Reviewed: The Look of Love

Mags to riches.

The Look of Love (18)
dir: Michael Winterbottom

An 11th-hour change of title befell Michael Winterbottom’s film about the life of Paul Raymond, the club owner, property magnate and porn baron, when it emerged that Raymond’s son had first dibs on The King of Soho. But that title would have seemed too celebratory for a film that already becomes excitable whenever it depicts its subject’s escapades through the convention of montage.

The Look of Love is a more thoughtful fit for a picture that at least tries to make sense of the warped relationship between Raymond (Steve Coogan) and his daughter, Debbie (Imogen Poots). The film suggests that having inducted her into his hedonistic, druggy lifestyle as a show of devotion denied to his other children, he failed to notice the damage it was doing. He couldn’t see the addict for the coke.

That said, the movie gets off to a disastrous start. The authentically groovy title sequence, accompanied by a sax-heavy easy-listening score, is perfect. Jacqueline Abrahams’s production design and Stephanie Collie’s costumes are persuasive from the off – the speed with which labyrinthine wallpaper patterns, leopard-print furniture and men’s furs come to appear normal is retrospectively frightening. But the structural choices made by the screenwriter, Matt Greenhalgh, who has form in the biopic genre, after Control and Nowhere Boy, betray his script’s identity crisis. The film begins after Debbie’s death, with Raymond sequestered in a velvet-walled sanctuary watching a documentary about her life. No sooner has this started than the action switches to a second documentary, this time about Raymond, his career and domestic happiness with his wife, Jean (Anna Friel). Even Citizen Kane only needed one documentary-within-the-film, for goodness sake.

Raymond and Jean share an understanding about his extra-curricular activities with the dancers who populate his establishments – notably the members’ club the Raymond Revuebar, which he opened in Soho in 1958. The understanding extends to Raymond doing whatever he likes and Jean being a good sport about it. When he climbs into bed long after her, it is almost shocking to hear her chirrup without malice: “Was she nice?” The next time it happens, she is not placated by Raymond admitting that he doesn’t know whether or not Fiona (Tamsin Egerton), that evening’s companion, is good in bed. If he didn’t sleep with her, she must be special.

Sure enough, Raymond leaves Jean and their children for Fiona. Exiting court after the divorce hearing, he can’t help correcting a reporter who calls the settlement agreed in his ex-wife’s favour one of the largest in British history: “I think you’ll find it’s the largest.” His bragging extends even to his losses. But then it’s the same sensibility that enables him to turn ashes into gold dust: when a tabloid newspaper sneers at the “arbitrary displays of naked flesh” in one of his dodgy theatrical productions, he splashes the line all over the posters. “House Full” signs go up in no time.

When Debbie is old enough, Raymond brings her into the business as the only clothed participant of one of his nude musicals. At a press conference, he responds with alarm to the question of whether she will appear naked, and Winterbottom cuts to Debbie giving an almost imperceptible wince at this display of protectiveness doubling as a slight; she’s like the schoolchild who is happy to be excused from PE for all eternity by an everlasting sick note but resentful of the outsider status, the perceived privilege, that this confers on her.

It doesn’t help that Debbie’s ambitions don’t always correspond to her talents. Any actor looking to mine pathos from an obliviously terrible musical turn is competing with the memory of Gwen Welles in Robert Altman’s Nashville. (Altman always said he never knew if this was Welles giving it her best shot and falling short, and never asked.) There are many great moments in Poots’s piercing performance – ordering champagne through a cascade of wounded tears, or breaking bad news to her father by chopping it out in cocaine form –but her delicate rendition of the Burt Bacharach/Hal David title song, in a version only just poor enough to signal that Debbie plausibly might not realise her own shortcomings, is the high point.

