Review: Members Only – The Life and Times of Paul Raymond (Author: Paul Willets)

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Serpents Tail

Paul Raymond was Britain’s first sex industry mogul (and there have been precious few to follow him), building a business than spanned strip clubs, magazines and movies, and helping to revolutionise British censorship and sexual mores along the way. This exhaustive, but thoroughly readable biography charts his life from his days as a teenage spiv in World War 2 and failed variety act, through his promotion of nudie shows across Britain to the opening of the famed Raymond Revuebar (not, as many believe, the first striptease club in London, but certainly the most high-profile and important), his battles with the police and Soho gangsters (often one and the same), the legalisation of striptease, his ventures into theatre and film production (Raymond bankrolled one-time video nasty Exposé and the dreadful Erotica), his pioneering girlie magazines like Men Only and Club International and his ruthless excursions into property, which eventually saw him owning much of Soho and being listed as Britain’s richest man.

Paul Willetts has researched his subject well, and apart from a few moments of moralising towards the end of the book (referring to the sex industry as ‘a phenomenon that permeates and debases culture’), he takes a fairly even-handed look at his subject. Raymond would seem to be a complex man of contradictions – a notorious miser whose pursuit of money came before anything else, but who could be incredibly generous and supportive; a man who would publicly rail against Soho clip joints and porn shops while renting shop space to these same operators; a man who adored his daughter but ignored an illegitimate son and cut off his other son from his will. But for all his double standards and lack of taste, Raymond seems a fairly admirable character – and while his involvement in the sex industry may have been driven by money, he seems to have been a genuine revolutionary – his willingness to fight the authorities and the moralisers, and to be a (relatively) acceptable public face of the industry deserves applause. The fact that he had to battle fake IRA death threats, police corruption (not only the infamous protection racket run by the Obscene Publications Squad in the 1960’s and 70’s, but also cynical efforts to close down the Revuebar), horrendous personal setbacks and painful business failures is all the more fascinating.

membersonly02At the end of his life, Raymond was the king of a crumbling empire – the Revuebar closed, his daughter dead from a drug overdose and the once flamboyant showman a virtual recluse as the internet, lap dancing clubs and legalised hardcore ate into his business (a couple of years after his death, Raymond’s magazines – which your writer and several people he knows worked for either as freelancers or editors – were sold, marking the end of the Paul Raymond sex empire once and for all).

Meanwhile, the last government passed laws that effectively place greater restrictions on striptease and erotic shows than existed in the 1950s, and Soho’s sex shops and strip shows have mostly been replaced by hipster hangouts and media companies – neither change for the better. A new Paul Raymond would, quite frankly, be most welcome right now.

Compulsively entertaining, often very funny, well-illustrated and thoroughly detailed (with a few errors, admittedly – Chesty Morgan is not the star of Flesh Gordon!), Willetts’ book is the sort of biography that is crying out to be filmed, and a must for anyone interested in celebrity culture, erotica, striptease or British social history.

DAVID FLINT

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