls Royce no less) it looks as if he’ll be out of the running for an ‘employee of the month’ award.

Sex with the Stars was a truly multinational affair, bringing together a Greek producer (future cannon films honcho Panos Nicolaou), Syrian funding and a Syrian director in Anwar Kawadri, a Frenchman on soundtrack duties (Pierre Bachelet, best known for his musical contributions to the original Emmanuelle film) and home-grown talent in the shape of scriptwriter Tudor Gates and director of photography Peter Jessop. The presence of overseas filmmakers is evident from the get-go thanks to an opening title sequence that is reminiscent of 1970s giallo thrillers and their tendency to boast about having briefly filmed in the UK by giving just about every London landmark they could spot a visual name check. The excitable, tourist guide visuals here practically shouting through a megaphone “first up we have Big Ben, then if you look to your left you can see Westminster Bridge, now we find ourselves on Fleet Street, and just over there is St Paul's Cathedral, and now we’re back on Fleet Street just in time to see our lead actor getting off one of those jolly double-decker buses”.

  Peter Bates and Terson embody every cliché going concerning British and American men, and their cultures’ attitudes towards sex. Bates, clueless, and embarrassed by the subject. Terson, loud, massively obese, a mind obsessed by sex and artless ways to commercialise it. These two messes are the main source of comedy for the overseas filmmakers sniggering away behind the camera with a sense of cultural superiority. As Terson, actor Thick Wilson is spectacularly used in a scene that finds him attempting to hurry Peter up to the payoff of one of his sexual anecdotes, Thick hollering “did she screw, did she screw” over and over as his considerable weight shudders in sexual frustration. Presumably in reverence to its producer’s nationality, Sex with the Stars then finds a way of shoehorning Greek dancing into the proceedings when Peter and Terson get dragged into a group Sintaki dance at a Soho nightclub, only for Terson to get carried away and fall on his arse at the end. As in the earlier ‘did she screw’ scene, the extremely committed Thick Wilson looks as if he is seconds away from a heart attack. Perhaps due to the levelling input of a British scriptwriter and a predominantly British cast though, the ‘outsider’ filmmaker take on the London of the era, and the often impenetrable nature of British culture to others, isn’t as greatly felt here as in, say, An American Werewolf in London or Boys and Girls Together.

The impression you get is that the filmmakers regarded the Tudor Gates script and its astrology based premise as Sex with the Stars’ chief weakness, based on the manner in which they become marginalised as the film progresses. Set aside in favour of the perceived strengths; an uninhibited female cast, the greater sexual freedoms afforded filmmakers by the late 1970s, and the sensual Pierre Bachelet soundtrack, part of the era’s ‘space disco’ musical sub-genre. Towards the end of the film scenes between Peter and Terson, and Jane and Peter serve as little other than dot-to-dot connecting links between a series of erotic set pieces. As if the filmmakers took to heart Terson’s orders to hurry along to the raison d’etre of it all; “did she screw, did she screw” etc. Fortunately given this decision to emphasize explicitness over everything else, Anwar Kawadri proves to be up to the job of being an inspired, erotic filmmaker. Typical male fantasy scenarios and time honoured female sexual stereotypes are in abundance here, as Peter goes from having libidinous designs on the working class female, as in the case of his bathroom seduction of a cleaning lady, to playing about above his station by also sleeping with her employer, a rich socialite, from being a lothario to Stud-era disco dollies within his own age bracket to acting as sexual liberator to older women. These sexual conquests are largely played by also ran, wannabe sex symbols who arrived too late to British sex films to make a great deal of impact on the genre, but the film can lay claim to two standout appearances by the only fleetingly in the spotlight Rosemary England and long-time Brit sexploitation fixture Nicola Austin.

Rosemary is a visual delight here, cast as a mystery woman who meets Peter in a park then leads him on a teasing chase through misty woodlands, losing her symbolically white dress in order to run naked through the forest, culminating in the couple making love against a tree. Capitalising on soft focus lensing and natural lighting techniques, it is a beautiful sequence that allows Rosemary to fully live up to the ‘English Rose’ connotations of her name, and the use of slow motion to capture the bouncing sight of Rosemary’s melon heavy breasts. Suffering for their art, Rosemary and actor Martin Burrows do show considerable dedication to the noble art of onscreen kit-offery, taking into account the sight of their frozen breath in the preceding dialogue scene hinting at a chilly, early morning shooting schedule.

