Exploring the erotic world of 1970s underground film-maker Peter de Rome

As part of the BFI’s remit to archive the films of all British artists comes the DVD collection The Erotic Films of Peter de Rome – probably the most risqué of all of the BFI’s archived film material as it contains some the earliest examples of gay erotic films.

Little known outside underground film circles, Peter De Rome made over 100 films over a 50-year period, with only around 40 of them actually finished. The Ramsgate-born director ended up settling in the US in the mid-1950s working at Tiffany’s in New York, at the same the time the film Breakfast at Tiffany's was made – he even makes a cameo. Unschooled in film-making, de Rome’s Super 8mm films followed in the tradition of Andy Warhol and Kenneth Anger but were much more risqué – so much so, they ended up being shown in underground cinemas in Europe. De Rome continued with his ‘hobby’ until the 1980s, when the AIDS crisis hit.

Today, the grandfather of gay porn is the subject of a new documentary (which accompanies the release) exploring his completed films (which he keeps in an old storage box) and also the ones he has lost over time, including the only known footage of Greta Garbo at the end of her life.

De Rome’s films (12 are included on the DVD release) might be rough and ready around the edges, but it’s their historical nature that make them so unique – especially the ones of Fire Island, a New York landmark that has since become a gay tourist mecca. The filmmaker's cinema is also a window on a pre-AIDS era, a time when the gay liberation movement was just beginning to have its voice heard.

One of Peter de Rome’s shorts is also included in the BFI DVD, Encounters, featuring four groundbreaking gay shorts, which artfully show men hooking up in ways that were unthinkable when they were filmed in 1965/1970.

First up is Dream A40 from 1965. Filmed two years before the Sexual Offences Act ended the criminalization of homosexuality, Lloyd Reckord’s gritty drama shows two young men refraining from public demonstrations of affection during a car trip; Andy Milligan’s Vapors from 1965 uses a infamous New York bathhouse as the setting for a wordy two-hander as two strangers meet; while Southend pier is the location for Bill Douglas’ 1970 student short, Come Dancing, in which a pick-up turns dangerously dark. The collection ends with de Rome’s 13-minute short, Encounter, a wordless erotic fantasy set on the streets of New York. A fascinating collection.

The Erotic Films of Peter de Rome and Encounters are a BFI release

• The documentary Fragments: The Incomplete Films of Peter de Rome screens 6.20pm, Thursday 17 May and 8.50pm on Saturday 19 May at the BFI Southbank