Investigating the Illicit: The Material Traces of Britain's Early Trade in Obscene Films

    Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingChapterpeer-review


    Before the year 2000, the sale of hardcore pornography in Britain was criminalised under the Obscene Publications Act 1959. Yet, from the 1950s onwards, a thriving alternative economy existed, illicitly producing and distributing such material, selling it ‘under the counter’ of Soho’s bookshops and through mail-order. This economy was underwritten by the Obscene Publications Squad, a corrupt arm of London’s Metropolitan Police who enforced the Obscene Publications Act 1959 and issued informal licences to pornography entrepreneurs. During the early years of the alternative economy, one of the most popular commodities was short 8mm films depicting hardcore sex; these were known in the trade as ‘rollers’. All but forgotten in histories of British film and absent from British archives, rollers not only provide an insight into sexual representation during the permissive society of the 1960s, but the artefacts themselves serve as documents of illicit trade.

    Drawing on my ongoing ethnohistorical research into Britain’s illicit trade in hardcore pornography from 1960 to 2000, which includes primary interviews with those involved alongside extensive archival research, I take an object-based material culture approach to analyse a roller titled Chez M. Pirgeon. I reflect on my physical interaction with this film and consider how its material properties reveal more about how this illicit artefact was likely produced, distributed and consumed. I show how such an approach is productive when attempting to uncover pornography’s clandestine origins, shedding further light on a largely undocumented obscene trade and hidden enterprise culture.
    Original languageEnglish
    Title of host publicationMedia Materialities
    Subtitle of host publicationForm, Format and Ephemeral Media
    Place of PublicationBristol
    Number of pages19
    ISBN (Print)9781789388176
    Publication statusPublished (VoR) - 12 Dec 2023

    Publication series

    NameBCMCR New Directions in Media and Cultural Studies


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