Paul Willetts and the making of The Look of Love

Steve Coogan with wine glass in hand, as Paul Raymond.

Steve Coogan plays Paul Raymond. Photo: Revolutionary Films.

By Clive Jennings Many local residents and workers were surprised last year to spot Steve Coogan sporting an extravagant blond bouffant “combover” hairstyle as he strutted round the streets of Soho with Anna Friel on his arm. They were portraying Paul Raymond and his wife Jean for the filming of “The Look of Love” the new Michael Winterbottom (“24 Hour Party People”, “The Trip”) film about Soho’s notorious striptease entrepreneur and latterly property magnate. 

Also featuring Tamsin Egerton as his protégé and girlfriend, Fiona Richmond, Imogen Poots as his daughter Debbie, and Stephen Fry, David Walliams and Matt Lucas in supporting roles, it promises to be a comprehensive celebration of Soho sleaze. Due for release here at the end of April, reviewers at the Sundance Film Festival described it as “funny and touching”.

I spoke to Paul Willetts who wrote the book, Members Only: the Life and Times of Paul Raymond, on which the film is based, and was a consultant on the script, about the project. He explained that the book had an interesting genesis that started when he accessed a Scotland Yard file about a bizarre episode in Raymond’s life when he was terrorised by a purported IRA plot to extort money from him, and the perpetrator turned out to be a chancer painter and decorator. The tragi-comedy aspect of this incident, and his life in general, had Willetts hooked and he was drawn into Raymond’s world, from the seedier end of variety in the 1950s to becoming the richest man in Britain in the 1990s.

As author of “Fear and Loathing in Fitzrovia” – a biography of the writer, dandy, flaneur and epicentre of the literary circle that revolved around the saloon bar of the Wheatsheaf in Rathbone Place, during the ‘40s, Julian Maclaren-Ross – Willetts had serious previous Fitzrovian credentials including “North Soho 999”, the true story of a spectacularly audacious crime at a pawnbrokers on the site what is now the Margaret Pyke Centre on Charlotte Street, that catalogues a forgotten chapter of teenage gangs gun crime in the 1940s.

Willetts is now one of the most prolific writers about the area and its characters, revelling in tales of post war Fitzrovia, featuring such dubious characters as Tommy Yeardye – stunt man, boyfriend of Diana Dors and father of Tamara Mellon, doyenne of the Jimmy Choo designer shoe empire – who ran the Paintbox Club, a strip joint in the basement of what is now Sergio’s restaurant on Great Titchfield Street, until the local gangsters beat him up and drove him out of business.

Hotfoot from the exclusive cast and crew viewing the previous day, Willetts described to me a scene in the film in which an older Paul Raymond slowly glides around Soho in his Rolls, casually pointing out of the window and proclaiming “Mine, mine, mine” as he indicates to his daughter, Debbie, that he owns most of the properties in Soho as nonchalantly as a child saying “gottit, gottit” about a stamp collection. This proved to be a poisonous legacy as Raymond evolves from a jaunty, pencil moustached spiv, via showbiz lothario to become a sad old man, bereft at his daughter’s early death.

Steve Coogan, was the initiator of the project. He had long wanted to make a movie about a little known slice of British History and approached his friend and regular collaborator, film director Michael Winterbottom. Willetts has a small role in the film as anti-porn campaigner Lord Longford and enjoyed working with Coogan in a scene that recreates a famous TV debate. The irony of all Raymond’s legal battles about nudity is that 50 years on, most of what was considered salacious on the stage of the Revuebar can now be seen on our TVs most nights.

Willetts remembers filming at a freezing Brixton Academy where the iconic Soho landmark, the Raymond Revuebar had been accurately recreated, complete with working bar for the use of the performers (shivering in g-strings and feathers) and crew (cosily wrapped up in scarves and coats). Every time the camera went by on its track a shout of “duck” went up and the drinkers dodged behind the bar to get out of shot. His only regret is that his suggested title for the film, “Panties Inferno”  (an early Raymond show) was not adopted – I think it catches the mood of the period rather well.

The Look of Love is showing at the Curzon Soho and at cinemas across London.

This article was first published in the March edition of Fitzrovia News.

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