By Edward Baran
LONDON (Reuters) - A new biopic about 1960s British "porn king" Paul Raymond came under fire from critics on Tuesday for coming perilously close to depicting the late strip club-owner, porn publisher and property magnate as a national treasure.
British comedian Steve Coogan stars as the man who turned London's Soho neighborhood into a byword for strip clubs and sex throughout the swinging sixties in "The Look of Love", which premiered in London on Monday to mixed reviews.
Director Michael Winterbottom's film depicts Raymond who fought the authorities in 1958 to set up his Raymond Revuebar, the first London club where naked women could dance.
Raymond expanded his empire into property and pornographic publishing, earning a fortune that made him the richest man in Britain by 1992.
A former colleague, Oscar Owide, manager of Soho's Windmill Table Dancing Club, said Raymond would always be remembered as the forerunner of the strip clubs in Soho, luring sleazy characters, prostitution and earning middle class opprobrium.
Once known as London's sex district, Soho is now the hub of London's media world, home to trendy advertising agencies, exclusive private members' clubs, fashionable shops and a variety of hip bars and restaurants.
"Soho was known in those days to be sleazy but it was never really sleazy. It was sexy and it was rude but it was like a village. It is much more sophisticated now," Owide, 81, told Reuters TV in an interview.
"You still have your back alleys with a few of the naughty clubs but it has changed. There are some beautiful shops now in Soho and hotels being built...It is changing but not for the worse, for the better."
As expected in a film about a porn king, "The Look of Love" features plenty of nudity, both on the stage and in the bedroom.
Coogan, best known for his bumbling, comic alter-ego Alan Partridge, said it was exhausting playing Raymond whose erotica club played host to the likes of the Beatles and Frank Sinatra in its heyday.
SEX, DRUGS AND BLING
"He didn't see much daylight, he seemed to live the life of a vampire, he hardly ever ventured out during the day," Coogan said. "At the end of it I just wanted to see some daylight. I wanted to see some daylight and no naked women."
But Coogan said one of the major draws for taking the role was the tragic side of Raymond, born Geoffrey Quinn in a modest suburb of Liverpool, who became a virtual recluse after his adored daughter Debbie died of a drug overdose aged 36 in 1992.
Critics were mixed on the film that held its premiere in London on Monday after being shown at this year's Sundance and Berlin film festivals. The film opens in Britain on April 26.
Raymond's story has everything, with the on-screen version openly cheating on his wife, working hard, driving expensive cars and enjoying a preference for ménages-a-trois and more.
Cocaine and champagne fuel business meetings and parties, all played out in fur coats and flashy suits with bling galore.
Critic Geoffrey Macnab in The Independent praised Coogan's lively performance but questioned Winterbottom's portrayal of Raymond as Soho's answer to "Citizen Kane".
"Its problem is that Raymond is too sleazy, comic and superficial a character to take on any kind of tragic grandeur," wrote Macnab, giving it three out of five stars.
David Sexton, in the Evening Standard, described the film as an "indulgent biopic" that painted too admirable a picture of Raymond who died in 2008 at 82 of respiratory failure.
"This film comes perilously close to proposing him as a national treasure and a great London icon," wrote Sexton who also rated it three stars.
(Writing by Belinda Goldsmith, editing by Paul Casciato)