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The Look of Love:
The Life and Times of Paul Raymond
by Paul Willetts
Michael Winterbottom's biopic of Paul Raymond opens with the ageing pornographer and strip club supremo, played by Steve Coogan, gliding through the West End in his Rolls-Royce with his young granddaughter beside him. Every few yards he points out another property that he owns. Here is the King of Soho showing off the kingdom that she will one day inherit.
Such behaviour might seem like colossal hubris, if the Furies had not already caught up with Raymond. At this stage of his life he was fabulously wealthy but a broken man living as a virtual recluse. Raymond did not just shape the spirit of Soho for decades from the late 1950s, he owned a huge chunk of it. In 1992, Business Age calculated that this shameless showman, porn peddler and property tycoon had ousted the Duke of Westminster from the top of the list of Britain's richest people.
That news came only a month after his beloved daughter, Debbie, a tortured soul who grew up surrounded by naked women, had died of a heroin overdose. Winterbottom understandably makes Raymond's personal life, especially his tragic relationship with Debbie, the heart of his film, The Look of Love.
But Raymond's life also had a huge impact on London culture and this effect rippled out to the rest of the country. In his book, The Look of Love (on which the film is based), Paul Willetts writes: "Far more than most government ministers [Raymond] played a prominent role in the transformation of British society, specifically British sexual mores." He was at the forefront of turning the sex industry from an illicit enterprise in the shadows of society to a mainstream business that permeated advertising, television, newspapers, magazines, and nightlife in provincial towns.
The public image of Raymond in his heyday was of an absurd character sporting an elaborate comb-over hairstyle, comical specs, perma-tan and a busty blonde, bursting out of an ill-fitting garment, on each arm. But was he any different in private?
"I've done a lot of films based on real people," Winterbottom says. "With Paul Raymond it was particularly difficult to work out who the real Paul Raymond was. There wasn't much of a private life - it was all public. He was conscious of his image ... the whole PR idea that you promote the brand of Paul Raymond. That's quite a modern thing, and he was doing it in the late Fifties."
Born Geoffrey Quinn in 1925, he grew up in Liverpool and then, after the war started, in Glossop, Derbyshire. His father, an incorrigible womaniser, left the family when he was five years old. Quinn dodged national service and gravitated to Soho, where he began selling petrol and clothing coupons. After the war he served in the RAF before changing his name and starting a showbusiness career on Clacton Pier, Essex, with a mind-reading act.
He began staging and starring in variety shows. As a teenager, Shirley Bassey appeared seventh on the bill in one of his shows, billed as 'Broadway's new singing sensation'. But Raymond discovered that what really sold was sex, specifically nude models. Under strict guidelines issued by the Lord Chamberlain's office, the women were allowed to be naked as long as they did not move. Their ability to remain still was put to the test during a routine in which they had to pose inside a cage of lions, particularly when one of the lions attacked the tamer.
In 1958 Raymond opened his Revuebar in Soho. Here, in a private members' club, women could be simultaneously naked and in motion. His strip cabaret was born and, as critics complained that he had debased the culture by ruining the tradition of variety shows, he began to get rich fast.
In the 1960s the synthetic glamour of the Revuebar ensured that the lounge bar was packed with an eclectic throng of patrons, from gangsters such as the Kray twins to actors, including Peter Sellers, Michael Redgrave and Trevor Howard. The Beatles used his club for a scene in their 1967 film Magical Mystery Tour, although the bare breasts were censored when the film was shown on television. (Later, Ringo Starr designed the interior of Raymond's flat.) Preposterously, Raymond claimed that his shows were family entertainment and appointed a club chaplain, the Rev Edwin Young (played in the film with lip-licking lechery by David Walliams).
Raymond also staged more mainstream shows. After the Lord Chamberlain's role as censor was abolished in 1968, nudity began to flourish on West End stages, much of it in the theatres owned or leased by Raymond. When the actor John Standing took the playwright John Osborne to see the show Pyjama Tops, Standing said of Osborne: "I thought he was going to be sick, he laughed so much. The joy of it was that it was completely tasteless. For no particular reason all the girls leapt into the swimming pool in their pyjama tops. And then there was the ghastliness of all these tourists in raincoats w***ing in the stalls."
The nudity, flagellation, simulated sex and even rape in Oh! Calcutta! a show conceived by the critic Kenneth Tynan, provoked outrage and made a huge amount of money for Raymond. Irving Wardle, the Times critic, protested at "the Tamburlaine-like advance of the Paul Raymond Organisation". Raymond discovered a then unknown female impersonator called Larry Grayson and opened gay clubs patronised by the likes of George Melly and the artist Francis Bacon. Beryl Cook, the painter, went to Madame Jo-Jos with her husband and was surprised to see Brian, her neighbour in Plymouth, performing in a wig and false breasts.
The club maestro's first foray into magazines came in 1964. King magazine competed with America's Playboy, with a mix of pin-ups and contributions from writers such as Noel Coward, Malcolm Muggeridge and Len Deighton. Raymond soon decided that this venture was too upmarket for him, but in 1971 he returned to the business, buying the ailing magazine Men Only. He proceeded to cut back the articles and dramatically increase the number of pictures, and their explicitness. On one occasion, consignments of magazines, including one featuring a woman masturbating, were seized and destroyed after a court ruling that they were indecent. The News of the World refused to carry adverts for the magazine and W. H. Smith declined to stock it. But in a transformative decision, John Menzies agreed to stock Men Only and distributed it to 20,000 newsagents around the country. Willetts describes this as the moment when pornography was "swept from the torpid, muddy shallows into the central current of British life". Many other Raymond magazines followed, including Club International and Mayfair. He insisted that he was not a pornographer but an entertainer: "The female form is one of God's most beautiful creations," he said. "It has been an artistic inspiration throughout civilised history. I have used that inspiration to make myself a fortune."
