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An audience with Cynthia Payne, 1987

<span>‘Fetchingly honest’: Cynthia Payne, right, and left, Julie Walters as ‘Christine’.</span><span>Photograph: Mike Laye</span>
‘Fetchingly honest’: Cynthia Payne, right, and left, Julie Walters as ‘Christine’.Photograph: Mike Laye

On 15 March 1987, as Personal Services – the film strenuously asserted not to be based on her life – hit cinemas, the Observer met ‘unlikely national heroine’ Cynthia Payne. ‘Madame Cyn’ firmly believed she had inspired it and the article was illustrated with eye-catching stills of Julie Walters as ‘Christine’ and her most outré clients.

Like a talented scaffolder, Mrs P provided erections for the old, the ugly and infirm, the article explained, if any context were needed. Payne’s non-judgmental services, which could be purchased with luncheon vouchers, had assisted chaps keen to dress as babies, or who ‘could only come in the privacy of darkened cupboards’; those who wanted ‘whips and lesbian floorshows’ or what she called ‘a bit of mild humiliation’ (often, quite practically, involving Hoovering or weeding). ‘I was never strict enough with my slaves,’ she mused. ‘I wasn’t cruel enough.’

Like a talented scaffolder, Mrs P provided erections for the old, the ugly and infirm, the article explained

Payne held court surrounded by her seven cats at 32 Ambleside Avenue, Streatham, the address famously raided in 1978 and again in 1986. Aged 54, she was mid-beauty treatment. ‘Mars bars eaten in bed… three abortions, several police raids, a prison stretch, the early motherhood, which set her career in train’ had, the writer implied slightly ungallantly, left their mark, but Payne was a ‘fetchingly honest and ebullient’ interviewee, ‘The kind of woman your mother tugged you away from in the queue for the seaside ice-cream van.’

Payne talked more about family than work and how the one had led to the other. Her mother died when she was 11; her father, a drinker, ‘didn’t show us no affection’ and she only wanted ‘to fall in love’. It didn’t quite work out: teenage motherhood had closed down her career options; her son, in contrast, had become a chartered accountant. He hadn’t come to the Personal Services preview: ‘He doesn’t like to be the centre of attention, not like me,’ Payne said. ‘I think he worries about what his wife thinks, like all men do.’ Her beautician, Maria, gigglingly declared him ‘a bit of a hypocrite.’