The seductive streets of Soho on film

As Steve Coogan becomes the latest to stomp its streets on celluloid, Geoffrey Macnab ponders the enduring allure of London's 'little foreign island' to film-makers over the decades

The Look of Love, Michael Winterbottom's new biopic of porn baron Paul Raymond (played by Steve Coogan), isn't just a film about an eccentric British hustler making his way in the sex industry of the 1960s and 1970s. It is also a nostalgic evocation of Raymond's old stomping grounds in Soho: a part of London he largely owned.

Soho has always exercised a magnetic pull on British film-makers. This was both where they worked (many had offices there) and one of the greatest sources of stories and characters for their movies. In these streets there were gangsters, prostitutes, pimps, artists, mountebanks, establishment types “roughing it” – and a better choice of restaurants, clubs and bars than anywhere else in London. The normal laws that applied elsewhere had little currency here. Wardour Street, where the film companies were traditionally based, was the only street where, as locals used to joke, there were “shadows on both sides”.

As if determined to be close to the murk, censorship body The British Board of Film Classification (BBFC) has long been based in Soho.

In Emeric Pressburger's little-seen 1957 film, Miracle in Soho (which Pressburger wrote and produced, but which was directed by Julian Amyes), the opening voice-over sums up perfectly why Soho attracts film-makers.

“There is an island in the great city of London, a little foreign island called Soho. Italians live there and Greeks, French, Spaniards and Germans, Czechs, Hungarians, Maltese, Cypriots, Hindus and Mohammedans. Probably an Eskimo or two, certainly a few Scotsmen.”

In short, Soho, like Hollywood itself, is a melting pot. When Pressburger made his film, it was one part of Britain in which the class system didn't seem to have any hold.

Shot at Pinewood Studios rather than on location, Miracle in Soho wasn't one of Pressburger's more distinguished efforts. It's a story about a womanising jack-the-lad (John Gregson) working on a road repair gang in the heart of Soho and trying to pick up as many women as possible, regardless of the emotional wreckage he leaves in his wake. The film does point, though, to the richness of emigré life and to one of the area's most enduring paradoxes: Soho is both quintessentially British and very foreign indeed.

When Pressburger's erstwhile collaborator Michael Powell made his hugely controversial serial-killer movie Peeping Tom (1960), it was only to be expected that the duffle-coat-wearing mass murderer and would-be film-maker Mark Lewis (Karlheinz Böhm) was prowling around Soho and nearby Fitzrovia. Lewis's fetish is to try to capture the moment of his victims' deaths on camera. Soho was his natural hunting ground – the place where he could best find both his prostitute victims and the camera equipment with which to film them.

In movies set in Soho, glamour and seediness invariably sit side by side. The Look of Love picks up on this tension, contrasting the surreal exoticism of some of Paul Raymond's more outlandish shows with references to drug abuse, alcoholism and suicide behind the scenes.

For obvious reasons, many British gangster movies have been set in and around Soho. These range from Richard Vernon's Street of Shadows (1953), starring Cesar Romero and Kay Kendall, to the one undoubted classic of Soho noir, Jules Dassin's Night and the City (1950). There is an obvious formula to such films. American stars or directors are drafted in to tell moody, downbeat stories in which Soho rather than New York is the backdrop. Richard Widmark excels in Night and the City as the doomed, small-time hustler who thinks he can become a big-time wrestling promoter. Largely shot on location, the film has an immediacy and intensity that the studio-based Miracle in Soho completely lacks.

Alongside the gangster movies, there have been plentiful films about Soho's hard-drinking artistic community. “If you get Sohoitis, you will stay there always, day and night, and get no work done ever!” writer Julian MacLaren-Ross warned his fellow author Daniel Farson. Nonetheless, as Farson noted in his biography of Francis Bacon, the artist used to claim that his drinking helped his work ethic. “He worked from six in the morning with the fierce concentration of a hangover, which had the advantage of excluding all distraction.”

Farson appeared in John Maybury's 1998 film, Love Is the Devil, which starred Derek Jacobi as Bacon and a pre-Bond Daniel Craig as his lover, the petty thief George Dyer.

Maybury went to extraordinary lengths to recreate Bacon's favourite Soho drinking den, The Colony Room, at Three Mills Studios in east London, and even recruited Tilda Swinton to play its legendary proprietor Muriel Belcher. He captures the grotesquerie of the Soho demi-monde inhabited by Bacon and his drinking chums. These were alcoholics abusing each other in an often very vicious fashion.

As the various adaptations of Patrick Hamilton novels, for example Simon Curtis's made-for-the-BBC version of Twenty Thousand Streets under the Sky (2005), have made clear, there was often something hellish about the drinking culture, poverty and prostitution in Soho. Vice was never far away; and where vice goes, films invariably follow. This is an area that has always been a hub of the sex industry – and sex cinemas have long been part of that industry.

In recent years, Westminster City Council has been on a drive to “clean up” Soho. The sex cinemas, hostess bars and clip joints have been closed. The Raymond Revuebar is long gone. By one of those very British ironies, former Conservative cabinet minister and ex-Mayoral candidate Steve Norris is now chairman of Paul Raymond's old company Soho Estates, helping to manage the vast portfolio of properties that Raymond bought at the same time he was running his porn empire. “Our ambition is for Soho to be edgy but not sleazy,” Norris recently told Property Week.

The film industry remains as embedded in Soho as ever, but it has acquired a new found respectability. The area is now the centre of Britain's much-vaunted post-production sector. All this might suggest that Soho is losing its distinctiveness and that we won't see many more gangster films or movies about tortured, dipsomaniac artists shot here. Still, it is questionable how much Soho really has been transformed. As Look of Love producer Melissa Parmenter recently observed, recreating the Paul Raymond era wasn't such a stretch. “Our number one priority was to try and shoot in the real places, and in Soho it seems that a lot of places haven't changed that much.” Scrape away the surface paint, then, and it seems that the old Soho doesn't take long to re-emerge.

'The Look of Love' is released on 26 April

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