No Sex Please, We're British!
Back in the spring of 1969, when my friend and I were planning to emigrate from Czechoslovakia to Great Britain, I attempted to find a job that would wait for me until I got there. This was all pre-internet days, pre-computers, pre-email, so I sat in my room and pecked out a few job applications on an ancient Underwood typewriter. But I had no idea who to send them to so I combed all Western pop-culture magazines for any address in the UK. Eventually I'd sent out a couple dozen letters, probably to publishers, fan clubs and mail order companies. I received one solitary reply... from Apple Corps, the Beatles music publishing company based in London. The letter, on the finest stationary I'd ever seen, thanked me for my interest and informed me that Apple had no vacancies at the present time. Should the situation change; they'd be sure to contact me. Signed by one Christine O'Dell, whose beauty and femininity just radiated from her carefree, curvy signature.
When Michael and I got to London, at the first opportunity we took a bus to the West End to 3 Savile Row where Apple was headquartered. We expected a huge place with lots of people milling around; instead we found a rather non-descript, typical London four-story terraced house. After some deliberation we hesitantly entered the Beatles' enclave. A perfectly attired receptionist greeted us with a smile and when we asked to see Christine O'Dell she did not bat an eyelid as she replied:
Early afternoon and we made another pilgrimage to Piccadilly Circus, not far from Savile Row.
Piccadilly Circus, London, UK. This was the center of the universe for me in the late sixties. This small square, not circular at all, a crossroads really, with its incongruous statue of mischievous Eros as a centerpiece, was the gathering place for young people from all over the world. Even when I lived in Czechoslovakia, behind the Iron Curtain, I was aware of Piccadilly Circus. I'd seen the pictures and desperately wanted to be there. We walked down the stately, gently curving Regent Street and suddenly we were there. Even in daylight, the famous Coca-Cola neon sign glared and flashed at us. As we were taking in the view, we were approached by a nice gentleman with a camera and a monkey who very kindly offered to take our picture...with the monkey and the Circus. Happily we posed and the kind fellow took our names, pocketed ten pounds sterling and promised to mail the framed prints the following day. Naturally, we never received them.
At Piccadilly Circus, cultures, that would normally collide violently, co-existed peacefully side-by-side. That's the English way. Stoned hippies comingled with snooty theatre culture-vultures, bleary-eyed tourists blithely supported the panhandlers and the con artists and the wild-eyed religious nutcases tried to convert everyone.
In a prime spot, right under the glaring Coca Cola neon was a kind of a souvenir/novelty store called "I Was Lord Kitchener's Valet". Originally the store sold vintage military uniforms popularized by "Sergeant Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band", but later, other tourist oriented knick-knacks, curios and various Anglicana were added. Michael and I loved that store but we could not afford to buy much. In a moment of gargantuan stupidity, I purchased some letter paper with a faux C.I.A. letterhead and envelopes on which I then proceeded to write a nice letter to my parents. Naturally it did not occur to me that they would be horrified and assume that I was now in the clutches of the Central Intelligence Agency being trained as a spy. But more dangerously, any contact in Czechoslovakia with CIA or other US governement agencies could easily result in a speedy trial and a decade of hard labor. It would be hard to explain this as a "joke". Nothing happened to me or my parents.
Just south of Piccadilly Circus were some of the most exclusive, snootiest gentlemens clubs (in the original sense of the word) in the world. In the other direction, up Shaftesbury Avenue, were some of the finest Victorian theatres in London. And right behind those was Soho, the red-light district of London.
While the rest of Europe was openly embracing freedom of sexual expression, starting with the Danish who simply declared pornography harmless and legal in the late sixties, with other equally enlightened countries following suit, England was still in the shadow of Queen Victoria God Bless Her and her prudish influence. This was a country where only a few decades ago, piano legs had to be covered by chenille drapes lest their nakedness offend. Those attitudes were still in evidence in England in the late sixies and anything to do with sex was discrete, concealed and cloaked in hyperbole. In Soho, ladies-of-the-night advertised their services by a tiny pink doorbell that would say "Young French Model, 2nd Floor". It was all genteel, inoffensive and ever so English.
