My directorial debut: Prostitute

Groundbreaking TV producer Tony Garnett remembers researching his frank and unsentimental debut as director, about the lives of prostitutes on the streets of Birmingham.

11 June 2013

By Tony Garnett

Eleanor Forsythe in Prostitute (1980)

We made Prostitute (1980) as a small independent film mainly in Birmingham. My initial research contacts had led me there, so everything followed from those. It was just coincidence that I was a Brummie.

Prostitute (1980) poster

The street girls (their word) in Balsall Heath, a poor district of Birmingham, were very difficult to get to know. Only after much effort, and the reassurances of friendly social workers, was I able to contact them.

But once I had been accepted, they were warm, hospitable and open. I popped in for a chat regularly and they told me without guile about their lives. Some of them ended up in the film and became friends.

The expensive call girls in London were the opposite. It was no problem to get to see them – at their rate per hour. If the client wanted to sit and talk, notebook in hand, well, clients have all sorts of kinks – they were not to judge, whatever turns you on. If he paid and was not violent, so what? It remained just business.

Just like the difference between someone on an assembly line and someone who is an executive, the street girl did her tricks in a detached way and left it all behind her. The call girl, paid an enormous amount more, was usually young, with fashionable clothes and attractive looks. She was never off duty. She had to be ‘on’ all evening, often for days or weeks at a time. Men might book her and take her away to live in five star hotels, but she must never relax her professional act. And she was required to convincingly simulate genuine love and passion, complimenting the man who rented her on his attractiveness and sexual prowess. The street girl remained detached, the call girl was an actor.

The street girl would typically tell me that she could do a trick after lunch, usually in the back of a Ford Cortina in the car park behind the cinema, and be free to pick up the kids when school came out. The hours and the money were better than the checkout at Tesco. Whether this was the whole truth or a rationalisation, it had a logic to it. Any job becomes easier if you can detach yourself, especially while you are doing it.

Their main problem was police harassment. There was some, but not crippling drug use – mainly cannabis offered by boyfriends. At that time none of them were controlled by pimps; most had a ponce boyfriend.

Prostitute (1980)

In contrast, most of the call girls, who had a more expensive overhead, but whose prices were much higher, had a serious drug problem: cocaine or heroin, some with alcohol. The strain of the job was wearing.

Pimps, violence and trafficking of young foreigners are rife now, according to the press. This film should be seen as a historical document. Things now are probably much different. I do not know. I have not researched it.

With Bill Shapter and Charles Stewart, I decided to take the opportunity to experiment, to try stuff and see what worked. I wanted to see just how far we could go in low-key storytelling, giving the characters room, allowing all the cast to be, rather than do. I went as far as I dared in rejecting the rigours of a tight structure. I wanted to give the audience a chance to read them, rather than have everything signalled. I cast some professional actors, although no one with much experience, and some working prostitutes, who had never acted before a camera. I have never revealed their identity. In the film, they were all actors.

Eleanor Forsythe and Kate Crutchley in Prostitute (1980)

Above all, I wanted to show the world as I found it, from the point of view of the prostitutes. I wanted to give them a voice, without pat sociology or superior moralising.


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