Soho in the early 1980s was very different from the throbbing metropolitan hub we know today. Back then it was still sleazy, disreputable and not a fit place for a lone 28-year-old woman to wander on her own after dark, unless she wanted to get propositioned by scumbags. So naturally I wandered it, repeatedly.
There were some decent pubs and a bunch of screening rooms where film critics hung out, it’s true, but instead of streets full of
drunk tourists stylish brasseries and boutiques selling upmarket lingerie, most of the area was a warren of topless bars, peep shows, clip joints and prostitutes, with a lot of the businesses rumoured to have been run by porn magnates, gangsters and/or shady foreign concerns.
At this point in my life, I was desperately trying to find work as a photographer or writer, so conceived the slightly demented idea of visiting as many types of sex-related businesses as I could, and then writing about them. This I proceeded to do, in a spirit both naive and fearless, meeting with a lot of bemusement, a certain amount of suspicion but, fortunately for me, hardly any hostility or aggression – I didn’t exactly look like an undercover policewoman, but it’s possible they might have thought I was one.
The results are, I think, quite interesting – an impression of a vanished world. The following article was published in a short-lived men’s magazine called Boy Zone (no relation to the band) which went bust shortly afterwards, owing a lot of people (including me) a great deal of money.
Peep shows and nude encounters have now been replaced by lapdancing clubs, but you no longer have to go to Soho to find them. A token amount of smut can be found there to this day – but it’s nothing like it used to be. Hardcore sex films, of course, can now be rented or bought or downloaded and watched in the privacy of your own home, if you haven’t got anything better to do.
[Currency note: according to MeasuringWorth.com, one pound sterling in 1983 would be worth anything from £2.63 to £4.75 in 2012.]
ANNE BILLSON’S SOHO WALKABOUT
As the sun sinks slowly into Mayfair and the stars come out over Centre Point, the funster’s thoughts turn inexorably towards the bright lights and rundown neon of that square half-mile known as Soho, sin city nestling like a soiled Kleenex in the bosom of our great metropolis. We all know that there’s plenty of entertaining things for you chaps to get up to there, but what about we girls? With this in mind, I took a deep breath and plunged into the male-orientated maelstrom.
THE HARDCORE SEX FILM
It’s £3.50 for a three and a half hour programme. Good value a go-go, but I last only 20 minutes: this is strictly for the avant-garde film fan. It subverts all the conventions of normal cinematic technique in its pioneering use of disorientating continuity, fuzzy focus and flash-cut editing, and dispenses altogether with such traditional movie mainstays such as plot, characterisation and credits.
There’s a daring use of naturalistic sound (trucks going past in the background) coupled with constant light muzak; and the primeval Quest For Fire grunting is augmented by English dialogue rendered inaudible by the excruciating quality of an out-of-synch soundtrack. The cinema is packed with a clientèle of discreetly wheezing, rustling city gent types clutching briefcases over their laps.
The friendly Glaswegian ticket-collector thinks the films are all rubbish and prefers Mick Jagger in Performance. His co-worker mutters that the stuff they’re showing here is peanuts – not what he’d call hardcore at all. I realise with a jolt that I ain’t seen nothing yet. Could there possibly be anything even more boring?
THE TOPLESS BAR AND STRIPTEASE
I pay £2 and get taken out of the box office into the street, around the corner and down some stairs into a dingy sort of dive, where there are a lot of men in spectacles and a party of Japanese all staring at an empty chair in time to thudding disco music. I put my own spectacles on and immediately feel at home. There seems to be only one genuinely topless girl at the bar; the others are all hanging out of varieties of chemise.
The tariff is extraordinary: from £4 for a soft drink, through £8 for a glass of wine, culminating in a staggering £85 for something called “Schloss Boosenburg”. I settle for a half-pint of “Warlek” lager. “Is it non-alcoholic?” I ask cannily, having read about these things.
