Promotion
3 min

Peter de Rome’s gay porn legacy

The British film director’s racy films unravelled in long-awaited documentary

The Grandfather of Gay Porn doesn’t shy away from showing us the goods — there are plenty of erect phalli, sumptuous bubble butts and cumshots in full, cinematic detail.

To his neighbours and colleagues, Peter de Rome must have seemed an unassuming figure. They probably thought him the perfect English gentleman: gracious, soft-spoken and very proper. There was little outward indication that this diminutive octogenarian was also one of gay porn’s most important pioneers.

“He was a totally obscure character,” says filmmaker Ethan Reid. “Very well-spoken, well-read and very, very polite. That generation where those things were important.”

It was also the generation where the concept of male-on-male sex was not only socially taboo, but also against the law. But somehow, de Rome managed to breeze through his teens, 20s and 30s without persecution — and with plenty of lovers, both gay and straight. That in itself is impressive, but de Rome went one step further and documented many of his trysts on film.

De Rome’s films had never been publicly shown in his home country, but in 2007, the British Film Institute (BFI) added a selection of his movies to its archives, and made them available for the first time on DVD. For a retired film studio publicist who had considered himself strictly amateur, this was wonderfully gratifying for de Rome.

“He was a pioneer, and also a kind of proto-filmmaker in a way,” Reid says. “He wasn’t following anyone’s rules, he just went out with a camera. Imagine, a 5-foot-4, tiny respectable Englishman, walking around in the ’60s, picking up black guys to come home and film. That’s what interested us, really.”

Reid got to know de Rome quite well during the filming of his full-length documentary Peter de Rome: The Grandfather of Gay Porn. Following his sprightly subject around old haunts in London, New York and Fire Island, it became clear that an important part of gay history was being saved for posterity.  

“He had been sort of forgotten,” Reid says. “This life he’d been living just seemed to be so off the radar for most people, until the BFI got involved.”

“He was such fan of film,” he says. “He loved all the classics, and brought a lot of those plot ideas to his movies. He didn’t just want to make sex films, and I don’t think it would have been enough for him to just show the sex act itself.

The films really are remarkable to view, even now. They’re incredibly sexy, with an un-staged feel that captures real attraction and passion between men. And unlike many documentaries, The Grandfather of Gay Porn doesn’t shy away from showing us the goods: there are plenty of erect phalli, sumptuous bubble butts and cumshots in full, cinematic detail.

“His first films were just solos, really,” Reid says. “Guys he would pick up and take to his apartment, then film undressing and masturbating. Later, he would jump in as well. But he quickly aspired to making something more complicated with a storyline. I think that, to him, titillation and foreplay were more important than the sex act itself. It’s all about the build-up and the aftermath.”

In his documentary, Reid has included interviews with filmmaker Wakefield Poole (of Bijou porn fame), along with colleagues and scholars who speak to de Rome’s great influence on gay porn today. Of particular interest is porn producer Kristen Bjorn’s conversation with de Rome, citing The Second Coming as one of his favourite films. The scene is absolutely charming, with the two men bonding over a shared love of hands-free cumshots and the importance of storylines in even the raunchiest of videos.

But de Rome is at his best when simply reminiscing about his past. Early love affairs with childhood friends are remembered fondly, as are his activities with the civil rights movement and encounters with gay luminaries like Andy Warhol and Sir John Gielgud (who even sent de Rome a treatment for a porn scene involving a group of horny guys in a men’s clothing store). De Rome’s clear memory and infectious charm carry the weight of rich history, portraying a time that was constrictive, socially and legally, yet packed with naughty fun and unexpected, surreptitious encounters. Something that de Rome felt only added to the frisson of his scenes.

“It’s all about eroticism,” he says in the film. “Eroticism is to arousal as pornography is to performance. Arousal is to expectation as performance is to completion. Arousal before the act can be more exciting than the act itself.”

Sadly, de Rome died of pneumonia before the documentary of his life was properly released. But he did get to view the film and attend its premiere at the BFI.

“He did get his day in the sun,” Reid says. “He couldn’t believe his little porn films, that would have gotten him arrested when he made them, were now deemed that good by the BFI to be included in their archives. He was so grateful that people got to see his films, and praise them. And that just has to be enough.”