Watching a preview of The Look of Love, the Paul Raymond biopic due in cinemas this week, was a strange experience for me. For two decades, from the mid- Eighties to the mid-Noughties, as well as freelancing for various media, I edited a French men's magazine for the King of Soho, though in the office, we never called him that, just PR. The Look of Love is mostly set in the Sixties and Seventies, but so little had changed in the company's cluttered Soho offices, lovingly re-created by Michael Winterbottom's production team, that the film conjured up vivid memories of my time in PR's employ.
The Look of Love attempts to tell the rags-to-riches story of one of Britain's wealthiest men, portrayed by Steve Coogan as a distant, not exactly roué, relation of his radio presenter creation Alan Partridge. Coogan has the mannerisms, the camp man bag and the tie pin down pat, and holds his cigarette very much like PR used to, but I don't remember him making as many wisecracks, while his notorious stammer has all but vanished, presumably to speed things along or on the grounds of taste. Indeed, PR was not as shallow as he appears in the Winterbottom film based on Members Only: the Life and Times of Paul Raymond, the well-researched biography by Soho specialist Paul Willetts.
When he walked out on his wife Jean, played by Anna Friel, to shack up with glamour model Fiona Richmond, portrayed by Tamsin Egerton, PR might have repeated the sins of the father who abandoned him, his two brothers and his mother. But he had more class than the way Coogan plays him, and, though he could be ruthless, as I was able to verify later on, he was a likeable boss. Until 1992, when the death from a drug overdose of his beloved daughter Debbie – played by Imogen Poots – took the wind out of his sails. The mood around PR darkened as he became more fixated on the only thing he loved, apart from her and his two grand-daughters: money.
Born Geoffrey Quinn in Liverpool in 1925, he became the more continental-sounding Paul Raymond when he launched a mind-reading act he bought for £25 from a roustabout on Clacton Pier. He soon switched to producing burlesque entertainment shows with titles like Folies Parisienne and Le Cirque Nu de Paris. Famously, the nude models had to remain static in accordance with the rules laid down by the Lord Chamberlain. However, in 1958, PR imaginatively circumvented those by launching a private members' club, the Raymond Revuebar, whose glitzy World Centre of Erotic Entertainment neon sign became a Soho landmark, and started him on his way to a considerable fortune. In 1971, he acquired the struggling "pin-up" title Men Only and turned it into a top-shelf sensation selling 400,000 copies a month. Men Only made a household name of its "columnist" Richmond, the star of the risqué sex comedies – Pyjama Tops, Let's Get Laid – PR presented at the Windmill Theatre during the Seventies. PR went on to launch more magazines, including Club International, in the UK, the US and France, and in 1990 acquired rival men's title Mayfair.
I was welcomed into Paul Raymond's World of Erotica in the spring of 1986 when I answered an advert for an assistant editor to help launch a men's magazine in France. Much to my surprise, I was the one and only applicant, quizzed by a panel of Paul and Debbie Raymond and Neville Player, the editor of Men Only, and offered the job on the spot, along with a small company flat in Old Compton Street.
Launched in September 1986, Club pour Hommes, the magazine edited by Debbie as far as the pictorial content went, with yours truly doing everything else, did well in the land of Lui and New Look.
I got away with a lot, sneaking off for hours to do interviews, prompting Debbie to comment "don't con a conner" as I tried to come up with excuses. When she launched Men's World, a large-format magazine, in 1988, I was encouraged to contribute and to take over some of her duties on the French mag. Someone had to look at all those photos and conjure up a narrative out of them, never an exact science. Watching PR feel the glossy paper in a quasi-fetishistic manner and literally weigh up a magazine showed how hands-on he remained, even as he groomed Debbie to succeed him after falling out with his son Howard.
I got into the spirit of things, dragging up to attend a Christmas party for downmarket title Escort and interviewing Samantha Fox and Brigitte Lahaie, once the star of the softcore movie Paul Raymond's Erotica, knowingly pastiched by Winterbottom in the biopic. It was often more fun than it looks in the film, which can't decide whether to go for a post-Carry On ironic approach or inflate PR's role as a challenger of taboos by having him quote Oscar Wilde, another totally out-of-character extrapolation.
However, I always found a good excuse not to join Debbie and her crowd in Chobham at weekends. The telltale signs of her drug-taking were becoming more pronounced. Her death in November 1992, in the London flat of a boyfriend she had met at the St James Club in Antigua, still came out of the blue.
A tearful PR made me editor of the French magazine which continued for another 14 years, with declining sales, in line with the rest of his titles. The showman who relished collecting the original artwork of satirical cartoons depicting him, most famously when he attempted to buy Watford Football Club from Elton John in 1987 – a plotline I thought should have been included in the biopic – became a recluse. He lost his grasp on what the ordinary man in the street wanted. He didn't anticipate the rise of the lads' mags. He also failed to grasp how the internet would affect publishing in general and the sex industry in particular. Flagship title Men Only drifted hopelessly, through half a dozen editors, including an ill-fated issue which featured a small photo of Diana, Princess of Wales, in a would-be-satirical article, printed on the eve of her death in August 1997, and had to be pulped.
In 2004, PR asked me to edit Men Only in tandem with the French title. Possibly out of a misguided sense of loyalty, I accepted, though I knew that I was on a hiding to nothing. Sales dropped to a tenth of the magazine's Seventies heyday. I lasted two years, and continued editing the French title for a few months after the Men Only episode until the French authorities began agitating. I expected PR to ask me to rename the title, as we had done previously. Instead, he started a redundancy procedure targeting me, his longest-serving editor. PR had lost the heart for fighting the French authorities but he hadn't lost the heart for a costly legal fight. The employment tribunal hearing had its comic moments and was covered in the national press. In June 2007, I won my case for unfair dismissal.
But we couldn't force PR to appear at the tribunal. He spent much of his last decade in Howard Hughes-like seclusion at his Arlington House penthouse apartment, only a few feet away from the Ritz hotel in London's Piccadilly. By the time of his death in March 2008, his fortune was estimated at £650m. Paul Raymond sold the promise of illicit, explicit fun but he just didn't know how to enjoy his money. That is why The Look of Love feels so hollow.