“There was an awful lot of it about then,” he told me. “Nudity.” And there was. The Romans in Britaincausing outrage with simulated sodomy at the National Theatre in 1980. And people were streaking at, it seemed, every public event under the… well, not under the sun… this was and is Britain.
In 1969, I saw Hairon stage in London’s West End and it seemed like you couldn’t go to any fringe play anywhere – be it Greek drama, kitchen sink or a play about Serbo-Croatian pottery of the 13th century – without people stripping off and jiggling their boobs or balls at you two feet from your face. Every naff suburban pub seemed to have lunchtime strippers. And then there was Paul Raymond.
Bush Hall – OTT scene of last night’s Great Sexpectations
I was reminded of this last night when I went to Great Sexpectations – the semi-finals of the performance section of the annual Erotic Awards, held at the wonderfully OTT Bush Hall in London. The event was a cross between a classy Venetian masked ball and a strip club run by Paul Raymond when he was claiming he was in the business of art not tart.
Last night was a successful stab at some glamorous 21st century divine decadence, just as co-organiser Grace Gelder had promised when I chatted to her for a blog a week ago.
She organised the charity fundraising event with Lianne Coop under the banner of Juicy Productions.
During the interval at the Great Sexpectations show last night
The fundraising was for The Outsiders’ Trust and this was the event’s 25th year, but Grace & Lianne’s first after taking over event production from originator Tuppy Owens
The Erotic Awards sign on stage last night had, as its subtitle, a quote from English artist Grayson Perry who, in The Times, described Tuppy Owens and her helpers as “the good people in a gloriously mucky business”.
Last night’s performers were divided into Stripping and Performance Art. Personally, I couldn’t see the difference. There was also a high element of Mime going on too and the whole thing reminded me of the newly-added section of the Edinburgh Fringe devoted to Cabaret – though with added nudity and expensive costumes.
One former venue for the event was London’s ICA – the Institute of Contemporary Arts – and, as last night’s stonkingly excellent compere Mat Fraser said: “We are contemporary and we are artistic.”
The craft of compering is always under-recognised and Mat seamlessly brought together audience and performers into a party atmosphere… with, among delights too numerous to fully mention, Rubyyy Jones &?!’ (pronounced And What?!) singing the Dead Kennedys’ Too Drunk To Fuck song and stripteaser Tiny Tim bringing up-to-date 1960s TV’s Musical Muscle ManTony Holland’s act with added sex and back-flips off a large stage speaker.
A highly coveted Erotic Award – the Golden Flying Penis
Other highlights for me included Aurora Galore debuting a new act. She was winner of the Miss Paris Burlesque Festival 2012 and says her influences range “from Lady GaGa to Haute Couture and a wide range of dance styles”. That rather understates the act.
Then there was Mynxie Monroe with an act which only incidentally included a wig, two bras, two panties and a dog being beheaded. Now, for me, that’s top class, well-structured entertainment.
There’s a special mention for (from Norfolk) gender bending MissCairo Mascara doing a striptease as Pinocchio with creative use of the nose.
But let’s not mention or even hint at what MisSa Blue did with the lit candles.
All this was merely a ‘taster’ for the much larger Night of The Senses event in May.
If Mat Fraser’s description last night was a true reflection of what has happened at that event in previous years, it’s going to be… well, quite a lot of things are better left unsaid.
First though, this coming Friday, are the semi-finals of the live part of the Erotic Awards, which are taking place in London’s Shepherds Bush at an event called Great Sexpectations.
“What’s the venue?” I asked Grace yesterday.
“Bush Hall,” she told me.
“That seems appropriate,” I said. “Is there a dress code?”
“Kinky Dickens and Victorian Erotica is the suggested theme, but it’s not compulsory.”
“Kinky dick ins?” I asked.
“Kinky Dickens,” Grace corrected me. “It allows gentlemen to jazz up an outfit with nothing more than a top hat.”
“An Artful Roger?”
“Possibly. The costumes that people are dreaming up sound quite exciting. Ladies are doing corsets and frilly things. The Bush Hall is just such a gorgeous venue. It has Viennese chandeliers, deep red velvet stage. It is a beautiful room, a music hall in its first few years.”
