"Come Play with Me" is often referred to as the most successful British sex comedy of all time, but even in 1977 this bewildering mixture of lame, end-of-pier music hall nonsense and tawdry soft core rutting must have seemed curiously old-fashioned to many of its paying punters. It attains some degree of cult appeal these days thanks to the involvement of glamour model-cum-porn actress Mary Millington, whose screen debut this was; although in truth her involvement is so negligible as to see her name come second from bottom of the bill in the end credits, in a cast list that situates faded comic actors Irene Handl and Alfie Bass as the film's top draw!
With this in mind, the schizophrenic nature of the enterprise shouldn't come as too much of a surprise: the script had been sitting on the shelf for nearly a decade until veteran writer-director and pornographer George Harrison Marks offered it to British porn mogul (and now co-manager of West Ham United!) David Sullivan, who saw it mainly as a chance to further the career of his then girlfriend and latest cover-star, Millington. Marks' strange career had taken him from professional photographer of pet cats in the late fifties and early sixties, to purveyor of nudie 'glamour' shots -- in those days sold by newsagents where they'd be proffered from under the counter wrapped in brown paper. This was back in a time now unimaginable to citizens of our sex-soaked culture -- a milieu of lustful shame so piquantly illustrated in Michael Powell's "Peeping Tom" (for which Marks acted as an advisor and featured in a brief cameo). There is one mordantly sly sequence in that film where friendly mainstay of '50s cinema, Miles Malleson, is shown leaving a tobacconist, furtively secreting his newly acquired stash underneath the requisite dirty mac, just as a smiling child happily skips into the shop to buy a chocolate bar. Oddly enough, there is a scene which invokes similar mixed feelings in the viewer in "Come Play With Me" when, after we've been made witness to sundry soft core fondlings -- both lesbian and straight -- leavened by the film's seedy strain of seaside slap n' tickle, a comic vicar turns up with a chirpy little Brownie in tow, looking for jumble for the Church fete! Just to add to the sense of unease you should be feeling at this stage, the IMDb identifies her as George Harrison Marks' own daughter!
Marks quickly branched out, shooting a profitable line of mail order 8mm striptease skin flicks starring his 'wife' Pamela Green, before finally getting his debut official director's credit on the first film to be produced and distributed by Michael Klinger and Tony Tenser's Compton-Cameo outfit: "Naked as Nature Intended". This was a tepid 'beach ball & bums' flick, designed to provide the thrilling glimpses of female nudity still totally banned in mainstream pictures, serving it up in the disengenuous form of educational naturist documentary films that were screened in Klinger and Tenser's members only club on Old Compton Street, instead. Marks would continue to assidiously cultivate the porn market well into the eighites. John Hamilton's history of Tony Tenser's exploitation career, "Beasts in the Cellar", estemates his filmography as running at well over 500 films, leaving the likes of Jess Franco well in the shade!
"Come Play With Me" is pretty woeful exploitation tat. And it's clear that the people being most exploited were the sweaty dirty mac brigade who were being forced to indulge both the comedy pretensions of the writer-director (who also awards himself one of the main acting roles) and the film's shameless product placement for Sullivan's line of mucky mags which occurs from beginning to end -- all just for the chance to ogle a bit of dolly bird muff in a string of grotty sub-Benny Hill skits involving a busload of nympho strippers posing as nurses at octogenarian Lady Bovington's (Irene Handl) manor house-cum health farm. They must have been desperate times indeed in the mid-seventies! These days, if you're really in need, there's always the Internet, or Babestation as a (very!) last resort. Back in 1977, you had to put up with corn-ball vaudevillian routines by the likes of Harrison Marks and Alfie Bass, and slumming it ex sit-com actors treading all over each-other's not-very-funny lines -- probably in their desperation to collect their cheques and sod off home.
