What do Mary Millington and a portly English monarch have in common? Well, curiously enough, they both spent the night in the same stately Tudor residence… although, obviously, not at the same time. Over the centuries Weston Manor, in the picturesque Oxfordshire village of Weston-on-the-Green, has been the palatial home of the Earls of Abingdon and Warwick, King Henry VIII and Stuart Bevan, the Conservative MP for Holborn, but it was Mary who finally put the house on the front page of the News of the World.
In 1945 the Manor was converted into a hotel, and after holidaying there in the late-1960s director George Harrison Marks became friendly with the then-owners Archie Price, and his son Nicholas. The Prices ran the hotel for over 20 years and made the venue a popular destination for lovers of shooting, horse-racing and partying. So enamoured was Marks with the building that in 1968 the filmmaker did a deal with Archie Price to let him shoot scenes for his naughty nudist comedy The Nine Ages of Nakedness at the hotel. Eight years later Price offered his chum another out-of-season ‘special rate’ to film Come Play with Me there; although he soon came to regret it.
On Sunday 10 October 1976 Britain’s most notorious sex film of all time started a week of location shooting at the Weston Manor Hotel. In hindsight, the central motif of Come Play with Me wasn’t actually a naked girl at all, but was, in fact, the building itself – masquerading as ‘Bovington Health Farm’, a faded weekend retreat staffed by nymphomaniac nurses intent on offering flabby middle-aged clients the “full treatment”.
Although parts of Weston Manor date back to the 11th Century, the building is predominantly Tudor, having been extensively remodelled in the late-1500s, and Marks adored its regal opulence. However, during production of Come Play with Me most of the cast and crew stayed on site, creating a party environment which wasn’t always conducive to filming. Mary shared her room with co-star Pat Astley, whilst Anna Bergman bunked up with Penny Chisholm. Associate Producer Willy Roe recalls many of the performers thought they were at ‘a holiday camp rather than a movie set.’
The seven days of filming proved to be fraught with problems from the outset. It became apparent to everybody on set that director George Harrison Marks (who also starred) was woefully out-of-practice making a feature film. Rumours began to reach the more established cast members that a hardcore version of Come Play with Me was also being prepared, infuriating Irene Handl and Alfie Bass, who subsequently threatened to quit the film. Meanwhile, whiskey-drinkers Ronald Fraser and Bob Todd had taken up residence in the hotel bar, and when Anna Bergman refused to go topless in a scene, she was unceremoniously sacked. Her friend, and co-star, Nicola Austine walked off the set in solidarity. Bergman made a complaint to Equity, the actors’ union, who promptly despatched a representative to Weston Manor to investigate the goings-on at the hotel. By the time the film had decamped to Bushey Studios, the News of the World had run a front-page headline: ‘We didn’t know it was a blue movie, say stars.’ The movie’s cast were said to be ‘furious’ at the inclusion of ‘oral sex’ and ‘lesbian activities.’ Producer David Sullivan was unrepentant. ‘Nothing is simulated,’ he told the newspaper. ‘The film will make Linda Lovelace look like Noddy!’
Thankfully, Weston Manor is a much calmer place nowadays, and being just a 45 minute drive from my house, I recently decided to pay another visit. Archie Price sold the hotel in 1983 and for the past 30 years the building has been beautifully, and sympathetically, restored by current owner Dudley Osborn. What immediately strikes anybody familiar with Come Play with Me, is how relatively close the hotel is to the main road. When Mary and her female co-stars – including a naked Suzy Mandel, no less – danced around the front of the Manor, they were in full view of traffic trundling past. The grounds are certainly less overgrown now than they were in 1976, but even back then the locals must’ve been transfixed by the troupe of saucy ‘nurses’ gyrating around the gardens.
The imposing hotel exterior is much the same today. The building is considerably more luxurious than it was some 36 years ago, although it is still instantly recognisable from its colourful cinematic past. Here’s a selection of ‘then & now’ photographs, comparing the hotel from 1976 to 2013.
In addition to these photos, the pivotal scene where Irene sits beside Mary (and confesses to her nephew Jerry Lorden that her health farm is bankrupt), was also resourcefully shot in the Entrance Hall; and two subsequent scenes where Lorden and Suzy, and later Cardew Robinson, talk to the girls, were both shot in the Georgian Dining Room, overlooking the croquet lawn. Additional sequences were filmed in the manicured gardens and around the outdoor pool.
Weston Manor is well worth a visit – the staff are incredibly welcoming and the hotel is absolutely beautiful, perhaps one of the loveliest in England – but just don’t expect the building’s crucial role in British movie history to be publicly recognised. You certainly won’t find a portrait of Mary hanging over the fireplace.
For more information about staying at the hotel, check out their website:
All words and original photographs © Simon Sheridan 2013-2015