If Debbie becomes the centre of the film, that’s only because Raymond is so fatally lacking in self-awareness. (His solution when an associate rages about Debbie’s drug habit is to sack the associate.) Coogan is good at the bluster and the showmanship, less so when forced to contemplate himself mournfully in the mirror in that old standby shot for the character in need of depth. He will undoubtedly be a better actor once he can remove most of the traces of his key creation, the rancid minor celebrity Alan Partridge, and of himself. There are Partridge-esque touches here, such as the attempted witticisms that lead to unforeseen conversational cul-de-sacs. Warming to the idea of himself as the Pied Piper as he gives Fiona a tour of his apartment, Raymond says: “Yes, follow me into the . . . well, not the sewer . . .” Not hard to imagine that line leaving Partridge’s curdled mouth.

Elsewhere it seems Raymond is being remade in Coogan’s image. It may be that the real Paul Raymond was an incorrigible impressionist, given to imitating Sean Connery during meals. (We’ve all done it.) But Coogan’s dinner-table impressions were such a big part of Winterbottom’s BBC series The Trip, it might have been prudent to steer clear of them, or else risk looking like the actor who is an accomplished accordionist in his spare time and argues on this basis that his character should play the accordion too.

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

This article first appeared in the 29 April 2013 issue of the New Statesman, What makes us human?

Illustration by James Albon
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The life and times of the London cycle courier

Bike messengers no longer comprise the militia they resembled when the Tories were turning London into a city of finance. But they still trail a thrillingly reckless air of romance.

It was as if I’d accidentally stumbled into some secret cell from which an insurrection was being planned. The four or five mechanics and cycle couriers loosely clustered around the counter, costumed in black clothes that seemed, impossibly, to be skinny and baggy at the same time, had an arachnid quality to them. Static crackled from the radios clipped to their shoulders on the tarpaulin courier bags that arced over their backs like a carapace. They looked like the conspirators of an anarchist revolution, rebuilding bikes from greasy cogs and oil-stained bits of metal as if they were bombs. I was almost disappointed when the one standing behind the counter proved to be cheerfully friendly. Suddenly, they looked endearingly like twentysomething Mutant Ninja Turtles.

The late 1980s and early 1990s were the heroic phase in the history of the bicycle courier. London’s roads were arteriosclerotic with traffic, so courier firms that had once despatched vans, motorbikes and scooters across the city increasingly resorted to bike messengers, who were as nimble as they were cheap. The internet hadn’t yet made them half redundant, relegating them to the role of delivering documents that ­require a signature from Soho to the City, or  conveying portable corporate gifts from the City to Mayfair.

In these years the messengers visibly became a tribe. They acquired a more uniform appearance, albeit one that accommodated individual eccentricities; they devised a dialect to lubricate radio communication between couriers and controllers; identified an unofficial headquarters, a bar in Shoreditch called the Foundry; and developed their own rituals of belonging, including the Cycle Messenger World Championships. This annual event, inaugurated in Berlin in 1993, was hosted in London in 1994, when approximately 500 couriers from Europe and the US as well as the UK attended. This is roughly the number of couriers who still fling themselves along the streets of London today, in far more embattled conditions.

It was in 1993, at the acme of the profession and its associated subculture, that the then prime minister, John Major, speaking to the Conservative Group for Europe, made an infamous prognostication about the future of Britain, in which he misused George Orwell’s reference to “hiking” from his essay “The Lion and the Unicorn: Socialism and the English Genius” (1941). “Fifty years on from now,” Major prophesied, “Britain will still be the country of long shadows on county grounds, warm beer, invincible green suburbs, dog lovers and Pools fillers and – as George Orwell said – ‘old maids bicycling to Holy Communion through the morning mist’ . . .” In contrast to this pastoral fantasy, bike messengers seemed to herald a feral future in which, at evening rush hour, as traffic fumes thicken, the congested lanes and streets of cities are convulsed with semi-vagrant, rodent cyclists, all of them addicted to danger, competing with suicidal energy in so-called “alleycat” races.

