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Will London's Porn Cinemas Survive the Coming Wave of Gentrification?

The authorities are cracking down on places that were once a safe haven for people with nowhere else to go.
May 20, 2014, 4:30pm

A sign in Mr B's porn cinema club

It’s 4:45 PM on a Sunday afternoon, and I’m a short walk from Angel tube station in North London, looking at an unmarked red door on City Road. Behind it, ratty red carpeting takes you to a reception desk and, beyond that, an old staircase leading down into a damp basement. Through the semi-darkness, I can see and hear—and, unfortunately, smell—people watching porn on a cinema screen, some drinking cans of beer, others sniffing from bottles of Liquid Gold poppers.

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Sitting on one of the faded velvet seats, it’s hard not to listen to all the grunting—both onscreen and off—and notice the occasional shifting in seats while theatergoers assist one another in various ways. Five minutes ago I was walking along Upper Street, the kind of place where you can buy polenta fries and artisan babywear. The vibe in this basement, needless to say, is different.

Mr B’s—a private porn cinema club—has existed on these premises in various incarnations for more than 40 years (most recently as Fantasy Video). It's one of only three such venues left in London, the others being the Abcat Cine Club and Oscars, both on Caledonian Road. All three establishments are threatened with imminent closure, victims of the same trend that's transforming the rest of the porn industry: Nobody wants to pay for porn now that they have all the pictures and videos of naked people they could ever handle included in their standard broadband subscription.

These clubs also have to deal with the authorities, who see them as stains on the neighborhood. When I contacted him in January, local councillor Paul Convery said, "Islington Council is determined to see these establishments closed down. They are badly run, and this was demonstrated when we prosecuted all three for significant breaches of license conditions."

A little under a decade ago, back when City Road was just a dark hinterland linking Angel to the Old Street roundabout, the same focus might not have been given to the clubs. But now that it's lined with shiny new apartments, office buildings, and trendy restaurants, the council has more to protect. This creeping civic conservatism—a side effect of gentrification—is being felt all over London. In December, for example, 200 police officers carried out a high-profile raid on brothels, peep shows, and strip clubs in Soho. Many were closed, and it looks like the same thing is set to happen in Islington.

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Councillor Convery described the cinemas as "sleazy," adding, "We’re not being prudish; we’re reflecting public opinion." It probably doesn't help that an inspector at Mr B’s—before its recent revamp, where they gave it a fresh coat of paint and introduced new membership cards—reportedly observed six men masturbating during an undercover visit. The inspector himself was allegedly touched on the thigh.

In an age where it's possible to watch the Teen Mom sex tape on your phone during your daily commute, it's fair to say that porn cinemas, once a common sight around London, are an anachronism. But are clubs like Mr B's really harmful establishments that deserved to be closed?

One of the screens in Mr B's porn cinema club

Down in the basement, things are heating up, despite the early hour (that said, the near total darkness in here pretty much does away with your sense of time). There are around 40 customers here, most shuffling between rooms in the hunt for some action. The porn of offer is your standard fare—one screen shows a lesbian scene in the German countryside; on the other a man watches as his wife fucks some guy they've flagged down for roadside assistance. But most people aren't paying much attention to the screens; they're scanning the room for eye contact and a signal to retreat to one of the darker corners.

As odd as this might sound, the atmosphere is in no way threatening. In fact, everyone is unfailingly polite, and when I have to tell one particularly persistent guy that I’m here for research purposes only, he quickly nods and leaves me alone.

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Luke is tall, slim, and articulate, with gray hair and a friendly demeanor. He’s been a patron of Mr B’s for more than 15 years and sometimes helps out at the front desk. An advocate of civil liberties, he's deeply concerned with what the cinema’s regulars believe to be undue pressure from the authorities to close down a long-standing business that has no negative effect on the local area and certainly isn't a threat to public morality.

"The truth is, most people have no idea we’re here," he tells me. "We’ve even taken the sign down now. It’s just a doorway. There’s no trouble, no disturbance, nothing. You have to be a member to get in. Neighbors who’ve lived here for years are none the wiser. The response we get from locals is friendly. We do our thing, and they do theirs. No one’s bothering anyone. These places have a history—they’re part of the fabric of London life. If we close, a piece of the capital’s history will be lost for good."

Some feel-good graffiti inside Mr B's

The problem here is that many assume all those who frequent places like Mr B's are disgusting toad-men in stained yellow vests, meaning the impact of this "loss" on wider society will be minimal. The truth, though, is a little more complicated. Today, there are certainly more than a few who fit the stereotype: dead-eyed loners in ancient sport jackets, sitting with a hand in their pocket and a coat over their lap. But there are also well-dressed professional-looking types, as well as younger men.

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"We get all kinds of people coming in—lawyers, doctors, politicians. Even celebrities sometimes," says Luke. "I remember once meeting a scientist here who told me all about his research into genetics—something I’d had no knowledge of before meeting him here."