But Michael and I were two eighteen your old boys; youths bursting with testosterone, coming out of a country even more sexually repressed then post-Victorian England. We checked out Picadilly Circus, hovered around the Eros statue, and tried to make meaningful conversation with the hippies, but nothing made sense, probably due to the acid some had just dropped. We were outsiders; we didn't know the lingo. It was Saturday night and we'd just started to explore Soho.
As we were meandering through the narrow streets we came across a neon sign that read "Exciting Swedish Films Inside". Because we were not country bumpkins, we knew that the sign did not refer to an Ingmar Bergman Movie Retrospective, but to films of a more risqué variety. We counted our money and walked inside asking what the admisssion price was. Five pounds, each, came the disembodied answer through a hole in the wall. That was quite a lot.Far more than a regular cinema ticket. Still, we forked over the ten pounds, to the side a black curtain parted and an arm belonging to another invisible person ushered us inside. How we actually found seats remains a mystery because the interior of the "cinema" was pitch black. And almost completely quiet. We assumed that our eyes would soon adjust, but they did not. It was that dark. We sensed there were other people near us, mostly just from perceived motion or a nervous cough. We had no clue as to the size of the room or where the screen was located. So we sat in silent darkness, optimistically assuming that any minute, the unihibited Swedish movie would start rolling.
Twenty minutes passed and nothing happened except a brief flash of light as yet another faceless voyeur was admitted. After about forty minutes we started getting restless, sensing that something did not quite jive. At that moment someone approached us and very quietly informed us that there is a far better and more avant-garde performance in another cinema nearby. But there would be an extra cost of another five pounds. Each. Indignantly, we refused this dubious offer and demanded that a movie start right fucking now or we want our money back. The geezer shrugged and moved down the row to pacify another impatient patron.
A single naked light bulb went on after only a few minutes and when we recovered from the temporary blindness we saw that we were in a tiny space with about forty seats arranged in rows. No screen. Owlishly blinking in the bright light, were herded outside and told that there would be a short walk to the other cinema. There was about thirty of us. We followed the leader through Picadilly Circus to Leicester Square and into one of the side streets near Trafalgar Square. Suddenly our seedy leader ducked into an empty store and we meekly followed. This time there was a white sheet on the wall and a 16 mm projector on a rickety card table. Trying to reconcile the combination of guilt and eager anticipation, we collectively and without a murmur, sat down on the garden chairs in front of the white sheet.
Someone turned the lights out and the projector lazily whirred to life. We saw a lakefront scene from several angles as the cinematographer panned lovingly, possibly looking for a subject of interest. Ah, there it was, two blondes in bikinis emerged from a small cabin with a beach ball. Once they found a flat grassy spot they began throwing the ball to each other. After a while of this riveting action, they were joined by two more women who were wearing only bikini bottoms. A game of doubles occupied the next eternity. Eventually even the bikini bottoms were shed by all, ostensibly to provide more freedom with the ball tossing. After a while, the happy quartet walked together to the cabin, laughing all the way...as the credits rolled across their bare bottoms.
The lights came on, the projectionist started to rewind the movie and we the audience, just sat there assuming this was to be a short intermission; we'd seen an appetizer and the real action would follow. We were wrong. That was it, we were informed by the leader of the group who promptly ushered us all out. Michael and I had just spent the equivalent of three days pay on a 15 minute nudist flick. While the rest of the audience slunk away, we felt that some action against this outrage was called for.
We noted the address of the store we'd been in, then noted the address of the original "cinema" and went to the nearest police station in the heart of Soho.
There being nothing else to do, we took the sergeant's advice, licked our financial wounds and took a double-decker bus home.
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© 2007 Karel Kriz and Bouncing Czech Productions