Jump to Main ContentJump to Primary Navigation

The Great Outsider

Grant Feller discusses family, friends and wine - and his forthcoming book - with Richard Desmond

    Richard with his eldest son Robert, right, wife Joy and their children Angel and baby Valentine at the book launch
    Richard with his eldest son Robert, right, wife Joy and their children Angel and baby Valentine at the book launch

    Richard Desmond has fabulous taste in wine. The world knows this because of an interview he recently gave to the Financial Times in which he ordered a £580 bottle of 1983 Chateau Palmer to accompany his lunchtime tomato salad and grilled tuna. The hapless - now famous - journalist who picked up the bill will dine out on that story for the rest of his life.

    "You've got to have great theatre," says a smiling Desmond.

    So it comes as no surprise when he enthusiastically greets my small gift to him, on behalf of the JC. A £5.80 bottle of the best 2015 Palwins I could find that morning. ''Oh lovely, Grant, you shouldn't have. Stick this in the safe,'' he tells the butler, ''we'll let it rest and bring it out for a special occasion. Next time we have a head of state in for lunch.''

    Enthusiasm and humour are qualities Desmond has in abundance. Chutzpah and charm, too, as well as a self-deprecating insecurity that he keeps well hidden, and of course an expletive-laden air of menace for which he's become notorious. But, today, it's his infectious enthusiasm that most fills the room, his spectacular riverside office overlooking the Tower of London. That and the cigar smoke. ''You don't mind do you? It's just a little Tuesday morning treat.''

    Perhaps it's a little pick-me-up, too. The night before, he had held court at Claridges for the launch of his new autobiography, The Real Deal, where friends such as Evelyn de Rothschild and Philip Green rubbed shoulders with Katie Price and Anthea Turner. An eclectic mix.

    'For the first time in my life I can honestly say that I’m satisfied'

    ''I don't care who has what kind of background; everyone's the same to me,'' says Desmond. ''They're friends, people I've known for years. Some enemies become friends and friends become enemies. It's a constantly moving circle. But I'm lucky enough to have a wide group of people I trust. They're the people who helped me get here, after all.''

    "Here" being a media empire that includes four national newspapers, endless magazines, adult TV channels, the Health Lottery and an expanding property portfolio. Oh, and £1 billion's worth of cash in the bank, swelled after last year's £463m sale of Channel 5 - quadrupling what he paid for it in 2010.

    ''For the first time in my life, I can genuinely say I'm satisfied. There is nothing I want.'' Come on, a nice new jet, I suggest, a speedboat to sit outside his secluded Mallorcan mansion (he also owns a property in The Bishops Avenue). ''What do I want those for? I've got my son Robert and his family - he's going to make me a grandfather soon - and I've got Joy and our beautiful kids, Angel and Valentine.

    "There used to be a time when I would rush in to the office, plan a deal, make some calls, keep people on their toes. I still do all that but this morning I took it easy, took Angel to school and we had a great time. That's what I want. I don't need things - I mean, we're growing the property empire so I need to make that work and who knows what will happen with the National Lottery. I admit I've got enough to have whatever I want. But then, you never know, you never know…''

    This, I think, gets to the heart of Desmond. He seems to have it all but fears - or at least has spent much of his career fearing - that he'd lose it all. For, while his book is a rollicking ride recounting the deals that brought him into the heart of an establishment he still disdains, it is also, at times, a quite moving account of a riches-to-rags experience that has so been, in his words, ''so formative''.

    His father was a key executive in the Pearl & Dean advertising empire before sudden deafness, due to a course of antibiotics, ruined his career and led him to gamble away the family's savings, forcing them all to downsize.

    There is a poignant moment in the book with 13-year-old Desmond enviously watching his North London friends' lavish barmitzvahs to which he was not invited. ''My family couldn't afford to do the things others were doing''. He didn't have a barmitzvah ''and since I couldn't invite people to mine, I couldn't expect invitations to theirs. Today, I sometimes think if one of my daughter Angel's friends doesn't invite her back to their home, maybe it's because that friend lives in a one-bedroom flat.

    ''My father's downfall has had a strong effect on who I am and how I go about business. I've put in a lot of work to get here and I'm smart enough to know I can lose it. I spent 40 years on the edge of my seat, worrying if I'd make it, if the people who told me I'd fail were right. It's no fun going to bed one night and not knowing if you'll have a roof over your head the next. My father taught me that - he taught about business, too, to treat people with respect. But I learned more from losing than winning. I miss the fun we had getting here but I don't miss the worry.''

    And what fun. He spent most of his youth dreaming of becoming a rock star, though not before contemplating becoming a cantor after being inspired by bagel-fuelled Sunday Hebrew classes at Woodside Park. ''I went to visit the United Synagogue headquarters in Woburn Place… they told me I'd have to learn all this stuff, book after book. I just wanted to sing the songs.'' No doubt he'd have shaken up a few shuls.

    During the financial turmoil of his teenage years, he sought solace in some early - and character-defining - rebellion. School and textbooks never held much interest but John Mayall's Bluesbreakers and the Manor House club in North London did. Music was his way in to the media business and, from making a profit by hanging up people's coats, he ventured into band promotion and then, in 1974, launched his first magazine, International Musician and Record World. So began more than 40 years of living by his wits and verbal dexterity, launching and buying publications on little more than a hunch, entering into partnerships with ne'er-do-wells who tried - and failed to rip him off, snobbish aristocrats who couldn't handle his abrasiveness and billionaire monsters whose thuggishness (Kerry Packer once warned him he'd slit his throat) and greed (Robert Maxwell enjoyed eating a three-course meal in one go, all mashed up together) horrified him.

