Most people have never heard of Harry Knights, nor would have any idea of the important role he had in developing the libidinous public image of Mary Millington. Yet for nearly five years he was the invisible companion who never left Mary’s side and was, arguably, one of the chief architects behind Britain’s most famous sex symbol.
Born in Keighley, West Yorkshire in 1926, Harry always harboured a desire to be a professional writer, but a succession of other jobs took his career in another direction. It was whilst Harry was managing a shoe shop in Nottingham city centre that he met his wife-to-be Maureen. ‘Harry always loved writing short stories,’ she recalls, ‘and he sent some scripts to BBC radio, but it never really came to anything. Then one day a friend asked him if he’d write the captions to photographs in a girlie magazine.’
Harry accepted the job and within a couple of years he was contributing longer articles and fiction. By 1971 his reputation as a dependable writer had come to the attention of David Sullivan, and his then-business partner Bernard Hardingham, who were looking for somebody to submit sexy stories for their new publishing venture down in London’s East End. Harry met Sullivan at his offices in Upton Lane and just days later he was writing for him. ‘Harry was overjoyed, because we were absolutely broke at the time,’ says Maureen. ‘In fact, Harry had to steal money out of the electricity meter just to pay for his fare to London.’
Under the nom-de-plume ‘Harry Marle’, he wrote a book on Sullivan and Hardingham’s huge success in the adult publishing industry, modestly entitled We Made £200,000. Harry also worked on Sullivan’s first mass market girlie magazine, Private, launched in 1973, which was nominally ‘edited’ by Doreen Millington. ‘He used to write Doreen’s editorials and all the articles,’ says Maureen. ‘But when Mary suddenly came on the scene Doreen got pushed aside.’
Mary’s photographic debut in issue of 22 of Private caused a sensation and before long she became the biggest draw in the pages of all Sullivan’s magazines. Mary had submitted a few stories herself, but she was not an experienced writer, so Harry took over the mantle of ghost-writing her material; namely her ‘Mary Millington in…’ travelogues for Playbirds, ‘Mary Millington at Large’ in Whitehouse, ‘The Further Sexploits of Mary Millington’ in National News and ‘Mary’s University Challenge’ in Lovebirds. ‘Plus he did all the rest of her stuff too,’ says Maureen. ‘He wrote every single word.’
Incredibly, in addition to all this, Harry also wrote the majority of the sexy articles, short stories and film reviews which filled up the remaining pages of Sullivan’s magazines; he even wrote the faked correspondence (from the likes of ‘Donald Epsom, London, W10’) for the magazines’ action-packed letters pages. Today, it’s hard to appreciate the sheer volume of material Harry was bashing out on his manual typewriter in his box room, always with a glass of whisky on the go. His output amounted to millions of words. Usually Sullivan would send a note to Harry specifying what subjects he required for forthcoming issues:
“Write words on lesbianism, saying it is beautiful etc,’ one note reads. ‘1,000 words on the naked male – saying it is artistic etc. Sex to order – an interview with three participants in blue films and porn books; Peeping Toms; memoirs of a prostitute; a 3,000 word short story – I’ll leave the choice to you.”
Incredibly, Harry was paid just £2.50 per thousand words, something Maureen is understandably still very bitter about. ‘We never seemed to have any money,’ she says. ‘We were always in debt.’ Harry was a workaholic, beginning his writing at 7am and working right through to 6.30pm at night, churning out around 7,000 words per day. Maureen would proof-read his work, before it was sent in the post to London. Middle-aged, balding and bespectacled, Harry certainly didn’t fit the stereotype of a man working in the sex industry. ‘It really didn’t bother me what he wrote,’ says Maureen. ‘I’m very broad-minded. Harry wasn’t a sleazy person, but all the words just came out of his head. He had a fantastic personality, although he was quite unassuming. But if we went to a party and people found out what he did for a living he’d be surrounded by girls. He could light up a room.’
Maureen, and her youngest son Christopher, believe that much of Mary Millington’s phenomenal success was down to Harry’s prolific writing. However, over the years, Harry became increasingly fond of the woman he helped ‘create’ and he dubbed her ‘The Blonde Tornado’. Mary joked that her ghost writer’s imagination was far more vivid than her own, “Oh, Harry,” she bemoaned, “what on earth have your stories got me getting up to now? What are you doing to me!”
When Mary died, Harry was genuinely bereft. ‘He thought the world of Mary, and he took her death very badly,’ says Maureen. ‘Harry felt that she had been let down and exploited.’ Ironically, four weeks later Harry was dead too, after a massive heart attack on 17 September 1979, whilst holidaying in Great Yarmouth with his wife and two young sons. He was aged just 53.
Thankfully, many of Harry’s carefully typed words still exist – stored in overflowing boxes at Maureen’s house in Nottingham. ‘Harry never quite made the big time, but he always wanted to be a serious writer,’ says Maureen. ‘I just don’t want Harry to be forgotten. After all these years Chris and I would like him finally acknowledged, because he was a decent, hard-working man and a very talented writer. We both miss him.’
All words and photos strictly © Simon Sheridan 2012-2019