Personal Services is not an intimate revelatory biography of Luncheon voucher brothel keeper Cynthia Payne. For that you are politely referred to Paul Bailey‘s book An English Madam. As everyone who is connected with the film is at pains to underline, this is a fictionalised account onynthia’s exploits, using her character as a springboard for a frank and funny exploration of the British way of sex and ‘what the English establishment really wants to do when its trousers are down.‘
In 1983 writer-director David Leland enjoyed a briefencounter with Cynthia Payne on the steps of their mutual agent Jenne Casarotto. He decided to read An English Madam and became intrigued with Cynthia, viewing her as ‘a victim of the sexual hypocrisy in this country.’ They met again and talked endlessly abnout her life, her history and her ample recollections of incidents both lewd and comical that her occupation had provided. Two years later Leland jettisoned some of the
bio raphical material but remained fart ful to the spirit of her life in a
script that now emerges as Personal Services.
The film was originally to have been directed by Stephen Frears but when Frears regretfully bowed out of the project, Leland needed to find another sympathetic filmmaker. By chance he was working on a screenplay ofTerry Jones‘ children‘s book The Saga ofErik the Viking. Jones had already read Personal Services as an uninvolved innocent bystander but was soon persuaded to assume the directorial chores although he insists that it has been a partnership straight down the line.
One of the most crucial early decisions for the partnership was their choice of actress to play Cynthia, now re-christened as Christine Painter. ‘1 don‘t think the production company wanted me at first‘, Julie Walters reveals. ‘They said, ‘Julie Walters is just Julie Walters. we can‘t see her in this. I don‘t think she'd be right‘ and everything. They were seeing loads
4The List 1— 14 May
Defending the right to offend: Terry Jones and Julie Walters talk to Allan Hunter about the wickedly funny film Personal Services.
of people for the part and they didn‘t know what they were looking for really. So they sent me the script and I didn‘t know it had anything to do with Cynthia Payne. I just thought it was a brilliant script. It was only when I came to the bit about the luncheon vouchers that I thought. oh. this is the film that everyone‘s talking about.‘
Terry Jones, to his shame. didn‘t know Walters‘ work. but David Leland was an old friend and keen for her to play the role.
‘He‘s a very talented bloke; not only a brilliant writer but a brilliant director as well. He directed me years ago in a Victoria Wood play so I knew him and he told me that when he was writing Personal Services I would often come into his head. I auditioned and read the part for video and David insisted that everybody who came afterwards had to be videoed and compared to me. He had great faith and it was just wonderful for me.‘
Leland‘s extensive researches
provided Walters with an instant reference guide to her character and curtailed the need for her own investigation but she did spend an evening with Cynthia Payne. ‘We went through her snaps, her eye-watering snaps’, she chuckles. ‘I spent the whole evening until the small hours talking about them with her. I didn’t go to any of the parties although I was invited. I‘m glad I didn’t because you can just imagine the press. It would have been awful, not that I care but it would have upset my mother probably. I loved the Sun headline of ‘TV Python in Sex Party’. It was the best headline in the world!’
TV Python Jones was more than happy with the choice of Walters and with the benefit ofhindsight, can joke that he was glad to have seen Car Trouble, after her contract was signed.
‘I feel that Christine is a slightly more tragic figure than Cynthia and that’s partly something Julie brought to the role and why I was sold on her doing it. Although she was funny you had the feeling all the time she did those things that there was a terrible angst, some terrible tragedy had happened in her life.‘
One suspects that the Cynthia Payne story could only really happen in Britain; lift the lid off solid, sleepy suburbia and you‘ll find ex-colonels and VAT inspectors dressing up as schoolgirls to receive punishment for their naughtiness with the prospect of a strong cup of tea and a poached egg on toast to revive their flagging valour. The incongrous, inoffensiveness ofit clearly amuses the makers of the film and Jones finds Cynthia’s ultimate arrest both bafﬂing and indicative of the most rank hypocrisy. However he does seem to feel the need to defend his film from any charges of glamourising prostitution.
‘The film isn’t really an apology for prostitution and I don’t think its suggesting that prostitution is the way out of all our sexual problems or even necessarily a good thing. But I think in Cvnthia‘s case one is saving
if prostitution is going to be around, and it always will be, then she at least was providing a safe environment. It’s not a ruthless commerical proposition which I imagine the majority of prostitution is with the girls being exploited and driven on to drugs. No neighbours had complained. It wasn‘t annoying anyone, so why break it up? The capacity of the English to institutionalise their hypocrisy is quite remarkable. The Howarth Bill is an example. To bring the police in to break-up what was going on in Cynthia’s case seems extraordinary.‘
Mention of the current Howarth Bill serves to place Personal Services in the wider and worrying context of the moral backlash being perpetrated by the Whitehouse brigade with everyone keen to censor anyone else for the smallest obscenity or glimpse of the naked human form. Personal Services has been banned in Ireland. as were Terry Jones‘ last two Python films, and even the poster design was reworked several times to satisfy the guardians of London commuter sensibilities. It all seems petty and preposterous but to those intent on demolishing basic freedoms it clearly isn‘t.
‘I think there‘s going to be a lot more banning going on in the future. Changing the definition ofobscenity from something that will deprave and corrupt to anything that will be grossly offensive to a reasonable person. . . What‘sa reasonable person and what’s wrong with being offensive? To be offensive is going to be illegal if the Howarth Bill is passed. It‘s absolutely mind-blowing. What damage does it do? If I‘m offended by something it may be saying something about me not the thing that offends me. It‘s an absolutely crucial part of art to offend people at some point in their lives.‘
Personal Servies opens at the Cannon Cinemas Edinburgh and Glasgow (Sauchiehall Street) on I May. See Cinema listings for details.