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Episode: Man Alive: X- Ploitation (first broadcast 24/4/75)
Man Alive was BBC2's seminal factual programme running from 1965-till-1982. In 1975,arguably the British sex film's peak year,the Man Alive crew were dispatched to discover 'the bare facts about what's happening in the British film industry'. The resulting documentary on the British sex film industry,Man Alive: Xploitation,is certainly a contrast to the BBC's next British Sex film doc Doing Rude Things,made 20 years later. While the latter looks back at the genre with a firmly tongue in cheek approach the contemporary Man Alive one treats it as nothing short of an nationwide epidemic,an epidemic of poor-taste.
One of Man Alive's big scoops at the time was uncovering the exploits of film-producer 'Elton Hawke'. A bigger scoop considering Hawke didn't really exist,he was in fact a dual pseudonym for Crossroads creator Hazel Adair and Wrestling Commentator Kent Walton. The pair 'came out' on the programme,a revelation that lead one magazine to quip Elton Hawke films may have little in common with the goings on at the Crossroads motel but aren't far removed from Walton's world of the wrestling-mat. Hazel Adair is a shocker,a less likely character to find working in sex films is hard to imagine. She's a cuddly grandmother type by way of Irene Handl,illustrating her odd position in life she's seen writing the script to Can You Keep it Up for A Week at her Earl's Court apartment as her grandchildren scamper about the floor. Sex film auditions were if this program is anything to go by disaster areas,actresses get sent for castings unaware of the type of films they are auditioning for and won't take their tops off . When Hazel does find an actress who is willing to strip an audition for a British sex film almost turns into a scene from one itself. 'You haven't gone all prissy and won't take 'em off anymore' asks Hazel adding 'you won't need to take your knickers off' only to be told 'I haven't got any on'.
Seen at the program's outset romping around in his Y-fronts John Hamill was a physique-model turned actor,after roles in straight films became fewer Hamill dropped his standards (among other things) to play Alan Street in a series of mini-sex films. By the time the Man Alive crew caught up with him Hamill was attempting in star,produce and direct himself in 'Doing the Best I Can'. Hamill refers to himself as a 'businessman',but looks out of his depth,the narrator notes Hamill has sunk twenty thousand pounds of his own money into the project and is using his own house for the shoot. In another cost-cutting exercise the leading lady is Hamill's fiancé Trudy a window dresser turned reluctant actress. Asked if she wants to continue acting Trudy quite profoundly replies 'I've got no intention of being somebody'. Hamill on the other hand clearly does want to be a somebody,he talks about directing more classical work within three years when he'll be thirty. Its one of the sadder aspects of the programme,watching the talking heads of optimistic young men telling you how they hope to move onto A-list picture work within a few years,fully in the knowledge that the A-list films never came. (Hamill ran out of money and never finished Doing the Best I Can,he left acting by the decade's end).
One thing the programme makes clear is that the less fortunate souls of the industry were the scriptwriters,men who worked fast and came cheap,the ultimate lackeys. While horror director and '36 year old Bachelor ' Pete Walker behaves like a resting James Bond popping champagne bottles with a glamorous girlfriend,his scriptwriter David McGillivray occupies a bed-sit in Kilburn and looks like he's been hunched over a typewriter for days. But pity the writer of Erotic Inferno 'Jon York' who doesn't even have those luxuries,he's a student at York University,cranking out scripts in the library. He compares his scripts to great English literature like Chaucer and Shakespeare,though Geoff and Bill never got paid a flat fee of two hundred and fifty quid for writing British sex films.
It has to be said that the Man Alive programme does wear the slightly off-putting face of disapproval. Its not director James Kenelm-Clarke's fault,he no doubt thought he was making an honest documentary that reflected his subjects opinions. The problem is that his subjects aren't always that honest. You get the impression everyone was being on their 'best behavior',all deliver spiel along the lines of 'I don't really like making this kind of movie but times are hard and the public don't seem to want anything other than nasty sexploitation,an awful shame really'. Reoccurring comments about the depressed state of the mid-70's film industry certainly ring true,but otherwise you can't help feel you're being mislead into believing sexploitation film-making was a universally bad experience. In his biography of the genre 'Doing Rude Things',McGillivray refers to the programme as a pack of lies and later came clean to trade-paper Screen International claiming despite what you see on screen he'd never meet anyone who'd been embarrassed by staging nudity or violence and didn't regard the whole game as more of a lark than a degrading experience. He couldn't understand why any of the participants-including himself-hadn't been more honest. Of course with the Mary Whitehouses of this world reassured that no one at least actually has any fun doing 'that kind of thing', British sexploitation got to continue on its own quietly merry way, clever. But while its best approached with a degree of skepticism the Man Alive episode does have value as the only real documentation of the homegrown sexploitation industry made as it happened that allows you to put faces to names,and the occasional unguarded glimpse of the personalities behind the two. And of course the programme comes complete with its own twist/footnote/punchline in that Kenelm-Clarke quit his long employment with the BBC not long after to direct British sex films. So X-Ploitation can't be all that bad,can it?
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