Personal Services (1987)

“I have a dilapidated piece of mahogany veneer in dire need of renovation.”

The British film Personal Services directed by ex-Monty Python Terry Jones is based on the book An English Madam by Paul Bailey. The film begins with a disclaimer stating that it is not a true depiction of the life of the infamous British Madam, Cynthia Payne (Madam Cyn) and advises the viewer to read Bailey’s book for details of Payne’s life.

The protagonist of the film is named Christine Painter (Julie Walters)–an attractive, harried waitress in a London restaurant. Christine has a child in boarding school whose fees must be paid, and so she earns extra money by renting out rooms and subletting flats to prostitutes. Now, the idea is that the prostitutes will pay Christine rent, but Christine soon discovers that collecting rent is easier said than done, and before too long, Christine faces her landlord empty-handed. The landlord, however, is fully prepared to make an acceptable alternative arrangement, and Christina slides into prostitution.

The film details Christine’s foray into the world of prostitution where she offers a “personal service” to those older gentlemen who are in need of her unique talents. Christine begins by advertising in the local newsagents and working from a tiny flat. But the “future lies in kinky people,” and so Christine–learning on the job–begins including role-playing assignations, and moves on to sex parties, and the infamous Luncheon Voucher Programme–which entitled the bearer of the coupon to a meal and a girl.

This funny film glosses over the seamier side of prostitution and concentrates, instead, on Christine’s unique worldview, and the community of friends and customers she surrounds herself with. Christine’s friendships provide a great deal of amusement in this film–numerous transvestites, slaves, fellow prostitute, Shirley (Shirley Stelfox) the maid, Dolly (Danny Schiller) and the immortal ‘Morten’–(a retired RAF Squadron Leader played by Alex McGowan) who declares that he intends to “grow old disgracefully” and delights and entertains many of Christine’s partygoers with his comic attitude. Morten, by the way, boasts that during WWII he “flew 207 missions over occupied territory in bra and panties.”

The film has its serious undertones. Christine is initially portrayed as someone who longs for a husband and a home, and her flat sports a tattered poster of that faux-fairy-tale relationship–Charles and Di. It’s darkly amusing that these now-fallen icons of romance oversee the financial arrangements of the kinky assignments taking place in Christine’s flat. And this motif of royal romance is something Christine aspires to–even though part of her realizes that it’s just a fantasy. Christine actually has a very matter-of-fact, no-nonsense approach to sex, declaring “too many things can go wrong with sex. Too many bits and pieces.”

Several scenes illustrate the hypocrisy of British society, and this seems to be the thing Christine despises above all else. She never forgets the former vice copper who approaches her for sex, and she sees the illegality of prostitution as hypocrisy. She argues that her sex parties are “just a Tupperware party, really, but I sell sex instead of plastic containers.” And Christine’s circle of friends and customers share her view. Wing Commander Morten embodies the liberation of sexuality, and he argues: “Since my retirement I have devoted my life to transvestitism and the pursuit of sexual deviation. I am now a very happy man, having escaped an extremely overcrowded closet.”

Julie Walters excels in this sort of role–her personality shines, and she takes the role of Christine Painter and makes it her own. The book An English Madam by Paul Bailey is highly recommended for further reading. In this book, Cynthia Payne’s early, difficult life is explained, and many of the details fill in the blanks. Additionally, the film Wish You Were Here is the story of Cynthia Payne’s early life. It’s another marvelous film, and I recommend it without reservation.

Some great lines:

“The world is full of naughty schoolboys.”

“Snap it up now before senile dementia runs me down.”

“I intend to grow old disgracefully.”

“What’s the point of being old if you can’t be dirty?”

“Every naughty boy gets a spank on his bot-bot.”

“How could you bring a sexual pervert to your sister’s wedding?”

“Call it an indulgence, Madame, of an aging pillock in the autumn of his days.”

“My sister’s marrying a cop. Silly cow.”

“What’s sex ever done for me? Up the duff at 16.”

“Get your knickers into gear.”

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