The author of Fear and Loathing in Fitzrovia and North Soho 999, Paul Willetts is well established as an expert on Soho and its environs. His latest book, The Look of Love: The Life and Times of Paul Raymond, Soho’s King of Clubs, was recently made into a film with Steve Coogan in the starring role. Raymond was one of Soho’s most renowned figures, a major figure in the area’s pornographic industry, and its premier landowner.
This Saturday, Willetts will appear at the Soho Literary Festival where he will be interviewed by Immodesty Blaize, the last British winner of the highest global award given to burlesque performers. Being impatient sorts, we sent in Valentina Rock last week to quiz him about Soho, Paul Raymond and the legacy left behind by the red light district's pornographer-in-chief.
When did you first become fascinated with Soho?
I suppose it goes back to the late 1960s when I was no more than about five or six years old. I often used to be taken round Soho by my mum, who taught drawing at St Martin’s, the old art school that used to be next to Foyles on the Charing Cross Road. At that time there were still a lot of traditional little shops that existed side-by-side with the sex shops and strip-clubs with which the area was becoming associated.
My mum used to take me to Patisserie Valerie — long before it was transformed into a characterless chain — and to other favourites of hers. She really loved the area, having spent a lot of time there during the late 1940s and 1950s. Her father had a business supplying fish to restaurants, many of which were in Soho, so she knew the area very well. She’d often reminisce about it, particularly about the coffee bar scene of the 1950s. In those days she was a student at St Martin’s and then the Royal Academy Schools, where she met my dad. He paid his way through his post-graduate painting course by working as a waiter in a drinking club on the fringe of Soho.
And how does modern Soho differ from when you first went there?
Even in the time I’ve known the area, it’s changed immensely. Hard to believe it used to be so run-down in the late 1970s and early 1980s. I don’t like the way it’s become so gentrified. I miss that air of seediness and decay.
The biopic was initially called Members Only. Why was the title changed?
My Paul Raymond book went through several titles. When the proposal for it was first submitted to publishers, it was called Let’s Get Laid, a title borrowed from one of Raymond’s terrible sex comedies. It was a title I was never really all that committed to. I wanted to call the book Panties’ Inferno, which hints at its tone, but my publisher vetoed that. Great shame. Members Only was something of a compromise.
When the film adaptation of it went into production, I always knew that we’d have to release a tie-in edition of the book under a title that matched the movie. Just a shame that they chose such a feeble title. It’s a title that’s neither catchy, nor does it tell you anything about the movie which is, incidentally, very atmospheric and enjoyable.
Is there any scene in the movie you would change? And if so, why?
Using the Freedom of Information Act, I obtained the paperwork from Scotland Yard about a long-running and particularly bizarre extortion plot against Raymond. I wish that’d featured in the movie, though I can see why it was excluded. The film-makers didn’t want to use anything that nudged the movie toward the crime genre.
In your opinion, did Soho change Paul Raymond or Paul Raymond change Soho?
I think he was certainly changed by Soho. Prior to setting up the Raymond Revuebar in 1958, he’d been quite a conventional showbiz hustler from the provinces. Immersed in the louche world of Soho, other aspects of his character emerged.
At the same time he exerted a huge influence on Soho. In some ways he was an inadvertent conservationist. By acquiring such a vast inventory of property in the area and being content to rent it out to small businesses, he helped to prevent Soho’s wholesale redevelopment, which Westminster City Council advocated during the 1970s. If they’d had their way, all of Soho’s lovely Georgian architecture would’ve been replaced by a Brutalist concrete nightmare, comprising large roads and suspended walkways.
Which aspects drew you to Soho's lifestyle in the beginning?
While I enjoy spending time in Soho’s restaurants and few remaining old-style clubs, I wouldn’t say I’ve ever been drawn to its much-mythologised lifestyle. At the heart of that lifestyle lies heavy-drinking, which isn’t something that appeals to me. Though I drink, alcohol has never played that large a part in my life.
What first attracted me to Soho as a kid was its exoticism, its neon-swathed garishness. Nowadays it doesn’t feel exotic or particularly garish, yet—against the odds—it somehow retains a distinctive quality.
Soho has obviously evolved over time. Is there is a new aspect that keeps your interest alive?
Going right back to the 1920s, I’ve found examples of people complaining about how Soho isn’t what it used to be. That’s something every generation says, partly I suspect because they want to show off to their juniors.
How did the book come into being?
Early in the process of finding a publisher willing to commission a book about Raymond, I was asked by an editor to shelve the idea of a straightforward biography in favour of a wider-ranging portrait of the Raymond Revuebar and the people associated with it during its heyday. He envisaged a Soho version of Ratpack Confidential. I turned down that opportunity because it wouldn’t have enabled me to write about certain aspects of Raymond’s life, notably his involvement with the declining days of variety theatre. Mind you, I ended up writing a book that isn’t really a straightforward biography. It’s as much about Soho as it is about Paul Raymond.
Half of me remains curious about what would’ve happened if I’d gone for a different approach. That’s the thing about every book. Lurking behind it are numerous different treatments of the same or at least similar material.
As seen in your book and the film, Paul Raymond had a complex character. What intrigued you about him so much?
I’m interested in people like him who embody paradoxical traits. He was a politically Conservative man who relished challenging authority and came to personify a way of life that appalled the Establishment. What’s more, he was guarded and secretive, yet he made his fortune from a business that’s based on dissolving the boundary between public and private.
For someone like me who writes biographical non-fiction, people like Paul Raymond are fascinating because they’re not simple. They’re colourful and they can’t easily be summarised.
This Saturday (28 September) you will be joined by burlesque performer Immodesty Blaize at the Soho Literary Festival. Would you say you were a fan of burlesque?
I’ve always been put off it by the thought that it’s simply a gentrified version of something sleazy and exciting. During and immediately after the filming of the Raymond movie, though, I ended up seeing quite a few performances at The Box, which occupies the old Raymond Revuebar building on Walker’s Court. I was immensely impressed. The shows were stylish and sexy without being crude. In that sense they captured the spirit of the Revuebar in its early days when it was regarded as a tremendously chic nightspot.
Full information on the Soho Literary Festival can be found on the official website.