Thursday 8 December 2011, 14:16
THE RISE OF GEEZER CAPITALISM IN MODERN BRITAIN
It is very difficult to properly see the times you are living through, but it is made more difficult today by the insistence of politicians and commentators that there is no alternative to the present economic system. This almost hysterical mantra closes down other, different perspectives and makes it impossible to draw back and see what the present world is really like.
I've stumbled on a wonderful documentary film made in the 1960s that in an odd way does help give some kind of perspective on today. It's about two brothers called Billy and George Walker. Billy was a boxer and George was a gangster who became Billy's manager. The film is a beautiful record of the way two brilliant chancers were manipulating British society and the media at a moment in 1964.
Out of that moment would come a vast business empire - of property, leisure and films all run by George Walker, that rose up in the 1980s and then crashed spectacularly in 1991. If you follow the story of that empire it takes you on a behind-the-scenes journey that shows the truth behind many modern businesses in Britain - showy facades built on a mountain of debt.
But the story doesn't just stop there - because the ghost of George Walker, his family, and his business practices have continued to haunt Britain in all sorts of odd ways. And the story suddenly brings into focus some of the attitudes underlying modern society. A world where many people have become chancers like Billy and George Walker, out to get something for nothing.
George Walker was the elder of the two brothers. He began as a boxer himself, but in the mid 1950s he became a right-hand man to the most notorious of London gangsters - Billy Hill.
Billy Hill spent his time doing what he describes as "little tickles" - stealing from warehouses, holding up mail vans and even ram-raiding jewellery stores. Then in 1954 a group of Moroccan "businessmen" asked Billy to restore the Sultan of Morocco to his throne. The French had forced the Sultan out - and exiled him in Madagascar. Billy and George went to Tangier, set up a fake insurance company called The American Fidelity Corporation to cover their activities, and bought a boat to go and get the Sultan.
But it all went terribly wrong. Interpol told the Moroccan police that they were "Britain's biggest bandits", and then someone torched the boat and Billy Hill and George Walker ended up fleeing to Cannes.
Later in his life Billy Hill published a wonderful autobiography called Boss of Britain's Underworld - and in the book he outed the by now famous tycoon, George Walker, as his sidekick. He confirmed it by publishing this photo of him and a young George Walker on the run sunbathing in the beach at Cannes.
George Walker then got caught trying to steal a consignment of nylons from the London docks and was sent to jail.
When he came out he gave up the gangster life and turned instead to managing his younger brother Billy who had become a boxer. Guided by his brother, Billy Walker soon became a star in Britain - famous far beyond the world of boxing.
In 1964 the BBC made a fly on the wall film called The World of Billy Walker. It is beautifully shot in a 60s cine verite style - and has some fantastic footage when Billy Walker goes to America that was shot for the BBC by the legendary documentary maker Albert Maysles.
The film captures the beginning of the rise of the two brothers - and the lost world of the 1950s east end where they come from. Here are some sections.
But not everything was quite what it seemed in the world of the Walkers. Although Billy Walker was a good fighter - he never actually won a professional title. In reality he was an early modern celebrity - famous as much for who he was as for what he achieved.
And George Walker took that celebrity and used it to start building businesses - first garages, then their own brand of petrol called Punch Petrol, then a chain of fast food restaurants, followed by a nightclub in Piccadilly called Billy's Dilly.
In 1968 the BBC made a film analysing how George Walker was still able to use his brother's relative failure in the professional boxing world to create the businesses. The programme shows how, although Billy Walker loses the fights, he still gets a big cut of the purse. As George Walker bluntly says in the film. "We only box so we can invest".
But then the brothers split. George Walker wanted to borrow a vast amount of money - and Billy was too frightened. I have added a touching interview from the 1980s where the two brothers explain the split. It is a great moment - when Billy Walker says about his brother: "He can handle, what's the word for it? - oh yes, debt"
At which point British cinema enters the story. First with Billy Walker.
In 1968 Billy Walker was badly defeated by Henry Cooper in another championship fight - and he finally gave up boxing. He decided that he was going to become an actor instead. In 1970 he got a part in the film version of Up Pompeii playing a character called Prodigious.
