Christony Companions, a North-East escort agency, is set to feature in a doumentary on Channel 4. Women's Editor Sarah Foster meets its owners and learns the truth about what it does.

MY first contact with Christony Companions is on the phone. I've got the number from its website and ring to ask about an interview. I speak to John Dockerty, who's brisk and businesslike. He says it's fine for me to meet him but with one proviso - his partner Douglas must be there too. And so it is that I arrive at their luxury townhouse in trendy Gosforth not quite sure of what I'll find.

In fact both John, 33, and 44-year-old Douglas Fox, who've been together for ten years and are civil partners, are instantly affable. A Scot by birth, it's Douglas, who's softly spoken with a gentle demeanor, who talks the most. Though John effectively runs the business, he leaves the Press to his other half. They seem polite and erudite - hardly the sort to be engaged in dodgy dealings. And yet they run an escort agency.

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Douglas explains how it all began. "We got into the business because a friend of ours was an escort and she asked me to answer her phone calls, and through answering her phone calls, more and more ladies and a few gentlemen started calling, asking if I would represent them as well," he says. "We didn't set out at all to get involved in this industry. It was purely by accident."

What started out as simple favour turned into formal representation, although both John and Douglas had other jobs. So what was in it for the escorts? "Most escorts tend to be very busy and when they have an appointment they're missing calls," says Douglas, who still works as a clothes designer. "Secondly, a lot of the girls, for obvious reasons, wanted to maintain a degree of anonymity and therefore didn't like answering the phone themselves. The third thing is security. Girls working alone like to know that there's someone who knows where they're going, what time they're due to arrive and what time they're due to finish an appointment."

The venture flourished, with John and Douglas taking more and more bookings. Then in July 2000, it all went horribly wrong. "We'd been established just over a year or so and we went through a huge legal battle that lasted 18 months," recalls Douglas. "We were accused of living off the immoral earnings of prostitutes. I think there were a lot of politics involved because John was still working for the police (as an accountant) at the time."

They suffered the indignity of arrest but when the case came to court, it fell apart. "Luckily, we had a very, very experienced London-based legal team which did an absolutely brilliant job," explains Douglas. "Basically, the ladies we represented at the time refused to turn up and the police needed them to admit in court that they were prostitutes."

While the women's reticence is not surprising, this hardly exonerates John and Douglas, though both deny the accusation. Douglas attempts to set the record straight. "The difference between a prostitute and an escort is that an escort sells time, and what happens between herself and her client as two consenting adults is entirely their decision. Providing it is consensual it is perfectly legal," he says. "A prostitute obviously sells a sexual service for a price."

This may sound like a fudge to some; like Douglas is dancing around the issue of what goes on, but he firmly denies that he and John are merely pimps. "Our job is simply to advertise the people we represent and promote them to the best of our ability," he says. "When a client rings up we never ever discuss sexual services. We never discuss sexual services with the ladies. It's not only for legal reasons - it's simply that we believe that what happens between consenting adults is up to them. It would be very prurient delving into people's sex lives."

Morality aside, what's pretty clear is that business is booming. As Douglas tells it, it's almost like a branch of social welfare. "It's still quite hard for a lot of men, particularly businessmen, to actually go out and meet a lady, which is why the escorting scene is one of the biggest markets in the UK," he says. John interjects with: "We have a lot of disabled clients and clients who have special needs who don't have any other way of meeting ladies.

"We have one client in Durham whose parents pay for the appointment. They don't want to discuss it with him. They go out for the evening and he pays for it on his credit card and his mother pays the bill." Douglas adds, without a trace of humour: "The National Health should contribute to the cost because it's a really human need for companionship."

IT isn't hard to see that for lonely men, the chance of an escort - even at the eye-watering rate of £130 an hour - could be quite alluring. As John explains, for many of his clients, this is merely chicken feed. "People look at the prices and say 'who can afford that?' and we were originally very surprised that people could, but to the gentlemen who book with us, £130 is like us spending £10 in Tesco," he says.

A thornier issue is the escorts themselves, but Douglas gives short shrift to feminist critics. "I'm actually busy writing a book about the agency and about escorting, and one of the main issues I'm raising is that people involved in the industry are often attacked by women, particularly women who say they support women's rights but they only support women's rights when it fits their agenda," he says. "If a woman decides to use her looks to make money for herself and her family then she's being exploited, which is nonsense. The majority of the women we represent are highly educated and more than capable of making their own decisions."

TO be fair, it doesn't sound like such a bad way to make a living: a lot of money for just your company and, OK, the guy may hope for something more, but if John and Douglas can be believed, you can always say no. Plus the two of them are there as back up. "The girls' safety is paramount to the business," says John. "If I had girls getting into troublesome appointments, I wouldn't have a business."

To guard against this, each client is vetted before the date and, throughout its duration, the escort checks in with John and Douglas. It means a lot of late nights. "If a girl was out until two o'clock in the morning I would be up until then," says John. "We don't ever switch the phone off when girls are out."

For lots of women, the lure of easy money must be strong and when John placed an advert in a Jobcentre, this struck him forcefully. "Within a seven day period we had 4,000 applications - everything from a 68-year-old housewife to a priest," he says with amusement. "We had the post office ringing us up every day saying 'can you come and collect your applications because the PO Box is full'."

On a serious note, Douglas - "the political one" - has hopes of cleaning up the industry. He claims the law just isn't working for the good guys. "The problem is how can clients tell which company is reputable?" he says. "There has to be some sort of official recognition." "I think escort agencies should be registered with the local authority at the very least," supplies John.

In the meantime, the pair are lobbying for a union to represent escorts, whose rights are currently unprotected. They've also opened a branch in Edinburgh and are looking into going to York. So why, given all the hassle and people's prejudice, do they even bother with what they do? "We're proud of the business we're in - otherwise why do it?" Douglas reasons. "It's also fun. The girls love it and we have such a laugh."

* Christony Companions, 0191-406 9710 or www.christony.co.uk

* The Escort Agency is on Channel 4 this Wednesday at 10.50pm.