“So,” I asked, “do you see Great Sexpectations as a return to Victorian values?”
“It is celebrating the venue and getting everyone dressed up, but with a modern twist.”
A ticket for next week’s Great Sexpectations event in London
“I don’t think in the Victorian era what we’re doing would have been quite so publicly advertised. Perhaps, on the surface, Great Sexpectations is similar to a lot of other cabaret nights. But one difference is that we have strippers coming who would normally work in a strip bar; usually, in cabaret, it’s more burlesque. We have the burlesque, but we’ve also got the striptease category.”
“It’s a lot of work for you,” I said. “setting up an event like this.”
“Well,” said Grace, “we’ve had lots of support and advice from Tuppy Owens, who organised the event previously and I’m doing it with Lianne Coop, who is a radio producer. We’ve got a complementary set of skills. I’ve worked a lot in theatre and I’ve got a background in erotic photography. She worked at the BBC for a number of years and produced the New Comedy Awards for two years, so she’s got fantastic event production skills.”
“But isn’t this just trying to make nudity and lechery sound posh?” I asked.
“Well,” said Grace, “I don’t think there’s anything wrong with admiring people who are comfortable to be on stage with gorgeous bodies and happy to perform in a sexual fashion. I also feel that, in the world of erotica – because it’s been such a taboo area in our culture – there’s a lot of people who do really essential work and who are regularly entertaining hundreds of people every week that don’t get the respect they deserve.”
“So,” I said. “I am Fred Bloggs. Why should I go along to see Great Sexpectations next Friday?”
“It’s going to be a fantastic visual feast for the eyes,” explained Grace. “Lots of amazing performances.”
“So you’re selling it as a Las Vegas cabaret event rather than a sleazy Soho event?” I asked.
“I think it really bridges everything. It’s visually-beautiful, cheeky, saucy but filthy in places. We’re trying to cater for everybody, because this is The Erotic Awards and erotica doesn’t just mean one thing. We’re trying to cater for people who might want something more extreme. We’ve got a woman called MisSa Blue who does fantastic performances with candles.”
“She’s burning the candles at both ends?” I asked.
“All I’d say,” continued Grace is that MisSa Blue is definitely one to catch. And we’ve got some fantastic burlesque, some fantastic drag performances. One of our judges – Rubyyy Jones – has been a massive help to Lianne and me. She is all over the London cabaret scene and is also a drag performer in a troupe called ‘&?!’ (pronounced And What?!). They will be doing a special performance for us. The idea is to make the night as diverse and celebratory as possible.”
“Have you ever had the urge to dabble in burlesque dancing yourself?” I asked Grace.
“We studied Latin at my school,” she replied, “and, when I was 11, I had an amazing Latin teacher. She wrote a school play set in Pompeii. My character’s name was Ava Gropadis – Ava-Gropa-Dis – and I was a prostitute. I had to stand there in a really short skirt and fishnet tights, being a bit tarty.”
“Was your mother proud of you?”
“She came to watch the play with my dad and was pregnant with my younger sister and she thought it was good. It was a good script. The loan shark was called Callus Lenda… and Sicka Fant was some grovelling bloke.
“Later, I was in Bugsy Malone as a flapper and then, when I was 15, I was in the musical Cabaret at school, as one of the slutty dancers. I loved it. It’s not completely out of the realms of possibility that I would stand up on stage and do that one day. It’s just not where my life’s leading.”
“Where is your life leading?”
“Much more into the photography. I do a lot of work with women to help them reclaim their own sexuality.”
“Their self-esteem?” I asked.
“Definitely,” agreed Grace. “There’s such a lot of fear of the male gaze. One of the things that annoys me in discussions of pornography is that some people assume all these women couldn’t possibly have actually chosen that career.”
A highly coveted Erotic Award – the Golden Flying Penis
“So,” I asked, “you don’t see the Erotic Awards as just putting on a show for a bit of fun and entertainment, it’s more an ongoing project?”
“It’s actually turning out to be really exciting,” Grace told me. “Lianne and I have both said it’s got masses of potential. The world has changed in the last 25 years it’s been running and we think we can expand it, raise its profile…”
“Expand it,” I asked, “in what sort of way?”
