Undressing Mr Striptease





There were few more famous British personalities than Paul Raymond when I was growing up in the 1970s. His recent drift into comparative obscurity serves as a bracing reminder of the transience of fame. Back in the middle of his long heyday, which extended from the late 1950s to the early 1990s, he appeared ubiquitous. You’d see grainy photos of him in the newspapers: a flamboyantly dressed middle-aged man with chunky gold jewellery, a caramel tan, a Zapata moustache, a preposterous scrape-over hairdo and a voluminous fur coat, draped over a flamboyant suit. You’d see him on television, deploying his urbane charm in debates about the new sexual freedoms. You’d see his name on the giant, stylishly designed neon sign outside the Raymond Revuebar, his Soho strip-club. You’d also see his name on risqué adverts for the hit stage show, Pyjama Tops. And you’d see it in Men Only and Club International, the girlie magazines around which leering pubescent boys, myself among them, formed occasional awestruck huddles in school classrooms during break-time.

Suffice to say that Raymond’s name was, by the dawn of the 1980s, synonymous with eroticised female nudity. Whenever he was interviewed, though, he always reacted tetchily to being described as a pornographer. Instead, he liked to portray himself as a guileless celebrant of womanly beauty and, in later years, as a purveyor of “adult entertainment”, his early application of this euphemistic label indicative of unexpected squeamishness.

If anyone had told my teenage self that I’d end up writing Raymond’s biography, I would have responded with an expression of disbelief, shading into mild annoyance. Not that I didn’t envisage myself earning a living as a writer. I just didn’t expect to find myself writing non-fiction, least of all non-fiction focusing on the type of subject normally the preserve of salacious, downmarket exposés.

The idea for writing what would become Members Only: The Life and Times of Paul Raymond emanated from my agent, Matthew Hamilton, who suggested it in the wake of the octogenarian billionaire’s death in March 2008. I could see why Matthew felt that Raymond would make a good subject for me. I had, after all, a protracted fascination with mid-twentieth-century Soho, the district with which Raymond, often dubbed ‘The King of Soho’, was associated. That interest probably originated in childhood strolls round the area with my mother, who taught drawing at nearby St Martin’s School of Art where Quentin Crisp, Ironfoot Jack and other Soho characters posed for her as life-models. My Soho fixation had already led me to write two volumes of non-fiction, both preoccupied by what was once London’s most distinctive and cosmopolitan enclave. I’d also edited four volumes of writing by the Soho dandy, Julian Maclaren-Ross. Yet the prospect of devoting a couple of years to researching, then piecing together Raymond’s life didn’t exert an instant attraction.

Nobody who hasn’t written a biography can imagine how all-consuming the process is. Over the years I’ve heard repeated comments from biographers about how they feel as if they’re cohabiting with their subjects. That was certainly borne out by my earlier experience with Maclaren-Ross. When I was working on his biography, I spent most days and evenings writing about him; I spent my spare-time talking about him; and some nights I’d even dream about him.

In the case of the mooted Raymond biography, I was wary of the prospect of allowing a randy, alcoholic pornographer with widely rumoured gangland connections to gatecrash my life. Had I not been becalmed in the shallows of another book, I wouldn’t have pursued my agent’s suggestion. With a flush of liberation, I set aside my other project and ploughed through Raymond’s obituaries, along with a sheaf of old newspaper articles about him. These conjured a man capable of generosity and ruthlessness, a man for whom material success coexisted with spiritual impoverishment and tragedy, a man whose life straddled a number of fascinating worlds, notably the world of tatty 1950s provincial variety theatre.

I quickly became convinced that he’d be a worthwhile subject for a serious biography, the intended gravity of my approach offering potential for fertile tension with the gaudiness and apparent triviality of his life. Now I just had to find out if there was sufficient material available to create a vivid portrait of Raymond and the louche milieu he inhabited. I didn’t take long to obtain an affirmative answer to that question.

My preliminary survey yielded an extensive research list that featured dozens of possible sources of Raymond-related information: books, newspapers, magazines, archives and interviewees. On a brief, exploratory visit to the National Archives at Kew, I even found several hefty Metropolitan Police files dedicated to the early days of the Revuebar, which had opened as a private members’ club in April 1958, immediately attracting a sizeable membership, keen to sample the hitherto almost inaccessible delights of striptease. Included among these files were not only transcripts of revealing conversations with Raymond, but also a succession of statements about what undercover detectives had witnessed inside the club, their stilted P.C. Plod prose imbuing those accounts with inadvertent humour. “The next act consisted of a man and a woman dancing,” one of these detectives wrote. “The woman stripped to her pants and bra which she finally removed and exposed her pubic hairs. The male of this couple then announced that he and his partner would next present their interpretation in mime of the record, ‘John and Marcia’. This is a monologue in which the part of both the male and female are spoken and consist solely of the words ‘John’ and ‘Marcia’ and by the intonation of the words there is suggested an amorous interlude…”

Within about two months of my visit to the National Archives, I’d signed a contract with a publisher and embarked on the familiar ritual of full-time research. Though I’m always impatient to start writing, the slow task of ferreting out the necessary raw material has its own distinctive pleasures. For me, the most significant of these is that it drags me away from my desk, enabling me to encounter and occasionally befriend people who wouldn’t otherwise cross my path. In the course of researching Members Only, I found myself visiting places associated with Raymond and travelling to meetings with an array of his friends, acquaintances, business associates and employees. I interviewed everyone from ex-strippers to cold-eyed gangsters, from pornographers to retired West End detectives, several of whom were worried by the prospect of provoking reprisals from former colleagues. Typically involving a rendezvous in some ravaged London pub, these trips encouraged me to abandon my low-key preconceptions about Raymond and the Revuebar.

At the outset I’d thought of Raymond as a sinister though sometimes risible figure. Despite his vast wealth, I’d viewed him as an essentially trivial person, as little more than a saucy footnote in twentieth-century British social history. I had, meanwhile, seen the Revuebar purely in its latterday incarnation as a seedy strip-joint, patronised by foreign tourists and furtive businessmen.

But my research was destined to contradict these preconceptions. For a start, the Revuebar turned out to have enjoyed a golden era during the late 1950s and 1960s. Its lavish shows had attracted a chic clientele, its plush lounge-bar becoming a haunt of Peter Sellers, John Mills, Alma Cogan, Stanley Baker and other homegrown showbusiness stars, together with their visiting Hollywood counterparts, Judy Garland and Frank Sinatra among them. My impression of Raymond had been similarly misguided. He was a much more sympathetic person than I’d anticipated, his character radiating an undercurrent of loneliness and—oddly enough for someone in his business—inhibition.

What came as even more of a surprise to me was the pervasive influence he’d exerted on British society. I discovered that he’d played a pivotal but largely unacknowledged role in the erosion of stifling censorship and the establishment of the so-called ‘Permissive Society’ in Britain during the late 1960s and early 1970s. Motivated by commercial self-interest that masqueraded as staunch libertarian principle, he challenged the police, judiciary and press. Through a succession of court cases in which he demonstrated bloody-minded obstinacy verging on heroism, he pushed the skin trade—be it strip-shows, magazines or theatre shows—from the margins into the mainstream.

While his activities encouraged a more open attitude towards sex, they also helped to transform the sex industry into a vast, rapacious business, into a phenomenon that permeates and debases culture. Today its influence can be found in advertising, television, newspapers and magazines, and on the high streets of most provincial towns, now home to the discreet facades of lap-dancing clubs. Contemporary politicians regularly brandish the word ‘legacy’, yet I doubt that many of them have succeeded in re-shaping society to the same extent as Paul Raymond.

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