Wednesday, 14 October 2015

So farewell, Playboy nudes - and thank you for Ursula Andress in June 1965

The high point of my brief Playboy-reading career came when, as a 12-year old on a school exchange trip to France, I managed to evade the guards long enough to buy the latest edition of the magazine. As I somehow doubt that an English shopkeeper would have sold such a racy item to a child (I was big, but I didn’t look that old), I probably bought it in Paris, where they were no doubt more relaxed about that sort of thing. All I remember is that it cost me a significant portion of my holiday spending money, and that it was worth every centime ten times over for the amount of illicit pleasure it provided over a period of many months.

I could, of course, claim that my real purpose in obtaining the publication was in order to get up to speed with “Playboy After Hours - a guy’s guide to what’s hip and what’s happening” and “Summer Stripes for Urban Types” (fashion rather than S&M, in case you were wondering) or even “Stop the World, I Want to Get Salad” (huh?). But what really caught my attention was a 12-page photospread featuring sulky-looking Swiss “Bond girl” Ursula Andress (yes - the one with the white bikini in Dr. No), posing glumly amidst pools and waterfalls somewhere exotic. The accompanying text (headed, for some reason, “She… Is… Ursula Andress” - as if someone had been trying to argue that the woman in the photographs was in reality Ethel Quotts from Caterham) brings back a lost world:
SHE is a creature of classic grace and sensual allure, the quintessence of all that is female and, with virtually no effort on her part, the acknowledged high priestess of that cinematic clan of heavenly bodies: the Sex Goddesses. Her deification began with her first major filmic role opposite Sean Connery in Dr. No, and the critics' praises have ranged from "the most awesome piece of natural Swiss architecture since the Alps" to "the most sensuous and spectacular beauty to grace the screen in years." But despite the fact that such blanket encomiums smack of modern press-agentry, this 12-page photographic premiere of the unadorned Ursula-the most extensive pictorial takeout playboy has ever devoted to any member of the fair gender —clearly proves that all the hyperbole of Hollywood's professional star makers pales in the bright dimensions (37-22-35) of her own natural appeal.

I suspect using the phrase “fair gender” would land you in court these days. And that the stuff about Swiss architecture would help secure a conviction. As for the “vital statistics” (which are, in any case, meaningless as a guide to breast size), does anyone, anywhere still refer to them? Whatever, Andress’s body - photographed by husband John Derek, who’d later hook up with Bo - was stunningly impressive. Unfortunately, she was a rotten, dead-eyed actress who was eventually reduced to appearing in films with titles like  Slave of the Cannibal Gods and Tigers in Lipstick.

Apart from naked women, what Playboy meant to me in the first flush of puberty was a glamorous world of good-looking, sharp-suited libertines who spent a lot of time in night clubs and on golf courses (the magazine was forever advertising golf paraphernalia with the trademark frollicking playmate symbol stamped on it) and yet somehow still had the time to make oodles of money doing something called Business, which also sounded like fun. These carefree swingers had a keen sense of humour, chuckling over articles like Robert Morley’s “In Praise of Obesity” (which had “Humor” in brackets after the title, in case it wasn’t obvious from the piece itself) and they also, apparently, had enough energy to spare to take an interest in History (“A History of Sex in the Cinema” Part 3) Philosophy (in The Playboy Forum, which, if I remember, consisted of transcripts of middle-aged men droning on pompously about sex), Current Affairs (an interview with the lawyer who defended the strip-club owner who murdered Lee Harvey Oswald), and Literature (“Man with the Golden Gun” Part 3, and short stories by Robert Ruark and David Ely), Traditional Folklore (known as “Ribald Tales”, so, essentially, about sex), Satire (“Teevie Jeebies, Please Come Home”) and Reportage (“Cruising” - one hates to ask). All that - and nekkid women too! 

My infatuation with this glossy, phoney, silly, meaningless dream-world lasted for a year or two.  After glutting myself on one of their massive “anniversary” issues, I never bought it again. Besides, it was too expensive for a 14-year old who was probably receiving 2/6- a week in pocket money, and who was far too lazy to get up in time to do a paper round. And the mid-Sixties explosion in British youth culture made it all seem redundant: I wanted to look like a Rolling Stone or a Yardbird rather than some prematurely wizened pipe-sucker like Hugh Heffner, and I wanted a sassy Swinging London girlfriend like Julie Christie or Patti Boyd rather than the airbrushed Vargas-cartoon constructs on display in Playboy (mind you, I’d happily have settled for any girlfriend at the time - I would even have been prepared to forgive physical perfection).

I’d like to think I’d caught a whiff of the magazine’s essential seediness by then, that I was repelled by the thought of rich, selfish, middle-aged men exploiting pretty, fresh-faced, perky-breasted young girls (or “damsels” as they’d have been called in the magazine) - and photos of life at Heffner’s Playboy Mansion inadvertently revealed how sordid the whole damned thing was - but it was probably the fact that Playboy suddenly seemed so hopelessly, pathetically old-fashioned: it was all about rebarbative, wrinkled sleaze-buckets like Peter Lawford growing their hair too long and wearing love-beads and squeezing into testicle-mashing skin-tight pants and doing drugs and hanging out with girls less than half their age. Casinos, supper clubs, golf and bunny-girls all just seemed tawdry and sad.  

But the mag marched on, reaching a circulation peak in the ‘70s, before it was engulfed by a tide of gynaecologically explicit rivals - products of the right-on liberal hedonism so self-importantly espoused by Playboy itself. It’s still alive (so, I was surprised to discover, is an 89-year old Hugh Heffner) and, because free porn is so readily available on the internet, it’s not going to bother with pictures of naked girls any more. As it seems always to have featured a certain amount of classy fiction, perhaps it’ll morph into an up-market conservative literary periodical, in which case this wizened, e-cigarette-sucking old geezer might actually consider buying it again - as long it has ditched its obsession with golf somewhere along the way.  It would be ironic if a magazine which gave me such pleasure in my early teens might do so again, albeit for entirely different reasons. I’m not holding my breath. Despite everything, though, I’d be rather sad to see it disappear altogether.


  1. I always thought the Playboy short stories, 'lifestyle' features, interviews and readers' polls to decide the best jazz clarinet of 1968 were just there as a sort of 'I'm not really a perve' justification for people who liked to look at women with no clothes on - an upmarket aspirational Health and Efficiency with more professional photography but a bunch of dull stuff you had to flick through to get to Ursula.

    Ethel Quotts from Caterham got her chance later in what Ian Dury memorably described as the 'razzle mags' of the 70s, where hair mysteriously appeared where airbrushing and discreetly crossed legs had gone before and no one pretended they were for anyone other than the J. Arthur fan club. At least that was honest, if not to everyone's taste.

    1. Personally, the photo features were always the last thing I turned to, and then merely out of a sense of duty. And I simply don't understand why fans of 1950s British cinema would be interested in the sort of vile smut to which you are apparently alluding.

      As a member of the J. Arthur fan club, I watched John Mills in The Long Memory (1953) this very afternoon. I'd seen it before, of course, but Simon Heffer singled it out for praise in the Telegraph at the weekend. (Rumour has it that he's very fond of a J. Arthur, young Heffer.)

  2. I saw a recent photograph of Ursula Andress who bore a strong resemblance to her compatriot Jocelyn Wildenstein. Frightening.