Members Only: The Life and Times of Paul Raymond, By Paul Willetts

Variety was on its way out – so it made sense to open a strip bar. And an empire was founded...
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The Independent Culture

Like many a linchpin of the post-war entertainment industry, Paul Raymond (real name Geoffrey Quinn) began his showbiz career at the fag-end of variety. The mass audience was already in Gadarene flight towards television, but at the Palace Theatre, West Bromwich, and the Queen's Park Hippodrome, modest attendances could still be found for such low-budget extravaganzas as We Strip Tonight, The Fabulous Montmartre Revue and Nudes in Ice, the latter featuring an igloo built out of blocks procured from a succession of local fishmongers.

Purists accused their sponsor of killing the family audience. Nonsense, Raymond replied – a certain ham-fisted talent for PR was always one of his strengths – the family audience was already dead. In any case, he had bigger game in sight, notably the celebrated Revuebar, which opened its doors in Walkers Court, Soho, early in 1958. There were endless problems with police raids and court cases, but expensive legal help and arguments over the precise meaning of "obscene" enabled the impresario of the International Striptease Spectacular to emerge, blinking yet unbowed, into the 1960s – a decade in which he appeared to be very much at home.

The obvious parallel is transatlantic. Following the trail established by Hugh Hefner and his Playboy empire, Raymond was really only an old-fashioned smut merchant. Then, somewhat to his surprise, a chronological accident – that standard 1960s blurring of the line between liberty and licence – turned him into a custodian of the zeitgeist. If you wanted a symbol of his absolute centrality to the Age of Aquarius, it could be found in Walkers Court's selection as a stopping-off point for the Beatles' Magical Mystery Tour late in 1967. For a brief moment, Savile Row-besuited Raymond, the Fab Four and the Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band seemed allies in a fight against straight society, the moral majority and the idea of keeping your clothes on.

Not that the Revuebar, in an era when anything went, represented the cutting edge of the sexual revolution – by 1970, three- quarters of the audience were visiting tourists – and Raymond himself was as counter- cultural as a Coke can. But he was already diversifying, into soft porn and, with the collapse of theatrical censorship, sex farces of the Pyjama Tops school. The really serious money, as Paul Willetts demonstrates, came from a Soho property empire built on ruthless calculation and wonderfully hypocritical public statements about the devastation being wrought on the area's traditional face by companies which Raymond secretly controlled.

Are such people ever happy? The estranged wife; the 1,001 mistresses; the spoilt-darling daughter who died of an overdose: the sequestered decline (he died in 2008): all this, on planet porn, is simply par for the course. Like his earlier life of Julian Maclaren-Ross, Willetts' biography is a triumph of research and patient industry, full of arresting incident and sub-celebrity walk-ons.

In fact, Members Only has but one drawback. This is the personality of its subject, who turns out to have been a deeply uninteresting man ("A one-track mind," a son-in-law recalled. "And I'm not talking about sex. It was money, money, money.") Though to compensate come some wonderful bits of period detail and several startling connections. I was charmed, for example, to discover that Raymond's neighbour, during his late 1950s sojourn in Barnes, was the spinster novelist Barbara Pym, and that contributors to Club International's late-1970s fiction supplements included the young Ian McEwan. The story in question, Willetts tells us, was called "Vaginismus". What can it have been about?