“Yes.” They point impatiently to the illegible hieroglyphic alongside each item. The topless girl insists I sit down, and follows me with my drink to the table. “That’ll be £4 plus £1 service charge.”
One bespectacled gentleman causes a rumpus and leaves in such a huff that he knocks over three chairs, one topless waitress, and, almost, me and my Warlek. They’d been pressing him to buy a drink and he wouldn’t. “It comes out of our wages – that’s why we get a bit stroppy.”
The beat goes on. The Japanese go home. Some of the spectacles go home. When does the show start? “Any minute now.”
Forty minutes later two of the girls saunter over to the empty chair on the “stage”. One of them draws the curtains to and fro, while the other strikes inanimate attitudes in progressive states of undress. But where is the Bump n Grind, eh? I thought this sort of thing went out with The Windmill. The artiste is an undeniably good poseur, but I was expecting a bit more music and movement for my money.
“Everybody out! Two pounds one show only!”
“Did you enjoy the show?” they ask me.
“Um,” I reply, “It was very… artistic. But the curtain was a bit noisy.”
(Yells) “Hear that? Put some oil on the curtain!”
“Were you bored?’ I ask the artiste. “You looked very bored.”
She says nothing and just looks more bored than ever, so I exit in search of a real drink.
THE PHOTOGRAPHIC STUDIO
There are two naked models hanging around, one black and one white. I’m asked to choose, and immediately suffer fits of paranoia that whichever one I don’t go for will be mortally offended and/or think I’m racist. Eventually I opt for the nearer of the two. She’s black and her name is Sherry.
The studio consists of a couch draped in degrees of lurid puce and lit by two photographic lamps. I get out my Olympus and sink to my knees in time-honoured Blow-Up fashion. “Don’t sit on the floor,” she says. “The carpet’s wet.”
I leap to my feet, thinking of my right knee and its rheumatic tendencies. Why is the carpet wet? One doesn’t like to ask.
Sherry launches into her routine, changing her pose with each click of the shutter. Elbows up. Tits out. Smile etc. She tells me (not without a little discreet prodding on my part) that the male photographers usually want continental poses. Continental? You mean like Brigitte Bardot? Pouting sex kitten? No. Legs apart. I get the drift, but prefer to approximate a Sun Page 3.
What kind of lenses do they usually have? Zoom? Telephoto? (You can see I’m thinking Freud.) No, says Sherry, ordinary ones like mine. She gets a bit embarrassed when they have to go in close to fill the frame. Otherwise, she says, it’s not too bad. There’s no funny stuff allowed. Occasionally some of them pop back to give her prints. (Aha, so there was film in the camera.) She’s never posed for nudie mags. Really, Sherry wants to be a fashion model, but just doesn’t have the right contacts or portfolio.
Verdict: possibly the most fun a bona fide photographer can have in Soho for £7.50 (£9 if you have to borrow one of their cameras).
THE GAY VIDEO PARLOUR
He: “You can’t go in there, love. It’s men only.”
Me: (vehemently) “But I’m gay.”
He: (shaking head) “Sorry love.”
Later, I am assured by a habituee that this is not so much discrimination as a solicitous regard for my finer feelings. The videos, I’m told, come a poor second in entertainment value to the spontaneous floor show that is forever going on in the audience.
THE NUDE ENCOUNTER
“What! you mean you want to go in and look at a nude woman? You’re not one of those, are you ?”
Me: (vehemently) “No!”
The price scale goes from £8 for a 10 minute encounter up to £25 for a whopping one hour. The girl leads me downstairs, where we go into adjoining cubby-holes linked by a large curved window. I sink into my comfortable chair. She takes her clothes off and sinks into hers. I wonder whether I should take my clothes off too, but decide against it. There’s a stern notice saying that anyone who does anything too outré will instantly get chucked out on their ear.
I ask her about the customers. What do they do? Do they wank?
