A ‘Bachlor Film Production London’, ‘Directed by Olaf Ericson’, ‘Cast: Terry Duggan, Steve Peters, Joyce Lee, Peggy Pane, Wally Lamb and introducing Gino Gambrdella as Sam’. If none of those names ring a bell there is no need to be concerned, as all were likely pseudonyms… with one exception. Hiding behind one of those fake names is actually a well-known British comedy actor, but more about who ‘Mr. Gambrdella’ really is later on.
Touch of Leather has never been released in the UK, nor it seems was it ever intended to be. This is British sexploitation aimed firmly at the American grindhouse circuit, where it was released by the King of 1960s American ‘roughies’ Bob Cresse, the man behind such BDSM flavoured sexploitation as Hot Spur, The Scavengers, and most notorious of all Love Camp 7. Right from the get-go, it is readily apparent that Touch of Leather is a breed apart from those British sex films that had their eye on a domestic release and the British censor’s approval. While the likes of Her Private Hell, Monique and The Wife Swappers were positively bending over backwards to justify their brief nudity and sex to the British censor, Touch of Leather is far more unrepentant in its approach to sexploitation. The film’s parade of rape, cat fighting, female on female sadism and Soho striptease acts, quickly confirms that appeasing the British censor wasn’t among the filmmakers’ concerns.
Despite being far stronger meat than your common or garden British sex film, Touch of Leather is still part of a recognisable tradition of low-budget films that had one foot in the British crime genre and another in the sex genre. In that sense, it is an extreme relation to the likes of The Big Switch, Man of Violence, A Touch of the Other, and an especially close blood brother of Anthony Sloman’s Sweet and Sexy, to which it shares a great deal of similarities.
Like Sweet and Sexy, Touch of Leather features a tough but hopelessly naïve out of Towner who gradually becomes sucked into the Soho netherworld of crime and vice. Welshman Gary (‘Steve Peters’, not that that is likely to be his real name) has found himself seriously in debt, despite holding down a day job at the Soho strip club ‘The Red Mill’. Fortunately for the strippers, and all the women in the vicinity, Gary appears to be blessed with a Charles Bronson like ability to detect whenever a sexual assault is occurring. After dragging an overenthusiastic punter off one of the strippers, Gary barely has time to catch his breath before he is rushing down a back alley to the aid of another young woman Karen (Joyce Lee) who is in the process of being raped by two youthful hooligans. A grateful Karen suggests that Gary should capitalise on his ability to handle himself by turning to the world of Boxing, inadvertently leading him on a downward spiral.
Yes, Touch of Leather really is a sex film about boxing, unlikely bedfellows as they seem. Did anyone in America buying a ticket for an ‘adults only’ movie called Touch of Leather, really expect that title to refer to boxing gloves? Probably not, but if the idea of a movie about boxing sounds like a deal breaker, do stick around anyway. If you’re uninterested in boxing, so it seems were the filmmakers themselves. For a film supposedly about a man trying to make it as a boxer, Touch of Leather must spend all of about five minutes in the actual ring. Gary’s career change and burgeoning romance with Karen sees him moving in even more shady social circles than in his days at the Red Mill Club. It also sees him acquiring a few new enemies too. There is Laura (Peggy Pane) an older possessive lesbian who has been ‘keeping’ Karen. Despite Laura and Karen living together at…ahem…apartment number 69, and enough hints from Laura herself, the exact nature of the two women’s relationship is initially lost on dim-witted Gary. “She’s not your Mum is she?” Gary asks Karen in all innocence.
Gary’s boxing career also predictably brings him into contact with a few dodgy geezers, including the fast talking but thoroughly crooked Mr Sam (Gino Gambrdella). Sam soon has Gary eating out of his hand, by promising him the big time. In truth, Sam only sees Gary as his own meal ticket to fame and fortune, even if it comes at the expense of Gary’s life. Mr Sam’s main aim being to arrange a match between Gary and his prize fighter Lopez, even though Lopez is likely to make mincemeat of Gary in the ring.
The surprise celebrity casting here is the pseudonymous ‘Gino Gambrdella’, who in reality is Cockney character actor Tommy Godfrey, a mainstay of British film and sitcoms throughout the 1960s and 70s. The fact that Godfrey’s career was mostly played out in comedies, makes it doubly surprising to see him excelling here as such a vicious, manipulative character. Mr Sam is a balding, diminutive, authentic piece of East end criminality, who it’s easy to imagine could be the brother of Harry Flowers in Performance or the father of Bob Hoskins’ character in The Long Good Friday. Like those two, Mr Sam isn’t a man you want to be around when things don’t go right for him. If you grew up watching Godfrey playing lovable Cockneys in sitcoms like Love Thy Neighbour or Mind Your Language, is it more than a little jarring to see him completely shed his comedy image here, playing it completely straight in a role that at one point calls for him to punch and kick a man to death. Touch of Leather is an example of how a low-budget film can sometimes offer a far greater role to the type of character actor who only tended to score bit parts in regular movies. It’s difficult to think of another film that allocates Tommy Godfrey such a significant amount of screen time, or such an important role.
While the bulk of the film seems to be keeping Tommy Godfrey at arm’s length from the sexy stuff, and leads you to suspect that Tommy might not have realised just what kind of movie he was getting involved in, Touch of Leather shatters that illusion itself at around the 50 minute mark. Godfrey’s use of a fake Italian name in the credits suddenly makes perfect sense when, entering into the spirit of things, he strips off his shirt and begins humping away on top of one of his female co-stars. Mr Sam’s conquest being, strangely enough, Laura, the man hating lesbian who appears perfectly happy to let Mr Sam ride on top of her (“you’re a marvellous man….for a man”). After all, who really wants to be a lesbian when there is a love god like Tommy Godfrey around and raring to go.
In fairness, some of Laura’s dirty talk during this scene “you’re a beast…a filthy beast”, suggests she merely views putting out to Mr Sam as a means to getting him on her side, and that having sex with him is also a way of validating her own misandry. Whatever the motivation, an unholy alliance between Mr Sam and Laura is soon formed, with each benefiting if Gary dies in the ring. “I get my title fight and you get your little flower back” Mr Sam explains. Will the combined forces of boxing and lesbianism succeed in destroying Soho’s answer to Romeo and Juliet, or will true love triumph over corruption? Given that Touch of Leather was Britain’s export to the American ‘roughie’ market, a genre not exactly known for its upbeat, life affirming endings, you know which side the smart money is on.
Apart from Tommy Godfrey, the only other recognisable face here is Terry Duggan, an actor who was on the fringes of the film industry for several decades, and like Godfrey was generally side-lined to bit parts. One of his most prestigious movie credits was 2001: A Space Odyssey, where he played “ape attacked by leopard”. Duggan however is also familiar to fans of the sitcom On the Buses, where he played five small roles in the TV series, and another character in the first On the Buses film. His most well-known OTB appearance being as the shopkeeper who sells Stan Butler a toilet. Duggan was also married to On the Buses star Anna Karen, who by sheer coincidence had herself been a stripper in London’s Panama Club, neatly tying into the themes of this film.
Seemingly on account of being the only actor who’d allow his real name to be used on the film, Duggan receives top-billing in Touch of Leather for the first and only time in his career. In spite of this prominent billing though, Duggan actually plays the secondary role of Pete, a boxing trainer who Mr Sam entrusts Gary to. Pete is by far the most relatable character in the film. Whereas Laura and Mr Sam are thoroughly evil, and Gary and Karen are himbo and bimbo personified, Pete is the one character who appears to have something of a conscience. Pete is more than a little disturbed by Mr Sam’s bullshitting of Gary, and Gary’s misplaced gratitude to Sam. For all these flashes of nobility though, you just know that Pete will never be able to work up the necessary heroics to truly stand up to Mr Sam. When Pete mentions to Sam that he has been thinking allot about Gary recently, Mr Sam immediately shuts down the conversation by barking back “what with?”
Tommy Godfrey and Terry Duggan are by far the two best actors in the entire film, in fact I wouldn’t be surprised if they were the only two actors in the film. The rest of the cast appearing to consists of Soho strippers playing themselves and late 1960’s glamour models trying to pass themselves off as actresses, a common practice in early British sexploitation. As Karen, female lead ‘Joyce Lee’ resembles 60s glam gal Maria Frost, and unfortunately her acting resembles that of Maria Frost’s as well. During a scene which calls for her to appear distressed as she tries to discover Gary’s whereabouts from the flaming queen who serves drinks at the Red Mill Club, her demeanour is instead so cheery and carefree that its hilariously inappropriate. As Gary, ‘Steve Peters’ is no better, and the wooden nature of his acting is only exacerbated by him playing the lead role. Peters certainly looks the part, the tall Welshman towers over the rest of the cast, and in terms of physicality convinces as a wannabe boxer. Although given how little actual boxing there is in this film, that casting methodology seems rather flawed here.
Fortunately Touch of Leather is a film that grows aware of its own strengths and weaknesses as it progresses. Tommy Godfrey and Terry Duggan gradually become the focus of attention, while Gary’s plight tends to get buried under the sheer weight of exploitation film incident, for which Touch of Leather has boundless energy for. It’s as if the filmmakers felt obliged to live up to every dirty story an American audience had ever read about London…be it the Profumo Affair, the Kray twins, rip-off strip clubs, sex orgies…all manner of British kinkiness is brought to life for Americans here. True to its Soho setting, Touch of Leather is little more than wall to wall sleaze…with sex, violence and strip acts rarely far away. Just to illustrate how the narrative frequently takes a backseat here, a scene at Pete’s gym, meant to illustrate Gary’s boxing training, instead becomes distracted by two women who are wrestling about the floor of the gym. Later, when Pete and Gary are talking shop in a dressing room, the film suddenly cuts to the two wrestling gals again, this time as they are changing in an adjoining dressing room. Lingering on the bottom of one girl in particular, before begrudging cutting back to Pete and Gary talking about boxing again.
The strip-club scenes- while seemingly shot at a studio mock-up- still feel on the money in terms of period authenticity. Strip acts seem like they are playing out in real time. The punters are a memorably sweaty, leery bunch, including one chap who keeps sucking a cigar in and out of his mouth in an obscenely phallic gesture. The real life ‘Red Mill Club’ is referenced several times over in the dialogue. Exterior work is limited to nervous, hand held shots of strip-clubs, and a lengthy view of store fronts filmed from a moving car, a sure sign that filming permits hadn’t been sought. Of the exterior footage my friend David/‘Soundtrack68’, who knows more about London locations than I do, chipped in the following observations “it’s certainly the exterior of the old Red Mill Club on Macclesfield St. however the interiors look as if they’re studio shot due to what appears to be the very same stair-case appearing again later in a gym scene. Nice passing shot of the ‘Durex shop’ on Wardour Street too, prior to the unsavoury incident occurring in Damsey Place (which it obviously doesn’t)”.
I’d be curious as to what extent Bob Cresse was involved in this film (though as he passed away in the late 1990s the answer is likely lost to time). Was this simply a film he picked up for American distribution? Or did he have some active or financial involvement in the production? Cresse was no stranger to British sexploitation, his Olympic International Films having released Arnold Louis Miller’s ‘London in the Raw’ in the US, with ‘additional footage’ shot by Cresse himself in order to bring Miller’s film in line with the stronger tastes of the American market. No such surgery was needed performing on Touch of Leather, which tellingly is very in touch with Cresse’s own tastes. Scenes of Laura slapping the bejesus out of Karen and the two other women wrestling about the gym, were especially likely to have found favour with Cresse. As an associate of Cresse once put it “Bob never met an actress he didn’t want to beat”. Pseudonyms largely mask the identities of the people who made Touch of Leather. Fortunately a couple of people did leave their actual names on the film, allowing some clues as to its genesis. Producer and editor Gerry Arbeid (1934-2013) was a jack of all trades, who evidentially moved to Canada in the 1970s, where he worked on several Canuxploitation films, including as co-producer of the horror classic Black Christmas (1974). Much earlier in his career Arbeid had also worked on London in the Raw as well as an assistant to Michael Winner on Winner’s early, cash strapped movies for Harold Baim and the Fancey family. Connections which do make allot of sense, since Touch of Leather frequently comes across as a film made by someone who had been knocking around the bottom end of the film business and worked on many a B-level British crime movie, of which Touch of Leather feels like a sexually excessive version of.
What’s remarkable about Touch of Leather is that, for a film that is now fifty years old, it’s not that out of place with the low-budget British films of today. Its preoccupation with boxing, tough working class London and Krays era gangsters are still being echoed in the British crime and action movies currently gracing the shelves of your local supermarket. Consider Touch of Leather the long lost, tits and ass obsessed granddad of today’s supermarket Brit-crime movies….one that has only just come in from the cold… fifty years later. So, that’s Touch of Leather then, not so much a ‘lost’ film, but a film that nobody ever knew about for it to be considered lost in the first place…and proof that ‘Come Play With Me’ wasn’t Tommy Godfrey’s only British sex film after all. I hereby expect to receive a kicking from Tommy Godfrey in the afterlife.
black & white, mono, fullscreen, 65 minutes, with the usual sexploitation mish mosh at the end. DVD-R comes packaged as shown in color DVD case, wrapped in plastic!