Directed by Michael Winterbottom
Written by Matt Greenhalgh
Steve Coogan as Paul Raymond
Imogen Poots as Debbie Raymond
Tamsin Egerton as Fiona Richmond
Anna Friel as Jean Raymond
One of the worst things about writing in pairs, even in textbooks, is searching for contexts. A couple of years after we went full-time we were working in an office in central Bournemouth, below a dressmaker who had a vociferous parrot, and above a sandwich shop with unappetising smells. I couldn’t look at a bacon sandwich for years afterwards. We had started a book, and needed sixty contexts to hang the language on, then sixty more for the workbooks. It wasn’t a good time for either of us, and in the end I reached screaming pitch with my co-writer’s daily ideas, which always started, ‘OK, there’s a millionaire who …’ In vain I protested that there was no intrinsic interest in someone being rich. Our writing partnership foundered on that rock, and I went on to write fifty-four of the sixty contexts solo, with not a millionaire in sight.
Paul Raymond was the richest man (allegedly) in Britain in 2008 when he died. Interesting? Someone thought it interesting enough to hang a screenplay on and employ a very large cast. They were wrong. The bums on seats count tonight was just eight in a cinema in a small town which is quite often sold out. So not many thought it interesting.
I thought I’d check it out for the picture of the era, and it’s a promising start. The opening credits are retro, with 60s colours and geometric shapes. They’re the best thing in the film and it’s downhill from there. The 1950s is done in black and white switching to colour for the sixties. Not a difficult allegory. Paul Raymond was an impresario and Lothario, who built up a property empire in Soho around striptease, girly revues, then Men Only magazine, which began as a Playboy rival, but decided that explicit genital shots were a faster route to success than Playboy’s use of first-rate cartoonists and short story writers. Men Only’s talk-dirty feature writer Fiona Richmond was the girl Paul Raymond left his wife and family for, and Tamsin Egerton does the part with statuesque long-legged beauty.
Coogan portrays Raymond extremely well, and I suspect accurately. Unfairly perhaps, I thought it because his perceived public persona is not much different than the character. But it is a studied acting performance, creating such a shallow person, who in spite of being so wealthy, is low key to the point of dullness, and non-confrontational. He has others do the sackings. He walks away from relationship discussions. Coogan brings off Raymond’s pathetic attempts to surround himself with borrowed credibility … I know all the Beatles, but not Yoko of course … is his stock joke. He tells us repeatedly that Ringo Starr helped design his apartment (true). His single meeting with a grown illegitimate son is almost autistic. As beautiful women pursue him, the old joke springs to mind: Congratulations on your marriage, Can you tell us what attracted a supermodel in her twenties like yourself to this ageing multi-millionaire?
The trouble is, Raymond is like a bug-eyed cartoon onanist in a 19th century Irish Christian Brothers tract against onanism. The real Paul Raymond had been educated by these same vigorous monks, as now I come to think of it, had been my millionaire-obsessed co-writer. Raymond’s story is dispiriting and unedifying, and so many things come out as deeply boring and unattractive: champagne, Rolls-Royces, E-type Jaguars, naked women, troilism, smoking, black satin sheets, ceilings that open to the starry skies, cocaine, voyeurism, loadsamoney. Coogan makes writhing on a bed with two or three lithe, naked younger women on a nightly basis look like a chore. As such, perhaps it’s a deeply moral tale. No, my children: piles of money, unlimited sexual opportunity and white lines do not buy you happiness.
Imogen Poots plays his beloved poor little rich girl daughter, Debbie, who dies of a drug overdose in 1992. Her performance competes with his as the best thing in the film. Debbie is the only person he seems to hold genuine affection for. Her downward spiral as dad tries to promote her career as an actor and singer is rapid. He ends up taking coke with her. There’s a touch of the William Randolph Hearst throwing millions into promoting the career of Marion Davies in 1920s Hollywood (see Citizen Kane of course). Debbie marries Jonathan Hodge, a jingle writer (Simon Bird) who bears an uncanny resemblance to Sonny Bono, and their two children will inherit the Raymond empire in 2008. There are parallel scenes showing Raymond pointing out his Soho property empire from a passing car, first with Debbie, and after her death, with Debbie’s daughter, Fawn. These bookend the film.
The cast list (and advertising) is swollen by old pals favours. Mr Coogan must be a popular chap. Stephen Fry does about twenty seconds as a barrister prosecuting Raymond in 1958. Matt Lucas does rather less as a woman in a stage farce, David Walliams does rather more as the Reverend Edwyn Young, a vicar in Soho, ministering to the strippers, who wrote his memoirs. As the song has it:
My uncle’s a vicar in Soho
Saving the young girls from sin
He’ll save you a blonde for a shilling
And oh, how the money rolls in …
David Walliams’ cameo appearances are seconds long, but there are about four of them, and he did the only two lines that got a laugh from our audience. Dara O’Brien does a stand up comedian, or really, Dara O’Brien does Dara O’Brien.
Because we’re travelling from 1958 to 1992, the music should fit. It doesn’t really. Sunshine Superman and Mellow Yellow by Donovan come in rather too early on the time line. Anyone Who Had A Heart recurs throughout … and the lyrics are an apposite question to Raymond too. Imogen Poots sings The Look of Love sweetly and poignantly over the credits. There is a script error when Raymond asks his daughter in 1992 ‘How are you?’ and she replies, ‘I’m good.’ The progress of ‘I’m good’ in British English is trackable. 2002? Yes, from someone who had a lot of contact with the USA. 2012? Well, anybody in Britain under about thirty-five. But not in 1992.
Being incredibly rich, and degrading women by introducing increasingly harder pornography into your local newsagent is not a pleasant career path. In the 60s and 70s it used to be said that Raymond exploited sex with striptease, but at least his operations were clean. There were no hostesses peddling fake champagne at £100 a bottle. No burly bouncers emptying the drunk’s wallets. In the film, we briefly see newspaper headlines accusing him of running prostitution, but he wins the court case. That’s the story. The parental guidelines on the IMDB point to the sex, nudity and heavy drug use, but add that there’s no violence. Recently we watched the 2011 Sky TV series The Runaway, set in Soho in exactly the same period. This was so violent that we had to steel ourselves to watch the next episode on DVD, and couldn’t stomach two episodes in an evening. It was also completely brilliant: setting, acting, direction. And it’s a world where extreme violence is never far away. Could Raymond really have been “King of Soho” and remain totally aloof from all that? I’m not talking about direct involvement, but it must have been a major task avoiding those guys getting involved with you. It’s known that he suffered from serious attempts at extortion involving threats of bombing and shooting, but that’s not in the film. The second half of the film sees his empire awash with industrial quantities of cocaine, and yet he kept crime at arm’s length? Really? His property empire grew because legitimate businesses fled Soho because of crime and violence, enabling him to buy up swathes of property cheaply. That’s a story. We never get a hint of it. His stable of magazines profited from being different from other nude magazines. They stopped airbrushing the pubic area. You get the sense that the airbrush has been applied to major aspects of this story.
Perhaps the huge nipple count was something they thought would appeal to the cinema public, in the way Raymond thought it would appeal to the magazine-buying public.
Above all, for a film, as well as not being a pleasant tale, it’s not even an interesting tale either.