Unfortunately the role was not a speaking one - but Billy decided that he could develop his range and he started to take acting lessons. In 1971 the Nationwide programme made a short film about Billy Walker learning to act. Here it is - and I have added on a clip from his next acting role. It is in Up The Chastity Belt - the sequel to Up Pompeii. This time the part is a speaking one. The character is called Chopper (you can see how Billy was getting typecast) - and you can observe the effect of the lessons.
Meanwhile George Walker was turning himself into a "leisure tycoon". In 1974 he formed a company called Brent Walker - and built the Brent Cross Shopping centre on the old Hendon Greyhound track in North London.
And then he too turned to cinema. In 1977 he went to the Cannes Film festival - 23 years after he had first been there on the run from Tangier - and found himself sitting next to Joan Collins at lunch. He offered to finance a film based on the novel written by her sister Jackie, called The Bitch.
It was a great success and Brent Walker went on to fund the equally successful sequel, The Stud. It was the start of the rise of George Walker as the saviour of the British Cinema industry. This would culminate in the 1980s with him buying Goldcrest Films who were famous for making Chariots of Fire.
But like so much of what George Walker did, this wasn't quite what it seemed. It would later be revealed at a trial in the 1990s that Brent Walker had ruthlessly used the cinema part of the empire, and the films they made, in a scheme to fake profits for their whole business. Those fake profits were then used to persuade the banks to lend Brent Walker more money - so they could do more takeover deals.
Here is George Walker the film tycoon filmed as part of a documentary in 1982 about the new face of the British film industry - along with another outsider who has come into finance the movie renaissance "he's an Arab" says the shocked commentary - "he's called Dodi Fayed"
In the late 80s Walker's film empire continued to grow. In 1987 he bought Elstree studios. The studios were sold to him by two great characters - the brothers Menahem Golan and Yoram Globus who ran Cannon Films.
In many ways they were the American model for what Walker was trying to become in Britain, an independent force that could challenge the big studios by making popular movies. And in the 1980s Golan and Globus pretty much invented the modern Action Movie - like the immortal Death Wish IV: The Crackdown along with comedies like Dumb Dicks - but most notorious was Delta Force starring Chuck Norris, made in the wake of the hijacking of a TWA plane in Beirut in 1986.
In 1987 the BBC made a wonderful fly on the wall documentary about Golan and Globus. It's called The Last Moguls and it is a brilliant peek into the world of movie deals and trash remakes of the 80s, and this is a good excuse to show some extracts.
I love the section about the making of Delta Force where Chuck Norris in an interview explains how the film tries to show what America's response to Arab terrorism should be in the future:
"I think terrorism is going to get greater all over the world, and I think it's time we started doing something about it right now rather than waiting till it gets a lot worse."
The aim of the film, Norris says, is to show America how to do this retaliation - through what he calls "positive violence". As opposed to "negative violence" - which is what the terrorists do.
Along with George Walker's use of film and celebrity to fake profits in order to do takeover deals, you begin to wonder whether the whole of the subsequent economic and foreign policy of Britain and the United States wasn't created by the rubbish movies of the 1980s.
By the late 1980s George Walker was at the zenith of his fortunes. Both press and TV portrayed him as one of a group of new tycoons who were re-generating Britain. Well-connected bankers elbowed each other aside up to offer him money to use to make more deals. The bankers then told the financial commentators that Walker was "a visionary" - and it all became a self-fulfilling legend of success.
Walker bought the Trocadero in Piccadilly, the Brighton Marina, then he branched out into chains of pubs - then he went to Europe and bought casinos, marinas, hotels and holiday villages across the continent.
Walker was brilliant at publicity - and the archives are full of him in helicopters showing reporters his latest deal. Only one programme pierced briefly through the hype. It was a film made by BBC South in 1988 that began with the normal helicopter sequence - but then captured an odd moment where George Walker goes to meet the Mayor of Le Touquet.
Walker was proposing to develop a holiday village and golf-leisure complex on the sand dunes next to the town. At the meeting Walker wants the mayor to give him a document agreeing to the development, but the mayor wants Walker to show him the details. Walker doesn't seem to have any details - and insists all he needs is for the mayor to say yes.