“Expand it in an awareness way, so people have more knowledge about what’s going on. We chatted to Brooke Magnanti (Belle de Jour) who wrote Secret Diary of a Call Girl about her book The Sex Myth – that’s been nominated. She’s hopefully going to attend the finals at the Night of the Senses in May.”
“And that bigger event will include…”
“The finals of the Erotic Awards… The finalists in the performance categories will perform and then it’s the prize-giving ceremony up until about midnight. And then it’s an after-party with lots of different areas where you can try out lots of different things with an emphasis on it being playful, inclusive, very diverse. You can have a massage, you can get spanked, you can spank somebody, you can get tied up, you can go and do some sock wrestling, you can…”
“Whoa!” I said. “Let’s do a re-cap there… Sock wrestling?”
“You have to take the other person’s socks off,” said Grace matter-of-factly.
“I feel I am an innocent in this world,” I explained. “Is sock wrestling an acknowledged sexual pastime?”
“I think it’s been quite popular on the festival circuit in recent years,” replied Grace.
I was advised rehearsals are vital for the sock wrestling
“And the object is…”
“…to get the other person’s socks off.”
“While retaining your own socks?” I checked.
“Yes,” confirmed Grace.
“And are you wearing anything else while you do this?” I asked.
“That depends on the event you’re at,” explained Grace.
“But at this event you would not be?”
“It’s optional,” said Grace. “There will be a nudist disco at the event which, obviously, speaks for itself.”
“What happens when you get the socks off?” I asked, pursuing my research.
“You’ve won,” said Grace.
“Then what happens?”
“You probably get a prize.”
“A pair of socks?” I asked.
“Could be,” said Grace. “I think someone’s going to be running it as an area.”
“So it’s not just one couple wrestling each other for their socks, it’s an entire sock wrestling area…. Are there any other things happening I would not guess about, having been brought up a Presbyterian?”
“There’s usually a nocturnal area,” explained Grace, “where you can be blindfolded and tickled.”
It was comedian Matt Roper – currently in India – who first told me about The Night of the Senses. This year, it is being organised by his photographer friend Grace Gelder.
“You’re not actually going to call it an orgy, are you?” I asked her yesterday.
“No. It’s an erotic ball,” she replied.
“A good combination of words,” I said. “Do you have a job title?”
“Apparently I am officially called The Director of Pleasure,” laughed Grace.
We were at Bar Italia in London’s Soho yesterday, talking about The Night of the Senses, which has been run by Tuppy Owens for 25 years to raise money for her Outsiders Trust, the UK charity which aims to raise awareness about sex and disability.
“So,” I asked Grace. “This year it’s you organising The Night of the Senses. Why you?”
“I originally met Tuppy,” explained Grace, “because I had started to develop a documentary film about sex and disability. We worked on that for two years and went to interview Tuppy at her home in Inverness. She’s in her late sixties now and said that, when she started running the event, all of her friends came. A few weeks ago, she said to me It’s the same as you guys. All your friends are gonna come. We’re all over sixty; it’s time there was a new generation of people starting to hear about it.”
“A new generation of sensual people?” I suggested.
“Well, it feels,” said Grace. “like there’s a lot more interest in this kind of thing right now. I’m not sure why. But people want really experiential things. The Secret Cinemahas taken off. People want to go to an event and be integrated into it. There’s a lot of parties which touch on the ‘erotic’ like people who have hot tubs in the middle of their parties. But I think people are quite scared of putting on something that is so overtly sensual because they’re worried about How do you manage it? How do you handle it? I feel confident that I’m able to do that, especially having done erotic photography with people who start off really scared because they’ve never done anything like it.”
“And you’ve been to previous Nights of the Senses?”
“I’ve been to two.”
“How many people turned up last year?”
“About 1,000. This year’s one is in May with the Great Sexpectations semi-final in March.
“Basically, on The Night of the Senses itself, there are the events and included in that there’s The Erotic Awards, which have been running for about 17 or 18 years. They champion the stars of the erotic universe. People are picked out in different categories – books, films, campaigners – people who are campaigning for sex workers’ rights for example – artists, strippers, live artists whose work has an erotic element.
“The theme for this year’s Night of the Senses event in May is ‘The Zoo’, because Tuppy is a former zoologist, so it’s like a homage to Tuppy and the work she’s done over the last 25 years.”
