Turning tale of sleaze and sadness into film success

Paul Willetts, Norwich author, has written a book on Paul Raymond and the Soho scene of the 60s.

Paul Willetts, Norwich author, has written a book on Paul Raymond and the Soho scene of the 60s. - Credit: © ARCHANT NORFOLK PHOTOGRAPHIC

Norwich writer Paul Willetts has seen his book about Soho 'adult entertainment' king Paul Raymond turned into a film starring Steve Coogan — and he even bagged a cameo role. KEIRON PIM reports.

Paul Willetts was never one to aspire for the leading role in the school play – or indeed any role if he could help it – and to this day the Norwich-based author's preferred means of telling a story would always be by writing rather than acting.

But when his most recent book, a biography of the Soho 'adult entertainment' king Paul Raymond, came to be adapted into a major film starring Steve Coogan, Willetts couldn't help but ask the production team whether he might have a cameo role.

He had in mind something suitably low-key: certainly not a speaking part, and preferably not one where anyone but those in the know would identify him.

As the Michael Winterbottom-directed movie approached production he floated the idea and then heard little more – until the shoot began and the co-producer gave him a telephone call: 'Paul, you know you want to be an extra? Michael has a very specific idea of what he wants you to do.'

This caused a shudder. Among other things, Winterbottom's films are known for their sexual content, one of the most notorious being the explicit Nine Songs. Anxiety-inducing images flashed through his mind: would they cast him as a furtive man in a dirty mac sloping along Brewer Street toward the Raymond Revuebar, or sitting in the shadowy theatre ogling a troupe of dancing girls – or something more embarrassing still?

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Instead he had a pleasant surprise. They wanted him to play Lord Longford, the eccentric anti-vice crusader who formed one of Raymond's most high profile adversaries in the 1970s, and who was rather cruelly mocked for the thoroughness with which he explored the sex industry while investigating its moral failings for a self-funded report published in 1972.

Willetts knew from having worked on the script that Longford's was a speaking part, portraying him in a television debate with Raymond.

'Last April I went down to Soho,' he explains, 'and I was processed from department to department, through costumes and make-up. I had this wonderful Longford mad wig with hair flying up on each side and a terrible Seventies suit and tie.

'I was starting to get slightly nervous. I'm used to doing quite a lot of events but this was very different. The set was this enormous TV studio with these old-style TV cameras, a pretend Seventies crew and a real crew, and members of the cast watching, just to add to the pressure. It must have taken four hours.'

He'd studied Longford's speeches in order to get his vocabulary and manner of speaking correct – as a writer, Willetts is known for his meticulous research – all of which he put to use while he and Coogan filmed an improvised conversation. However in a salutary example of the movie-making process, only a few seconds made the final cut. None of them involving him speaking.

But it was enough to assure him of his cinematic debut, as will be apparent next Thursday when the movie, The Look of Love, premieres simultaneously at Norwich's Cinema City and at the London Sundance Film Festival. At the Norwich screening Willetts will introduce the film and hold a question-and-answer session discussing the experience and his book's transition to the big screen.

His biography of Raymond has just been reissued in a film tie-in edition, retitled The Look of Love – on first publication in 2010 it was called Members Only.

Coogan describes it as 'a thoroughly entertaining story, told by a writer with an extremely vivid and amusing turn of phrase'. While the adaptation is superficially a film in its subject's spirit – rarely can there have been so much nudity in a mainstream cinematic release – The Look of Love is ultimately a tragic tale of hollow lives dominated by avarice and cocaine addiction.

It traces Raymond's rise from mind-reader in a cabaret act to the proprietor of numerous striptease clubs and adult magazines, in the process becoming Britain's richest man but losing the people he loved most. Coogan is suitably seedy in the title role but it is the women closest to him who are more impressive: Anna Friel as his ill-treated wife Jean Raymond; Tamsin Egerton as the infamous Fiona Richmond; but in particular Imogen Poots, who plays his daughter, Debbie. Raymond doted on Debbie, spoiling her and indulging her unrealistic aspiration to become a nightclub singer – an ambition he brusquely curtailed after casting her in a show that proved an expensive flop. She overcame breast cancer and was due to inherit his empire, until her sudden death aged 36 from an accidental heroin overdose.

Three weeks later Raymond was named Britain's richest man with a fortune put at £1.5bn, but it was as nothing compared with his grief.

The film cuts repeatedly between his heyday and his final years as a forlorn recluse, poring over old film footage of his daughter.

But if the film's conclusion is sombre, for the author, its creation was a fascinating experience, albeit one he's unlikely to repeat. 'I was dropped off in the West End after the filming, and it all felt like a strange dream,' says Willetts.

'It was a great deal of fun. But I suspect it's not going to be followed by a flourishing movie career.'

His next book will be a tale of espionage in wartime London, to be published by Penguin.

t The Look of Love is published by Serpent's Tail, priced £8.99.

t The Look of Love is in cinemas now.