Here he is - first charming a whole load of bankers, then in the helicopter - and then with the mayor.
In 1989 George Walker did the biggest deal yet. He bought the William Hill chain of betting shops. But then he found that he himself had been conned because William Hill's previous owners had massively exaggerated the company's profits. As a result Brent Walker came crashing down. The banks who previously had queued up to give him money now viciously turned on George Walker and destroyed him.
In June 1991 the banks forced Walker out in a dramatic late-night board meeting. But it was only the start of his downfall. Within months the banks called in the Serious Fraud Office. They told the investigators that they had discovered evidence that the company had faked profits on an enormous scale during the 1980s. The SFO then charged George Walker with theft and false accounting.
The SFO were convinced that Walker would be convicted - but in October 1994 he was cleared of all charges. But then it got very odd. A year later the former Finance Director of Goldcrest Films, Donald Anderson, was convicted of covering up the faking of profits on a massive scale at Brent Walker in the 1980s - and was jailed for two years.
The key witness was another Goldcrest employee called Frederick Fisher III who told the court that Mr Anderson had told him that millions of pounds of false profits were being concealed. Anderson also told him, Fisher said that "it was being done at the behest of Mr Walker".
In the face of this George Walker fought back in a dramatic way. He and his family told their version of his downfall in a BBC documentary in 1996. At the heart of it is a wonderful three-way set up in a pub with Walker, his wife Jean and one of his daughters called Romla as they sort of emotionally act out the story.
The Walkers use the film to tell how, when the crisis began, they had put the family's personal fortunes into the company in a last desperate attempt to keep it afloat. The real villains, they say, are the banks who effectively mugged the family and forced George Walker out.
And it was true that, privately, there was a lot of sympathy among city commentators for George Walker. They thought that what the crisis really showed was the horrible ruthlessness of the major banks. In reality they had used George Walker - and now were letting him swing alone in the wind.
I have put these bits from the programme together. Yet again Walker was ahead of his time. He and his family were creating something very akin to today's reality soaps.
Three years later Romla Walker would star in Eastenders.
George Walker wasn't finished though. In 1997 he went off to Moscow - to sell cigarettes to the Russians. And he also set up a company that transmitted greyhound racing live from Britain to Russian and Serbian betting shops.
And the practice of creating business empires based on vast amounts of debt went from strength to strength in Britain. It was no longer the province of geezers and spivs like George Walker. Instead posh people now did it and accordingly it adopted a shiny new name. It was called Private Equity.
The inventor of Private Equity takeovers in Britain was called Guy Hands and one of his first purchases was the very thing that destroyed George Walker - the William Hill chain of betting shops.
Guy Hands began as a banker working for Nomura, but in 2002 he set up a Private Equity company called Terra Firma. He quickly became a heroic figure - called a financial genius and a visionary because he had invented what was described as a new system of financial engineering that was described as "like crack cocaine for financiers".
But this was mostly PR rubbish. Essentially what Hands did was simply borrow vast amounts of money from the banks, tinker with the companies he bought (or brilliantly streamline them and introduce efficiencies - as his supporters claimed) and sell them on for an enormous profit.
And lots of people copied him. They also ruthlessly exploited the tax loopholes that had originally been created to encourage genuine entrepreneurs who sold businesses they had built up over the years. This was hijacked by the private equity players - and it allowed them to pay tax at just 10% on the gains they made.
At the height of the boom one of the leading Private Equity financiers pointed out that he paid less tax than his cleaners. Many people questioned whether people like him could truthfully be described as entrepreneurs.
The takeover boom flourished until the financial crash of 2008 when the banks stopped lending money, and it has left many large British companies with their solid foundations removed - and replaced with the shifting sands of debt. Many of those debts will soon come up for renewal, starting next year - and there are are growing fears that this may lead to a massive national crisis - the collapse of a number of key British enterprises.
But unlike the geezers of the past, the heads of today's Private Equity hide away and avoid the limelight. There is very little footage of them in the archives. But Guy Hands does share George Walker's fascination with showbusiness. In 2008 he borrowed £2.6bn to buy EMI - and here's a rare bit of footage of him - going to an Odeon cinema to tell the assembled EMI employees that thousands of them are going to be sacked to service the debt.
