OK, I have to make a confession upfront. Everything about Mills & Boon fascinates me. As I’ve said before, it’s a cultural phenomenon bigger than Star Wars and, love it or loathe it, M&B – established 1908 – has come to shape the way all other creative media interprets romance.
Guilty Pleasures, a finely crafted documentary by Julie Moggan, sets this phenomenon in context. It’s easy – indeed, it seems, the norm – to dismiss these books as trite and insignificant. Given that one is sold every 4 seconds and that the romance genre outsells all others, including crime fiction, that stance smacks of more than a hint of misogyny to me.
But let’s not waste our time on people who don’t like (or, more likely, haven’t read and don’t understand) these books. Let’s look at the people who do, because, as this film demonstrates, they have lives as rich, confusing and complex as the rest of us.
Moggan gathers together an incredible cast of avid readers. Hiroko, a Tokyo housewife, is obsessed with ballroom dancing and longs for her sweet, gentle husband to be more of an alpha-male romantic hero. In Mumbai, we meet Shumita, who’s desperate for her no-good, egomaniacal, philandering spouse to come back to her. Then we have Shirley from Warrington, whose husband suffers from bipolar disorder and can spend days unwashed and uncommunicative under a duvet on the sofa.
To fulfill our need for secondary characters, the film features Gill Saunders, one of M&B’s most prolific writers (and for ‘prolific’ read ‘rich’ – these people make a lot of money). Gill, it turns out, is a pensioner called Roger but that doesn’t stop him writing racy scenes featuring some gentle spanking and fancy silk knickers. Nor does it prevent him having sound insights into the psychology of romance (which might explain why he’s the only person in the film who’s happy to live in solitude).
Finally, we have Stephen, a handsome model who has appeared on over 200 M&B covers. Stephen, we discover, is a spiritual soul longing to meet his twin flame (‘the direct reflection of yourself in this life’, or something along those lines). Having read a good deal of Taoist philosophy, he’s also keen to move beyond the ‘cosmic sneeze’ of the, ahem, typical male encounter and on to something deeper and more meaningful.
The film is beautifully constructed. There are no talking heads, no ‘expert’ analyses of the genre and no deconstructions of the essentially essentialist nature of the storylines. Instead the film is plotted – cleverly and covertly – like a classic romance novel. Connection, conflict and disappointment are all there. As, in one form or another, is love.
As we discover that real life isn’t all bouquets and bulging boxers, we follow Roger’s lead. Every character, he tells us, has to develop – they have to learn something along the way. I don’t want to give too much away – each of these interwoven stories could stand alone as a teasing, touching feature. Sorry if that sounds like a double-entendre; this M&B thing is catching! Which makes me nervous now about saying that I found myself rooting for happy endings for all of them (even though I did) – that may be an entendre too far…
Guilty Pleasures is out on DVD today.