We Went to the Video Shoot for the Television X Christmas Single
In between takes of "Coming for Christmas" we talked about the history of the UK's most treasured subscription-based soft porn channel.
"I used to be able to suck my own dick back in the day, but I never thought it was something to shout about." Simon Honey – AKA Ben Dover, a man whose career in pornography is as old as Only Fools and Horses – is sitting on a sofa in a Santa hat. "I don't think I could do it any more, though, because of my back."
I'm in London's Television X studios in mid-October, watching four porn stars dance around in front of some Argos Christmas decorations. Fan favourites Brooklyn Blue, Jess West, Angel Long and Victoria Summers take their turns miming lyrics for the camera. Ben – who, outside his work in the adult industry, plays drums in the tribute band Guns 2 Roses – is about to pick up his sticks and perch behind the kit.
This year, with the backing of PornHub Records, the UK's most treasured subscription-based soft porn carrier is releasing a festive single: "Coming for Christmas". I'm here to watch its stars shoot the music video, which they hope will help wrestle the number 1 spot away from the X Factor winner / Band Aid 30 / whatever anti-capitalist rap-metal anthem the internet decides to nominate for contention this year.
"Between us we've got a lot of fans and followers on Twitter, so I think we have a fair chance," says Jess West, confidently.
The teaser trailer for "Coming for Christmas"
Television X, "The Fantasy Channel", was launched in the summer of 1995 by Portland TV, a subsidiary of the company that owns and operates OK!, Channel 5 and The Daily Star, among a few other big hitters in the British media.
However, it wasn't until September of that year, when Television X recruited American prostitute Divine Brown (who'd just been caught hanging out in Hugh Grant's passenger seat), that the tabloids started to take notice.
Before long, Sky was in half the nation's homes and the channel's "10 Minute Freeview" every midnight had become the medium by which most adolescent boys got acquainted with female nipples.
"We deal with attainable fantasies," explains Chris Ratcliff, the managing director of Portland TV and head of Television X. "We deal in the girls-next-door – someone you might meet in the supermarket. Basically, the kind of girl you might actually get to fuck," he continues, delicately.
A lot of the early programming – classics of the oeuvre, like Superdick, say, or Shagnasty & Mutley – were created by Deric Botham, then-editor of Penthouse UK. It's those sturdy foundations – a kind of Carry On take on porn – that have helped the company last.
"We offer something that's always a bit tongue-in-cheek," says Chris. "We've got the best British stars and directors, and we always offer good quality. I think that's what defines us in the market."
The empire has expanded since its relatively humble beginnings. There are now a number of TV X-affiliated channels on air, and in 2010 the company launched The SHAFTAs (the Soft and Hard Adult Film and Television Awards), the self-anointed British Oscars of porn. Recently, the network was criticised in the national press for sending porn star Rebecca More on a tour of Britain, where she stops off in various cities to have sex with competition winners in the back of a van.
"There's no such thing as bad press," Chris argues. "As far as I'm concerned, we've taken participation reality TV to the extreme. We do porn, so why not invite the public to be part of it?"
I catch Ben in the dressing room as he changes into his red shirt and novelty Christmas tie. "I've been here since the beginning," he says. "I started before porn was legal, so we had to be very careful what we were doing in those days. In the early-80s, the quote from the Lord Chief Justice was something like: 'Pornography is an evil in society that needs to be stamped out at all costs.'"
Ben claims he had a police surveillance team on him for two-and-a-half years, and tells me how he and a few others decided to ignore all that and instead persevere in getting their films out to some very enthusiastic customers. They would head to the the Ace Cafe in north west London, he says, and flog their three-hour VHS tapes for £80 a pop, or the equivalent of roughly six months' internet fees (and unlimited porn) today.
Hardcore porn was effectively legalised in 2000, though still subject to all kinds of conditions and licensing restrictions. However, now that the industry wasn't as clandestine – and transactions no longer had to take place in biker hangouts next to metropolitan ring-roads – Ben was already well stocked at a time when everyone else was only just starting to hire camera equipment and stock up on cheap bed linen.
"For the first three years after it was legalised I made a fucking fortune, because I was way ahead of the game," he says. "We had a warehouse, we had TNT trucks pulling up – it was madness! Prior to that, porn was a luxury product; it was a bit like drugs – you had to really search for it."
Nowadays, thanks to the internet, porn is as accessible as travel information, or basic census data, or everything you could ever conceivably need to know about the Plymouth water treatment plant. Pornography – regardless of your view on the industry, or of what it represents, or the potential dangers around this vastly increased accessibility – has become about as normalised as it's ever going to get.
This idea manifests itself right in front of me as the four female stars walk back into the studio to film the topless, post-watershed version of their Christmas single.
When they're done, I speak to Brooklyn Blue about taking lead vocals on the song. "I was in performing arts school all my life, and when I was 14 I sang in Her Majesty's Theatre," she says. "But I got kicked out of performing arts school for doing a few kiss-and-tell stories, and that was that. Then I ended up in porn."
I ask if her work in the adult film industry affects her everyday life; whether it would stand in the way of her getting back into a branch of the performing arts that doesn't involve having sex on camera. "I was on a date with a guy recently and tried to tell him it doesn't affect my normal life," she says. "And as I was saying it, some lads came over and started saying, 'Brooklyn! Brooklyn!' After that, I never saw him again."
It's unlikely we'll see the foundation of Television X in any of that seasonal programming-filler this Christmas – those "Best of the 90s" countdown shows where Alex Zane makes shit jokes about Mr Motivator and Rachel Riley tears up about scented gel pens.
I'm also not sure that "Coming for Christmas" has quite enough mass appeal to get to the top spot. Mind you, that's not necessarily the only reason the single is being released.
"We're a porn positive company, and we wanted to show [...] there is more to porn stars than just sex – porn stars can be pop stars, too," says Television X's Anna Kieran in the song's press release. "We wanted to make people smile this Christmas, and I know we will with this track."
Ben agrees. "I've always said, 'Let's not take things too seriously,'" he tells me, heading back onto set. "It's porn, for fuck's sake."
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