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Culture

I Went to the Closing Night at London's Last Porn Cinema

So long and thanks for all the wanks, Mr B's.

by John Lucas
24 July 2014, 10:24am

A Mr B's membership card

It’s dark as fuck behind the unmarked red door on City Road tonight. At the reception desk there’s an atmosphere of strange levity. I guess when it’s your last day on the job playing host to a bunch of sweaty, leering men every night, things are going to feel a little odd. Here, away from the pit of lasciviousness downstairs, a TV shows an 80s kung-fu movie with the sound down. Sinatra blares out of the tape deck of a scuffed up silver ghetto blaster. I did it my way. The gasps of a woman enjoying coitus are barely audible over the top. A solitary card stands on the desk, slightly curled, slightly yellow. It says simply "We’ll Miss You." A group of men stand around drinking cans, talking, shooting the shit. They stink of beer and fags. Fuck knows who they are. But I do recognise Danny, the new manager, who’s been running Mr B’s – the last porn cinema in London – since the spring. Tomorrow, he will be out of a job.

"It’s not a problem. I’ve got a few things lined up. Mate of mine owns a garage in Isleworth. Says he might have something."

There are the blips, the outlier events of course, but mostly history happens in increments. And today is a quietly historic day. Islington Council has finally been victorious in its war on smut, and after the closure of Soho Cinemas in Walker’s Court in December last year, and the subsequent shutting down of the Abcat and Oscars in King’s Cross in June, when Mister B’s shuts its doors for the last time there will be no porn cinemas left in London at all.

"It’s a shame, but there you go," says Danny. "There’s still a demand for these places, even if it’s smaller than before. But it’s not the way any more, porn theatres. Times have changed."

"Demand" indeed – apparently Mr B’s was still being bombarded with membership enquiries just prior to its closure, somewhat dispelling the idea that internet porn has killed off the cinemas. The truth – unpalatable for some – is that the, ahem, social aspects of these places are still a draw. Many will congratulate Councillor Paul Convery and the authorities for finally ridding London of the scourge of these embattled fleapits. But it’s worth bearing in mind that they still exist in such enlightened cities as Berlin, Paris, Barcelona, Zurich, Vienna and Hamburg to the detriment of no one, ever.

One of the screen rooms at Mr B's

We walk downstairs into the gloom for the last time. There is a smell of amyl nitrate, cum and despair. A lot of the regulars are here: Dave, the guy in the baseball cap, pissed on Special Brew, who likes to get completely naked to enjoy the films. Roger, a former orthodontist with a scarily-blonde Keith Chegwin haircut and a stutter. He talks about his glory days on the French Riviera, pulling girls. Apparently he used to have an E-type Jag. Now he lives in a council flat in Haggerston.

There are two rooms, each showing different films – I am in the larger of them. Everywhere, movement, grunts and whispers. Men stand watching other men as they pass. Who knows whether or not these guys know that this is the last night here – that a once vibrant part of London’s sexual ecosystem is to be lost forever. They probably don’t. They probably just want to get off. My eyes adjust to the darkness. I wish they hadn’t. I train them on the large flatscreen up ahead.

Here, in HD, a young couple have broken down somewhere in the California countryside. The guy can’t fix the car. His wife gets angry. Shitty, sub-Moroder 80s electro-pop plays. They walk until they come to a house. A buff dude answers the door. Next thing you know, he’s fucking the girl in full view of the husband. Cuckold porn has become a thing in the last few years. I ponder the significance of this. Could it reflect a feeling of male emasculation in the Western world as American imperial power declines? The guy next to me stirs in his sleep, interrupting my train of thought with an unmelodic fart.

"I’ve been coming here since the 80s," says Steve, a retired solicitor, another regular. He has wide, staring eyes and fragrant halitosis. "The place hasn’t changed much. A lick of paint once in a while. Funnily enough, they did it up recently. I thought they’d found a loophole, a way of keeping it going."

How does he feel now that it’s closing for good?

"I just think it’s a shame. It doesn’t do any harm. The council says it’s bad for the surrounding area – but no one in the surrounding area knows what goes on here. How could they? It’s a boarded-up shop front and you have to be a member to come in."

But the council says you get people hanging around outside, I say. It upsets passers-by.

Steve looks doubtful.

"I’ve never seen anyone standing around outside. Ever. If anything, they hurry to get away once they’ve left. Wouldn’t you?"

Some feel-good graffiti inside Mr B's

It's a fair point. There is something rather unfathomable about Islington Council’s hounding of these places. When Oscars on Caledonian Road closed down in June, Councillor Convery (who is also gunning for the closure of The Flying Scotsman, a strip-pub a few doors down) was conciliatory. "People may say this is the council moralising, but it really isn’t. What people get up to in private is up to them, but this is not in private – it’s a public place in a high street and if they breach lawful conditions, consequences follow. We’re not being prudish, we’re reflecting public opinion."

Others, though, have spoken up for the venues, including local resident and film historian David McGillivray, who called the closure of Oscars "the end of an era" and stated: "I believe it has always served a small minority of men who are mainly respectable and well-behaved. London was once full of these establishments but now there are very few left. I hope people are not making moral judgements about this venue, which [added] to the variety and diversity of the area."

The cuckold film grinds on. I get up and check out the second room. Here, the atmosphere is quieter, more subdued. A man in a dress with stockings and suspenders stares dolefully at the screen, where two girls dressed as Victorian scullery maids are eying up a muscular stable hand. It’s hot here and it smells bad. It feels scuzzy. I am tempted to leave and leg it down City Road towards Shoreditch. But I hang on. I sit down on scuffed red velvet seats held together with masking tape. A man eating chips from a KFC box, his lips slick with grease, offers me a hit from a bottle of Liquid Gold. I decline. Looking at the shadow figures around me, I wonder where the hell these people will go after tonight, when Mr B’s stops showing continuous porn 80 hours a week.

"Where will you go when Mr B’s is closed?" I ask the grease-lipped guy. He looks confused.

"I dunno. The pub, probably. But then they keep closing those down, too."

All these shadow people, worshipping at the porn altar every day, will soon have nowhere to go. But it doesn’t matter, because as long as we have lots of nice new glass buildings and artisan bakeries, precisely no one cares – or no one with a media platform from which to talk about it, anyway. But just because these people don’t have a voice, does it mean that they don’t matter? That their personal choice of entertainment should be taken away from them?

10PM rolls round. Abruptly, the film – some sort of bizarre Eastern European James Bond parody – shuts off. People shift around in their seats. No one gets up. Then, slow, steady, the clapping starts. First one guy, then two, then the whole place.

"Keep it going, keep it going," someone shouts.

The screen flashes: the film resumes. There are cheers. People whoop. It’s a porno encore. On screen, a fake femme-fatale in a purple dress fellates a James Bond lookalike enthusiastically. The guys in the stained seats cheer her on.

"Fuck yeah!"

And then it’s over. The screen goes black once again. There is a brief round of applause and then people stand and gather up their belongings. One man checks his smartphone. Ironic: it’s probably where he’ll be watching all his porn from now on. There are goodbyes. Hands are shaken. Everyone makes for the stairs. I wish Danny good luck. They’re going to carry on, he tells me. They’re going to find a new venue, far away from Islington, and they’re going to carry on.

Maybe. But for now, something that was a mainstay of entertainment in London for generations has been wiped out.

We walk down City Road. I glance back at the former premises of Mr B’s. Funny – there’s not a single person hanging around on the street outside.

@johnlucas_esq

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