Lord Bell died this week was PR genius behind Margaret Thatcher
Walking with giants: As the PR guru Lord Bell who helped create Margaret Thatcher dies, these extracts from his memoirs reveal how her moral decency and principles put today’s pygmy politicians to shame
Tim Bell — later Lord Bell — who died this week was an advertising and PR genius who was a principal architect of Margaret Thatcher’s three election victories and a key figure in her rise to become a world stateswoman, alongside Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev, as the Iron Curtain crumbled. Bell never hid his adoration of Thatcher or his respect for politicians of that era, including Nigel Lawson and Norman Tebbit. He would have disdained the political pygmies who replaced them and who are now squabbling over Brexit — as this extract from his riveting memoir shows . . .
As a teenager, I knew Earl Mountbatten of Burma (through my grandfather) and I even briefly met Churchill. They were huge figures.
Indeed, I consider myself very fortunate to have been brought up in an era of respect for great people. This in turn created a country in which great men and women could flourish. Now there is no one to respect any more.
Lord Bell died last Sunday aged 77. He was an advertising and PR genius who was a principal architect of Margaret Thatcher’s three election victories
Over the years I have watched politicians get younger, get smaller and shed all their substance. They spend their time fretting whether they should say they listen to the Arctic Monkeys or the Smiths. Worse, some of them really do spend half their time listening to pop bands.
Reagan, Thatcher, Mandela, Gorbachev, they were just completely different. Do you seriously think any of them would go on Twitter to tell the public what kind of biscuits they ate?
My own opinions about pretty well everything are straightforward. I have a clear life philosophy and clear political views — though I probably didn’t articulate them as clearly before I met Margaret Thatcher.
I have always believed instinctively that people should act with restraint, that they should act with honour and that they should act according to their own moral code. In other words, I am part of that diminishing tribe that might be called Real Conservatives.
My own first taste of leadership came when I took charge of the smokers’ club behind the school sheds.
I started at a very young age and, apart from a brief period of abstinence while I recovered from various unpleasant illnesses, I’ve been a devotee of tobacco ever since.
My family was middle class, living in a detached house in a decent North London suburb called Southgate, so I wasn’t an outright rebel as such, but the school uniform rules annoyed me. I liked flashy clothes. And I hated to be told by the teachers to get my hair cut: I have never accepted that one human being might tell another human being how to live his or her life. I’m not anti-establishment so much as anti-authoritarian.
Kindred spirits: Tim Bell – later Lord Bell with Margaret Thatcher in 1979. Lord Bell claimed to have come up with the slogan ‘Labour Isn’t Working’ that helped Thatcher win the 1979 general election
My father, Arthur ‘Paddy’ Bell, was a Belfast-raised Protestant and an alcoholic — a committed participant in both traditions. He was also quite a charmer, a natural entertainer and even a war hero. But he walked out on our family when I was five, and I have very few childhood memories of him.
My mother Greta was a tough character who worked at a laundry at night to earn the money she needed to feed and clothe me and my two sisters.
Tragically, she got Parkinson’s disease when she was 40 and lived with it till she was 83, while doctors tried out every conceivable medicine on her. No wonder she ended up with severe dementia, until she didn’t even know who I was. Some time after I started smoking, I joined the Young Conservatives. It was what you did if you wanted to meet people and get girls. I went out with the Conservative agent’s daughter, Trudy. Actually, everybody went out with her and everybody tried to sh** her. None of us succeeded.
After a couple of years playing jazz trumpet in bands at the London Palladium and the Marquee Club (and getting paid, but only sometimes), I needed a proper job. There was no question of going to university and continuing to live off my mother’s labours. After a visit to the Stella Fisher Employment Agency in Fleet Street, I went to work at ABC Television as a ‘chart boy’. As each slot in the commercial break was allocated, I put a label on the board to say who had booked it.
On my first day in 1961, I’d barely been there an hour before I was holding a door open for the model Jean Shrimpton and her long-haired photographer boyfriend, David Bailey.
Margaret Thatcher pictured on May 4 1979 outside 10 Downing Street after leading the Conservative party to victory in the general election. She is accompanied by her husband Denis, right
I felt that I was at the centre of a vibrant new world, right in the middle of London’s throbbing, brightly lit West End, where theatre-land met porno joints and old money met new.