“Oh no.” She’s shocked at the suggestion. “They talk about their problems. They’ve all got wives or girlfriends. Some of them cry a bit. Then they go home.”
“Aha, so you’re a kind of psychoanalyst.” Freud again. Secretly I am thinking I would not do this job for ail the tea in China. Listen to men’s problems. God help us.
Sometimes she gets upset. (“I hate seeing men cry”) but on the whole it’s all pretty boring. Her boyfriend doesn’t object to her line of work, because “I don’t actually do anything, you know. I keep myself to myself.”
THE PEEP SHOW
I shut myself in the booth, but then have to reopen the door, because it’s so dark I can’t see where to insert my 50 pence piece. There’s a sort of letterbox which opens at chest-level – regular peepers must get appalling back-ache. What do I see? I see a naked girl dancing around in front of a mirror. She appears to be hav ing a good time. She’s mouthing along to the words of the record. She doesn’t play with herself, and she doesn’t “squeegee” the win dow as described in Duffy, the thriller by Dan Kavanagh (“The most realistic picture of the sordid life that is Soho you are likely to read” – Police World.)
Verdict: not good value for the discerning girl, who can probably get a better show for free in front of her bathroom mirror.
THE SEX SHOP
At first I think I’ve wandered into the London Dungeon by mistake; the walls are lined with severed phalluses, fingers, hands of Glory and disembodied heads with wide-open mouths pressed up against perspex packaging. There are also things like Invisible Booby Drops (for the Invisible Woman?) in chocolate, coconut and banana flavours. There’s underwear with bits missing. My attention is caught, however, by “Casanova’s Black Pearls”, which I’m surprised to find is not a euphemism for bollocks. “Each pearl contains the vital constituents of 25 large fresh oysters.” I fantasise about opening a genuine aphrodisiac joint on Old Compton Street serving real oysters, salted crocodile, dried salamander and the blood of bats mixed with donkey’s milk.
I have it on good advice that the rubber stockings restrict circulation and give you blue feet; but what about the rubber masks and knickers? Do they make you go blue, too? I search in vain for elbow-length black rubber gloves with which to do the washing-up. Eventually I buy a set of Sexy Doodle Transfers (“only £1.25 for a fun-filled pack of 4 sheets”). A lot of disconnected arms and legs and other, naughtier, extremities. With a little artistic ingenuity you can construct reasonable facsimiles of John Carpenter’s The Thing.
THE SAUNA AND MASSAGE
Me: (brightly) “Can I get a massage?”
She: “No dear, we only do gentlemen.”
Who do they think they are? El Vino’s?
THE MAGAZINE SHOP
It’s just like W.H. Smith & Son: the shop is full of people standing around reading the magazines. I should like to survey my surroundings, but etiquette demands I studiously avoid any possibility of eye contact, like everyone else. (Look to the mags, look to neither right nor left nor anywhere in the region of your fellow browser.) I am informed, by someone in the know, that this attitude is adopted not through delicacy, but through an infantile ostrich-like belief that it makes one invisible. These men are simply not there.
I flick through the pages of Swish! (“World’s Biggest-Selling Spanking Monthly”) and Miss Sadie Stern (“Best selling Fem-Dom Monthly”). They are both extremely silly, like Photo-Romance Teen Magazines gone mad. Jackie Jacks Off. All this stuff is unspeakably degrading to adult womanhood. It is also unspeakably degrading to adult manhood. But Adult Magazines these are not. They got stuck somewhere at the level of the Lower Fourth, witness the Bunter-like gurglings: NO-WOH-WOH-OUCH! YEEE-EEE-EEEEEK! YEE-ARRGH! SWEEEE-ISSSSH!
I toy with the concept of a TOTALLY ONOMATOPOEIC spanking story, nothing but capital letters and SFX.