The story is needlessly involved, and in any case disintegrates as the film progresses. England is being flooded by counterfeit money and the deputy Prime Minister (Benny Hill regular, Henry McGee) assigns clueless minister Mr Podsnap (Ken Parry) with the task of tracking down the culprits. Meanwhile, strip club-owning mob boss Slasher (Ronald Fraser) who is behind the whole scam, sets out to find the printers he's been forcing to churn out the counterfeit money after they do a bunk and go into hiding deep in the Scottish countryside, taking the forgery plates with them. The two missing printers are disheveled Ken Dodd look-alike, Cornelius Clapworthy (George Harrison Marks himself, in a ridiculous wig and oversized comedy false teeth) and his assistant, Kelly (Alfie Bass sporting a toothbrush moustache, a la Oliver Hardy).
These two are meant to be the comedy pairing at the heart of the film, but Marks forgot to write any jokes into his rambling, senseless script.
Clapworthy and Kelly wind up at Lady Bovington's deserted health farm, just as Bovington's grandson Rodney (Jerry Lorden) turns up with a busload of strippers, his plan: to transform his doddering relative's backward, faded business by injecting -- lets be honest about it! -- vast amounts of sex into its proposed health regime, turning it into a glorified knocking shop with added enemas. Clapworthy and Kelly soon find their seclusion shattered when they wake up in bed to the sight of half-a-dozen naked totty gagging to get their hands on their crumpled, sagging and obese middle-aged bodies (which everyone knows is exactly what all twenty-something lovelies find to be the most attractive form of male).
Marks and Bass attempt to play it all for laughs, but the director's deficiencies as a comic actor are all too apparent, even when placed opposite a not-very-interested Bass and Handl. Before taking up his photographic career, Marks had once been a stand-up comedian, but here he delivers his own lines with all the verve of a coma patient. He and Bass share a bed in many supposedly comic sequences meant to invoke the affable tone of beloved British comedy duo Morecambe and Wise, but the fact that Marks is frequently seen poring intently over Sullivan's porno glossy Whitehouse magazine during these scenes, rather dissipates any aura of innocent saucy fun that might have been suggested by their truly appalling music hall croonings (backed by the assortment of crumpet culled from a mixture of Benny Hill's angels and various hard porn performers) which are seen elsewhere in the film. The cheeky "Carry On" tone Marks would like to cultivate is constantly being tainted and undercut by the hugely unappealing and un-erotic soft core gruntings that are the film's ultimate raison d'être. Millington only really gets one big scene (and that was added afterwards to bulk out the flesh content) in which she gives a naked massage to muscle-bound porn actor Howard Nelson, and then plunges an enema tube up his backside in the 'comedy' payoff.
A few hardcore sequences were filmed later to add to the rather limp proceedings, and even though they are curtailed before we are allowed to see anything that would be unacceptable to the censors (stills from them were used by Sullivan to build anticipation for the film in his magazines), all that heavy-petting and intensive tonguing action strikes a very different tone, completely at odds with the chirpy, nudge-nudge wink-wink, smutty seaside-sauciness of the surrounding material. Ronald Fraser conducts his gangsterish business from the seedy surroundings of a Soho strip club that affords yet more opportunities for sleazy strip scenes, and the collision of old time music hall comedy routines and prurient, leering smut soon leads to wholly unappealing scenes such as the one where Alfie Bass gets up in the middle of the night to urinate into a bathroom sink, unaware that two erotic 'performers' are going hard at it behind his back the whole time.
Besides Handl and Bass, there are appearances from a host of past it actors familiar from '70s British comedy, only adding to the split personality the film conveys. Talfryn Thomas turns up, essentially playing his sergeant Cheeseman character from "Dad's Army"; this time he's a journalist employed by Podsnip to pass on information from a mole he's managed to place with Slasher's organisation. Naturally, the script winds up with just about everybody -- Slasher and his henchmen as well as Clapworthy and Kelly -- ensconced at the health retreat; and once the mob boss realises his quarry are also receiving the favours of the seraglio of nubile naked beauties on call, the film becomes a chaotic mixture of woeful comedy chase sequences interspersed with dreary nudie shots. Interestingly, though comic actor Richard O'Sullivan plays rather a noticeable role in the film, even removing his trousers and performing in a pitiful sleazy sex sequence -- smearing cream all over his topless female co-star -- his name isn't mentioned anywhere on the cast list submitted to the IMDb. Ken Parry's Podsnip ends up, for reasons that are hard to fathom, dressed (badly) as a woman, and gets threatened by two louts on Brighton pier who don't take kindly to the art of cross dressing. The tone of it is very strange; it plays like it should be taken for granted by the viewer that if you should see a fat man in the street who is obviously dressed as a woman, it is perfectly normal and acceptable to want to beat him to within an inch of his life!