It's this social element of clubs like Mr B's that the regulars will miss. While a communal viewing of Meet the Barebackers II might not be to everyone's taste, you could argue that even the loss of London's least sanitary communal spaces further reduces the rich variety of social venues that were available to previous generations. Sex, drugs, and alcohol are the UK's most reliable social lubricants, and with the country's pubs closing at a rate of 12 per week and this recent attack on sex clubs, what are we going to be left with? Toilet stalls, full of people vacuuming up MDMA cut with talc and mephedrone?

The process going on in London mirrors what happened in the 90s to New York's Times Square, which was "cleaned up" by mayor Rudy Giuliani, who closed down porn theaters and made the area more friendly to tourists at the expense of those who used it. Novelist Bruce Benderson, in an essay on that era, wrote, "It wasn’t so much the assault on eroticism in New York as the new prohibition against interclass interaction that really depressed me." In his book on the subject, Times Square Red, Times Square Blue, science-fiction author and academic Samuel R. Delany recalls a young man he'd originally met in a porn theater thanking him years later for assisting him with term papers and helping him to apply to community college—help he wouldn’t have had access to had the theater not existed, as it's unlikely they would have met otherwise.

I’m not trying to make a case for cinema clubs like Mr B’s being hallowed seats of learning, because that's absurd. But we shouldn’t be too quick to write off the social utility they have for their customers.

"I’ve been coming here for 20 years, since my wife passed away," says Bill, a regular in his late 60s. "Most Sundays I meet my mate George. We got to the off-license first and stock up on a few cans of beer; then we sit and watch the films. Or we just talk about the football. It’s like a social club. It’s somewhere to go that’s cheap and warm, and you can stay as long as you like. You don’t get that so much now, what with all the pubs closing or being turned into fancy bars."

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And does he enjoy the films?

"We have a laugh at them, take the piss, nothing too serious. But sometimes—just sometimes—you get a certain girl on screen and it reminds me of how it used to be, with my wife, when she was alive."

And how about all the extra activity going on in the seats behind him and in dark corners at the back of the room?

"As long as no one bothers me, I’m fine with it," he answers. "Why wouldn’t I be? Live and let live."

Bill’s attitude is typical of most of the customers in here. As with any venue that traffics in sex, the audience tends to have a very high tolerance for stuff going on in their general vicinity that they wouldn’t necessarily indulge in themselves.

"So what if a man touches another man’s thigh? Or if two men are fondling [while] watching a movie in a private cinema?" says another customer. "I mean, come on, this is 2014. With all this stuff you can get online these days, it’s amazing people still claim to be shocked. It feels like we’re becoming more permissive, not less, as a society."

Councillor Convery has a different perspective: "The redevelopment of the area doesn’t supercede concerns over licence breaches… it reinforces and justifies them. There are significant numbers of families with children and people with background cultures that are especially unhappy about any form of sex establishment, gay or straight."

Another screening room in Mr B's

Despite his reasoning, it’s hard not to suspect that the primary motivation behind the pressure on Mr B’s and other cinemas is financial rather than moral. Juan, another helper, claimed earlier this year that the council demanded they apply for a new, cripplingly expensive license with no guarantee of getting it. Cleaning up London is better for the city’s image; it's simply good business to make it more attractive for investors and foreign money.

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"King’s Cross used to be a place you drove through, and was well known for vice. That is no longer the case," says Convery. He's right: The area is now defined more by shiny buildings, the Eurostar champagne bar, and the expensive St. Pancras Hotel than dealers and pimps. That's not a bad thing, of course, but there's a vocal minority arguing that the true heart of the capital is being lost among all the prestigious new developments.

As Delany wrote: "The easy argument… is that social institutions like porn [cinemas] take up a certain social excess—are even, perhaps, socially beneficial to some small part of it (a margin outside the margin). But that is the same argument that allows them to be dismissed—and physically smashed and flattened. They are relevant only to that margin. No one else cares. Well, in a democracy, that is not an acceptable argument. People are not excess."

Mr B's little reception area has recently been refurbished—a fridge packed with soft drinks and chocolates has been installed, and a new membership card has been introduced. Downstairs, brand-new HD screens shine brightly. There are plans to replace the ancient red velvet seats; the feeling is hopeful.

"We’ve had a lot of interest from the media recently," says a new manager. "You can see the investment. The owners are confident."

Nevertheless, the council remains determined. According to Convery, it is "still working to close these premises down… We now have secured a court date for an injunction, and we are backing this up with action using antisocial-behavior legislation. Our licensing officers and police raided the premises last weekend and secured evidence for all the legal proceedings."

As I leave, another customer walks in. Polite and well dressed, the man pays the entrance free and walks down the staircase. Just how long he is able to do that, given the current climate in London, remains to be seen.

Follow John Lucas on Twitter.