Back in the 1970s UK pornographers, living as they did in the country with some of the most restrictive laws on obscenity in the Western world, sold items illegally under the counter in sex-shops. Being as that was the case, it’s surprising that a hardcore performer who appeared in illegal sexually explicit movies became something of a celebrity. Mary Millington was that star and Respectable: The Mary Millington Story, made by her biographer Simon Sheridan, is a documentary about her short and eventful life.
As well as being an examination of the life Britain’s most famous porn star and her death by overdose at the age of 33, the film acts as a document of social history looking at the nascent pornography industry that existed in the UK during her lifetime. An industry which she did much to expand.
People often ask if the world overly sexualised in the modern age. Pornography is so ridiculously easy to find, what with the internet providing simple access to anyone who wants to go looking for it, that it is perhaps sobering to realise that in Britain before as recently as the year 2000 hardcore pornography was actually outlawed. Pornography before the internet was something which was softcore and on the top shelf in the newsagent. Or – as many stand-up comedians have pointed out – found in tattered remnants in the bushes of the local park. Mary Millington graduated from that softcore modelling, to hardcore films, to titillating sexploitation comedy movies.
Millington was a nice, pretty middle-class girl who liked sex, in an age when people didn’t really talk about it beyond smutty innuendo. When her mother became terminally ill she decided to become a glamour model for top-shelf magazines to help pay for her care. She wasn’t shy, and was proud of her body. Soon after meeting the pornographer John Lindsay, she began making 8mm (illegal) hardcore loops for sale across Europe and under the counter in Soho sex-shops. A career in “respectable” cinema followed – the tatty “Confessions of” style tits, arse and sniggering double entendre strewn films which were full of nudity and could be shown in legitimate cinemas. These films were the very nadir of British cinema, the unwatchable but profitable rubbish the 70s regularly churned out alongside film versions of television sitcoms. Millington starred in Come Play With Me, still one of the longest running films in British cinema history, which played at the Moulin cinema in London for over four years. It was this movie which made her famous.
It’s fascinating to see how closely these worlds operated together, one deemed fine in the eyes of the law, and the other beyond the absolute furthest reaches of legality. The murky fringes of each world, blending into each other in offices and shops in Soho.
The film includes a great number of interviews with figures from both pornography and her private life, who all still seem in awe of her capacity for taking on authority. Millington socialised with the movers and shakers of the time, and also worked as a high-class prostitute. She was even rumoured to have had an affair with former Prime Minister Harold Wilson. But it was the decline of her career, combined with drugs, which became her undoing. She opened her own sex shop, unapologetically selling sexual explicit and illegal material and was regularly raided by the police.
Respectable: The Mary Millington Story is a fascinating look at a strident but ultimately short-lived life – someone who in many ways lived out of time. The descent of Millington after her career falters is a familiar but sad one. The sexual attitudes described in the movie are nothing particularly at odds with the modern world, but it’s interesting to note that had the documentary been released in the period it covers, it would have been banned. Illustrated with explicit material, including erect male genitalia, the documentary itself would probably have been denied a certificate until as recently as the end of the 1990s.
Respectable: The Mary Millington Story is out now on DVD, and is also available on Netflix.