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SUNDAY 19  MAY 2024

*

Farewell Al Fayed, you delightful old monster

This being the Daily Drone, the time-honoured greeting among us weary columnists is a cheery What Ho. Not so the newly departed Mohamed (you can call me Al) Fayed. A stranger to the ways of PG Wodehouse, his form of address, at least to chaps, was ‘Ow’s your fuggin’ cock.’ To which I was happy to reply ‘Perfect working order.’


I first met Fayed in 1990 shortly after returning from Ukraine and Belarus reporting on the appalling legacy of the Chernobyl disaster. My piece on the centre spread of that day’s paper concentrated on the children who had been born with missing limbs, cancers and thyroid problems as a direct result of the radiation that had spread its poison over those countries, most of Europe and as far away as Scotland. I was in morning conference when my PA Helene Costas came in to extract me.


Fayed was on the phone and I was being invited to Harrods to meet him. I say invited but it was very much a summons which, suitably intrigued, I accepted. His greeting that day was rather more formal, the first and only time for the next 10 years. He had been moved by what I had discovered on my trip. (To be accurate it was our brilliant Kim Willsher who first told the world of the plight of the Chernobyl kids a week or so earlier in a news piece. That had prompted readers to send in, unsolicited, money to help them. The real purpose of my trip was to see how those funds could be best spent without some apparatchik buying himself a new dacha.)


Mohamed wanted to give money also. But there was a catch. He would give a percentage of the first day’s takings in the forthcoming New Year’s Harrods Sale provided I could find him someone to open it. Given that it was less than a month away I was astonished the world’s most famous store had left it so late. I agreed we would try and within 20 minutes of asking David Wigg if he could help I rang Fayed with the news that Wiggy had secured Cliff Richard.


When I met Cliff at the sale he told me he had been moved by what I had written and that he would give us the takings from an extra day of a scheduled five-day run of concerts at Wembley. Thanks to those two very different men — and to those generous and decent Express readers — we raised the best part of £1million in six weeks, every penny and rouble of which went to providing hospitals in Kiev and Minsk with essential medical equipment.


By then I was very much on ‘Ow’s your cock’ terms with Mohamed to the extent that the Express was expected to find the celeb to open both the summer and New Year sales from then on. Needless to say David Wigg never failed and over the years he recruited Tom Jones, Diana Ross, Piers Brosnan, Tom Cruise, Dame Edna and many more while Colin Bateman signed up Graham Gooch and Viv Richards, the two captains for that summer’s Test series (more of which another time.)


At that stage I lived only three miles from the Fayed country home in Oxted and I was invited to see him several times. Despite the size of Barrow Green Court he was usually to be found in his ‘tent’ in the grounds, in truth a marquee fit for the grandest pharaoh, however phoney, rinsing with lime juice any plate he ate off in the belief it would kill off germs. It was here that we took the golf buggy to his helicopter a few yards away which in turn flew us to his private jet at Luton and on to the Paris and the Ritz (more of that in a future Jottings.)


All of which leads me to my departure from the Express in 1995. Fayed had tried and failed to buy a national newspaper including the two Express titles. But when I heard that Today, by then owned by that other controversial mogul, Rupert Murdoch, was for sale, I was hired to buy it for him. All went swimmingly, terms were agreed, and I was about to leave home for the funeral of Tim Holder, probably the nicest man ever to bestride Fleet Street, when my phone rang and it was Les Hinton, Murdoch’s representative on earth. He told me the deal was off. Why? Les claimed he couldn’t say why because he really didn’t know and I believed him. His boss was simply being capricious. Very.


We then tried to buy LBC from Reuters and again, all went well until the Radio Authority had to approve the transfer of the licence. Fayed was not considered a suitable person and with hindsight, it was probably right. I then persuaded him that if he was so determined to own a national title he should start one. The Sunday Express was floundering (of course it was) and the Mail on Sunday was going through a bad patch. So let’s do better and collar the Sunday middle market. I assembled a great team in borrowed premises in Hanover Square and off we went, six sections including a colour magazine and separate TV listings pull-out.


The people around me were formidable and used to working to a deadline because I wanted this to be as near the real thing. So no ipsem blah blah Latin and the front page splash was a genuine political exclusive. My illustrious ensemble included Christopher Wilson as feature writer and as the diarist Hanover; designer John Hill and Kate Hadley (all LOTP*) and former People editor Bill Hagerty. The dummy was printed on the Mirror press in Glasgow and the result shown around the leading ad agencies to real approval. All seemed well until Fayed was told that he would have to stake the best part of £60million as promotional kitty to see off the opposition (probably £120million in today’s value.) Alas, even for a billionaire that was too much and Sunday AM was stillborn.


His last throw of the dice was the moribund Punch, that old favourite of waiting rooms, which we bought from that nice Little Lord Stevens (also LOTP*) for far too much (sadly I can’t remember the figure but at least the famed Punch table was included.) Despite (surely because of — Ed) the efforts of the Fayed-appointed editor Peter McKay it didn’t last long and Mohamed returned to what he did best, making millions and making mischief. And I bid the old bugger a fond farewell.


So what did I really think of him? He was like the Girl with a Curl, half delightful (a real benefactor to charities, particularly those for children) and half dreadful. Despite what his former mouthpiece Michael Cole has been saying today, he did raise his voice, he did swear as easily as he told giant porkies and he did chase the legion of attractive young girls hired (and fired) as his personal assistants.


As for Dodi, well that’s for another day.


*Late of this parish

*****

So farewell then Nadine Dorries. About bloody time. Now it’s your turn Baroness Braverman of Rwanda.


3rd September 2023