So I got an email from Rich Rose of comedy duo Ellis & Rose.
“A friend of mine and I,” it said, “have written the pilot for a sitcom. It’s called Hell and is set in a grubby Soho sex shop. It’s being filmed from 5th-9th January at 3 Mills Studios and we were wondering if you would like to pay a visit to the set.”
So that was why, yesterday afternoon, I was in East London surrounded by dildos and accidentally walked through a vagina.
“It’s a full-length 25 minute sitcom pilot,” Rich told me yesterday, “divided down into five 5-minute webisodes which we are going to put online this summer.”
“So five climaxes,” I said.
Rich looked at me and said nothing.
“And potentially a series,” said Rich’s friend and co-writer David Ralf.
“Are you both appearing in Hitchcock-type cameos?” I asked.
“David’s cameo,” explained Rich, “is him standing in the shop scratching his nuts in a tracksuit.”
“So good clean stuff,” I said.
“In it’s current incarnation,” said David, “I’m not sure that any mainstream television studio would, eh…”
“Ofcom would shit a brick,” said Rich.
“Are you going to have any nudity?” I asked hopefully.
“There’s a lot of doll nudity,” David told me. “I’m not sure how doll nudity goes over.”
“And you walked through the giant vulva,” Rich added.
“I did?” I asked, surprised.
“The curtains,” explained David.
“I feel soiled,” I said. “If you want vaginas, you want Martin Soan, supplier of large scale vaginas to stage and screen. Some of them sing.”
“Really?” asked Rich.
“Really,” I told him. “So what’s the plot of Hell?”
“A hopeless romantic,” explained David, “finds himself working in a Soho sex shop, a grubby little den which is subject to all the pressures and changes in the area. And he embarks upon a sexual odyssey.”
“Well,” said Rich, “he is forcefully coerced into a sexual odyssey by the assistant manager of Hell.”
“The message is very wholesome,” said David.
“No it isn’t,” said Rich.
“Yes it is,” said David.
“So what’s the message?” Rich asked.
“Well,” replied David, “what does the central character learn at the end?”
“Don’t slip on lube?” suggested Rich.
“I think,” said David, “we may have taken different things away from this whole writing process.”
“What do you think the message is?” I asked David.
“The central character learns about himself. He is a very repressed individual and his only outlet for intimacy is idealised rom-com romance and I think he learns about other ways to express himself.”
“Also,” added Rich, “there are loads of dildos. Try to emphasise that, John. Loads of dildos.”
“Yes,” agreed David, “maybe go with that.”
“You crowdfunded it,” I said.
“We assumed we could make it for £8,000,” said Rich.
“Which we raised,” said David. “Then we went to Koto Films who raised more and now the budget is more than twice that, with Jack Plummer of Koto Films directing. We are doing it at a level that I think has surprised us. A higher quality level. A huge number of people have given a huge amount of time and energy.”
Producer Holly Harris of Koto Films told me: “A friend of a friend has lent us some fetish wear she collects. So many of our props are quite expensive and we just would not have been able to get such an amazing variety of different things on set if it wasn’t for her generosity.”
“How – indeed, why – did you come up with the idea?” I asked Rich. “Just because sex always sells?”
“I thought of it,” he told me, “when I was leaving university in 2011. I was being driven home back to Purley and we passed a sex shop in quite a pleasant suburban area – not in Purley. My initial thought was How funny would it be to do a sitcom set in a sex shop in a leafy, cheery, suburban area? But that didn’t really work.”
“When we first worked on the script together,” explained David, “the shops we went to – for research purposes, of course – were all in Soho.”
“We had to visit many, many shops,” explained Rich. “We are professionals.”
“And then,” said David, “we gave Koto Films what now turns out to have been a very, very early draft.”
“It’s been taken apart and put back together again,” said Rich.
“And Koto have made it look much better than we ever imagined it,” added David.
“And the crew?” I asked.
“It was amazing,” Holly Harris told me, “to see so many people come out of the woodwork who have some kind of relationship with the adult industry. Our art director’s mother is a sex therapist who spent 18 months in Spain running a strip club. Our construction managers are also drag queens.”
“And the central female character?” I asked.
“Is Crystal Hart, the manager of the shop,” David told me. “She is an ex-pornstar turned small-business woman.”
“Played by?” I asked.
“Saffron Sprackling,” said David, “who fronted the 199os band Republica. She was and is an actress. She was in Starlight Express.”
“So she can roller-skate,” I said.
“Yes,” said David. “This morning she was telling me about rollerskating around Soho in the old days.”
“In the streets of Soho?” I asked.
“Yes. She knew people who owned exactly the sort of shops we are portraying in the show and they used to have police among their clientele. But the police had to raid the shops every now and then, to keep up appearances. So they would ring ahead whenever they were going to raid the shop and Saffron would leave the theatre where she was performing Starlight Express, pick up a bag which she assumed was full of cash and held on to it until they gave the all clear and then she returned it to the shop. Hence the roller-skates.”
“So she roller-skated through the streets of Soho?” I asked.
“I believe so,” said David.
“Saffron has a very strong gay and lesbian following,” Holly told me.
“I will have to get more Jaffa Cakes,” David mused as I left the studio.
“Because?” I asked.
“Because the crew have eaten 108 Jaffa Cakes in two days.”
This afternoon, Koto issued their first press release about the production, saying: Hell is a grubby story with a warm heart.
David Ralf is quoted as saying: “A sex shop is the last place most people want to admit to going to for research. But we found a world of independent Soho sex shops with dedicated and friendly staff, mind-bending products, and a rich and fascinating history in an area of London that’s changing fast.”
Rich Rose is quoted as saying: “So we kept some of that stuff and crammed the rest full of dirty jokes.”
I think that pretty much covers it.