Who was Cynthia Payne?
Cynthia Payne who died last year aged 82, was an English madam whose career as an eccentric suburban brothel-keeper led to a film, books and a career as a “naughty but nice” celebrity.
It was 1978 when police raided her home in Streatham, where her mainly elderly visitors could get “personal services”. By the time she was convicted of running a ‘disorderly house’ at her trial in 1980, she had become a local household name and was able to use her cheery notoriety to make a living as an after-dinner speaker and commentator on sexual matters.
Born in Bognor Regis, Cynthia was a precocious child who “talked dirty” and was expelled from her convent school. This wild and rebellious early life on the south coast would later become the basis of the 1987 film Wish You Were Here.
After training unenthusiastically as a hairdresser, Payne moved as a teenager to London for a job in the department store Swan & Edgar. She became pregnant by a much older man, and gave birth to a son who was eventually fostered but whose boarding school education she financed and whose wedding she later attended. Another son was given up for adoption at a few weeks old, and three abortions, one very traumatic and painful, followed.
She slipped into prostitution to avoid eviction from her flat because she was behind with the rent. “I realised I could do it and make money at the same time,” she told her biographer, Paul Bailey, in An English Madam (1982). “It made me bloody determined. I was never going to go crawling for money again.”. Her brothel attracted a word-of-mouth clientele of older men who liked to have their fantasies indulged.
The reason that her case attracted so much attention was twofold: her clients and the method of payment. The former were said to have included a peer of the realm, vicars, barristers, ex-police officers, politicians and bank managers. Towards the end of his life, her father also became a client. She charged punters £25, which was exchanged for a “luncheon voucher” – a token that entitled the bearer to have sex with any of the women in the house who agreed and who could then use it as proof of services rendered; pensioners received a £3 discount.
An anonymous tip-off alerted police to strange goings on in Ambleside Avenue and over a 12-day period, 249 men and 50 women were observed by undercover officers entering her house.
Convicted of running a disorderly house, Payne was sentenced to 18 months and fined £1,950 with £2,000 costs.
She appealed unsuccessfully, although the sentence was reduced to six months. The appeal court heard that she had several high-profile clients but the said there was “not a shred of evidence” that any of them was actually there on the night she was arrested, although he acknowledged that it had led to “some very amusing cartoons”. Payne’s solicitor, David Offenbach, suggested that the judge was “more concerned about the apparent respectability of customers rather than the plight of an unwell, middle-aged woman sent to prison … This confirms the hypocrisy of the law by punishing the woman but letting her customers go free.”
Payne emerged from Holloway prison to be met by a former client in a Rolls-Royce and obligingly gave the waiting photographers a V-sign and a quote: “V for victory, V for voucher.” Throughout the case, the press treated “Madam Cyn” gently, portraying her as part of a bawdy tradition that stretched from Chaucer to the Carry On series.
Campaigning for the legalisation of prostitution, she stood as a candidate for the Rainbow Alliance Payne and Pleasure party in the Kensington parliamentary by-election in 1988 and won 193 votes, and again, in Streatham, in the 1992 general election, taking 145 votes. Her one-woman show at the Edinburgh festival in 1992 was a sellout and she made herself available for after-dinner speaking at which she promised “tasteful stories … no crudity of any nature”.
Towards the end of her life, she approached both Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice with the suggestion of a musical. In fact, Lloyd Webber chose a different tale of English sexual hypocrisy, that of the Profumo scandal, for his 2013 musical, Stephen Ward.