In Oliver Shah’s excellent, and given what has occurred, presciently-titled book on Sir Philip Green, Damaged Goods, there is a section devoted to the retail tycoon’s friendship and business partnership with Simon Cowell.
It tells how the X Factor and Britain’s Got Talent mogul first met Green in 1999, at the Monaco Grand Prix; how Cowell was a guest at Green’s 55th birthday party (PG55, as it was branded with typical understatement); and how, in 2009, Green’s wife Tina paid £3m to organise Cowell’s own 50th celebration.
The bash was held at Wrotham Park, a stately home in Hertfordshire. The 450 guests were greeted by a giant image of Cowell projected on to the building; the waiters wore Cowell masks; Michelangelo’s The Creation of Adam from the Sistine Chapel was recreated on the ceiling, with the image of God replaced by Cowell. Music was from Earth Wind & Fire, and dancers came on dressed as giant vaginas.
Shah relates how Green and Cowell had “announced plans to build a multi-billion-pound showbiz and merchandising company to rival Disney”.
Cowell had allowed the rights to his shows to belong to third parties, including Sony. Green thought this was ridiculous, and persuaded Cowell that they could take them back, and launch new formats and clothing lines, which would then be sold via his Topshop chain. It seemed like the perfect fit: the musical and TV genius, creator of One Direction and the rest, with the billionaire magnate who could call on the likes of Kate Moss to help design his products.
In one respect, Shah is technically incorrect. What the newspaper that broke the story actually reported was that this dream ticket was going to surpass Walt’s mighty empire. Indeed, the Evening Standard splashed its front page with the headline, “Bigger than Disney”.
I know, because I was the journalist who took the call from Green wanting to go public with their plan. It was I who sought out the editor, and said how Cowell and Green were going into business together, and the intention was that their venture would be “bigger than Disney”.
Now, Cowell has pulled the plug on their golden alliance, buying Green out from his Syco company. His move came after the revelation that Green used a High Court injunction to reinforce non-disclosure agreements said to involve allegations of racism and sexual harassment. Cowell is not alone: the pop star Beyoncé has also done the same, cutting her dealings with the retailer.
It turns out that relations between Cowell and Green had long ago become strained, to the point of nonexistence. Cowell said: “He was part of the company, but three years ago we just stopped talking.”
Added Cowell: “When it came to severing the ties, I wasn’t arguing about the money. You simply make a decision of who you want in your life and your business, and it was my decision.”
The impresario stressed he ended contact before Green was heavily slated for his controversial sale of BHS (when he offloaded the stores to an unsuitable purchaser, and at first, refused to plug the chain’s pension deficit). “It was six months before that. Then, roughly a year and a half ago, there was a meeting to see whether he would be interested in selling his shares. It didn’t appear that way.” Now, after the court claims erupted, Cowell has forced the issue and their union is officially ended.
This, from a position in which Cowell and Green were once so close that they spoke regularly on the phone for hours, and went on holidays together.
But the truth was that their marriage was doomed from the start. Whispers in the TV and music industry began circulating soon after they joined forces. Green had assured Cowell that he would show the big studios who was boss. However, the mostly US chiefs and their lawyers did not warm to Green’s full-frontal, often belligerent style. The Hollywood titans did not see why they should be told what to do by a shopkeeper from England.
They began as equal partners before Green shifted into the background as a sounding board for Cowell – and then, it has since transpired, not advising him on anything at all.
From the moment Green announced himself as someone with serious means he was fawned over (Tony Blair knighted him for “services to retailing” while David Cameron asked him to advise on making Whitehall more efficient).
Everyone swallowed the Green mystique. Journalists, politicians, fellow retailers, City fixers, fashion insiders, all sat at his table. All dined out on “PG” stories, how amusing he was, how his threats were delivered with gusto and humour. One editor said to me recently how “charming” he’d always found Green, how he loved his wit and actually looked forward to their exchanges.
Nobody stopped to question what it must be like to be one of his employees, that what he now dismisses as mere “banter” might have a very different connotation if the person on the receiving end was a member of his workforce. Neither were his boasts scrutinised.
Today, the Cowell-Green combo lies in ruins, and Disney has a market cap of more than $170bn (£132bn).
Chris Blackhurst is a former editor of The Independent, and director of C|T|F Partners, the campaigns, strategic, crisis and reputational communications advisory firm.