Lord Longford was one of his most dedicated adversaries. In a long report into pornography, Longford said that Men Only had "outstripped its rivals by becoming more explicit". Kingsley Amis suggested that schoolchildren should be prevented from buying the publications by classifying the magazines, like films, according to their suitability for different age groups.
Intriguingly, Amis wasn't the only member of his family to take an interest. His son, Martin, writing under the pseudonym Bruno Holbrook, wrote a review of the pornographic magazine market for the New Statesman. Raymond's publications were among the more tasteful, with girls who were "often depressingly attractive". He wrote: "Instead of being implicit recommendations of the priestly life, like their tawdrier counterparts, these magazines actually sex you up."
Life wasn't all smut. The Comic Strip, the group of comedians that included Alexei Sayle, Nigel Planer, Rik Mayall and Peter Richardson, was set up in Raymond's Boulevard Theatre, which shared an entrance, lined with photographs of strippers, with the Revuebar. "I remember seeing the members of this left-wing collective house arguing about whether or not they should even set foot in the building," Sayle told Willetts. David Bowie, George Harrison, Dustin Hoffman and Jack Nicholson flocked to the comedy club, which hosted guest comedians such as Dawn French and Jennifer Saunders, Angus Deayton, Michael Palin and Robin Williams.
For 22 years Raymond was married to Jean (played by Anna Friel in the movie), who choreographed the club dance routines in the early days. They had two children, Debbie and Howard. (Raymond had another son, Derry, by the woman who had appeared in his mind-reading act.) His marriage eventually collapsed because of his infidelities, many of them with strippers at his clubs. Fiona Richmond, the star columnist at Men Only, who appeared in many of his stage shows, was his live-in girlfriend for years until she, too, tired of his enthusiasm for orgies.
For many years Howard's relationship with his father was strained and Raymond publicly rebuked him for his under-achievement. They were later reconciled, but Howard was not a beneficiary of the Will, according to Willetts. He received a minority share of the property portfolio, reportedly worth £78 million.
He is planning his own movie about his father, to be called King of Soho (Winterbottom initially wanted to use the same title but agreed to change it when Howard threatened legal action).
Debbie was her father's favourite. As a girl she would be allowed to watch the strippers rehearse and as an adult she tried to prove herself in her father's world. She wanted to be a singer and appeared in one show where she was the only performer allowed to keep her clothes on. Later she was employed to run the magazine division, poring over photographs of the naked women who made her father rich. She became a heavy drug user. Father and daughter took cocaine together, with Raymond reputedly claiming that "the family that plays together stays together". It was even claimed that he gave her a line to help her through the birth of her first child.
After her death in 1992, aged 36, Raymond became reclusive, struggling to come to terms with her squalid end. "Debbie had all the money in the world, a beautiful home, beautiful kids, beautiful cars. I don't understand it," he said.
What made Raymond himself tick was really quite simple, Willetts says: "Just that drive to enrich himself, which had some positive aspects and some tremendously negative aspects." He loved to make deals and bought up freehold after freehold in Soho, playing his own real life game of Monopoly.
A Sunday Times investigation disclosed that waitresses at one of his clubs, the Pink Pussycat, were inflating their earnings with "after-hours activities". Winterbottom's film addresses Raymond's relationships with his children, and the women he loved, but the sordid side of the club life is mentioned only fleetingly. Nor do we really see Raymond's ruthlessness, or some of his other dubious interests, such as his collection of Hitler memorabilia.
"It feels like he was less involved with the dodgy stuff than a lot of people working in Soho at the time," Winterbottom says. "He was not a character that was dragging Soho down, he was trying to have a more mainstream, glamorous club in Soho."
There is more than a touch of the Alan Partridge about Coogan's portrayal of Raymond. "We've got dolphins pulling knickers off girls. What's not to like?" he says, during a moment when his inability to see that the joke is on him is worthy of Norwich's most famous fictional celebrity. Willetts believes that the positive view of Raymond is that he "was part of a general movement towards not being so squeamish about nudity on stage and in the cinema". But a business that had started out as merely risque gradually became sleazier and sleazier. There was a certain cheekiness about him in the early days. But life followed a rather tragic trajectory. It became all about cash.
The thing that is negative is that he really did change the face of Britain, particularly in terms of pornography and the strip clubs. Other cities copied his clubs and his magazines reached newsagents everywhere. His drive to make money Soho-ised the whole country. It's an unfortunate legacy that is all around us.
By the time the Revuebar closed in 2004, its stage shows were tame compared with the entertainment on offer at the raunchy lap-dancing clubs springing up across town. Raymond died in 2008, aged 82. His granddaughters, Fawn and India Rose James (Debbie's daughters) inherited the vast majority of his estate. But their focus is now on the property. The magazines were sold after Raymond died but still survive. And even in an era of unlimited online pornography, Raymond apparently remains a benchmark for nudity. The masthead on Men Only reads: 'A Paul Raymond Publication'.
His other legacy is Soho itself. Raymond owned so many of the buildings that plans to redevelop the area never got past the drawing board. "In some respects," says Willetts, "he should have a blue plaque for saving Georgian Soho."
A (very) blue plaque on the site of the Raymond Revuebar? "Paul Raymond, King of Soho. Porn here 1958-2004." Over to you English Heritage.
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