RIP Cynthia Payne

I’m sad to hear of the death of Cynthia Payne at the age of 82. Cynthia was the brothel madam (if brothel’s entirely the right word for the services she and her girls provided) who became famous for issuing Luncheon Vouchers to her clients, so that they wouldn’t technically be handing over money for sex. Now isn’t really the time or place to get into the intricacies of the prostitution laws in the UK, but let’s just say that how Cynthia ran her business was safer than standing on a street corner touting for business, and enabled her to entertain a variety of men whose wives mostly couldn’t, or wouldn’t, cater to their kinkier tastes. And no one got hurt in the process – unless they specifically asked for it.

cynthia payneCynthia was the first person I interviewed for Forum, when I was fresh out of journalism classes and she was promoting her book Entertaining at Home – a humorous guide to throwing a sex party, and quality toilet reading from what I remember. We did the interview in the offices of Penguin Books, which were in Kensington at the time, and even though I wasn’t the first (or last) person she spoke to that day, she couldn’t have been warmer, funnier or an easier interview. Here’s a rough transcript of how it went:

Me: Cynthia, how are you?

Cynthia: (talks for twenty minutes)

Me: That’s great. Tell me about the book?

Cynthia: (talks for twenty minutes)

Me: And finally, is there anything else you’d like to tell our readers?

Cynthia: (talks for twenty minutes)

Me: Thank you very much.

I don’t remember all the anecdotes, but she did tell me about one client who, for reasons lost in the mists of time, got off on being pelted with mud. One day, she was running late and didn’t have time to collect the mud from the garden, so she mixed the contents of the Hoover bag with water and he had that thrown at him instead…

If you haven’t seen them, I recommend the two films inspired by Cynthia’s life – Wish You Were Here, which is based on her teenage years and still makes me wonder whatever happened to Emily Lloyd’s career, and the magnificent Personal Services, which covers her time as a madam and features a brilliant performance from Julie Walters as ‘Christine Painter’ and one of the greatest transgender characters on film, Dolly the maid (Danny Schiller).

There will never be anyone else like Cynthia – a true English eccentric who was prepared to go to prison for doing her job, and the woman who enabled people everywhere to go into the toilets at weddings and exclaim in a disbelieving voice, ‘Dolly… you’ve got a willy!’ She will be missed.