There’s not an awful lot going in Soho for the average girl, unless she likes to take her clothes off. However, I’m glad to report that although I loitered days away on seedy Soho sidewalks, I was never once propositioned, molested or otherwise harassed, even while wearing my new Rouge Extreme lipstick. Then again, it might be due to the fact that I am also the Biggest Spotty Dog in the World.
You may also be interested in:
REP TALES (AND OTHER CINEMA MEMORIES)
LOUISE BROOKS AND ME
MUGSHOTS PART 3: THE OUT-OF-WORK YEARS
This brought back some memories, only some mind – I did a Certificate in Film Studies at the BFI, in Dean Street, between 1978 and 1981 so I remember the outsides of premises of the sort in your photographs. We used go for a drink in the Crown and Two Chairmen after our classes and we once saw Gavin Millar in there, which caused a little frisson. Really nice post.
Thanks Tom. I was trying to remember the names of the pubs. The Crown and Two Chairmen, yes. I also remember The Intrepid Fox (since transformed into rather a nice metal/bikers bar but changed yet again since then I think), the French Pub and the Blue Posts in Rupert Street.
Very entertaining. Only decent blog I’ve seen in ages. I am sorry you couldn’t get a massage though. Discrimination!
The man on the fourth picture down looks like Jeffrey Barnard
Great pictures. Soho still buzzes but there is an air of sterility now-sad really.
Reblogged this on My Little Underground and commented:
I’m just back from karaoke. I’m a wee bit drunk on a school night, so this is the perfect read for the mood I’m in…
Those were indeed the days and I was a legend on the sweaty stage.
I used to rent an office in Great Windmill Street, back in the days when I still suffered from the delusion that my future was in feature film production, and I vividly remember the disreputable-looking club opposite, as they always tried to lure me in whenever I walked past – except when I was with my female business partner.
I also remember having to visit Metro Tartan’s offices on a reasonably regular basis, and dreading having to emerge after sundown because the entrance was right next to a NUDE BED SHOW sign, and if I’d bumped into anyone I knew, “Yes, I know, but I was visiting the office above” would sound like the most pathetically unbelievable excuse in the world.
Although my favourite Soho memory was strolling through it with my then girlfriend and her suddenly exclaiming “Ooh look! Filth!”.
This is a great post. I once wrote a book about porn and censorship and did some research on rip-off Soho, that ultimately I didn’t use. I was stunned at the almost psychopathic style, or tendencies, of the many hucksters and fraudsters who worked in the (promise of) sex industry. There would be smiles, only to then be followed by violent rage once the money had changed hands, as you pointed out small detailis like, there’s no video in this box, you know, the video I just gave you twenty quid for. They’d get to homicidal anger in under five seconds. And then some guys would reach for the baseball bat. The first few times I was utterly horrifed and scared, obviously. Eventually I learned to stand up for myself – although, you’re probably best off not arguing with a baseball bat. But bark back, and often the rage would dissipate as quickly as it had fired up. That, for many hucksters, it was another trick of the trade, tape into the shame and fear of punters to get shot of them fast.
‘Always sell them the sizzle, not the steak’ as David Sullivan once said. And he should know a thing or two about the business.
When you think about some parts of the Soho (promise of) sex industry from back in the bad old days, it’s hard to really mourn its passing.
Thanks. Very interesting comment. It always bemused me that the people paid to see “sex films” at one of those sleazy Soho cinemas (the Moulin, certainly, where I watched some interesting films – but none of it hardcore, and very little of it actually very sexy) in the 1970s and 1980s could probably have seen hotter action at their local Odeon or ABC. Maybe they needed that sleazy atmosphere to get turned on.
Great prose, great photos. Used to know the area 10 years earlier, it was scuzzy then but it seems to have reached a peak of seediness in 1983.
But there were always good places to eat and drink, and most of those are vanishing now. Do you remember Jimmy’s? Amalfi is still there, I think – one of my first ventures into Italian cuisine in the early 1970s… Before I knew what lasagne was.
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