Exactly 40 years ago – 28 April 1977 – something quite extraordinary happened; a low budget sex comedy named Come Play with Me opened at the Moulin Cinema at 42-44 Great Windmill Street, Soho, and changed British cinema history forever. Regular readers of producer David Sullivan’s magazines, like Whitehouse and Playbirds, had been anxiously waiting for this momentous day with baited breath. Come Play with Me had been relentlessly promoted within the pages of his top-shelf publications since the previous October, when shooting had commenced. Hardcore photographs from the ‘overseas version’ and extravagant flowery prose promised cinema-goers “Mary Millington and 20 nymphomaniac nurses in the rawest, most explicit British film ever made”. What punters got for their admission price of 90p was something quite different, not that anybody seemed to be complaining.
“It had Mary appearing in it, so I knew I could sell it,” says David Sullivan today. “It was as easy as that! The fans wanted to see her. It didn’t matter that she didn’t have a big part. It made no real difference what the film was about. Having said that, I have a soft spot for Come Play with Me. It’s a cute little movie. I was a big fan of Irene Handl. She offered to go topless had she been a few years younger! All the cast enjoyed it, despite what you read!”
Indeed, on 14 November 1976, after the film had just wrapped its prudent four-week shoot the News of the World reported, on its front page, that many of Mary Millington’s co-stars, including British comedy’s Grande Dame Irene plus Alfie Bass and Tommy Godfrey were horrified by the hardcore shenanigans going on. Under the headline We Didn’t Know It Was a Blue Movie, Say The Stars, many of the ‘legit’ actors were quoted decrying Sullivan’s ‘unfair’ and ‘objectionable’ work practices. At the time, the producer was unrepentant, saying: “The sex scenes will make Linda Lovelace look like Noddy!”
The tabloid scandal made for priceless publicity (“There really is no such thing as bad publicity,” says David now), and whetted the public’s appetite for a film which they were led to believe would change cinema forever. And it did, but in ways nobody could ever imagine. Come Play with Me opened with little mainstream press fanfare on Thursday 28 April 1977, but immediately broke box office records at the Moulin. David Sullivan had craftily come to an agreement with the Classic Group, who operated the cinema, that just so long as his film’s weekly taking didn’t drop beneath a certain ‘break figure’ then they would have to keep screening it. And screening it they did – solidly throughout the rest of 1977, all of 1978, all of 1979, all of 1980 and right up to 5 March 1981. Notching up an astonishing 201 consecutive weeks, it is still an unbroken record for a British film.
Across the UK the film did brisk business too – opening in Birmingham on 5 June 1977; in Bristol on 19 June and Blackpool on 14 July. Virtually everywhere it opened it smashed provincial box office records. This modest little ‘X’-rated sex film costing around £120,000 went on to gross something in the region of £5,000,000.
So on this special anniversary I salute the longest-running movie in British cinema history, and its star Mary Millington who rightfully deserves her part in the film’s incredible success. Not everybody is going to admire Come Play with Me, but I love it, even if one of its surviving stars doesn’t agree with me. “I think the film is absolute rubbish,” laughs actress Sue Longhurst. “I just never understood its appeal.”
© All words strictly Simon Sheridan 2017