Paul Raymond: Self-styled 'King of Soho' who built a successful business empire from property and pornography

Click to follow
The Independent Online

The self-styled "King of Soho", Paul Raymond was a self-made millionaire and pioneering sex mogul whose x-rated career spanned seven decades from coy post-war striptease to the hardcore world of the internet. He brought pornography out from under the counters of tatty corner shops and onto the top shelves of WH Smith, giving bare breasts a sophisticated sheen and earning himself a £650m fortune along the way.

Once described as "the most successful man in modern London who isn't an aristocrat", Raymond was the original British porn baron, a free-thinking entrepreneur who made nudity mainstream, yet preferred to be remembered as a theatrical impresario. He believed that sex didn't have to be tawdry, hidden away in seedy strip joints. For him, "adult entertainment" was just that; a privilege of getting older and something to be enjoyed without embarrassment. "There'll always be sex," he said. "Always, always, always."

He was born Geoffrey Anthony Quinn in 1925, the son of a Liverpool lorry driver, and was raised by his mother and aunt in Glossop, Derbyshire, after his father abandoned the family. On leaving school at 15, he sold hair nets and stockings from a barrow but hankered for a life in show business. He changed his name to Paul Raymond in 1942 and tagged onto the variety circuit, ending up as one half of a bizarre mind-reading double act on Clacton Pier called "Mister and Miss Tree".

From performer he became producer and married Jean, a choreographer of dancing showgirls. Their first travelling variety show – The Vaudeville Express – featured topless girls who posed in saucy tableaux but remained completely still so as not to trouble the Lord Chamberlain, who had prohibited any jiggling by half-dressed performers. Raymond's show eventually evolved into the Festival of Nudes (a cheeky wink at the Festival of Britain) and then Moving Nudes, where naked lovelies were winched high in the air on precarious wooden platforms.

Tiring of touring, Raymond eventually settled in London where he again exploited a loophole in the law that allowed private members' clubs to be virtually exempt from censorship. The Raymond Revuebar, located on the corner of Walker's Court and Brewer Street in Soho, opened in April 1958 promising a programme of striptease and beautiful girls. The venue's garish neon display became as much a London landmark as the statue of Eros, emblazoned with the legend "The World Centre of Erotic Entertainment". Raymond's new venture was the first of its kind in Britain and regularly played to packed audiences of middle-class men seeking new nude thrills.

In 1961 a judge labelled the club "filthy, disgusting and beastly" and fined him £5,000 for keeping a disorderly house, but it barely dented Raymond's burgeoning fortune. By the mid-1960s he had made his first million and was driving a black Rolls Royce, plate number PR11, and living in a mansion in Wimbledon.

Buoyed up by the success of his live shows, Raymond launched, in 1964, King (the "real man's magazine"), distinguished by lush photographic studies of "tasteful" nudes and the obligatory articles on motor cars, cigars and military history. Designed as a British competitor to Penthouse or Playboy, the title was, surprisingly, not a runaway success and instead Raymond put his energies into buying the Whitehall Theatre. Here he staged extravagant nude revues including Pyjama Tops and its sequel Yes, We Have No Pyjamas, as well as Let's Get Laid! and Come Into My Bed, which paired "family" comedians like John Inman with troupes of topless dancers.

Raymond's biggest coup came in 1971 when he acquired the magazine Men Only. He was now dating the glamour model Fiona Richmond, and promptly installed his pneumatic new girlfriend as Men Only's nominal editor-in-chief. Richmond became a household name as her self-penned articles documented her travels through the UK "road-testing men". Other magazines, including Club International, Mayfair and Escort, would also be published by Raymond, following a format of porn presented as glossy Sunday supplement.

In 1974 Raymond divorced his wife, Jean, and she received a settlement of £250,000 after he admitted his affair. With Richmond established as his star attraction, Raymond bankrolled her first major film, Exposé (1975), a menacing sex drama full of blood, gore, surgical gloves and gratuitous lesbian love scenes. The film later enjoyed the distinction of being the only British entry on the infamous "video nasty" list compiled by the Department of Public Prosecutions.

Raymond stumped up the cash for two further Richmond romps – Hardcore and Let's Get Laid! The former headlined the relaunch of Soho's Moulin Cinema in Great Windmill Street in April 1977. A beaming Richmond posed for reporters outside the cinema with a selection of bananas and cucumbers. But no amount of fruity publicity could save the movie and Hardcore flopped when up against the sex comedy Come Play with Me, financed by Raymond's porn-baron rival, David Sullivan.