“But,” I said, “as in movie disclaimers, no actual animals will be hurt during the production of this event?”
“Only humans dressed as animals,” said Grace. “Or zoo keepers. It leaves some space for the more kinky members of the public.”
“What was the theme for last year’s event?” I asked.
Last year’s theme at Night of the Senses was ‘Equestrianism’
“And you officially only started organising all of this on Monday this week,” I said. “Why did you get involved?”
“Initiating my film documentary project about sex and disability,” explained Grace, “completely opened my world to all this stuff which I didn’t know about. I found it very, very fascinating… which fed into my own life and ended up initiating a sexual journey for myself… of liberation and exploration and that sort of thing.”
“Any details?” I asked.
“What sort of details?” laughed Grace.
“Preferably quirky,” I said.
“Well,” said Grace, ignoring this, “I had to go to The Night of the Senses as research, for example, and that blew me away. Going to the event was a real catalyst. You step into a completely different environment.”
“How?” I asked.
“Just because of the nature of the event. Tuppy has never said to people You’ve got to come to this, because it is still a sophisticated event where you need to have some understanding of being in a sexual environment. To be aware of what you’re going to go and experience. People just being completely open and free with their… fetishes, with their actions… but in a very safe and well-held event.”
“That’s very much more specifically fetish and power games,” said Grace. “The Night of the Senses has all of those elements, but more as well. There’s always a dungeon-type place, but there’s also a tantric space where people can get a massage and put their name down to be tickled with feathers: that type of thing. A lot of sensory stuff. So it’s a lot more… You don’t have to be into power games. And there’s a bit more of a theatrical aspect to it as well. There’s a sensuality chamber for couples where live musicians play along.”
“You said your eyes were opened…” I prompted her.
“I’d never been in a situation like that,” said Grace, “where there was every spectrum of people – people with disabilities, people who were older, younger, gay, straight, all spectrums with all sorts of fetishes. Apparently one year they had a turtle-neck jumper fetish corner. They have their own clubs.”
“For people who have a fetish for turtle-neck jumpers?” I asked.
Ed Wood, movie fan of angora sweaters?
“I seem to remember,” I said, “ that the film director Ed Wood had a fetish for angora sweaters. I think he had an angora sweater in every one of his films. Or it might have been his refrigerator that he had in every film. I have a very bad memory.”
“Interesting,” said Grace.
“When is your event happening again?” I asked. “I’ve forgotten.”
“Two events,” said Grace. “The Night of the Senses is in May with the final of the Erotic Awards as a stage show as part of it and, after that, everyone goes upstairs to play – or just watches – it’s up to you.
“But the first event is Great Sexpectations – in Bush Hall, Shepherd’s Bush on 22nd March. It’s a beautiful old music hall. Great Sexpectations is a sit-down table event, including the semi-finals of the live part of the Erotic Awards. The judges decide who will be finalists at the main event in May.”
“Is it like ice-skating?” I asked, “where you get awarded points on style. content and artistic interpretation?”
“It’s not like The X Factor,” laughed Grace. “Our judges watch and take notes and decide afterwards. Best Stripper and Best Live Artist are the two categories for the live aspect – It’s a cabaret, basically. I think we’ll also include a comedian and a singer, whereas the ‘stripper’ is anything from pole dancing to burlesque and boylesque. But then there’s also the author, photographer and the other categories at The Night of the Senses in May”
“Where is the main Night of the Senses going to be held in May?”
“The location of the venue is always released much later on to everyone who has bought a ticket. There has been trouble with the event in the past because of people campaigning against it or ringing the local council because of the nature of it. Some venues have an issue, but most people are totally fine with it: they know what it is and that it’s a fundraiser, so…”
“And,” I interrupted, “there’s no illegality of any kind. It is not ‘outraging public decency’ because it’s a ticketed event and people know exactly what they’re buying the tickets for.”
“Exactly,” said Grace. “You have to choose to go. You don’t just pass by and say Oo-err! I think I’ll pop in there and see what’s happening. And there’s a very clear code of conduct which is on the website.
“I’ll be updating the website in the next few weeks. Like I said, I only officially started organising all of this on Monday. There’s more to come.”