We Went to the Opening Night of London's Only Porn Cinema

There was lots of public wanking and a little bit of kissing.

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15 September 2016, 11:05pm

This isn't a photo of the porn cinema; it's a photo of people watching a screen that we photoshopped a photo of some porn onto, then pixellated. Just to give you an idea of what a porn cinema looks like. (Photo: US Navy, via)

A little bald man is butt naked apart from a pair of black socks. He pads softly down the laminate hallway, his dick happily bobbing around in front of him. He's heading for the first of two screening rooms where city workers and hawkeyed, sportswear-wearing boozers goggle at My Husband Is Fucking the Nanny Vol 2. The film, unfortunately, is entirely lost on me. I never saw part one.

We're at the opening night of The Office, a new porn cinema in London's East End. It's the only X-rated movie theatre of its kind left in the city. Situated in a residential block off a main road in Limehouse, this is the third incarnation of the cinema in as many years.

Those interested in the history of public masturbation to grot movies will recall the furore around the closure of Fantasy Video in Islington in 2014, a business that had offered the sticky trench-coated denizens of King's Cross somewhere to go for a friendly communal wank for 40 years. Counsellor Paul Convery had resolved to close down what he considered a blight on his constituency. Sadly, for London's wrist-exercisers, he was successful.

We're all aware that gentrification is rife in London, what with the closure of Fabric and other high profile venues. Greedy property developers and compliant counsellors are courting the vanilla brigade who want to turn the city into an Oliver Bonas-inspired wet dream of chic, "tasteful" mediocrity. On the sharp end of this deal are the little guys – like The Office's proprietors – who cater for people whose tastes are neither tasteful nor chic, but who are still human beings whose voices are increasingly not being heard.

Fantasy Video moved to New Cross in January of 2015, reopening as Club 487. Soon the venue attracted swingers, and sex acts were reported on the premises. A crusade of locals outraged that such a business was operating in their neighbourhood – and so close to a school – got the place closed down.

There is a psychogeographic rightness in the fact that The Office has popped up again in Limehouse, given the area's long association with sleaze. Traditionally home to sailors whose ships moored at the nearby docks, as well as the nascent Chinese community, Limehouse was where Oscar Wilde's Dorian Gray went to get fucked up on opium. In more recent times, the White Swan's amateur strip night is the stuff of legend, and Sailor's Sauna and Majingo's gentleman's club are both a stone's throw away.

"Past nine o'clock and they're still coming in," says Bob, one of The Office's owners, looking around the place with pride. Apparently word is out among long-term fans, as at least 20 silent men and a woman stalk the subterranean premises. With little publicity other than a website and word of mouth, there is clearly a small but enthusiastic fanbase keen for a venue in which they can all have a communal wank.

In the main room a Sony speaker sputters out a tinny soundtrack of limp techno and female moans. In front of me, a guy in a badly-fitting suit wanks thoughtfully. Another guy, this one wearing trackies, sips from a can of Fosters. A third sits there upright, just staring.

Next door is a second screen. Down the hall are five tiny rooms, each the size of a toilet cubicle, lit only with bare red bulbs. Apparently glory holes will be drilled in soon.

The thin corridor behind the screening rooms is not partitioned off, allowing people there to watch the porn and the real-life action in front of it. Here is a nexus of erotic activity. In the corner, three men enjoy a cuddle. "You like willies in your mouth, and poppers," one breathes, a bit anachronistically. And then: "Oh yes – spunk. Yeah, your spunk's really good."

Suddenly there's a technical glitch. The porn stops on Screen One, and the crowd are left staring at a still of a blowjob scene on a chaise lounge. It looks like an X-rated ancient Greek mural. But the couple next to me don't care: the only woman here tonight is casually giving the guy next to her a handjob as they kiss in the neon glow of the busted screen.

To be fair, there were always going to be teething problems on the first night. I get chatting to Jason, a former regular in Islington.

"It's a bit bright," he says, looking at the whitewashed walls.

I think they're going to paint the place black soon, I say. It's also a little dusty in here, but presumably that will correct itself.

"Yeah. Still, it's great to have the old place back, isn't it? I just like somewhere where you can go and wank."

He has one eye on the screen. I look down and spot that he is wanking as we are talking. I move away to give him some space.

READ: I Went to the South London Sex Cinema and Made Some Weird New Friends

Of course, it's understandable that some will find the notion of a bunch of strangers wanking next to each to dodgy US porn a little distasteful. But writer and urban historian Stewart Home cautions that it is important to remember that sanitisation and change are two different things.

"Change is a necessary part of the city and life, but the change can be good or bad – too often people look at it from a position of nostalgia and have an unrealistic rosy picture of the past," he said over the phone. "Old Compton Street in the 1970s, it was sleazy and dirty; today, it is squeaky clean and, to me, bland, but if you look back on photos of that part of Soho in the 50s it also looked pretty clean."

Everything is cyclical then, despite prevailing economic trends. And Home also points out that the decline of cinemas in general has more to do with the internet than anything else. Still, it's hard not to feel that in the current climate, the harried wankers at The Office are fighting a losing battle. But as Jason says, "It's not like we're doing anyone any harm – no one even knows we're here."

Libertarians everywhere will be delighted that The Office is now open for business. At least there is one tiny corner of London where sleaze is not only tolerated, but thrives.

@thisisurbantrash

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