Peter Fincham looks back at his strange relationship with billionaire Philip Green and the new film lampooning him
It’s been a great couple of weeks for fans of Steve Coogan, especially those who like to see him extending his range beyond his definitive creation Alan Partridge. The Trip is back on Sky One. This is the series in which Coogan and Rob Brydon play lightly-fictionalised versions of themselves, travelling to agreeable locations, eating top notch food and holding forth about any subject that interests them. The current series takes them to Greece; previous outings have been to Italy, Spain, and – back in the days when they had to make do with BBC budgets – the north of England.
The Trip, which is a joy from start to finish, is a collaboration between Coogan, Brydon and director Michael Winterbottom. Winterbottom has also directed Steve Coogan in the feature film Greed, in which he again plays a lightly-fictionalised version of a living person. Not himself this time, but billionaire businessman and so-called King of the High Street Sir Philip Green. (Is it just a coincidence that Michael Jackson was the so-called King of Pop? Maybe there’s a lesson here: don’t call yourself the king of anything, or you’ll soon be in need of a decent reputational lawyer. Didn’t the Greeks have a word for this?)
I feel uncharitable in saying that Greed doesn’t work as well as The Trip. Maybe it’s the fact that, to a satirist, Philip Green is not a difficult target to hit: it’s like shooting a barrage balloon with a blunderbuss. The film, which like The Trip takes place in Greece, centres around a lavish birthday party being held for a charismatic but somewhat gross entrepreneur called Sir Richard McCreadie, whose name rhymes with greedy. It paints what we assume to be Green’s world in lurid and not especially subtle hues. There’s a Coliseum-and-togas theme to the party at the climax of the film, which culminates in a scene in which a real life lion gets released from its cage and… I’d better stop there, or I’ll be spoiling the plot.
Over the credits, the film-makers regale us with admittedly shocking statistics about the global fashion business and the disparity between the rates paid to garment workers in, say, Sri Lanka and the riches enjoyed by the likes of Sir Philip Green. This was a bit like being trapped in a corner at a party by someone who had just worked out that international capitalism doesn’t work for everyone, and – tacked on to a film that itself was presumably designed to make a profit out of the same capitalist system – had more than a whiff of having your cake and eating it.
So I came away from the cinema thinking that my evening would have been better spent at home watching telly. Not an unfamiliar feeling. But there may be another reason I didn’t care for Greed, and it’s a reason I’m slightly embarrassed to admit in public: I used to know Sir Philip Green, and – deep breath, flak jacket on – I got on quite well with him. And when I say I used to know him it occurs to me that his mobile number is still in my phone, and mine presumably in his, and he’s notoriously thin-skinned and makes a habit of ringing up anybody who writes anything that annoys him, and… is he a reader of the Idler? Yikes!
Why, you might be asking, have I ever encountered Philip Green? Well the answer to that is simple – Simon Cowell. When I joined ITV in 2008 Simon’s shows were regularly attracting twelve or thirteen million viewers a week, steamrollering anything in their path. I don’t think anyone ever called Cowell the King of TV Talent Shows, but if he’d wanted to assume the crown it was his for the taking. And the twin Cromwells to his Henry VIII were Philip Green and Max Clifford. (Clifford was, from my brief acquaintance with him, an entirely repellent character. He eventually went to prison, where he died unmourned. The less said about him the better.)
Cowell’s relationship with Philip Green went back a long way and lasted until after I left ITV in 2016, only foundering when the nasty smell coming off his tax affairs rendered him persona non grata. Green owned a slice of Cowell’s company Syco, and this gave him a licence to involve himself in the production of his shows as a sort of self-appointed executive producer.
What this meant for me was that, from time to time, he would invite me to have breakfast with him in his suite at the Dorchester. You might think that this would have been arranged by an army of assistants but not a bit of it – Sir Philip would ring himself and, an odd touch, would always want to know what I wanted for breakfast. As someone who finds it hard to make a choice in a restaurant when a waiter is standing over me and the kitchen is about to close, it was especially incongruous to order the scrambled eggs a few days in advance, and specify coffee rather than tea. But that’s the way it was.
His suite was, by memory, dominated by shiny black wood-panelling which he was at pains to say that he had chosen himself. The breakfast was already laid out and would have fed several families of garment workers in Sri Lanka. His shirts were immaculately pressed. After we sat down a liveried flunky would materialise in order to pour the coffee and be rewarded with a crisp £20 note folded around Sir Philip’s fingers in a curious gesture as if he was rolling a cigar.
It was never a good idea to book a meeting at any particular time after breakfast with Sir Philip because conversation would sometimes ramble on for ages – I was always struck by the fact that for someone who was in sole charge of a mighty fashion empire, he had all the time in the world to chat about last week’s X Factor. Occasionally his phone would ring but he would kill it pretty quickly, and I felt for whichever middle manager in the Arcadia group had summoned up the courage to ring him with – let’s say – last week’s disappointing sales figures at the flagship Top Man store in Oxford Street, only to be cut off in favour of a chat with the bloke from ITV. (I had plenty of time to daydream in these encounters and, for Monty Python aficionados, Sir Philip’s stern ‘not now!’ always reminded me of Michael Palin’s nightclub manager in the immortal Kray Brothers’ parody the Piranha Brothers. You can find it on YouTube if you’re interested.)