Known for his long straggly hair, sharp suits and bevy of glamorous companions, Raymond became a larger-than-life figure in the West End but his association with pornography never afforded him the mainstream respectability he desired. In 1980 he returned to movie production with Paul Raymond's Erotica, arguably the most expensive vanity project of his career.

Budgeted at £1.5m, the film starred the French starlet Brigitte Lahaie as a young investigative reporter seducing half of London. If cinema-goers weren't put off by a sex scene set in Smithfield meat market then they certainly were by Raymond's woeful attempts at acting. The Daily Express critic reported that it was impossible to hear the film's dialogue over the sound of cinema seats snapping up as disillusioned patrons fled the auditoria. Raymond didn't appear on screen again and, hurt by the commercial failure of the film, slunk back to relative anonymity running his publishing and property empire.

Raymond had started buying up huge swathes of Soho during the 1970s after a crackdown on unlicensed sex shops and peep-show premises by the Obscene Publications Squad. Again, after the property crash of the late 1980s, he started buying more freeholds. By the end of the following decade, he owned nearly 60 of the 87 acres in the district and had practically cornered the market in legitimate sex-shop outlets.

As Raymond neared retirement age he began grooming his daughter to take over the family business. Unfortunately, the flamboyant and undeniably talented Debbie Raymond, a former dancer at the Revuebar, had an addictive personality and died in 1992 after an accidental drug overdose, aged just 36. It was a tragedy from which Raymond never fully recovered and he became increasingly reclusive, rarely leaving his suite next door to the Ritz. His stranglehold on the business further loosened through the decade and, in 2000, his GP-brother Philip became director of the sex and mortar empire.

The Raymond Organisation also gave up the day-to-day running of the Revuebar and sold its name to the choreographer Gerard Simi. In February 2004, the business ceased operating after Simi claimed he could not afford the £270,000-a-year rent. Raymond's iconic building is now occupied by a gay cabaret bar.

Simon Sheridan

Beneath the slight stammer and gentlemanly manners, Paul Raymond was often ruthless with rivals, former associates and even his own sons, writes Pierre Perrone.

I worked for Paul Raymond Publications for over 20 years, editing a French magazine and then the flagship title Men Only as well. When I joined the company in 1986, there was much to admire about Raymond's instincts for tapping into Britain's then unsated appetite for erotica. As a publisher, his eye for the smallest of details was still there, and he was prepared to back his hunches that France, Belgium, Switzerland and Canada would buy a French-language equivalent of his classier magazine.

When the French government took a dim view of what Club Pour Hommes was trying to do – taking coals back to Newcastle in an "ooh la la" fashion, basically – and threatened to confiscate the title in the mid-1980s, Raymond hired a commanding law firm and threatened to take the case to the European courts before deciding that a change of title to Club Edition Française for France might just do the trick and enable us to carry on publishing, which we did successfully for many years.

However, after his beloved daughter Debbie died in 1992 there was a definite darkening of mood. Gone were the publicity stunts over the unlikely purchase of a football club. Gone was the dabbling in theatre and film production which had made Fiona Richmond a household name. Raymond became an elusive figure, more interested in building his property empire than broadening his range of publications.

By the time the publishing side of his many companies eventually decided to invest in DVD cover-mounts and a stand-alone website, Raymond's magazines were caught between an increasingly liberal attitude to the import of hardcore material from continental Europe, the proliferation of x-rated internet content and lads' mags like Loaded, Zoo and Nuts. By the mid 2000s, the market was shrinking, with Men Only and Club International selling a 10th of what they had in their heyday, and there was an unsuccessful attempt to offload the publishing company.

After many years editing the French titles, I was also asked to edit concurrently Men Only, a magazine which had gone through five editors in the previous 10 years. When this experiment did not achieve the desired sales spike, I was taken off the English title and continued editing the French title, which I had launched 20 years before with Debbie. Shortly afterwards, I was made redundant. I had to take the company to court in order to secure a fair settlement. The tactics used by some of Paul Raymond's directors throughout the redundancy process and the subsequent shenanigans of his legal team "beggared belief", said the judge, who ruled in my favour.

Paul Raymond may still have had the appetite for a legal fight but his showman attributes had long deserted him. The man who had once bought a mind-reading act, and said his younger self "was a total spiv", had reverted to type.

Geoffrey Anthony Quinn (Paul Raymond), entrepreneur, publisher and property magnate: born Liverpool 15 November 1925; married 1951 Jean Bradley (one son, and one daughter deceased; marriage dissolved 1974), (one son with Noreen O'Horan); died London 2 March 2008.