Equally stunning is Nicola Austin –the face that launched a thousand pop chart cover version albums- playing Peter’s older woman conquest, Mrs. Doyle. It speaks volumes about the sheer longevity of Nicola’s career that it began with young dolly bird roles in the late 1960s and drew to a close with her being eroticized as a ‘mature woman’. Classily attired and initially haughty in her altitude towards Peter, it doesn’t take much of Peter’s astrological mumbo jumbo speak to get Mrs Doyle to change her mind. Deciding to trade in her respectably for multiple orgasms, she straddles Peter on top of a waterbed, the pair’s exhaustive sex session causing the bed to rupture and water to gush out and rain down on them- a piece of money shot symbolism if ever there was one. It’s a performance that has last role written all over it (Nicola actually had one further, forgettable bit part to go), a career best sexy turn and what a decade’s worth of prolific but undistinguished nude walk on roles had been building up to. Sex with the Stars finds Nicola going out whilst –figuratively and literally- on top. Her character proving that, as Doris Hare might have put it “just because there is snow on the roof doesn’t mean the fire has gone out”.

The casting of Rosemary and Nicola is made all that more special by the fact that neither would be around films a great deal longer, Sex with the Stars being Rosemary’s cinematic swansong and –as noted- Nicola’s penultimate film appearance. Soon the pair of them would walk away from this period of their lives, and haven’t stopped walking since. Nicola and Rosemary being two ladies who maintain a closed mouth stance on discussing the sex film era to this very day. Although only Rosemary had the foresight to use a fake name on the film, billing herself as ‘Poula-Grifith Jada’ in the end credits. A one-shot pseudonym apparently constructed by Rosemary by using her real first name Jada as a surname, and adding it to Poula-Grifith a ‘foreign’ spelling variation on the name of a fashion model called Paula Griffin, whose name and profile often appeared in close proximity to Rosemary/Jada’s own in model directories.
‘Poula-Grifith Jada’ is born

For cinema audiences of the time, astrological themed sex comedies may well have seemed like buses, they waited for one to come along, only for two to show up at the same time, what with Sex with the Stars and Confessions from the David Galaxy Affair being released within months of each other by Tigon. To confuse matters Tigon quickly re-issued and re-titled the two films, giving them new names that were sound-alikes of each other’s original titles. Thus Confessions from the David Galaxy Affair became ‘Sex Star’ in late 1980, and Sex with the Stars was rechristened ‘Confessions of the Naughty Nymphos’ around the same time. As if that wasn’t confusing enough, Tigon’s Naughty Nymphos poster campaign plagiarised the poster for ‘The Ecstasy Girls’, a 1979 American hard-core film which Tigon was also distributing –in heavily cut form- in 1981. As a result not even consulting their horoscopes probably helped a perplexed public decipher if they were going to see a retitled Sex with the Stars, a bowdlerised version of The Ecstasy Girls, or –if they’d really done something bad in a past life- the wretched David Galaxy film.


For a last minute addition to a near dead genre, and one extremely short on plot, Sex with the Stars does deliver several twists on the tried and tested British sex film formula. The pairing of the shy, well-educated sounding Peter with the extroverted and down to earth Suzy going against the established, ‘Confessions’ derived genre penchant for romantically bringing together cocky working class lads with reserved, posh girlfriends. As played by Page 3 girl and bit-part actress Janie Love, Suzy’s no-nonsense personality and unapologetically low-class accent guarantees she always dominates her and Peter’s verbal slanging matches. Sex with the Stars is one of few British sex comedies to realistically consider the consequences of its hero’s job leading him to quickie sexual encounters, and the detrimental effect this would have on forming meaningful relationships and keeping hold of a girlfriend. Racked with guilt over his inability to be faithful to Suzy and terrified by his own, suddenly very active sex life (“I used to think it was bad enough when I had a quiet wank, but now I’m a sex maniac” he frets)…that man, he sure got the British sex film blues.