Conversation with Sir Philip was, in truth, mostly one-sided and made me realise what it was like to be Mr Salter, the hapless foreign editor of the Daily Beast, in the presence of Lord Copper. Some of his observations about the X Factor or Cowell’s other show Britain’s Got Talent were sensible enough, some more wayward. To the former, ‘definitely’ seemed an appropriate response. To the latter, I would literally say ‘up to a point’, inwardly testing the great man’s knowledge of Evelyn Waugh. He had views on the singers, and the judges, and the styling, and the running order – everything, really. One of his favourite expressions was an emphatic ‘Pur-lease!’ which essentially meant ‘you cannot possible disagree with me’. ‘Can Susan Boyle sing? Pur-lease!’ might have been an example, or ‘Is Louis Walsh getting any younger? Pur-lease!’. Years later I saw him use the same expression, with the same intonation, to an MP who had asked him a question requiring an actual answer, during the notorious parliamentary select committee appearance where he told somebody to stop staring at him. The MP looked suitably confused.
Breakfasts weren’t the end of it. He would ring me occasionally on Saturday mornings when he was in Monte Carlo. He lived there for tax reasons before that was an embarrassing thing to admit to. ‘How are we doing?’ he would bark in his gruff way, asking me about the running order of that weekend’s show or the songs the contestants had chosen. I hadn’t the faintest idea what the answers to these questions were, any more than Sir Philip would have known what was in the shop window display of a BHS branch in Glasgow. I always got the feeling that he was essentially bored on Saturdays. The office was closed and he wanted people to talk to. Sometimes I would hear traffic in the background and would picture him wandering the streets of Monaco – a dull place at the best of times – jabbing at his mobile phone as he selected victims to pester.
I have a particular memory of a three-way phone call with him and Simon Cowell. Simon was at loggerheads with ITV over something or other and it was decided that a conference call was needed to resolve the dispute. Philip was late for the call and Simon and I made small talk for a while. Suddenly the familiar voice was on the line. ‘Kofi Annan here. Let’s get this sorted.’ There’s nothing about Green’s public image that would suggest the role of mediator would suit him, but he was surprisingly good at it. Whatever the issue in question was, it was resolved.
He liked to see himself as a mover and shaker in the TV world, and once told me – in strictest confidence – that during a recent trip to America he had persuaded Lionel Ritchie to be a judge on the X Factor. Like many conversations with Sir Philip, he insisted that this one ‘hadn’t take place’ – such was its level of sensitivity – and all that I could share with my colleagues in ITV was that he was in advanced discussions with a ‘major American star’. I respected his wishes but amused myself by telling people that his discussions had lasted ‘all night long’ and had gone so well that by the end he and the mystery star had been literally ‘dancing on the ceiling’.
Returning to Steve Coogan’s film Greed, there’s no question that the character of Sir Richard McCreadie is meant to be Sir Philip Green, but one important detail is changed – McCreadie’s background is Irish, whereas Green is Jewish. I think I can see why they made this decision since Coogan, who is not Jewish himself, might have felt there was a risk of his performance being interpreted as anti-Semitic. But Green’s Jewishness is an essential part of his character and indeed his unusual role in Simon Cowell’s career. The talent agent Anita Land (Michael Grade’s sister) once explained to me the tradition going back generations that enterprising Jews, often in the rag trade, would dabble in the entertainment business on the side. The Grades themselves, who eventually built the biggest showbusiness empire in the U.K., were a perfect example of this. Lew Grade’s father Isaak worked as a trouser presser in Shoreditch and Grade himself, having left school at 15, started his working life as an agent for a clothing company.
There is surely a link, however faint, between this and Philip Green’s Arcadia. Jews who had fled from persecution in Eastern Europe showed a flair for business, and a natural showmanship, that frequently put their gentile neighbours to shame. The story of Hollywood is not that dissimilar. The ambiguous Yiddish word ‘chutzpah’, which can variously mean ‘audacity’, ‘cheekiness’, ‘inclined to take liberties’ and ‘the trait of being rude and impertinent’ (these are all taken from the Free Dictionary), partly explains Green’s success, and equally his downfall.
None of the above, I really must emphasise, is intended as an apologia for Philip Green. Was he a bully to those he bullied? Well, probably. Did he harass junior female staff, slapping bottoms and the like? I’ve no idea but it’s easy to imagine that his interpretation of the word ‘banter’ was – how shall we put it? – generous. Generous to him, that is. I realise in writing this that I might come across as someone who has tea with a dictator and says ‘well he didn’t execute anybody in front of me’. The Unity Mitford problem. I’m not trying to defend Philip Green against any of the charges against him, or suggest that deep down he was a lovely guy. But Coogan’s McCreadie, essentially cartoon-like, doesn’t really capture him. I’m not saying the reality is any better, but it’s… well, more real.
I might be in a minority in having not especially enjoyed Greed. On the tube the other day I noticed a poster for it with the usual sort of quotes – ‘Steve Coogan is amazing!’ ‘Coogan and Winterbottom on top form!’ (Though it has to be said, there’s no play/movie/novel/musical however mediocre that can’t whistle up some exuberantly positive quotes as you wait for your train on the Central Line.)
I worked with Coogan in the early days and was executive producer of The Day Today and I’m Alan Partridge, in which his comic gifts were on dazzling display. He’s done many wonderful things since, not least the brilliant film Philomena. And if the slightly hyperbolic publicity for Greed doesn’t attract you, and you share with me the feeling that a visit to the cinema these days is often a waste of a decent evening watching television, then there’s always The Trip on Sky, as delightfully understated and subtly observed as Greed isn’t. The current series is as good as it’s ever been, and that’s saying a lot.
Peter Fincham was MD at Talkback until 2005. He then became Controller of BBC One and from 2008 to 2016 was Director of Television at ITV. In 2017 he co-founded independent production company Expectation.