"Not bad for a lad from Liverpool who arrived with five bob in his pocket."
As strip-club impresario Paul Raymond in Michael Winterbottom's film The Look of Love, Steve Coogan says this line more than once.
Raymond is a spiv, pumped with his own success and the A-grade coke it allows him to buy, but he wants his acumen noted and respected.
By the time he says it the second time, he is the richest man in Britain. There's a lot of money in bare breasts.
The real Paul Raymond died five years ago, aged 83. He had started his life in showbiz as a fifth-rate magician in end-of-the-pier shows.
"I think when he began, it was as it says in the film: putting a girl with no top on next to him in order to make people come and watch his mind-reading act," Winterbottom says.
Raymond hit London with his five bob in 1958; under the obscenity laws of the time, women could appear naked on stage only if they didn't move.
He would soon challenge that and several other laws with the glitzy displays of flesh at the Raymond Revuebar.
"He saw himself as trying to import continental sophistication to London," Winterbottom says. It wasn't just voyeurism. "They were putting on a show."
But as in any old-style theatre, behind the painted flats of Shangri-La it's all wires, pulleys and potties in the wings.
Thanks to his flair for showmanship, including some flashy appearances in court, Raymond was able to acquire a suburban manor, more than one Rolls-Royce and a thick property portfolio in Soho, London's vice district.
He also burnt through a wife, a subsequent partner, two estranged sons and any number of business relationships.
The dirty glamour of the bars where stars of swinging London rubbed shoulders with Soho crooks soured into much tackier sex shows and porn magazines.
Most crucially, Raymond's daughter Debbie, groomed to succeed the King of Soho's throne, would die of a heroin overdose.
But it is a long life, as Winterbottom observes, which lends itself as much to comedy as tragedy. And we are used to laughing at Steve Coogan, which throws the film's weight towards its comic side, but that was not intended. The problem, Winterbottom says, was pinning down Paul Raymond at all.
"When we talked to people who knew him, what was weird was that they all had a different Paul Raymond," he says. Raymond was, first and foremost, a creature of the world he created; it was hard to imagine him outside a bar.
"It wasn't as if you talked to different people and gradually built up a coherent picture of a person. What you got was totally different glimpses of what could have been 25 different people.
What we felt was that he was all surface, with all these different facets. Not a sympathetic character, almost not a character at all."
Surfaces are the substance of Raymond's core business, too. Turn on a nightclub's house lights or sample the smells of the morning after and any impression of glamour is dispelled.
"It's difficult. His world is not one you admire, but you want people to enjoy," Winterbottom says.
"You want there to be a kind of enjoyment, but not to the extent where everyone wants to spend their lives in a dodgy nightclub. One night in a dodgy nightclub can be quite fun. Two months was more than enough."
Even Coogan, who has been the subject of more than one tabloid scandal, soon found Raymond's world dispiriting. "I like to quote Steve on this," Winterbottom says.
"At one point he said: 'You would think this world is everything you love: nightclubs, bars, girls, naked women, alcohol, drugs. And then you realise it's just really horrible and you want to get out.'"
Raymond did have an emotional life, however, which the film suggests was invested in the women around him: his wife Jean, played by Anna Friel; the young woman he left her for, Fiona (Tamsin Egerton); and his doomed daughter Debbie, played by Imogen Poots. These three relationships give the film's unwieldy timespan its structure and Raymond himself some sort of humanity.
When researching the film, Egerton was the only one who was able to speak to the woman she played, Fiona Richmond.
"She absolutely adored him and wanted to be with him and they had great fun together," she says.
"But she had to let him go because she could see him going down this spiral of wanting more and more. He was very greedy, in sex and love and with women, in everything in life really."
As a pornographer, Raymond was never going to be embraced by the Establishment.
The left disliked him even more, not only because he was seen as exploiting women but because he hiked Soho rents up so much that only vice businesses could afford to stay; the diversity of one of London's oldest districts was thus all but destroyed. The film was originally intended to be called The King of Soho, but it turned out that Raymond's son had registered that title.
"And as he doesn't have a lot to do and he has 78 million quid," Winterbottom says dryly, "we decided we weren't going to battle him through the courts."
But perhaps the new title is better. Raymond's stock-in-trade was, in fact, the look of love.
Customers could pay to look. Or they could pay for company that looked a bit like love, but wasn't.
It is Imogen Poots as Debbie, however, who sings the title song in one of her ill-starred attempts to become a straight cabaret singer.
And it is fragile Debbie, almost suffocating with adoration for daddy, who is portrayed here as the love of his life. Her daughters became Raymond's heirs.
"And you know, they are just really rich people," Winterbottom says. "They're like aristocracy. Two young girls who have no connection with the porn industry, but they own half of Soho. Money washes itself."
That five bob went a long way.
The Look of Love opens on July 4.
- Sydney Morning Herald
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