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Under the counter - Part 2 - Legover Theory

At the end of the Second World War Sixploitation entered a new phase - but beneath the glitz and glamour lurked danger and tragedy. Professor Vic Flange concludes his brief history of the genre time forgot.

In 1935 the magazine Health and Efficiency (H and E) was published for the first time. Despite its protestations of innocence H and E was essentially a soft core collection of photos of young women involved in activities such as playing tennis in nudist camps. In 1954 Wisden - many years after the 'Fielding Positions' fiasco - dipped its toe in the water again and brought out a cricket version called Fitness Frolics featuring photo spreads of naked ladies in the nets or running between the wickets. The magazine folded quickly when a storm of protests followed its arrival on the shelf. Once again Wisden found itself in a position of having to apologise. It placed another advert in The Times saying that a mistake had led to the type of lens used on x-ray specs to be accidentally fitted to the camera by a photographer taking innocent photographs of women's cricket. As before few people believed them.

picture of girls at the Playfair Club
Girls at the Playfair Club worked long hours in difficult conditions.

The H and E style of showing nudes involved in healthy outdoor pursuits was quickly adapted for the cinema in a series of documentary style offerings that proved very popular with the public. Inevitably some of these included long sections on athletic young women batting and bowling to a commentary provided by a plum voiced narrator making comments such as "look out for a couple of bouncers" or "be careful not to get one on middle stump!"

Things had become much easier for everyone involved after the end of World War Two. A growing number of licensed shops in London's Soho district specialised in 'under the counter' material making the purchase of such items much more straightforward. It was still illegal but Police vice squads tended to turn a blind eye especially as this heralded the era of the 'bent copper' whereby the law was not so strictly enforced if a mutually beneficial deal could be struck. Many prominent vice squad detectives got their test match tickets this way; especially after the MCC's short lived entry into the West End bookshop business when they took over a commercial lease in Wardour Street selling scorebooks, Lord's pen sets and Rachael Heyhoe Flint's worn box. The business swiftly folded after MCC President Lord Blaby refused to pay protection money and subsequently found an angry gang of racketeers on his doorstep. The ruthless extortionists executed a terrifying punishment by marching him to the nearest hairdresser for a bubble perm.

As always criminal gangs had quickly moved in to control the vast majority of the trade; enticed by the prospects of quick and easy profits. Although not usually associated with cricket the Kray Twins were in fact enthusiastic visitors to Lord's and liked nothing better than using their egg and bacon ties to garrote enemies. It has been not widely reported in the vast canons of Kray literature but the Kray's 'firm' had their own cricket team which regularly played rival gangs in tense, bloodthirsty 40 over contests.

picture of the Kray brothers
Ronnie and Reggie Kray's ill fated attempt to become Selectors floundered when they insisted on picking Jack 'The Hatchet' Finley for the 1st test against India.

One such match - against south London's vicious Richardson Gang XI at Uxbridge in 1967 was arranged to establish who should be given the green light to control London's cricket pornography trade. The Krays' Firm won the toss and bowled the Richardsons out for a lowly 148. Sensing an easy victory the Firm opened in cavalier style against the twin seam attack of Rolf 'Chinaman' Whippy and Kermit 'The Toaster' Menzies and were soon 28/5. A captain's knock from Reggie himself and a breezy 35 from Arnie 'Knuckles' Arblaster looked like it would seal a win for the east London boys but with just 2 needed off the last three overs Jack 'The Cap' Digestive batting at 10 managed to run out both his captain and then, the following ball, the last man, Frankie 'Boil In The Bag' Hackett.

The twins were furious. Two days later in the Blind Umpire pub it was 'innings closed' for The Cap.

Although the Krays worked out of east London it was Soho that was very much at the epicentre of 1960s Sixploitation. With a relaxing of the laws new shops, cinemas and strip joints popped up almost overnight. Suddenly there was a legitimisation that had never been in place before. And it wasn't long before they saw the chance to meet the demands of a newly expectant public; heady on the brew of sexual liberation, one day cricket and long awaited changes to the LBW laws.

picture of Ray Illingworth
Ray Illingworth lost his Revue Bar in 1975 in a game of Snap with Mick McManus. "I have no regrets about losing the club but some of my old jumpers give me nightmares".

In Soho Ray Illingworth opened his Raymond's Revue Bar where semi-naked girls bowled flat off spin at punters whilst charging them £50 for a bottle of cheap champagne. Its popularity led to others trying to repeat the formula with varying degrees of success. Fred Titmus is often considered to be the inventor of pole dancing at his Titty Titty Bang Bang Club - although on closer inspection his formula of scantily clad woman gyrating around a 10 foot set of stumps is far removed from the Spearmint Rhino version of today. Derek Underwood's Deadly's Dance Bar suffered terrible flooding on its opening night and it took a small army of volunteers from the audience to mop up the pools all over the floor. It lasted less than 6 months. 'Spin Bars' came and went with the majority of the more unscrupulous ones being regularly raided by the vice squad and the TCCB. Many of the girls working at the clubs had illegal actions and it was not uncommon for unsuspecting tourists to find themselves facing underarm bowling, chuckers and airborne sexually transmitted diseases.

