The Look of Love, which opens in cinemas today, considers the life of Paul Raymond, the late ‘King of Soho’. Raymond built up a huge West End property empire using profits from porn mags and strip clubs, most famously enshrined in the Raymond Revuebar. Here, Londonist reviewers Ben Fowler and Harry Urgent give their separate impressions of the new film:
The problem with being as prolific a director as Michael Winterbottom (twenty-two features since 1995) is that some of your output is going to feel somewhat slight. This, a broad biopic of so-called ‘King of Soho’ Paul Raymond (Steve Coogan), is unlikely to be filed alongside the director’s more memorable work.
Beginning in the 50s as Raymond opens London’s first strip bar, it treads familiar riches-to-rags ground. As Raymond’s success balloons through both his clubs and magazines, he leaves his wife (Anna Friel), hooks up with one of his performers (Tamsin Egerton) and over-indulges his daughter Debbie (Imogen Poots). It’s Raymond’s relationship with his daughter that forms the ostensible backbone of the film; as he nurtures an apparent lack of talent, she slips into a lifestyle of all-night partying and mammoth cocaine binges. But due to the film’s fleeting nature, we never really feel Debbie’s life slipping through her father’s fingers, even as the script’s framing device has Raymond looking dewy-eyed at interview footage of her testifying to her love for him.
Winterbottom’s films have often played fast and loose, but in doing so with rather traditional biopic material it tends to skate over any real feeling. There’s a certain pleasure to be had in looking at Soho through the ages – there are glimpses of Bar Italia and Foyles as Raymond surveys his empire – but it’s largely left to the film’s set design and fashions to tell the story. It might, for instance, have been interesting for the film to look at London’s changing censorship laws over the years, but instead the script moves swiftly through Raymond’s major life events without pause for thought. It’s a light sort of film, but it’s difficult not to feel that, in its insistence in avoiding the sort of heavy-handed sentimentality usually found in biopics, Winterbottom might have failed to pierce as deeply as he needed to.
By Ben Fowler
Taking the trademark pencil moustache of the wartime spiv, a former black marketer of many pseudonyms settled on the suave ‘PR’ that would change the face of the skindustry from static nude tableaux to full-on striptease and become the monogrammed acronym of ‘pubic relations’ on his expensive gold bracelet.
Imogen Poots is utterly outstanding as daughter Debbie, but Steve Coogan skims over the sinister depths of Paul Raymond as though he is playing an extension of his fictional Alan Partridge or the functional addict of his laudable 24 Hour Party People (Tony Wilson) role. His portrayal of Raymond in later life is much more convincing, after his empire successfully embraced the pink pound and the lap-dancing phenomenon, but is threatened by the emergence of lads’ mags and the beginnings of the Internet.
By the 1990s the Revuebar had deteriorated into a stop-off for the crawls of stag and hen parties, a shadow of its former glory that is segued through a series of glitzy montages shot at a theatre in Clapham. Among many continuity errors, the audience extras obstinately stay the same while the sets glide effortlessly through the decades. Coogan’s nonchalance often comes across as first take ‘getting into character’, not helped in a 1980s scene, as he strolls past a Soho hairdressers that was only opened a decade after Raymond became a recluse.
In Baby Cow Productions’ comprehensive analysis of the ultimate profit-driven sadness of Paul Raymond’s life, we are ultimately served overcooked mince that could have been rare sirloin. Bosom buddies Steve Coogan and director Michael Winterbottom have cherry picked this empire-building tragedy from the solid foundations of writer Paul Willetts’ immersive 2010 biography Members Only, which digs deep into the machinations of the impresario’s whole life. The author plays a cameo as Lord Longford, recreated from a lost TV interview with Raymond, but much of his book’s thorough research is distorted in a formulaic film.
By Harry Urgent. Author note: In the late 1980s the reviewer was assistant to glamour photographers Nick Gurgul and Steve Colby, who worked for Debbie Raymond when she ran the magazine business. In the early 1990s he had his own studio on Archer Street, right opposite this Soho empire.
The Look of Love is released in UK cinemas on 26 April.
See also: A tour of Paul Raymond’s Soho.