‘I always bargain-hunt in supermarkets’
Oz Clarke invested wisely in vintage bordeaux and a London house, but his luck ran out when he dabbled in shares, he tells Sarah Ewing
Oz Clarke, 60, grew up outside Canterbury with his parents and brother and sister. He studied theology and psychology at Oxford, where he first discovered his love of wine. After graduation, he got a job mending roads and busking before he landed his first acting job. He went on to star in major theatrical productions with the Royal Shakespeare Company and Old Vic, as well as films such as
Superman. Oz got his big break into the wine industry on the BBC TV show
Food and Drink in 1984, and has since released more than 45 books. He lives in London.
How did your childhood influence your attitude towards work and money?
I came from a long line of Irish bakers going back hundreds of years, but my parents’ generation was the first to go on to further education, dad becoming a chest physician and mum a nurse. My auntie Molly was the first Irish woman to get a PHD.
Although dad bought a rambling house in the Canterbury countryside, we never had much money. When
I was very little, I once got a girl’s bicycle for Christmas and holidays would be a week in a farmer’s field in Sussex. We grew our own fruit and veg and made the most of what we had. I was happy as can be.
Dad did a lot of pro bono work with coal miners and fishermen, all people who worked tremendously hard. I utterly respected and revered him for it. He’d take me down the mines to show me exactly what hard graft was.
He’d say to me: “We’re all in this together, we’re all human beings. You may be luckier than them because you don’t have to do this, but you must always regard them as your equals, as your human friends.”
It was the kick up the bum I needed to work harder at school, but because we didn’t have much money, I was never motivated by it.
What is the biggest lesson you’ve learnt about money?
As long as you’ve got somewhere to live, especially somewhere that you can’t have taken off you, you can live relatively frugally but with enormous pleasure.
That’s why psychologically, it was so important for me to pay off my mortgage, even when the rates were low.
Have you ever worried about how you were going to make ends meet?
Yes, regularly, but especially when my parents emigrated to Canada when I was 19 and just starting at university.
They thought they’d left me in good hands with places to stay but I spent most of the time living out of the back of my car. The police even did welfare checks on me. My parents would have been horrified if they knew.
I managed to scrape together little bits of money and eked them out. I was like a gannet to the yellow-stickered items in supermarkets and I still am.
When did you first feel less money stress?
When I got my first job as an actor at the Northampton Repertory Theatre in the early Seventies. I was paid the princely sum of £25 a week, which was £7 above the Equity minimum. My rent was only £1.25 a week for a shared flat with the other actors.
Why did you make the jump from acting to wine?
I developed a real passion for it at university, but never considered making a living from it. I loved the senses it involved and I started entering blind taste competitions around the UK, and then internationally. When our English team beat the French, Le Figaro
[the newspaper] had a black front page, only the second time since the Second World War. I knew I was on to something.
Does talking about personal wealth embarrass or annoy you?
No, because I’ve always been very ambivalent about money. I’ve never craved it and I’ve never worked as hard as I could have done to get more. I often turn down lucrative commercial opportunities that others would have snapped up.
Having said that, well-paying corporate gigs that would be great for paying off the mortgage are much less common since the crash. However, I’m aware that having a reasonable amount makes life a lot easier.
Are you a saver or a spender?
I’ve always lived my life by the mottos: “If you haven’t got it, don’t spend it” and “If you want it, earn it”, which means I’ve never got into debt.
I hate, hate, hate debt, especially as being a freelancer, you never really know where and when the next piece of work is going to come from. Even after all these years, I’ve not conquered that feeling of, “Oh no, what next?”
I’m always keen to build a buffer for when the bad times come. I remember how frightened I was in 2009 when the banks were teetering on the brink of disaster, and thinking I was going to lose everything I had worked so hard for.
Royalty cheques certainly aren’t what they used to be. The media and publishing industry has changed enormously in the past two decades alone. I’ve had to be convinced that social media is a big part of your personal and professional brand and help propel sales, but I’d still much rather stick to writing books.
What is your biggest money weakness?