Not long after that, I was invited to join my first advertising agency, because supposedly I knew all about TV commercials. From there I went to an agency, run by a couple of Americans fresh out of Madison Avenue, the original Mad Men — Bob Geers, a laid-back Southern boy who was addicted to dangerous and extreme sports, and Bob Gross, an asthmatic New York Jew who was an aggressive bully.
We were based in Soho, in an office with a dozen employees and two secretaries. When the second girl arrived for her interview, the first thing Bob Gross said to her was, ‘Show us your t**s!’ And she did. Just like that. He even called us all in for a look. And she couldn’t give a damn. Nowadays, he’d be in court for sexual harassment.
One Monday morning, my phone rang and a voice said: ‘My name is Saatchi. We’re thinking of starting an advertising agency. Would you like to come round and have an interview?’ I thought it was a wind-up: only the night before, I’d told a friend that Charles Saatchi was the only person in the industry with whom I truly wanted to work. He was a creative genius and his brother Maurice was a coruscating salesman.
Almost from the start, we were working night and day, seven days a week, so that we all slept in the office on the floor in sleeping bags. And almost every day, Charles would demand, ‘What accounts have you won? What have we got? What are we doing?’
He’d bellow at Maurice, and Maurice would shout back, and I would sit in the middle with things flying past my head (once, a chair hit me).
I suspect that Charles had bashed up his brother ever since childhood. He used to say to Maurice: ‘I can’t believe you came from the same womb as me.’
Then there was the issue of Charles’s modern art, which I hated — so he put a sign on my door, which read ‘Phil E. Stein’. He’d hung a Julian Schnabel on my wall and I loathed that. It was a sort of large, rectangular thing made of mud with a tin lid stuck in it, plus half a Coke can and some footprints.
On one of the days when he was coming at me, I went flying against the wall, and crashed into the painting. Charles shouted: ‘It’s worth £100,000 more than you. For God’s sake, stand up straight and stop falling on my things.’ When Maurice told me in 1978 that Saatchi & Saatchi had been offered the Tory Party account, I told him not to take it.
Political clients could easily unbalance the firm, I said.
Next day, I discovered the brothers had disregarded my advice, as they often did.
The job of dealing with the clients themselves — the party chairman Peter Thorneycroft, the publicity manager Gordon Reece and the party leader, Margaret Thatcher — was handed to me. Maurice and Charles, who saw themselves as Labour men, regarded me as the agency’s token Conservative.
I was taken to meet Mrs Thatcher in the Leader of the Opposition’s rooms in the Commons.
The MP Airey Neave, the head of her private office, greeted me. He was a shambolic figure who often wore a crumpled Columbo raincoat, and had an impenetrable Irish accent. I couldn’t make out a word he said.
One of the secretaries announced me to Mrs Thatcher, saying: ‘This is the man from Starsky And Hutch.’
Margaret was at her desk, head down, writing. She told me to sit, and I plonked myself on a long brown velvet sofa with no arms, so that I seemed to be floating, like a complete prat.
She said: ‘What’s your favourite poem?’ and I said If, by Kipling. She frowned at me suspiciously, and said: ‘Who told you?’
Lord Bell (second left) and Baroness Thatcher pictured at a Crimestopper cocktail party in London, September 2002
I said: ‘Nobody told me. It’s my favourite poem.’ Then she asked what my favourite speech was, and I quoted Abraham Lincoln’s State of the Nation address: ‘I fail to see how making the rich poor makes the poor rich.’
Once again, she demand to know who had told me to say that. ‘Nobody,’ I said. ‘They’re my favourites.’ She said: ‘Well, we’re going to get on.’
Then she said: ‘I want you to understand three things. First, you will always tell me the truth, however painful you may think it might be to me. Second, if you have any tricks that will get me elected, don’t use them. Because if the people don’t want me, it won’t work. And finally, you will get a lot of abuse for working for me. I hope you’re a big boy.’
Poster for the British Conservative Party from the General Election in 1979
Can you imagine any modern politician saying that second point and meaning it? What they want now is the bloke with the box of tricks. They want the Wizard Af Oz and Alastair Campbell, the people who can confuse the audience and publish dodgy dossiers and unleash attack dogs. That was not how we worked, nor how she wanted us to work.
Mrs Thatcher saw politics as a battle between Right and Left, but also a choice between right and wrong.
You loved or hated her. You thought everything about her was fantastic and enchanting, or you saw everything about her as some kind of vicious personality or class thing — the irony being that there was absolutely nothing upper-class or pretentious or elitist about her.
She loved the atmosphere of the advertising agency, and she liked the creative people because to her they seemed exotic and funny — they dressed oddly, they had long hair, they were all a bit weird like squawky birds in an aviary.
Of course she had no sense of humour, but Gordon Reece and I knew how to make her laugh, which was less about being ironical or witty and much more about smiling and being colourful. She used to call us ‘the laughing boys’.
The best example of the work we did for her is probably also the most famous political poster of all time: ‘Labour isn’t working.’
I was sent to present a stack of potential ideas and get one accepted. Charles said: ‘Don’t come back if you don’t.’
As soon as Margaret set eyes on the sketched picture of the snaking queue of jobless people, and that slogan, she said: ‘What’s so clever about that?’
I told her it was a double entendre and she said, with great irony: ‘Tell me then, Tim, what is the double entendre that I’m not seeing.’
I explained it was about unemployment, and a Labour government that didn’t function, and she said drily: ‘I’m sure that’s very clever.’
Naturally I didn’t mind taking a pasting from her, because I knew that meant she was about to say she liked it.
And as soon as the meeting was over, she told me it was ‘wonderful’. We went away and shot the artwork, using a load of Young Conservatives as our queueing job-seekers. I think Michael Portillo was one of them. I was there at the start, and I was there at the end, too.
Michael Heseltine was plotting for her crown in 1990, prowling about everywhere, cropping up when and where you never expected him.
I was sure that an awful lot of people would rather lose a kidney than have Heseltine as Prime Minister, but both Margaret’s most senior Cabinet ministers, Geoffrey Howe and Nigel Lawson, saw an opportunity to push their own agendas.
By now, Margaret and Geoffrey in particular had not the slightest respect for each other.
She disliked him in what I can only describe as a metabolic manner: she physically loathed being in the same room with him.
He was grey and he mumbled and shuffled, and she despised all those things.
She would bully him and humiliate him around the Cabinet table, saying, ‘Speak up, Geoffrey. If you’ve got something to say, say it out loud.’
Plus, there was a problem between Margaret and Geoffrey’s wife, Elspeth.
Elspeth was fantastically and aristocratically grand, wanting to do good, and with her heart in exactly the right place. But none of it impressed Margaret — do-gooders never did.
After Geoffrey delivered his devastating resignation speech on November 13, 1990, Gordon Reece and I were invited to Chequers for dinner with Margaret and Denis — a fairly boozy affair, it has to be said.
While she was out of the room, a slightly worse-for-wear Denis said to Gordon: ‘Do you know, I think it might be time for the old girl to go. And Gordon, you’re the man to suggest it to her.’
Gordon was appalled and said to Denis: ‘I can’t tell her that. I love her too much.’
To which Denis replied: ‘Steady on, old chap. You’re referring to my wife.’
She issued her resignation to the Cabinet on November 28, 1990 at 9.33am.
That day, I saw — in the most visual of demonstrations — how power shifts. I watched it physically cross a room.
We were all gathered around Margaret, with most of the Cabinet and some other MPs. Major hadn’t yet arrived. Everyone was chattering away, telling her what a good job she’d done, and how it had been the greatest leadership ever.
Then John Major walked in — and like a huge swarm of bees, the entire group moved as one, in a single instantaneous surge, across the floor to surround him.
In a second, it had left only Gordon and me standing in the middle of a newly vacated space talking to Margaret.
It was hurtful, embarrassing, shocking, terrifying . . . grotesque.
Gordon and I looked at each other, hoping, beyond any reasonable hope, that she hadn’t noticed.
We had witnessed the power transfer, literally.
Such shabby treatment could not diminish her, however.
Like Mountbatten, like Churchill, Margaret Thatcher was a truly great figure. She was a colossus in our island’s history, and I was incalculably lucky to have been in the right place at the right time to meet her, work with her, and be influenced by her.
- Adapted from Right Or Wrong, the memoirs of Lord Tim Bell, published by Bloomsbury
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