There’s not an Argyle sweater in sight in Steve Coogan’s latest film venture as 1970s Soho strip-club magnate Paul Raymond, still there’s a definite air of Partridge in the way he wags his eyebrows at the staff and spouts naff chat-up lines.
For their part, the women are moths to his lava lamp, but arguably this has less to do with natural charm and more to do with the fact that Raymond was the richest man in Britain at one time. Polyester jumpers may also have been a health and safety issue since the girls are seen to sport thick pads of what looks like Velcro in highly sensitive areas…
Apart from the almost full-frontal nudity (for the girls anyway) director Michael Winterbottom reveals very little in this warts ‘n’ all portrait that anyone would find genuinely surprising. Essentially, it is the story of a not very nice man who got rich on porn and peep shows and yet, did not have a happy home life.
If there’s anything to truly shock and horrify, it’s the extent of Raymond’s degeneracy in letting his beloved daughter Debbie (Imogen Poots) become a part of his lurid lifestyle. Evidently, his idea of father-daughter bonding was to take it in turns snorting lines of coke off the coffee table.
Coogan can be as obnoxious as he dares playing Alan Partridge (hitting the big screens this summer in Alpha Papa), but that’s because, behind the bravado, his insecurities are plain to see. The opposite is true for Raymond who gets bolder and brasher the more successful he becomes.
Winterbottom occasionally cuts away to find him sitting forlorn, watching footage of Debbie following her fatal drugs overdose in 1992, but there are otherwise few glimpses of vulnerability.
He dismisses his first wife Jean (Anna Friel) with brisk efficiency to shack up with one of his exotic dancers, Fiona (Tamsin Egerton) and whoever else they could fit into their king-sized bed. His treatment of women is predictably cold, but the handshake he extends to an illegitimate son is brutal beyond measure.
To give Coogan his due, the film would be unwatchable without him (if we’re to leave aside those viewers with a Velcro fetish). His inherent goofiness undercuts the sleaziness conjured by the shiny suits and streaky blonde mullet, and his hesitant gestures give the impression of someone who isn’t entirely comfortable in his own skin.
It’s just that, in the end, his performance feels like a tease, designed to draw us in with the promise that he might eventually own up to his mistakes, if not learn from them.
As his daughter, Poots (in a well-judged performance) is the real, beating heart of the film but only a faint echo of Raymond’s conscience because he so easily tunes her out. He literally commands her to stop crying when the pressure of ‘showbiz’ gets too much.
In many ways, the women that surround Raymond are more interesting than he is because, initially, they seem happy to make compromises; turning a blind eye to his promiscuity and allowing themselves to be exploited, sexually and emotionally. But they’re not just victims, either. They are wilful, if misguided, and each is eventually moved to challenge him.
Egerton stands out as Fiona for being the most self-assured and well-adjusted of Raymond’s inner-circle, though the real Fiona Richmond has publicly renounced the film and is developing her own biopic. (By the way, that does seem in keeping with the woman Egerton portrays here; riding naked on a horse through the streets of Soho, Lady Godiva-style, to promote one of Raymond’s erotic stage shows.)
Chris Addison offers a little more light relief as Tony Power, publisher of Raymond’s soft-porn mags, and there are moments when Coogan seems to be consciously angling for laughs, but the trajectory of the story is definitely downward, with an almost vertical drop in the final stages.
Much of the dialogue feels adlibbed – certainly, that’s the way Coogan and Winterbottom have done it before (in A Cock & Bull Story and 24 Hour Party People) – but perhaps the director was too spoilt for choice in the cutting room, because, tonally, this film gets around more than Raymond himself.
Winterbottom also revels in an excess of kitsch nudie spectacle, to the point that he becomes a co-conspirator in Raymond’s objectification of women. It’s a wild ride for sure, but there’s not much satisfaction.