At the dawn of the video age movies that we had never seen or heard of before started appearing on videotape for enjoyment in the home. A lot of these movies were either not of the quality to make it in the cinema, or had arrived in cinemas as a B-feature back in the days where going to see a movie meant a whole night out with two movies running together as a package. At this time aseries of risqu movies appeared the most famous being the odd Israeli teen titillation movie series known as Lemon Popsicle, Porky’s and Private Lessons. All three were smash hits on video, but as a child I remember one of the most popular was Private Lessons, with school boys passing pirated copies from one to another and talking like it was the most hardcore movie ever made. The reason why Private Lessons was so popular? Well it was because it was about every teenage boys dream…
Phillip Filmore or Philly (Eric Brown) to his friends is a very different teenager, while all his school mates have developed in both maturity and appearance; he is still looking very much like an eleven year old even though he is fifteen. It’s hard for Philly to move on or get into a relationship due to the fact that he is so much smaller or childlike than anyone else, in order for him to date someone appropriately looking for his height and looks he really would need to be dating a thirteen year old, but Philly does not want that. Philly fantasises about the older woman, especially seventeen year olds and that two year gap in Philly’s world is massive. Knowing that he will never achieve the status of dating an older woman he instead opts to becoming a sort of peeping tom, watching these “older” girls through their windows.
It’s when Philly’s dad goes away on a “business trip” that Philly’s world turns round; left in the care of Lester (Howard Hesseman) the chauffer and houseman, and Miss Mallow (Sylvia Kristel) the house woman Philly prepares for three weeks of fun. But what Philly never expected was romance with an older woman, and to his shock Miss Mallow suddenly starts making suggestions to Philly. As a fifteen year old boy to find yourself a product of desire from a twenty eight year old woman, surely he would be stupid to turn this down?
After it’s rather bizarre and completely unrelated to anything opening, designed presumably to arouse the story of Private Lessons kind of stumbles about for a twenty minute period. It’s during this time that you really understand the change of times since 1981, and if you’re like me and remember 1981 clearly, watching this movie is a terrible wake up call to how life has changed. That first twenty minutes are almost nauseatingly bad as the story tries to develop but looks rather like it’s been thrown together in a hurry. The camerawork is rushed, the sound is at times inaudible, and vision is somewhat blurry. Suddenly however things improve, just when you needed it most; at the point that 70’s sex siren and Emmanuelle star Sylvia Kristel starts making her moves on Philly.
There are many issues about the movie that work and many that don’t; the plot development is unbelievable, while the effects of the development do somehow smack or realism. It’s blatantly obvious that despite the high age ratings the movie was given in the UK, US, and Australia that Private Lessons was not meant for people over a certain age, this was designed to be watched by people not clearly old enough to see it. This fact is reflected in the storyline that comes off rather reminiscent of the Red Hand Gang or The Famous Five as the movie turns from teen titillation to teen crime thriller. The humour throughout the film is very childlike, and really not the sort of thing to make anyone above a certain age even develop the beginning of a smile. But even with the movies obvious immaturity it does have a certain charm about it, having not seen it since the 1990’s (more on that in a minute) I was a little bit pleased to be watching this once so taboo movie, the stories I heard about what teenagers in my school year were doing whilst watching this movie is a book in itself, and a remember as a fourteen year old boy charming the woman in the video shop enough with my immature charisma to allow me to rent the movie. Back then having to wait for both my mum and sister to go out before watching it, because it was “So Extreme”. Back then it did not seem anywhere so silly, as it did on my recent viewing or even in the 90’s; but I still did have a certain fondness for it.
The acting was appalling even from the usually basic Howard Hesseman and Ed Begley Jr. amusingly enough the best actor of the piece was the one player you would not expect top award such an honour, and that was Sylvia Kristel. Back then teenage boys had no idea who Kristel was, in the UK all of her films were banned, so you never really knew quite who you were contending with. And to be honest, having watched the movie again I find it somehow hard to believe that this is the same Sylvia Kristel that shot to notoriety back in the 70’s with the Emmanuelle movies.
What is surprising about the movie is its soundtrack, an unexpected collection of hits pieced together from artists at the time completely unpopular but now songs you’re pretty much familiar with hearing frequently. The best success story from the movie comes in the form of the Randy VanWarmer hit Just When I Needed You Most, prior to Private Lessons none of his songs had even managed to chart, suddenly this frequently used track from the movie went freefall to the top of the charts worldwide.
In the UK Private Lessons has a somewhat unneeded shadowy past, in 1984 as proper certification came into play Private Lessons disappeared from shelves in video libraries across the globe, it was never banned as such but the BBFC failed to award it certificate, and the then owners for the video release never had the money to allow it to be seen by the board. Because even if it had been certified they could never have landed the cash to re-release it, because while Private Lessons was a much requested movies, many of their others were not. In 1990 the movie finally met with the BBFC who passed the movie but in a censored form. The launch of TV station Channel Five allowed for a screening of the once popular movie, with heads of the channel thinking the movie would be a sure-fire ratings winner, and initially it was, however 20 minutes in and it became apparent that this was not the movie we all remembered, as even with advert breaks the movie was fifteen minutes shorter than expected running time. And with the UK DVD release several years ago, we still in the UK are unable to see this in an uncensored form, which to be honest is a terrible shame because there is little in it to offend by today’s standards. Even though the censoring here keeps the running time as it should be, but hazes out the bits you’re not supposed to see. Ironically movies that were banned prior to this, are all available uncensored in stores across the UK including the aforementioned Emmanuelle.
Age has not been kind to Private Lessons, and despite its niche market releases both in the UK, US, and Australia a real without preservation, as a result the imagery is a little green, and the sound a little blurry. But cast these things aside, if you were too young to see this in the 1980’s or not even born, this is a charming and wonderful piece of nostalgia, that shows the strange way that time has changed our conceptions of what is decent, and while it titillated and caused all sorts of arousal issues twenty odd years ago it’s hard now to see what this could possibly have been so controversial about the movie.
One thing to take with you, which had never really occurred to me at the first few viewings; is that I wonder if this sort of movie would be allowed to be made nowadays, after all an older woman seducing a minor? Since 1981 we have devised brand new words to define such and act.
Private Lessons is available on DVD across the world on a variety of labels, but none of the DVD’s has any special features.