Major’s imaginary old maids, ideologically speaking, were the sisters of those honest, industrious Englishmen whom Norman Tebbit invoked in 1981 when, as Margaret Thatcher’s employment secretary, he made his notorious claim that, instead of rioting like the current generation of unemployed, his father had “got on his bike and looked for work”. When a cycle courier got on his bike, he wasn’t looking for work, he was working. In this sense, the bike messengers out-tebbited Tebbit. Yet their untamed appearance and their countercultural attitudes aligned them with the sorts of people who relished a riot – the New Age travellers and class warriors who, in the pages of the tabloid press, threatened to stain Thatcher, Tebbit and Major’s pristine vision for Britain. At a time when cycling, in Britain’s political imagination, seemed in danger of becoming an emblematically Conservative activity, cycle couriers were fifth columnists.

Bike messengers no longer comprise the ragged but glorious militia they resembled when the Tories were assaulting London and reconstructing it as a centre of finance. They no longer look like desperadoes or mercenaries among the armies of conventional commuters that traverse the city. But they still trail a derelict charm and a thrillingly reckless air of romance as they hurtle through the streets. Indeed, in some respects, their piratical appeal has grown.

Cycle couriers have managed to survive in the city’s increasingly competitive ecology, subsisting even though a deadly combination of emails and Uber cabs threatens to render them extinct. Such is the persistent value of the autograph (as opposed to some kind of electronic fingerprint, say) that signed documents still need to be ferried from door to door; such is the capital’s ongoing road congestion (and the congestion charge) that it is still quicker to cross it on two wheels than four. Their heightened appeal, though, can perhaps be explained by the fact that they look so attractively fierce and undomesticated beside more rarefied species of cyclists that have evolved in London over the past couple of decades. Among these, the most prominent are middle-aged men in Lycra shorts on racing bikes; commuters in suits on fold-up bikes; and tourists, foreign and domestic, in chinos on bank-branded public hire bikes. (A recent addition to this list is the newest subspecies of courier, employed by the food delivery service Deliveroo. With the only job requirements being to own a bicycle and a smartphone, they can be seen in increasing numbers, huffing and puffing up mild inclines and wobbling under the weight of their giant backpack-boxes full of chow.)

The cycle courier also looks far tougher, far better adapted to the remorseless daily demands of urban life, than another, rather more populous metropolitan species: the hipster. The hipster may or may not be a cyclist: if he rides, it will most likely be a showy, courier-aping, customised “fixie” (fixed-gear) bike. But whether on wheels or on foot, with his spindly legs rigid in drainpipes instead of agile in tights and cut-off combat pants, his beard absurdly sculpted instead of attractively disordered by the force of the elements, the hipster is an ossified, etiolated, even decadent descendant of the cycle courier. In the contemporary capital’s mythological bestiary, bike messengers, their lower bodies inseparable from the sleek metal frames of the machines on which they balance, are the city’s centaurs; hipsters, its plodding satyrs. Messengers, as Emily Chappell explains in the glossary that concludes her new book about being a courier, have a portmanteau term of contempt for “urban cyclists who adopt the supposed style and attitude of cycle couriers without ever having worked as one”: “fakengers”.

Chappell’s book, What Goes Around: a London Cycle Courier’s Story (Guardian Faber), which is fascinating for offering a ­female courier’s memoir of a predominantly male culture, is one of no fewer than three to have been published by couriers or former couriers about the city’s cycle-life in the space of six months. The others are Jon Day’s Cyclogeography: Journeys of a London Bicycle Courier (Notting Hill Editions), a learned handbook on cycling that dignifies cyclists as psychogeographers; and Julian Sayarer’s Messengers: City Tales from a London Bicycle Courier (Arcadia), the most combatively political of the three.