And like George Walker, Guy Hands also got involved with making movies. In 2001 he backed what seemed to be an unlikely script.
It was a film called Crust. It told the story of a pub landlord who finds a giant seven foot mutant shrimp on a beach. The landlord then decides to teach the shrimp to box - and believes this will make his fortune.
The film was made but unfortunately it was never shown - and even more strangely never even made it to video.
Here are some pictures of the 7 foot mutant boxing shrimp.
And luckily the director of the film has put an extract from it on his website - and you can watch it here. Personally I think it looks great.
But then the truth came out - thanks to Gordon Brown.
Officials in the Inland Revenue had begun to notice more and more British films had actually amassed takings of less than £100. The tax men began to suspect something was up.
One possibility was that all the films were so bad that no one would release them.
In fact the reality was that for all these films it didn't matter whether they were seen in a cinema or not. Their real function was as a tax dodge for rich people. It was known as double dipping - and it allowed the investors to claim tax relief twice on their investments. And this is what Mr Hands had been doing when he put his money into the mutant shrimp film.
In 2005 Gordon Brown put a stop to it - and Guy Hands was furious. Together with 74 other investors he sued the tax advisors who had recommended he invest £11 million in a whole range of such films - another one was a comedy called Nine Dead Gay Guys (which did make it to DVD).
I'd love to know the full list of these tax-dodge British films. One estimate is that between 2003 to 2005 the tax breaks were worth £5bn in cash terms. As the journalist Nick Cohen has pointed out:
"This was money that came from working and middle-class taxpayers who didn't hire accountants but paid as they earned. It was money which might have been spent on schools, hospitals, the army or other fripperies"
In March 2011 George Walker died. At the same time his other daughter Sarah finally found love.
Back in 1989 Sarah had married into the aristocracy. She became the Marchioness of Milford Haven. But the marriage went wrong, she got divorced, dated James Hewitt, and did good work for charity.
Here is some footage of Sarah Walker back in 1988 talking about what it was like to work for her father, and then awarding a polo trophy to the Marquess of Milford Haven's team. The team was sponsored by Brent Walker. (George Walker also did the other posh thing all businessmen are supposed to do - it sponsored a Wagner festival).
Then, in 2010, Sarah met a city entrepreneur called Michael Spencer. Like her father, Spencer was a self-made man who had risen to become fabulously wealthy. He was a friend of David Cameron's and had become the Treasurer to the Conservative Party.
Like Guy Hands, Michael Spencer too has found an innovative way of making money out of the best intentions of the government. He is one of a select group of City brokers who make Quantitative Easing work.
Their job is to buy up bonds using government cash - taking a tidy cut for themselves for every bond purchased. At the last count the government had pumped in £275bn. Spencer has been quoted as saying "the crisis is good for business."
Meanwhile the last remains of George Walker's empire are quietly crumbling into decay. Brighton Marina hasn't quite lived up to Walker's claim that it would be "the Venice of England". And here is the Trocadero today:
It is all rather shabby. Segaworld is long gone and Funland is all boarded up.
But fragments and memories of that empire still surface in the oddest places. One of the famous contestants in Big Brother 2009 was a character called Freddie Fisher who changed his name to Halfwit - along with Sophie who changed her name to Dogface. In real life he was Frederick Fisher IV, son of Frederick Fisher III who was the star prosecution witness who revealed how Brent Walker had faked profits throughout the 1980s - and finally destroyed George Walker's empire.
Freddie the IV survived for 72 days in Big Brother and fell in love with another housemate Bea who then rejected him. And all this happened in a fake house built inside the old water tank at Elstree studios - the studios that were once owned by George Walker.
And the mutant prawn boxing movie, Crust, was finally shown - in Japan. It was a cult success and has subsequently spawned a whole new genre of films in Japan called "sea-life sport movies". The two most famous are "Calamari Wrestler" and "Crab Goal Keeper".
And here is a link to the moment the Calamari makes his dramatic entrance.
If only Guy Hands had not just invested in Crust as a tax dodge - but made sure it got released. Then he might really have given something back to society, albeit a boxing prawn.
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