Those establishments that survived - such as Max Walker's Windmill Action Club - were professionally run affairs with a regular client base of city gents and MCC members. Girls could make a decent living entertaining the guests and doing the odd bit of modeling. Over the counter publications such as Hugh Hefner's cricket-based girlie magazine Close of Play Boy or the slightly more explicit Scorer and Tail Ender sold in huge numbers and there was no shortage of pretty young things queuing up to appear in them. It was a short working life for the models and they needed to make as much money as possible before their looks faded. Some of the luckier ones met rich patrons who set them up in Kings Road flats and showered them with expensive gifts: furs, jewelry, clothes and pre war hardback Wisdens.

In her autobiography My Wicket Wicket Ways the actress Diana Clout wrote that "all the girls who worked in the West End clubs were on the lookout for first class umpires. Umpires liked the idea of having a mistress and were prepared to fork out most of their match fee to wine and dine a glamorous young model in places like the Playfair Club. The girls would then invent some sob story about being evicted or sexually harassed by an unscrupulous landlord. Within an hour they were collecting the keys of some swanky pad in Fulham. Umpires were also ideal because they went away a lot and led otherwise frugal lives. Many only had one pair of trousers."

picture of What The Umpire Saw
Joe Orton's What The Umpire Saw scandalised West End audiences with its mixture of smut, nudity and slow over rates. Diana Clout (right) as Dorothy.

Clout initially made her name in the burgeoning area of sixploitation theatre. Dramatists were keen to get a piece of the action and Clout's explosive acting talents, enormous chest and collection of coaching badges made her popular with casting directors. She appeared as Eva the tea lady in Harold Pinter's seminal work The Nightwatchman - a masterpiece of emotional minimalism and overnight wicket protection - which set new standards for conventional cricket theatre. It was dubbed the era of the Angry Young Men; playwrights who combined cricket and existential angst, most noticeably John Osbourne who made a name for himself with his two stonewalling masterpieces Block Back In Anger and The Non-Entertainer.

The sixties air of sexual liberation found its voice with Hair - a controversial mixture of hippy music and on-stage nudity set against the background of international umpiring. The sight of naked performers in a popular musical was groundbreaking as was the eponymous hero Umpire Hair's decision to call off a match between the Hippies and the Straights due to suspected ball tampering. Further, less celebrated, productions followed, both in London and on Broadway, with varying degrees of success. American audiences liked the nudity and songs but struggled to grasp the finer points of wicket preparation. For example, the play Goodspell was popular in the West End but American critics panned it after failing to understand why the lead character was no-balled three times during the keynote song Day by Day.

picture of Dick Flitter filming the Sixploitation classic Leg Over Theory
Dick Flitter filming the Sixploitation classic Leg Over Theory

Clout herself had relationships with a number of officials as well as at least one English test captain, four Wisden cricketers of the year recipients, a player who did the double and a TCCB pitch Inspector. Her fondness for those involved in the game was well known but she rebuffed Walter Less's attempts to get her to perform in his films. Her resistance paid off and she managed to keep her clothes on in television series such as the cricket sitcoms Are You Being Bowled and On The Team Buses and most famously as Mrs. Larkins in The Darling Bats Of May.

Less was the undoubted master of Sixploitation and during a decade long career produced over twenty films mixing thin cricket-based plots, wobbly camerawork and relentless groping. Although seen as a pioneer Less was, in fact, following in the footsteps of auteur directors such as Dick Flitter whose groundbreaking 1961 reworking of the Bodyline series Legover Theory stunned audiences in Soho. Flitter attempted to move into the mainstream but was repeatedly blocked by studios suspicious of his reputation. He died in 1975 a broken man and a desperate alcoholic. He was bitter to the end that Less had stolen his thunder and after the failure to secure funding for his proposed early 70s masterpiece The Timeless Tryst he swapped his camera for the bottle.

It didn't bother Less that his films were not going to be seen in every cinema in the country; he was happy just to get his product out to those who wanted it ... and there were plenty of those. Ironically the advent of DVD has created a new interest in Less's work and his later life was made more comfortable by the additional revenue generated by the release of his entire back catalogue on disc. He even managed to record commentaries on a couple of the DVDs, although it was clear to those who listened that his memory was fading fast - Lord Cowdrey was not the star of Extras and neither was Ken Higgs Sid Crumpet's body double in Sticky Wicket. Shortly afterwards Less was admitted to Brinkley House - the retirement home for cricket folk - where he caused problems by trying to encourage female domestic staff to audition for a proposed final film: Bonkly House.