Evidently, Personal Services is based, loosely, on the life of one Cynthia Payne, who became something of a popular heroine in England by running a genteel brothel in the London surburbs. The film, which debuted last week at the Seattle International Film Festival, is a fictional treatment of her rise from everyday waitress to no-nonsense madam.
Aside from the opportunities for social comment and bawdy-house humor, the film provides a broad vehicle for Julie Walters, the actress best known for her Oscar-nominated work in Educating Rita. Walters uses her brassy drive to chart the character’s changes. At first she’s tentative, not quite knowing all the sexual terminology, but cheerfully playing along. (I would quote specific jokes here, but then this review would have to be rated R).
Later, she’s a bureaucratic whirlwind, organizing teas for the clients, moving her girls from dingy apartments to a polished house in the suburbs, barking orders at the clients who agree to clean the place up (many of them enjoy being – how shall we say this – “disciplined”).
David Leland’s screenplay is everywhere at once, jumping around among wacky situations, never quite settling down. But he has just the right director for this sort of thing in Terry Jones, a Monty Python member who has had much experience in sketch comedy (on the Python TV series and as the director of The Meaning of Life, among others).
Jones brings a lively and amoral presence to the proceedings. The brothel caters to elderly, civilized men, and Jones gleefully depicts these upper-crust British gentlemen dressed in knickers, dresses, schoolgirl’s uniforms, and bikinis – all outfits for their, um, satisfaction.
Some of the savage satire of the Python troupe is evident, and of course the typically self-lacerating British sense of humor – but Jones manages to find time for quieter moments during which Walters’ loneliness is suggested. There’s a nice, silent scene when she’s on vacation, and accidentally glimpses two young people making love. She gazes wistfully at them, as though remembering that sex can be something other than a commodity.
I’m glad that reminder is in the movie, as opposed to Working Girls, another current film about prostitution, in which sex in general is made to look dingy and ugly.
Probably Jones means us to see the film as a broader metaphorical statement about the state of England today, but the movie’s too scrappy and blunt for this to be effective. Personal Services is, however, a frequently funny, knowingly ironic success story.
First published in the Herald, June 5, 1987
RIP Terry Jones, who just died at age 77. I think this film is mostly forgotten, at least outside Britain, but at the time it found an appreciative audience at SIFF. Interesting that I included a mention of Lizzie Borden’s Working Girls, which is well-thought-of today.