The film may be frightful drivel but it gets a truly gorgeous new digitally remastered transfer, courtesy of Odeon Entertainment's new UK DVD release, that has been minted from the original film negative obtained from David Sulivan's personal archive in Barking. The disc comes loaded with some very worthwhile extras, too, and they're sure to get trousers twitching among true connoisseurs of classic British smut. The Millington connection is the main selling point here, and the disc's number one extra feature is the notorious posthumous 1980 sexploitation cash-in "Mary Millington's True Blue Confessions". This is, to put it mildly, one of the most egregious attempts to profit from the death of a famous personage you could possibly image. Bad taste is the operative word in a weird, random assemblage of clips and reconstructions which seem to be inspired by the "Mondo Cane" and "Faces of Death" series of films. Millington's 'friend' John M. East provides a floridly narrated 'tribute' to the life and tragic death of the porn actress, and even his sanctimonious intonations can't disguise the tragic nature of her dismal descent into self-hating sleaze and cocaine dependency, eventually resulting in suicide after the threat of police prosecution (for the then illegal dispensation of hard core porn) and increasing tax problems, drove her into a spiraling black hole of depression.
The collage of Millington's film clips, her own voice culled from various audio recordings, and the relentless cheesy 80s synth accompaniment, together with interviews from Sullivan and various other people in the industry who knew her, starts out as merely a slightly odd spectacle; an, essentially, not too problematic curio designed to assuage Millington's fan base. But as the forty minute long film plays out, the content gets increasingly deranged -- puffed out with increasingly bizarre reconstructions: voyeuristic scenes shot inside the actress's empty home (with it's gaudy, Abigail's Party-esque decor), and, amazingly, a dire reconstruction showing a Millington look-alike lying inside an open coffin with pictures of her two Alsatians arranged beside her! An actress reads aloud one of Millington's four suicide notes, and then we get to see some more rutting -- an orgy held in Millington's home, touted as a representation of her free-loving lifestyle. It's crazy stuff, and, in true "Faces of Death" style, the content begins to get ever-more random and seemingly irrelevant. It's amusing to note that some of the images often contradict the sentiment of the voiceover: moments after we hear a recording of Millington questioning the 'dirty mac' image of the average patron one might find lurking inside her self-owned chain of porn shops, we're shown some priceless sex shop documentary footage, circa 1980, of a shifty-looking bloke in a dark raincoat, nervously making his selection of mucky mags and then hurriedly hiding them in his briefcase before making rather a quick exit!
The other major extra on this disc is one of George Harrison Marks' rare 8mm mail-order films. "Sex Is My Business" (1974) features Millington as its main attraction; it is still very much soft core, but includes far more explicit material than anything seen in "Come Play With Me". Millington began her career in the porn business by starring in a succession of these antiquates from a bygone era when sex was a shrouded mystery to your average spotty youth, and her appearance in this little film eventually brought her to the attention of David Sullivan. It runs for only seven minutes, so the 'story' is of course somewhat sketchy. The setting is a sex shop where Millington and the other girls working behind the counter are all dressed in see-through smocks. Someone accidentally releases a powerful aphrodisiac into the building and before you know it, the female staff are dragging the punters onto the floor and behind and on to the counter for rampant thrusting. Millington takes part in the most explicit scene, although nothing truly penetrative is shown. The piece is suitable grainy and dirt-flecked and conveys an appropriately vivid atmosphere of illicit sleaze -- just as one would hope!
A stills gallery, which features "Come Play with Me" posters, front of house stills and VHS cassette covers, plays for about eight minutes; and a bunch of trailers which include among them Pete Walker's "Cool it Carol", rounds off this extravaganza of vintage British sexploitation. "Come Play with Me" is fairly dire, but its historical significance can't be denied and those with a taste for the disreputable side of '70s culture will find no better version available than this special edition UK release.