Sayarer’s memoir drily characterises couriering as “the best of all the worst jobs in the world”. In his prologue, he describes a phone conversation in which his agent tries to persuade him to produce a manuscript “about bicycles, and the city”. When Sayarer expresses his reluctance to write another book about “punctures and brakepads” at a publisher’s insistence, the agent admonishes: “If you don’t, mark my words, they will find a name instead of yours to put on that spine!” It transpires that they could have put the names of at least three authors on the spine, all of them highly accomplished prose stylists and compelling narrators.

All three books read a little like threnodies; and it is tempting to see them as symptoms of a subculture that is becoming increasingly conscious of the need to memorialise itself precisely because it is under threat. Chappell, Day and Sayarer feel like anthropologists scrambling to record the language of a threatened tribe; they are compiling a semiotics of urban cycling in the face of its fatal transformation. As the appearance of boutique bike shops, cycle superhighways and bank-sponsored hire bikes implies, if bicycling in 21st-century London is being promoted by politicians, it is also being sanitised, rationalised and privatised.

Revealingly, in his “mayoral foreword” to a document published by Transport for London (TfL) in 2010, Boris Johnson underlined his determination to turn London into what, in a clumsy and faintly sinister portmanteau term, he called “a cyclised city” – “a civilised city where people can ride their bikes safely and easily in a pleasant environment”. Everyone wants to be able to ride their bike safely, and the vast majority of cyclists want Johnson to stop orating and instead introduce stringent legislation to prevent HGVs from killing them at traffic junctions. But not everyone who wants to cycle safely wants London to become a “pleasant environment”. I don’t; and it certainly wouldn’t still be London if it did.

***

In the civilised city of TfL’s “Cycling Revolution”, the commuters, fakengers and sightseers pedalling along the superhighways are inadvertently erasing the record of cycle couriers who pioneered them. The books by Chappell, Day and Sayarer restore the record. Each contains detailed, often vivid descriptions of, for example, the punitive physical discipline that the job demands, which quickly becomes an addiction; the jerry-rigging of equipment fatigued by the road; the encounters with blank-faced representatives of corporate offices; gatherings of the tribe at the likes of the Foundry; the run-ins with black-cab drivers; and, most gripping of all, the alleycat races.

Day recounts one particular race, designed by his brother, also a courier, to be “an urban steeplechase with a fox-hunt theme”. Attaching a fox’s tail to his belt loop and strapping a plastic container filled with liquid to his back, his brother set off through the traffic on his bike, sputtering a trail of white paint through his rear wheel. After a short time, Day himself signalled the beginning of the race with the blast of a horn. “We followed the paint that lay in a splattered line on the tarmac, competing with the other street markings and tracing a ghostly outline of my brother’s journey,” he writes with characteristic flourish.

Sayarer provides a second-hand account of the same alleycat race in his own book. Day’s brother makes an appearance under the identity used by controllers on the couriers’ radio system: “Two-Four brings me up to speed with his life and tells me about his last alleycat: the fox hunt.” Day also plays a cameo role in Chappell’s book, in the guise of the courier “who was now waiting for his DPhil viva to roll around before finally moving on to lecture in modernist fiction at King’s College”. At times it really is as if the names of all three of them appear on the spine of the same book.

Reading these absorbing accounts of bike messengers’ struggle to subsist on the roads of London, the only thing I felt was missing was a sense of the angry inner monologue that, surely, shapes their consciousness as they cycle through the relentlessly hostile traffic. For the most part, admirably, and aside from a few vituperative references to cabbies or cops, Chappell, Day and Sayarer seem “to float above the chaos and ­friction of the city with an unfailing smile” (as Chappell puts it, describing another female courier). When I cycle, I maintain a constant, resentful running commentary, at times all too audible, on the confrontational or careless drivers who threaten to knock me on to the road. It seems hard to believe that professional couriers don’t suffer from the same psychosis: cyclosis.

Matthew Beaumont is the author of “Nightwalking: a Nocturnal History of London” (Verso)

This article first appeared in the 11 February 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle