Marina Hyde: the A-list abandons Sir Philip Green
He reminds me of one of those guys from the 30s,” Simon Cowell once reflected of his friend Philip Green. “Louis Mayer …” Ain’t that the truth. When a couple of thousand people attended the Hollywood funeral of one of those other guys from the 30s, Columbia Pictures’ Harry Cohn, the comedian Red Skelton twinkled: “It only proves what they always say – give the public what they want to see and they’ll come out for it.” Sam Goldwyn made a similar comment about Mayer’s funeral, but that one is thought to be apocryphal. For all his decades of unassailability, very few people attended the former MGM mogul’s sendoff.
I wonder if it will be the same for Sir Phil, whose legendary parties were once graced by the international A-list of his close personal friends: your Leonardo DiCaprios, your Kate Hudsons, your Gwyneth Paltrows. Until they weren’t. Certainly, it feels that there isn’t a wet eye in the kingdom at news that Green has been named in parliament as the businessman described by the Daily Telegraph as the subject of multiple sexual harassment and bullying allegations.
Though Peter Hain used parliamentary privilege to name the Arcadia retail tycoon in the House of Lords, it must be stressed that the original injunction against the Telegraph still holds, and these are merely allegations. As for allegations of what, over to the eye-catching release put out by Green himself last Thursday evening.
“To the extent that it is suggested that I have been guilty of unlawful sexual and racist behaviour,” this ran, “I categorically and wholly deny these allegations.” As a shut-it-all-down statement, that does rather tend toward the intriguing. The Telegraph alleged “immoral or reprehensible behaviour by someone in a position of power”. No one said anything about “unlawful” – not until Phil did. Furthermore, to which adjectives does that “unlawful” apply? Clearly he is denying he has been guilty of unlawful sexual behaviour; but is he denying he has been guilty of just unlawful racism, or of all racism, whatever that may be? We must hope Sir Phil breaks his silence again soon to clarify. Until then, we have only his recent utterances to go on. “Am I a racist?’ he demanded rhetorically this summer. “The fact is that I’ve had a black chauffeur for the past 12 years.”
Naturally, Green’s is unlikely to be the only rearguard action against the mushrooming fallout. The flighty celebrity class, who took all his hospitality, will soon be rushing to distance themselves from their former host.
It was once said that Louis B Mayer was the greatest actor on the MGM lot, and there was always something of the showman to Green. A former boarding school boy, his was a riches-to-even-more-riches story, and not the rags-to-riches one his barrow-boy persona appeared to imply. I am sure he would counter this by saying that he built up a great British business. Except it’s mostly owned by his wife, who lives in Monaco for tax reasons.
People say politics is showbiz for ugly people; Green treated retail as showbiz for people too ugly for politics. A shameless starstrucker, if you will, he rode the crest of that mid-noughties wave when it seemed the chatterati’s only subject was celebrity. It now feels as though the 2008 financial crash will be judged the more seismic event of its decade than 9/11. But the crash’s impact was harder to read, – indeed, it was misread and ignored for a long time – and turbo-capitalists such as Green were feted longer than they might otherwise have been. Seemingly unaware he was on borrowed time, he bestrode the end of an era like a Hawaiian-shirted colossus. There were the impossibly lavish parties, at which the theme always seemed to be Après moi, le déluge. But it was Green’s decision to hire the Kate Moss to design for Topshop that turned him into one of a handful of household-name businessman. He drank deeply of his own hype, and soon formed a friendship with Simon Cowell, the leading impresario of the reality TV golden age – an age succeeded by one in which the biggest reality star sits in the White House. Given the achievements of Donald Trump, Green and Cowell’s own plans for domination now seem a timid failure of the imagination. But back then they were talked of as “the new Disney”. There were reports they were going to buy ITV. There would be theme parks. They were going to make Las Vegas the permanent global home of The X Factor.
Only the terminally shallow could possibly have been convinced by him – and thus it was that one of David Cameron’s early acts after becoming prime minister was to make Green his “efficiency tsar”. Even as tax protesters were preparing to invade Green’s Topshop stores to demonstrate against his tax avoidance, Green was farting out his official report into government waste. “If I ran my business like this,” he scoffed, “the lights would be out.” But fortune’s wheel was itching to turn. By the time of his 65th birthday, with BHS sold for a quid to some chancer, and a huge hole in its pension scheme, Philip Green’s once-stellar party guestlist had been commuted down somewhat. And that was mostly all we heard from Phil for a while – until earlier last month, when it seems he spotted an agreed promotion in his Oxford Street Topshop for an anthology of feminist writing, and ordered it to be immediately torn down. In the light of events, perhaps that sort of lashing out would be best glossed by a psychoanalyst. Phil seemed to have had quite enough of the #MeToo movement, judging by his comments to his unauthorised biographer Oliver Shah: “Where’s all this going to end?” Difficult to say. But if any future moviemaker wanted a way into so many of the crosscurrents of the age, they could do worse than alight on Sir Phil as a central character •