Liverpool-born Raymond (Coogan) broke into showbiz as a mind reader on Clacton Pier (ooh, the glamour…) before starting a touring show with nude models posing as statues. After opening Britain’s first strip club – the Raymond Revuebar – as a means of circumventing government rules about decency in the theatre, Raymond’s porn portfolio grew with bestselling magazines – but his real power came in property. He landed his monarchical nickname after buying up half of Soho, all with an eye on handing the reins to his daughter Debbie (Imogen Poots). But when your power has its roots in the seedier side of life, it’s hard to keep a sense of decency in the family – as Debbie’s death from a heroin overdose in 1992 sadly proved.
Winterbottom’s biopic starts with this tragic note, with an ageing Raymond at a loss for the cause of his darling daughter’s drug abuse and death. Claims that Coogan is just reprising the role of Alan Partridge under a different name should be summarily dismissed after his performance in these opening scenes. While Partridge is certainly a character laden with pathos, the misery of spending months on end in the Linton Travel Tavern is a world away from parental grief and, with Coogan a father himself, Raymond feels like the saddest character he’s ever played, even with a fine sense of nebbish comic timing.
Yet it’s by no means a joyless or judgmental film. Most audiences will draw a sharp intake of breath when Raymond relents to Debbie’s pleas for a line of cocaine when she’s in labour but, remarkably for a film with so much nudity, sex and drugs, that’s the only near-the-knuckle moment in the entire piece. The rest retains the very British, saucy yet not sleazy tone of seaside postcards and, fittingly, Raymond’s life. There’s a naughty vicar (David Walliams), gags about a penthouse designed by Ringo Starr and Chris Addison’s porn mag editor instructing models to close their legs during a photo shoot because ‘we’re not in Germany’. Even when Raymond leaves his wife Jean (Anna Friel) for a leggy vicar’s daughter-turned-porn-star (Tamsin Egerton), it’s handled with an off-the-cuff, ‘well, it was the 70s’ shrug.
Just as in 24 Hour Party People and A Cock and Bull Story, Winterbottom lets Coogan off the leash while attempting to cram a large story into a short vessel. So while its laugh count is high and its period detail lovingly vivid, the focus feels as impulsive and spontaneous as Raymond’s business strategy seems to have been. But with a uniformly brilliant cast and a Matt Greenhalgh script that deftly melds comedy and tragedy, it’s an enjoyable romp all the same.