Like many films made during the 1990’s with the benefit of retro hindsight, there is something enormously of its time about Preaching to the Perverted, while at the same time managing to still strike a naughty chord twenty years on.
The 90’s were an unusual decade. It had freed itself of the capitalist Republicanism of the Reagan era in the US and the culturally divisive powerhouse of Thatcherism in the UK which dominated a 1980’s filled on the one hand with bright Coca Cola ads, synthetic pop music and post-modern hairstyles, and on the other the depressing reality of stark union action in workplaces, crippling unemployment and a social mobility gap ever widening. The 1990’s saw a triumphant return, at least politically, for a spell of liberal democracy; New Labour came to power under the Tony Blair cult of personality the same year Preaching to the Perverted arrived, while the biggest challenge to trouble Bill Clinton’s presidency came, literally, under his Oval Office desk.
A decade recovering from austerity yet retaining the capitalist homogeny of American pop culture, wedged between a decade to come of post-9/11 political terror and a gradual return to the right-wing technocracy of the 2010’s. In other words, in the 1990’s, we never knew we had it so good. The same could be applied sexually too. Consider the amount of erotic thrillers that troubled Hollywood that decade – from Sharon Stone uncrossing her legs in Basic Instinct, Madonna and all the candle wax in Body of Evidence, and that frankly weird one, Color of Night, most memorable for an aquatic glimpse of Bruce Willis’ junk. Sex was all over American cinema that decade in perhaps more direct, skin-baring ways than we’d ever seen before.
Preaching to the Perverted is not an erotic thriller but it is one concerned with that mix of liberal democracy and where politics sits in the landscape of kink. Stuart Urban’s film is almost punk in a post-punk landscape, primarily through its central character Tanya Cheex (Guinevere Turner) putting two fingers directly in the direction of the BBFC and an Establishment it seeks, through its story, to reject and rebel against at every turn. There is something of a knowing, satirical wink throughout, admittedly; it’s not as angry as it could have been, nor is it absurd. It’s probably as close as you could get to a John Waters movie in the UK, though, and by its very nature that makes it wilfully anti-establishmentarian.
Even the name Tanya Cheex, come on – how much more open can Urban get here? Whether she accurately represents the S&M domination scene Preaching to the Perverted works hard to convey can only be answered by those involved in such a scene, but the presence of real life dominators or dominated among the cast serves maybe to answer such a question. Urban does appear to enjoy an attention to detail, whether delivering shots languidly enjoying the pain on stage inside Tanya’s club, set to wonderfully 90’s hard house music, or in costuming which leaves little to the imagination – everything from tight leather to butt plugs to nipple clamps. Anything and everything S&M is on show to see.
Preaching to the Perverted may not be a film for the prude but prudishness lies precisely at the heart of Urban’s plot, which is concerned with Tom Bell’s old-fashioned, conservative northern MP on a desperate crusade to destroy Tanya’s operation, even at the expense of his own bank account. His character, Harry Harding, is obsessed with sex and money. The fading embers of austerity in repressive Tory culture are clear as day in Harry; the money is there to burn in waging a campaign against this S&M community but he doesn’t want to spend it. Inevitably hypocrisies around him and his life steadily become clear too. Urban’s message is clear – liberal democracy has no place for these conservative old dinosaurs remarkably obsessed with practices they profess to demise.
His protege provides more of the character work in Peter Emery (Christian Anholt – later best known for cheese factory TV show Relic Hunter), essentially a naive mummies boy, doted on by Sue Johnston’s cleaner, who due to his youth and handsome looks is recruited by Harding to go undercover and expose the filth and debauchery of Tanya’s operation, which the MP wants to see them all prosecuted for. Inevitably, Peter becomes fascinated by this kinky world, one which constructs on its own level a sense of family between those involved, and falls for the charms of Tanya; a beguiling force of personality who seems to entrance people the more she treats them like crap.
Urban attempts through the Peter/Tanya relationship to make a statement on whether genuine love and affection—i.e. penetration—can co-exist in a master/slave relationship. To the director’s credit, the turn is more Peter’s than Tanya’s; she never loses sway of her principles, even when she loses herself a touch to Peter’s schoolboy charm. Urban wants us to stop thinking in conventional terms about sex and in that respect, for all its inherent comedy and silliness, Preaching to the Perverted remains pretty forward-thinking in its approach not just to the S&M community, but also the LGBT community which has gained a lot more cultural respect and equality over the last two decades (though a long way is still to go).
Oddly enough though, we seem to be going the opposite way in terms of embracing edgier kink and sex. The open hypocrisy of Roger Lloyd-Pack’s wealthy knight of the realm, who hosts S&M games and orgies in his vast country mansion, speaks to the kind of illicit, scandal-filled repression which haunted several political regimes (often Tory conservatives) of years past, and which now have seeped into the modern political arena in different ways. The growing calls of the current Tory government to restrict internet freedoms in terms of access to niche sex in the form of online pornography suggests the battle being faced by Tanya and her troupe in Urban’s film hasn’t gone away, simply taken a different form.
Overlong it may be, indulgent in many respects and at times farcical in more of an awkward manner than it may like, Preaching to the Perverted deserves to be remembered as a cult British comedy which pushed the sexual boundaries and challenged a few comfort zones, in an era where people were more used to the Spice Girls and movies about asteroids hitting the earth than they were a close-up examination of a kinky, anti-establishment world. Even now, there aren’t truly many pictures like it.
This film was recommended by Paul Field @pafster. My thanks to him.