The Playbirds (1978)

The Playbirds casts the most popular faces from Sullivan’s sex magazines, appropriately as models all vying to be the cover girl of soft porn magazine ‘Playbirds’ (a much plugged real-life Sullivan publication). The downside?-a limping,cloth cap wearing psychopath is on a mission to snuff out Playbirds’ cover girls. Pat Astley starts the ball rolling, strutting her stuff around London before being strangled in her kitchen while making a cuppa tea. Two detectives-one clueless (Gavin Campbell) the other bad tempered (Glynn Edwards), are on the case,and find a chief suspect in Astley’s boss-a wealthy porn baron and sex magazine publisher played by oily Alan Lake-in a role he clearly didn’t have to look far for real life inspiration.

The detectives also have a large hi-tech computer system (by 1970’s standards) which comes up with a few more suspects like Terry Day a photographer with a violent past, Dudley Sutton’s ‘Creeping Jesus’ street preacher,and George Ransome-a‘clean-up’ campaigner,amateur astrologer,and even more amateur pervert (when one character dubs Ransome ‘a simple voyeur’ you half expect someone to quip back ‘there’s nothing simple about voyeurism’). Ever willing to give the public want they want,oily man of polyester suits and gold medallions Lake gets a suspicious eye from the police when his latest pictorial turns out to be focused around witchcraft-represented here by a man in a joke-store werewolf mask being pleasured and dialogue like ‘sex, witchcraft and horses,the unholy trinity’.

While getting to the bottom of this old black magic,Campbell and Edwards are introduced to Playbird Lena Cunningham (Suzy Mandel) a girl who knows how to get herself noticed-wiggling her backside at oily Alan in order to become Astley’s cover girl successor,and also finding favour with her milkman when she answers the door in a see-through nightie and reminds him ‘I get it everyday’ (she means a bottle of cream.) Campbell puts her under 24 hour surveillance,but while he can’t keep his eyes off her when she’s prancing around naked at Satanic photo opportunities,later when his back is turned she becomes victim No.4 (for those counting two other Playbirds have ended up Deadbirds off-screen).

Combining their mucky minds Campbell and Edwards cook up the idea of sending a policewoman ‘undercover’ into the sex industry in order to get her on the next Playbirds cover. Enter WPC Lucy Sheridan (Mary Millington)-who eager to expand her horizons in the force gets the cheeky coppers hot under the collar with an impromptu striptease. Sent working undercover in a massage parlour,Lucy takes to her new life ‘like a duck to water’ rubbing down School for Sex man Derek Aylward and even finding time for a Sapphic moment with fellow masseuse Foxy (soon to become victim No.5). This behaviour may require a bit of explaining to her superiors, but Lucy’s exploits do eventually lead her to the cover of Playbirds via Lake’s bed. In the meantime, her male counterparts make a hash of the investigation, shaking down for information Tony Kenyon (in his trademark dirty old man role),arresting Sutton for the murders,and impounding Lucy’s issue of Playbirds in order to preserve their colleague’s modesty.

Unfortunately all of this proves in vain, as the real killer whose obviously got the early edition, plays Lucy a surprise visit in the shower (‘sacrifice pretty girls’). The film ends with Lucy dead and topless in the bath, a gross parting shot that recalls the unpleasant ‘cute but dead’ scenarios from Robert Hartford-Davis’ The Fiend

The Playbirds boasts a lengthy B-movie cast, which apart from the people already mentioned also includes Derren Nesbitt, Windsor Davies, Kenny Lynch, Faulty Towers’ Ballard Berkeley and faded Devil Doll glamour girl Sandra Dorne. While it’s not beyond the realms of possibility that some of those names brought in a few punters, the main selling point is of course the ‘Playbirds’ themselves. Ex-Benny Hill girl Suzy Mandel pulls off a nifty little bit part despite having to play all her scenes in peek-a-boo clothes. Mary Millington struggles,but gives an enthusiastic performance in the only role that really reflected her star status. Sadly very few of the ‘legit’ cast share Millington’s enthusiasm and most are merely going through the motions. Chubby and bearded Derren Nesbitt is barely recognisable as Lake’s right hand man,a role which significantly he took not long after the faux pas of putting everything he owned on the line in order to finance autobiographical sex film ‘The Amorous Milkman’.

Willy Roe’s amateurish direction, evident in cheaper efforts like 1979’s-‘Queen of the Blues’ benefits greatly here from a large-ish budget and richness of incident. Although The Playbirds’ structure is as haphazard as the later movie with choppy, half finished look scenes, and randomly filmed (but often quite curious) padding including snapshots of real-life religious fanatics in Hyde Park and Lake and Ballard Berkeley reacting to footage of Newmarket horse racing. Long-time showbiz crony and Max Miller biographer John M.East, also manages to sneak himself a small but telling role as a downmarket journalist getting a salacious scoop on sex queen Lucy (Do you have a normal sex life?…..Are you a lesbian?…..Any kinks?).

Superfluous Newmarket coverage aside however Roe manages to cut,clip and paste The Playbirds together with few dull moments,and a delightfully cheesy theme song, copious nudity from British sex queens and moments of unintentional hilarity (the killer escapes by bicycle at one point!) all add up to the most consistently entertaining of all the Mary Millington vehicles

Although a box office performer in its day,The Playbirds has only recently begun to be rediscovered.