I don’t spoil myself enough. I need to give myself a good talking to sometimes to even splurge £20 on something nice, but unnecessary. Even something like a posh coffee, rather than a freebie, or sitting in a nice bar drinking a martini with a good book. I always talk myself out of it.
But my real wants are few. I never sell my cars, they just grow old on me. In fact I’ve had my current one, a BMW Z3, for 16 years. It’s great for dashing to all my work commitments and to wine tastings I give. It’s also a good excuse not to have room to drive back disorderly friends!
What has been your biggest money mistake?
Some people might say it was when I was at university. I had the opportunity to join the famous family business, Sketchley’s, who were once one of the biggest dry cleaners in the UK. They’d got their initial boost from a British Army contract to dye all their khakis, and had made a fortune. They’d seen the blossoming dry cleaning market in the US, and wanted one on every high street in the UK. My uncles, Teddy and Geoffrey, came to see me and I told them I just couldn’t do it. It wasn’t a hard decision for me. The only hard part was how to tell them diplomatically. Dad said he’d support my choice, no matter what, even though they were offering me the chance to be a very rich businessman.
The uncles thought I was being very ungrateful for turning them down, but I simply didn’t want to be in business.
And what has been your best business decision?
Without a doubt, buying my first flat just off Caledonian Road in London for £32,000 in the early Eighties during my acting career, while I was doing a show called The Mitford Girls with Patricia Hodge.
The show was planned to run for two years, so I thought it’d be prudent to buy a property. Shockingly, the show only ran for three months and we got our redundancy notices just before Christmas. I was about to exchange so I was in a terrible panic. Patricia sat me down and told me “to hell with logic”.
She sternly told me I would find work and to buy the flat. Of course, because of booming property prices it was worth four times the amount by the end of the Eighties.
What was your worst buy?
Back in the late Eighties, I invested all I could in British Biotech, which was developing lots of promising drugs. After Biotech went public I quadrupled my investment. My friends told me to cash out, but I was adamant the lucky streak still had plenty of life in it. I thought my original £10,000 investment could grow to millions.
I was at an event and a financial journalist there took me aside. He said he knew something he couldn’t tell me to do with their medical tests, and warned me to sell within the week. I didn’t listen.
A few days later, they hit the headlines because their initially promising test results didn’t continue and the company went into freefall. My original investment is worth something like £17.96. It taught me a very important lesson that I’d been too greedy, and as dad said, if something looks too good to be true, it is.
I was lucky that I could afford to lose the original investment, that my survival didn’t depend on it.
What has been your best wine purchase?
Four cases of Chateau Petrus 1964 from Phillips sale rooms when I was an actor. I got them for £4 a bottle. They’d now be worth around £30,000 a case.
At any given time, I’ve got hundreds of bottles of wine at home because whenever I go abroad I bring a few bottles back. I always make certain that I have good quality bordeaux.
What is the best wine buy readers can make?
How long is a piece of string? Chilean and Argentinian wines are great value, as are the non-rioja areas of Spain, such as Aragon, which has got lots of undiscovered vineyards making great grenache wine. If you like barolo, try grumello instead – much better value.
What is the most overrated wine currently?
Burgundy hasn’t had a good run since 2009, not so much in terms of quality but quantity, because of bad weather conditions. Even their top whites are over-valued.
Which charities do you donate to or work with?
The Lord’s Taverners, a wonderful disability sports charity, because when you see the children’s faces and the light you’ve brought into their lives, it’s an astonishing feeling.
What would you change about the business world if you could?
While I understand the antipathy some people feel about big bankers, having a healthy banking system is vital for economic stability. In order to have one, people do need big salaries, despite the jealous naysayers.
People need to focus on being as successful as they can be themselves, without being consumed by envy of others who have more. But I’d make sure that the disgraceful subprime selling scandal could never happen again.
What are your financial plans for retirement?
I’ve got no interest in retiring at all. I love what I do. What on earth would I retire for? I get a tremendous amount of satisfaction from learning, writing and speaking. It’s what gets me up in the morning.
Bankers justify their high salaries, said Oz Clarke. He feared he might lose everything in the financial crisis, inset