A Tour Of Paul Raymond’s Soho

Behind the doors of Soho -- 57 Greek St

This Friday, the Steve Coogan/Michael Winterbottom film ‘The Look of Love’ opens across London. It tells the controversial rags-to-riches story of porn baron Paul Raymond, the ‘King of Soho’, whose W1-based entertainment and property empire made him a billionaire. We took a tour of Soho to see the places that feature in the film, or that were important in Raymond’s life.

Paul Raymond (formerly Geoffrey Quinn) came to London after a less-than-stellar early career as a Clacton Pier mind-reading act. He pulled every trick in the book to dodge National Service, and ended up touring shows. Striptease was illegal, but he recognised how profit could flow if ‘sexy’ could be made glamorous and respectable. In 1958 he found a way — opening the Raymond Revuebar in Soho’s Walkers Court as a private club, with naked women on stage who stayed physically still, but who were moved through creative use of pedestals, hanging ropes and hand-held fans. This was a technique perfected years before at the Windmill Theatre, which had mixed comedy shows with revues of naked still women. The Lord Chamberlain (then the censor of London theatre) had been convinced that naked tableaux were not obscene, based on the logic that statues could not be morally objectionable: “If you move, it’s rude.”

Membership for the Raymond Revuebar was available on the door, and quickly soared to nearly 50,000 — actors, politicians, journalists and much of the establishment all came to see the acts, which included a woman with strategically-placed tassel-bells that audience members could ring. The Ding Dong Girl would later be cited in a judge’s chastisement that the place was disorderly — and furthermore was “filthy, disgusting and beastly”. In the Telegraph’s obituary of Raymond, the opening of the Revuebar was cited as the moment that Britain’s moral decline began. It sniffed that Raymond was a “louche and unhealthy man of vulgar tastes, though he wears good suits”. We think he would have liked this description.


View The Soho of Paul Raymond in a larger map

The Maison Bertaux patisserie on nearby Greek Street features in one scene of the film, which is a perfect excuse to grab something louche, unhealthy but of better taste — which, as always, are made in the kitchen upstairs. Wolfing our chocolate profiterole cake as we walk up the street, we come across the fashionable L’Escargot restaurant. Trendy in Raymond’s time, its name refers to its establishment in 1927 when the owner grew snails in the basement — the only fresh snails served in the capital. Further up the street is the New Evaristo Club, which was typical of members bars Raymond would frequent — hard to find; a respectable ’57 Greek Street’ front door; an almost illegible faded/scratched-off buzzer button; and if the door was open, this meant the members’ bar down the rickety stairs was also open for business.

Looping across the bottom of Soho Square through to Berwick Street Market, it’s worthwhile pointing out that this area became a market organically. There was no official permit — it just grew up, no one minded and so it stayed. This was also the area of Soho workshops, where many Saville Row suits were actually made before heading west to Mayfair. This caused scandal in the Pall Mall Gazette a century ago, when the Duke of York’s trousers were discovered to have been made in a sweatshop full of typhoid. We don’t know where Paul Raymond’s nice suits originated, but it may well have been from around here.

One person’s moral decline is the next person’s social progress — and over the years, Raymond’s activities became more and more risqué, which you could argue drove or tracked society’s fast-changing attitudes. He certainly had a sense of what was popular and almost always knew how far to push the law. In 1958, his Raymond Revuebar had a regular Sunday gay club night — a Gay Revue — at a time when homosexuality was still very much illegal. The Wolfenden Report had only just been published, and it would be almost a decade before decriminalisation happened in 1967. Oh — and he discovered Larry Grayson, giving him his first break. In 1974, Raymond took over the Windmill Theatre itself, restoring it from a cinema to its original revue shows — but this time without the comedy. Rescuing the venue meant it lived up not only to its famous war-time motto “We Never Closed”, but also the equally accurate alternative “We Never Clothed”.

As the King of Soho bought more and more property, he got richer and richer — especially when property values rocketed. He was a supporter of Margaret Thatcher, but his political antenna correctly judged he could not donate his ill-gotten money to her, nor to the Conservative Party. So instead, he offered to extend his porn magazine’s sponsorship of motor-racing to her son Mark Thatcher. Famously, Mark was ambushed walking out of the Windmill Theatre by the press after a meeting with Raymond. Asked by reporters if he had told his mother about the meeting, he sheepishly replied “She’s on tour”.

Our final stop is to Kettners on Romilly Street, which features in the film in a scene that includes the snorting of some nefarious substance in a toilet. We could never condone such a thing, but would certainly toast Paul Raymond with a Pornstar Martini — a cocktail originally created in Old Compton Street’s Lab Bar, with vanilla vodka, vanilla sugar, passionfruit liquer and a separate shotglass chaser of chilled champagne.

Do explore Raymond’s Soho on your own, and consider how this diverse place created one of the richest men in Britain. When he died, the Telegraph obituary derided him as a man that had “an artificial tan that mummified his skin like cracked toffee, a mane of hair like brittle silver lamé and a smear of moustache”. He was also a man with loose morals and a knack for what sells. His property company Soho Holdings still owns much of W1, and his grand-daughter is the youngest person on the Sunday Times Rich List. His reign as King of Soho for half a century continues to shape one of our favourite areas of the capital.

The Look of Love opens on Friday 26 April — click here for cinemas and showtimesLondonist wandered Soho with Westminster guide Peter BerthoudImage is author’s own

Tags: , , , , , ,