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picture of The Lord's Lovelies
Lord's 1928. The Lord's Lovelies prepare to entertain members in the Bowlers Bar.

Under the counter - a brief history of Sixploitation

Emeritus Professor Vic Flange, Head of Social History at Lunn Poly, looks at the roots of Sixploitation and traces its history from the early days of Freddy Hill to the films of Walter Less.

Part One - Umpires of pleasure

Sixploitation, in its earliest incarnation, appeared at the same time as cricket became a popular spectator sport in the middle of the 18th century.

It had no name until maverick film director Walter Less created a notorious body of celluloid work in the 1960s and 70s. This popular - if perennially underground - mixture of cricket and erotica was finally christened in 1973 in an article in Sight and Sound magazine by well known cricket fan and film critic Barry Norman, who wrote: "Less's films are narrow in their ambition and even narrower in their themes. Cricket, sex and exploitation ... sixploitation, if you like. And why not?"

picture of Victorian erotica
Victorian erotica promoted the idea that it was what a woman was like inside that was important.

Yet Less's use of sport and bare skin to make money was far from original. His frenzied cornering of the market might have brought a new name to the practice but it had its roots in much earlier examples of the form.

The first major work of cricket-based adult material was the infamous novel Freddy Hill: Memoirs of an Umpire of Pleasure by Christopher Hogg published in 1748. The novel concerned the amorous adventures of a young man Freddy Hill, who had been sent to London from his rural village home and is forced into working as an umpire by his unscrupulous landlord Mr. McCaffery.

The book is mainly concerned with an extremely detailed account of Freddy Hill's amorous introduction to the women on the edges of London cricket circles. Hill combined sexual irresistibility, bold umpiring and endless stamina. His famous seduction of Lady Phillipa De Lion was noteworthy for the explicit nature of the description and also the innovative use of rubber batting grips.

The book was immediately banned and Hogg and his publisher arrested. In the subsequent obscenity trial Hogg renounced the book - claiming that it had been written after his gruel had been spiked with Absinthe - and it was officially withdrawn; only to become more popular than ever in its various pirated editions. The ban remained in place until after the landmark Lady Chatterley's Lover obscenity trial in 1960. In fact it is known that D.H. Lawrence himself was widely influenced by the style and subject matter of Freddy Hill; and that he had originally intended for Lady Chatterley to have her affair with a Nottingham League wicketkeeper Seth Mellors. In a recent Sotheby's sale an early draft of the book - then known as Lady Chatterley's Glovesman - fetched nearly £1 million.

picture of scene from the Illustrated Freddy Hill (1902)
Scene from the Illustrated Freddy Hill (1902).

Although banned, Freddy Hill led to a slew of contemporary imitators. The works of the Marquis De Sade were also filtering through into literary life and caused a sensation for the select band of readers who had access to them. Privately pressed cricket erotica suddenly became big business on the London publishing scene. De Sade's 120 Days of Sodom appeared in its translated form as 120 All Out, Sod It! specifically for cricket fans, taking as its themes sexual enslavery and underarm bowling.

Victorian England was highly moralistic on the surface. Cricket was thought of as a game played by gentlemen of a certain breeding and therefore was considered a virtuous pastime, untainted by scandal or the working classes. Yet despite its privileged position within society cricket was ripe for exploitation. Players such as W.G. Grace and Arthur Shrewsbury cleverly used their position as sporting icons by signing up to a range of endorsements that would have made top modern sportsman such as David Beckham blush. Grace, for example, advertised 'Mayfair Sheaths' under the tag-line "Doctor Grace says: don't get the sylph - play fair with Mayfair". Although not strictly sixploitation it was an early indication of the connection between cricket and sex.

Other players of the Victorian era were quick to see opportunities for themselves. The 1884 test series against Australia saw interest in cricket reach new heights and with it further evidence that English society viewed players for more than just for their batting or bowling prowess. That year saw the publication of Ye Olde Cricket Hunks calendar; featuring detailed sketches of W.G. Grace and his brothers (years before they set up their department store), Lord Harris and Billy Barnes in provocative poses. Shortly afterwards London was awash with rumours that Arthur Shrewsbury was engaged to be married to the celebrated stage performer Lily O'Grady from the singing group The Spice Trade Girls. Although they never actually married it elevated both parties to the early ranks of celebritydom.

