The list of ‘great British erotic films’ is a very small list indeed. That’s not to say we don’t have any in our oeuvre. Peter Strickland’s The Duke of Burgundy, Ken Russell’s Women in Love, and a handful by Nicholas Roeg all make the cut – although none but the first could be called erotic in themselves. So why the drought?
Maybe it’s due to our historically coy attitudes towards sex, coupled with strict censorship laws that lasted up until the 2000s. Although subjective, most would say eroticism is not simply a matter of ‘getting your bits out’, and sincerely erotic British films are rare, being the reserve of a few bold auteurs and those sitting firmly in the art-house camp. Derek Jarman. Peter Greenaway. Maybe Michael Winterbottom, if that’s your bag.
British attitudes have nurtured a culture of blushing filmmakers who’d rather skip serious eroticism entirely. Or when they do address sex and sensuality, do so with a nudge and a wink, because no one can laugh at you if you’re not being sincere. Perhaps that’s why our slim erotic film catalogue is full of unfunny sexploitation comedies, ‘naturist’ documentaries and the odd rare gem.
Robert Hartford-Davis’ School for Unclaimed Girls (1969, originally titled The Smashing Bird I Used to Know) is a little tricky to categorise. It’s not particularly erotic, and it’s definitely not a Carry On-style comedy or a naturist film. It’s more of a sexed-up British kitchen sink drama that slots into the lesbian ‘women in prison’ subgenre.
It’s a true ‘60s-70s sexploitation flick, complete with (brief) nudity, psychedelic negative photography, crash zooms and melodramatic acting. It’s a little schlocky for academic reading, but worth a look for its ‘of the time’ portrait of social attitudes towards ‘wayward women’, and its muted sexual content.
Consider these four frames, which cover the ‘women in prison’ genre’s tropes – lesbianism and sadism – with more reserve than the genre’s more hardcore US, German and Italian offerings.
Schoolgirl Nicki (Madeleine Hinde) stabs her mother’s layabout squeeze after he attempts to rape her. She’s sent straight to a reform school with other wayward women. We’re first introduced to the group via their legs as they jive to rock ‘n’ roll in their short slips.
Dynamics of the group are revealed as Nicki undergoes counselling with a kind matron. Tensions rise, women clash and some of the more familiar prison sexploitation tropes surface – a sadistic group shower scene and a fully clothed lesbian peck on the cheek.
The final showdown before Nicki escapes reform school comes in the form of a three minute long bedroom brawl. It’s not particularly titillating, but it’s a lot of fun. Cameras are fast, there’s a bit of slapstick – the actresses can’t help but smile, even though they’re supposed to be beating each other up.
School for Unclaimed Girls is out now on DVD via Screenbound Entertainment.