Everything quintessentially Sixties eccentric London is present and correct in The Look of Love, an absorbing biopic of Paul Raymond, the impressario, porn king and property magnate once dubbed 'the richest man in England'.
Back in 2003, when I was being cast for my nipple-tassling skills for a pop video, Paul Raymond had assured the video's director she couldn't find anyone in the UK with that skill, burlesque having become 'defunct'.
True, it was a sign of the times that by 2002 nudity was overly accessible, and Raymond himself mistakenly thought the art of the tease long gone. And why not, for he'd been at the front of the UK's nudity and porn revolution the past few decades.
Raymond started his professional life on stage as a mind-reader, then moved behind the velvet curtains to create burlesque and nude reviews from 1950s, when a shell-shocked post-war British public craved the escapism and glamour of burlesque, a world of excess and opulence after the hardships of rationing.
Feathers, sequins and the squealing girls of those early 'tit 'n' feather' days fill the opening scenes of The Look of Love, which sets about showing how Raymond sought increasingly elaborate ways to show nudity on stage, and his admirable talent for turning a bad review into good press. His voracious appetite for publicity is evident throughout the film, even using his young daughter for spin if required.
Feathers make for pretty viewing, but I crave 'the journey' in a biopic and The Look of Love delivers on that score.
Soho itself is a central star of the film. The sartorial styles smoothly transitioning, the taboos changing. It could be argued that cabaret is a good barometer of society's taboos, and the film beautifully paints the progression of the shows from the 1950s through to the 1980s with the increasing nudity and vulgarity on stage and in Raymond's magazine Men Only.
Where Raymond first described his shows as "a beacon of excellence in a sea of mediocrity" in the film's opening scenes, we see a sequin-by-sequin descent to sleaze and allegations of prostitution.
Meanwhile, the character journey isn't wholly owned by Raymond so much as that of his daughter, Debbie.
The Look of Love paints a complex relationship. It's a mark of good directing that we hold sympathy for the story when facts are cold; Raymond has her in the audience of his nude show at five, starring in the nude show at 15, shown attending one of his orgies and snorting lines of coke as she gives birth, lines chopped by Raymond himself.
Coogan nails the contradictions of Raymond's generosity and ruthlessness, his charm against steely ambition, his perversion against prudishness, and his cold detachment towards his son against utter devotion to his daughter.
Of course, Coogan bears a physical resemblance to Raymond, though the part was made less convincing by Coogan's alter-ego Alan Partridge, who creeps into the dialogue rather too much. I also found the device of using of various interview extracts whenever there was a need to quickly sketch in background biographical information too facile and convenient.
That aside, this was a film enjoyed for its brilliant portrait of swinging Soho, for as much as Raymond, who came off a little like a low-budget Hugh Heffner.
This slightly romantic portrayal has its drawbacks, as to survive in what was an extraordinarily corrupt environment - it is documented that the vice squad head was routinely paid off and the Maltese gangs ran prostitution - Paul Raymond had to be ultra tough with constant protection. It's known that he employed a battery of lawyers to handle his property work and his frequent court appearances. He was no bumbling rascal but a heavy character and a shrewd master of spin, who ferociously forged 10 steps ahead by continually reinventing his business. The seriousness and complexity of his working world is rather toned down in the film and replaced with rogueish charm and good-times in that way the Brits do best; even the orgie scenes had more than a whiff of Austin Powers-meets-Partridge. Raymond was certainly more complex and fearless than that; some would argue that he was a class act.
Bu ultimately The Look of Love is a great slice of mid-20th Century modern London and an extraordinary tale, with our own British bad-boy giving a winning performance at the helm.
THE LOOK OF LOVE is released on DVD and Blu-ray on Monday 19 August.
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