Sadly, O'Grady met a sticky end when she became one of the victims of the Umpire Ripper - the still unsolved series of murders in St John's Wood that terrified London society in the late 1890s. After O'Grady's brutal slaying the killer even cheekily wrote to the Police mocking them over their incompetence and calling for an overhaul of the front foot no ball rule. Modern forensics would have undoubtedly revealed the true identity of the Ripper: a bloodied white coat containing a note in the pocket saying "I did it" was found floating in the Thames near Putney Bridge a day after O'Grady was killed but discarded as unimportant by officers. The tragic actress became the first - but far from the last - victim of Sixploitation.

picture of
The death of early Sixploitation star Lily O'Grady as depicted in the popular Victoria publication Rozzers Weekly.

Meanwhile the growing notoriety of the Kama Sutra - pornography disguised as oriental spiritualism - led to British publishing houses rushing to produce their own versions. One such publisher was Wisden who responded to the demand for the Kama Sutra by producing their own version called Fielding Positions. It caused a minor scandal at the time and the letters page of The Times was full of irate missives forecasting the end of civilised society. What really upset Times readers was the books detailed illustrations of men and women (and its enthusiastic coverage of the ménage a trios) 'in flagrante' under various headings such as: Short Fine Leg and Long On.

The subsequent outcry caused Wisden to withdraw the book and place a full page apology in The Times blaming a printing mix up. Director F.S. Wisden claimed that the illustrations had been meant for a textbook on anatomy and had unfortunately been accidentally mixed up with the proofs of a legitimate cricket coaching manual. Few believed him; especially when it was pointed out that there was no known medical procedure that involved a woman being naked on a swing with a man dressed as an umpire.

The improvements in photographic reproduction techniques were a godsend to those who had quickly realised that a combination of cricket and naked female flesh was, in effect, a license to print money. Magazines were more expensive to produce so the early Sixploiters concentrated on distributing loose photographs through the post to interested parties for a princely sum.

It is well known that such deliveries were very popular amongst the leading cricketers of the day. Douglas Jardine was an enthusiastic subscriber and even had deliveries during the Australia tour of 1932-33.

In his tour diary he mentions "the joyous arrival of a parcel from blighty containing the most glorious pictorial delights it has ever been by privilege to see. Sadly after perusing the contents thereof for many glorious hours whilst tumescent I have made worse an old wrist injury and fear that I may not be able to bat in the next test." Jardine's reputation for aloofness was not helped by his refusal to share his 'pictorial delights' with other members of the touring party after two got stuck together after being borrowed by Gubby Allen. The rest had to make do with the chastity belt section of an early Littlewoods catalogue instead.

It wasn't all cloak and dagger. Many a gentleman on his annual seaside holidays took advantage of the popular What the Umpire Saw machines that could be found on a number of English piers. These coin-operated projectors typically showed a lady disrobing in a crude mock-up of the Long Room whilst being spied on by a man in a white coat.

picture of McGill postcard
McGill postcard from 1950 featuring his trademark saucy umpire.

Holiday makers might then have perused the postcards for sale in any seaside gift shop. Many of the biggest sellers were of the 'saucy' variety; especially those involving cricketers. These cards are now seen as a defining icon of British culture and their brand of colourful double entendres influenced all later film and television comedy - as well as the vast majority of sixploitation films.

The great saucy postcard artists such as Donald McGill fully understood that cricket and sex was an intoxicating mix for the holidaymaking public in the austere post war years. Umpires were a favourite subject of the postcard companies and were often depicted as sexually frustrated pathetic little men being humiliated by women. The best selling McGill postcard from 1958 shows an umpire in agony clutching his groin whilst a nurse with a steaming kettle is berated by the matron: "I said PRICK HIS BOIL not ..."

As the nation recovered from the effects of the Second World War the British looked for something to take their mind off the austerity, rationing and Vera Lynn. They may not have known it at the time but the country was about to enter a new phase ... the age of sixploitation.