    Inspired: Richard with his father Cyril
    Inspired: Richard with his father Cyril

    Famously obsessed with the drums, it turns out the rules for playing are just as appropriate for business. ''Some of the attributes of a good drummer,'' he writes, ''are well-suited to running a business: you need to set the pace, lay down the structure and hit the cymbals at the right moment. Many of my own achievements in business have been less about doing the right thing than about doing it at the right time.''

    That includes launching a series of magazines to feed increasingly specialist needs - sexual and musical. Defying the market by launching OK! magazine and then turning David and Victoria Beckham into celebrity royalty as a nation grieved Princess Diana. Buying Channel 5 at its lowest ebb, resurrecting Big Brother and selling the channel for a fortune. Timing is indeed part of his DNA. And that includes not turning up late to a meeting.

    One of the book's best anecdotes is the moment he berated David Cameron, before he'd become prime minister, for turning up late to a meeting (it's one of Desmond's pet hates so I was 25 minutes early for ours as, predictably, was he). Is the self-made tycoon a fan of the Old Etonian, Bullingdon Club former PR executive whose father-in-law is one of the country's biggest landowners?

    ''He'd be good at running a restaurant. He's a nice enough bloke but people are tired of all the bull****, they want straight answers. And straight questions, like me asking Cameron back then why he was late. What you see is what you get with me. People deserve to be treated with respect and honesty. Politicians don't do that. The working bloke is fed up with that lot - I mean, have you seen who's in the House of Lords? A load of crusty old windbags. Be honest with people, talk with them not down to them, and listen.''

    For any budding entrepreneur, an hour or so listening to Desmond is worth as much as a three-year business degree. Where you can, take ownership, is lesson one; invest in a crisp blue suit; go with your gut instinct; don't spend the money before you've paid the house off, you never know what's round the corner; keep pushing at doors until they open; being an unpredictable, threatening outsider is a more powerful tool than established power.

    ''You learn a lot from listening to people. I've learned so much from having a younger wife. Joy keeps me young and so do her friends and the people we know and Robert's friends. When you hit 60 (he's 63)you need to know what the 30- and 40-somethings are on about. You can't sit still.'' Like the Jewish faith perhaps? Perhaps the most emotional episode of the book is when he's left sobbing after one of his closest, Orthodox friends insists he'd never recognise Robert because his mother - Desmond's first wife, Janet - hadn't converted.

    In the book, he goes on to say that ''enlightened'' Judaism shouldn't need to insist upon a mother's identity, that perhaps it needs to adapt. ''What matters is how people feel about being Jewish, not how Orthodox they are.

    ''That was a painful time but I know that Judaism is about more than ancient rules about bloodlines. There's a camaraderie. Yes we can be pushy but there's honour, there's an understanding of how far we've come because of each other and because of the past. In my experience, Jews are positive, we want to have a go, we've got a dream and we want to see it happen. But we do it as a family.

    "Every Friday night when Angel lights the candles and I say the blessing, that's the best time of the week.''

    Really? Surely nothing beats winding people up (a pugilistic Alan Sugar springs to mind ''he's f***ing miserable but very clever, Grant, don't knock him'') or getting your own back on stuffy establishment figures who refuse to shake your hand (Conrad Black does not come out of the book well). ''Oh yes, of course, you've got to have fun, poke a few ribs, shake things up. I love being the outsider, trying to have a laugh while I get things done. That lot (the Establishment) think that their **** doesn't smell, that they're too grand for mixing with the staff.'' (Desmond is famous for his MBWA policy, management by walking around.)

    But surely he's the Establishment now? Thousands of staff, chairman of charities (he recently left Norwood after transforming its operations and helping to raise millions), a lottery, newspapers and all the rest of the media. One of the key themes of the autobiography might be rejection, but not any longer.

    ''Yes, I suppose we are part of the establishment. The only difference is we like to have fun. I hope that's how people think of me. Someone who had a go because he wasn't scared, who took chances and was ruthless in getting what he wanted.''

    And of course with excellent taste in wine.

Interviews

I’ll never retire, I prefer to be taking pictures

Naomi Firsht

I’ll never retire, I prefer to be taking pictures
Interviews

Autism has been my life for 30 years and I'm st...

Sandy Rashty

Autism has been my life for 30 years and I'm st...
Interviews

Nicole Farhi: fashion means nothing, sculpture'...

Sandy Rashty

Nicole Farhi: fashion means nothing, sculpture'...
Interviews

Ros Altmann: I want to put things right

Grant Feller

Ros Altmann: I want to put things right
Interviews

Jonathan Sacks interview: Europe's future at st...

Simon Rocker

Jonathan Sacks interview: Europe's future at st...
Interviews

I know what it means to be an antisemite

Angela Epstein

I know what it means to be an antisemite
Interviews

Ex-kibbutznik who is Corbyn’s left-hand man

Rosa Doherty

Ex-kibbutznik who is Corbyn’s left-hand man
Interviews

It’s good news for us when things go bad

Brigit Grant

It’s good news for us when things go bad
Interviews

Meet the new Mad Men

Sandy Rashty

Meet the new Mad Men