FORTY years ago Robin Askwith’s career had become a pretty good metaphor for the entire British film industry taking in, as it did, horror, sex and television sit-com spin-offs. Confessions of a Window Cleaner was the most successful film in UK cinemas in 1974 – and the critics hated it. Askwith, who took the job to keep paying the bills, came to be defined by the Confessions series. He appeared in four – although it seems like more due to the number of cheap, er, knock-offs with similar names – and spent the next decade trying to live them down.

Forty years later the Confessions series, and a handful other sexploitation films, have undergone a critical reappraisal. The same newspapers whose contemptuous critics once dismissed them as tawdry tat, now hail them as important ‘social documents’ of public tastes in the 1970s.

Kicking back with a coffee, Askwith seems to have had the last laugh: “The critics hated them, but we were packing the audiences in at a time when nothing else did. People were queuing round the block to get into the Sheppard’s Bush Odeon.”

Askwith started out with high hopes. After being expelled from school for running down his headmaster with a motorcycle, a chance meeting with film director Lindsay Anderson led to a role in ‘If’, a critically acclaimed satire of public schools.

Acting seemed like the perfect career choice: “I was earning 49 quid a week, driving a Triumph Herald and picking up the girls. There was no way I was going back to learning about Karl Marx.”

His timing was lousy. After a productive period when American studios poured cash into UK pictures, the British film industry was about to enter a dark period. Struggling with their own financial problems, Hollywood producers scaled back their investment and, almost overnight, money for new films dried up.

Askwith segued from critically acclaimed dramas like ‘If’ into TV sit-coms such as The Fenn Street Gang, Bless This House and Please Sir!, and indie horror hits Tower of Evil, The Flesh and Blood Show and the bonkers hit Horror Hospital (now a cult classic). “I had bills to pay,” he says matter-of-factly, “and the films made lots of money. That was the British film industry back then.”

Ironically, the Confessions films were actually made with American money (from Columbia) which gave them bigger budgets – and better casts – than the thematically similar Adventures rip-offs made by Stanley Long.

Askwith says he originally turned the role down (“I read the script and couldn’t understand it. I thought ‘What’s all this about bubbles coming out of my arse’? It sounded ridiculous.”) but took the role when offered a multi-picture deal. In fact, he signed up for six Confessions films (based on the books written under a pseudonym by Christopher Wood) – a remarkable deal for a young actor at the time – and when Confessions of a Window Cleaner succeeded beyond anyone’s expectations that looked like a canny move. Today, the success on that scale would set an actor up for life but in 1974 he says: “I had fame - but no fortune. My 20ft high face was on the side of buses, but I was still getting on the same buses.”

Even by 1974 standards the Confessions were pretty tame stuff. They had more in common with saucy seaside postcards than the hardcore bump ‘n grind stuff being filmed in Europe and America. The ‘dirty raincoat’ brigade were disappointed by the sex scenes which were played for laughs and filmed in the best possible taste.

Askwith says: “I’d done conventional sex scenes before in films like Tower of Evil but the Confessions movies were nothing like them. My character usually ended up buried under bubbles, covered in paint or hiding under the bed.” That didn’t prevent Window Cleaner being banned in Colombia and Spain, and Pop Performer in South Africa, however.

The series ran out of steam after four movies – Columbia’s financial troubles meant it couldn’t afford the fifth, Confessions in a Haunted House – but Askwith says he found it hard to get work afterwards. “I lost a role in a TV sit-com because I’d done X-rated films, so I went on a world tour called Further Confessions of a Window Cleaner that was very successful.”

Nowadays he’s back on television, in Benidorm, but still entertaining audiences with his one man show. His next appearance is in Darlington on Monday where the film club will be showing Window Cleaner before he goes on stage – but Askwith won’t be in the audience. “I’m not ashamed of them but I’m embarrassed watching myself so I’ll stay in the hotel until the film’s over,” he says. “Mind you, I’ve got plenty of juicy anecdotes about the making of them.” Anyone for Confessions of a Film Star?

  • An Intimate Evening With Robin Askwith is at the Forum Music Centre, Darlington, on Monday from 7pm. Tickets cost £12