Just 30 minutes’ drive from where I currently live, stands the location of one of the most notorious British exploitation films ever made. Directed by horror maestro Pete Walker, House of Whipcord was partly filmed at Littledean Jail in Gloucestershire in the summer of 1973. David McGillivray’s claustrophobic script tells the story of ‘permissive’ young women who are kidnapped and locked-up in a remote rural prison, run by a sadistic and mentally-unhinged matron (Barbara Markham). Once incarcerated, the girls are starved, whipped and, ultimately, sent to the gallows. It’s a bleak film certainly, but one which still packs a powerful punch nearly 40 years later.
Made as a somewhat tongue-in-cheek counterpoint to Mary Whitehouse’s anxieties about ‘moral decay’ in modern Britain, House of Whipcord bubbles over with sadomasochistic sexuality. This is best illustrated by the punishments metered out by brutal lesbian prison warder Miss Walker, played to perfection by the masterful Sheila Keith. The movie was released to British cinemas in spring 1974 and met with generally positive reviews. The highbrow Financial Times even praised its ‘quite inspired nastiness’.
Littledean jail sits behind austere, thick granite walls and is as imposing, and sinister, as when it first opened for business in 1791. For over sixty years the jail operated as a ‘house of correction’ where petty criminals, drunks and even witches were whipped and placed in solitary confinement. In the mid-1800s it became a police station and courthouse. At the time it was used as a location for House of Whipcord it was actually owned by Gloucestershire County Council. Since 2003 it has been the private home of self-confessed eccentric Andy Jones, his wife Nicola and their six children. For the past eight years Andy has opened portions of the the jail to the public, showcasing his eclectic collection of oddities. Dubbed the most ‘unorthodox museum in Britain’, Littledean Jail houses an Aladdin’s cave of the most macabre memorabilia ever exhibited. Displayed side-by-side are taxidermy ‘freaks of nature’, original Nazi SS uniforms, voodoo dolls, instruments of torture, shrunken heads, sexploitation cinema posters and thousands of signed celebrity photographs.
The bulk of the collection focuses on crime memorabilia and brings together items once belonging to murderers like John Christie, Charles Manson and Donald Nielson. There is even a display dedicated to local serial killer Fred West’s house-keys, tools and work-boots and his wife Rose’s skimpy underwear. It goes without saying that not all the collection will be to everybody’s taste and I’ll admit I was genuinely unsettled by some of the incredibly gruesome items on display. Nevertheless, Guv’nor Andy Jones is at pains to warn visitors to keep away if ‘easily offended’. A large sign outside the jail warns the public of the dubious horrors to be found within.
Sadly, Mary Millington has no real connection to my home county of Gloucestershire. The nearest she ever came here was during her travels for David Sullivan’s stable of magazines. Mary was photographed in Bristol for Private (issue #31), and ‘returned’ (minus photographic proof) for Whitehouse (issue #49). In nearby Wales she visited Newport for Playbirds (issue #2), and then Cardiff for Private (issue #28) and Playbirds (issue #37). Strangely, considering how well-travelled Mary was around the UK, poor old Cheltenham and Gloucester were given a wide-berth. However, part of Littledean Jail’s exhibition does pay tribute to ‘Britain’s Queen of Sex’. Alongside the museum’s ‘adults-only’ collection of porn star memorabilia, including signed photographs of Linda Lovelace and John Holmes, there are framed posters from Mary Millington’s True Blue Confessions and World Striptease Extravaganza. As far as I’m aware this is the only instance of Mary appearing in a museum display anywhere in the world. Admittedly, I’d prefer it if Mary was hanging in the theatre & film gallery at London’s V&A, but if you feel like stepping into a real-life 1970s exploitation movie a visit to Littledean Jail is undoubtedly the nearest you’ll ever get.
More details can be found on Littledean Jail’s website: http://www.littledeanjail.com/
All words and photos © Simon Sheridan 2012-2015