Sensitive soul Peter even attempts suicide at one point, only to botch the job and inadvertently find himself in the midst of yet another anonymous sexual encounter. On account of moments such as that Sex with the Stars certainly goes places other genre efforts feared to tread, although the uneasy tone born out of switching from light comedy to suicidal thoughts and back again, does illustrate why British sex films often and wisely shunned the idea of having a ‘serious’ side to them. Sex with the Stars can also claim to be the only British sex film to feature a rubber, used during a scene where Peter saves a woman (Loretta Smith) from drowning, then tries to convince her that removing her clothes and having protective sex is all par for the course during artificial respiration (she remains sceptical, but appreciative of this extra ‘concern’ for her wellbeing). As an apparent stab at espousing a responsible, safe sex message, it is a little hard to take seriously within the context of a film that has our man Peter frequently engaging in unprotected sex with women he has just met, and if I were Loretta Smith I would feel rather insulted at being cast as the sole female character that the hero obviously must consider an STD risk.

Even so, the use of a condom and acceptance that contraception isn’t just a woman’s responsibility is one of a number of factors that points to Sex with the Stars being conceived as a more mature take on the British sex film. It’s a film that is open minded enough to the idea that women can be as predatory as men, and in the case of the Peter/Suzy relationship that women can possess greater sexual knowledge and experience than the man. Refreshingly Sex with the Stars is notably allot more comfortable, and less prone to moralising, around the subject of female promiscuity than British sex films of old. The laid back attitude shown towards Susie Silvey’s bed-hopping party girl and Terson’s unfaithful wife here is a far cry from the dirty looks and hydro themed revenge afforded the Olivia Munday and Linda Hayden characters in Confessions of a Window Cleaner. Sex with the Stars even acknowledges that by 1980 women could hold positions of power, beyond of course being on top in sex scenes taking place on waterbeds. In the climatic twist Terson’s wife takes control of the company, demotes Terson, spits in his mouth (Andy Milligan would’ve loved that bit), dismisses ‘Horny Homes’ as puerile male nonsense and reverts it back to the original family friendly, Happy Homes format. A topical plot development for a film roughly made around the time of Thatcher first coming to power, and an unfortunately prophetic one in the way it unintentionally predicts the rise of conservative, moral majoritism in the 1980s. Something that would spell the end of the line for films of this nature. Its genre- like Horny Homes- thrown into the trash bin at the start of the decade.

At risk of being accused of pretentiousness, I will reign in the temptation to comment at length about how another of Sex with the Star’s subplots, where Peter’s sexploits briefly come to a halt after he falls ill and takes to bed with flu like symptoms now sits uncomfortably with the knowledge of the real life sexual plague that would be terrorising the world a few years later. Lest I should pick up my horoscope tomorrow and find Clara is advising me “this month Pisceans are at risk of disappearing up their own backsides, as this has been known to occur during the writing up of thirty odd year old British sex comedies that nobody really cares less about, interpreting their subplots as ‘really’ being about the AIDS crisis is therefore best avoided. Piscean males should however complement themselves on the restraint they’ve shown in not divulging the potentially libellous story they know about Susie Silvey, and opting to write the word censored in block capitals instead”.

Sex with the Stars wraps up with another reoccurring theme for the genre, that of its hero hanging up his sex comedy hat in favour of a life of monogamy, marriage and fatherhood. Earlier British sex films ‘Girls Come First’ and ‘Secrets of a Superstud’ had carried the exact same conclusion (minus the astrological observations that Peter signs off with here). The last minute grabs for respectably sort by these ‘happy endings’ never really ring true though, at best feeling like an empty gesture designed to appease the censors, or maybe ease the audience’s guilty conscience, or even the filmmakers’ own. Sex with the Stars, Girls Come First and Secrets of a Superstud all revel a little too enthusiastically in the preceding 80 minutes or so of fun and games, and their protagonists getting their leg over with the likes of Rosemary England, Nicola Austin and Susie Silvey, to then successfully sell the idea that the men onscreen could give up those kind of horizontal pleasures and settle for a mundane family life instead. Still it is a reminder that films like these were the products of men who while embracing and commercially profiteering from 1970s’ permissiveness, couldn’t entirely break free from the conservatism and conformity imposed on previous generations.

Call it hypocrisy, call in cowardliness, call it a copout, call it wanting your crumpet and eating it, with Sex with the Stars the genre goes to its grave without fully resolving this inner conflict, but then again if we’ve learnt nothing else from our sex films it is that the British take on sex can be a complicated affair.