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Deep Inside London's Dying Sex Cinemas

The capital's communal masturbation chambers could be disappearing forever.

A sign in Mr B's porn cinema club

It’s 4.45PM 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, hear – and, unfortunately, smell – various people watching porn on a cinema screen, some drinking cans of lager, others sniffing from bottles of Liquid Gold poppers.

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 punters assist each other with their enjoyment of all the big projected body parts. Five minutes ago I was walking along Upper Street, the kind of place where you can buy truffled polenta chips and artisan babywear within the space of three shops. The vibe in this basement is different. 

Mr B’s – a private porn cinema club – has existed on these premises in various incarnations for over 40 years (most recently as Fantasy Video). It's one of only three such venues left in the capital, the others being the Abcat Cine Club and Oscars, both on the Caledonian Road. All three clubs are under threat of imminent closure, victims of the same thing that's slowly destroying 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.

They're also under threat from the authorities, who see them as stains on the local area. 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 licence conditions."

A little under a decade ago, the same focus might not have been given to the clubs – back when City Road was just a dark hinterland linking Angel to the Old Street roundabout. However, now it's lined with shiny new apartments, office buildings and Jamie Oliver restaurants, the council have more to protect. These side effects of gentrification – a creeping civic conservatism – are being felt all over London; in December of 2013, for example, 200 police officers carried out a high profile raid on over 22 sex establishments in Soho – brothels, peep shows and strip clubs. Many were closed, and it looks like the same thing is set to happen in Islington.  

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 undercover inspector at Mr B’s – before its recent revamp, where they gave it a lick 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 any sense of time). There are around 40 customers here, shuffling between rooms in the hunt for some action. The porn of offer is your standard fare – on one screen, 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, the majority of them scanning the room for eye contact and a signal to retreat to one of the darker corners. 

As alien 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.

Luke is tall, slim and articulate, with grey hair and a friendly demeanour. He’s been a patron of Mr B’s for over 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 says. "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. Neighbours 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 the users of 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 sports 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.

"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 levellers, 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? Fabric's toilet stalls, full of people hoovering up MDMA cut with talc and mephedrone? 

Novelist Bruce Benderson, in an essay on Giuliani’s "cleansing" of New York’s Times Square, writes, "It wasn’t so much the assault on eroticism in New York as the new prohibition against interclass interaction that really depressed me." Science-fiction author and academic Samuel R Delaney – in his book on the same subject, Times Square Red, Times Square Blue – recalls a young man he'd originally met in a porn theatre 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 theatre 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 sixties. "Most Sundays I meet my mate George. We got to the off-licence 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."

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 sex-venue, the audience – straight or gay – 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 punter. "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." 

Shockingly, Councillor Convery has a different perspective: "The redevelopment of the area doesn’t supersede 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 screen 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 the 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 licence with no guarantee of its acceptance. Cleaning up London is simply better for the city’s image and better for business, making it more attractive for investors and foreign money. 

"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, 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.

Delaney 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 remain determined. According to Convery, they are "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 anti-social behaviour legislation. Our licensing officers and police raided the premises last weekend and secured evidence for all the legal proceedings."

As I leave, another punter 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.

@johnlucas_esq

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