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Angus Ogilvy, a jolly nice chap
but a bit of a chump who
worked for al Fayed’s enemy

JUST THE TICKET: Ogilvy, pictured with his wife Princess Alexandra, was singled out in a Department of Trade report in 1973 for his 'negligence' as a Lonrho company director                         © John Swannell / Camera Press


By CHRISTOPHER WILSON

All this talk of Mohamed al Fayed (see Alan Frame's Random Jottings) reminds me of the time when, captaining the good ship William Hickey, I had a tearful call from Angus Ogilvy, the straight-as-an-arrow husband of Princess Alexandra.


Ogilvy, you'll recall, was the Scottish aristo who married into the House of Windsor while turning down the customary offer of ermine because his family's own peerage dated back to the 15th century, long before Hanoverians were invented.


The craggy-jawed former Scots Guards officer was a useful addition to the line-up of chinless royals when he entered the family in 1963, after wooing and winning dull-but-dutiful Alexandra — at 27 a touch long in the tooth in the nuptial stakes, and no doubt glad someone was finally paying her some attention.


Indeed so muscular were Ogilvy's devotions that when honeymooning in the Balmoral heather with his princess bride, his vigorous activities were captured by Ray Bellissario, Britain's first paparazzo, in such microscopic detail that there was a scandal. When I arrived at the Daily Mail five years later they were still whispering in corners about the whereabouts of Ray's roll of film capturing the stately shagnasty.


When on parade with the royals, though, Angus looked just the ticket – Savile Row suit, old Etonian haircut, shiny shoes and a hanky in his top pocket. Trouble was he was a bit of a chump, and in pursuit of riches he went to work for Tiny Rowland, who was boss of Lonrho and for a time proprietor of The Observer. (Of all the fugging fuggers Mohamed al Fayed hated, Tiny was top of his shitlist after their epic battle for control of Harrods — hence the dubious rationale for this piece).


To all appearances Angus was a devoted and admirable inclusion in the royal ranks, straight as a die — but Lonrho's business was a stinker, and he was putty in Rowland's hands.


In 1973 the Department of Trade issued a report into Lonrho's sanctions-busting and other criminal activities, singling out Ogilvy's 'negligence' as a company director and his 'weakness and indecision in failing to restrain Rowland's aggressive management style'.


Prime Minister Ted Heath famously declared the company's activities the 'unacceptable face of capitalism', and Ogilvy was forced to resign 16 of his City directorships. He was spared complete disgrace because he was a nice chap and Fleet Street in those days didn't want to pick a fight with the Palace.


And so Ogilvy turned, overnight, into a reformed character — tirelessly devoting himself to charitable causes and loyally appearing at Princess Alexandra's elbow when required.


And after the dust died down a bit, the Queen tapped his shoulders with her sword, he arose Sir Angus Ogilvy, and soon after was appointed to the Privy Council. His redemption was complete.


That's how it appeared to the outside world, and Fleet Street was too concerned with more important matters to follow Angus's career trajectory. In fact, it turned out, he had not resigned all his directorships and continued to serve on the boards of a number of companies including the Rank Organisation, property group MEPC, GEC, and Sotheby's. The Ogilvy name was better than having a 'lord on the board' and he continued to be rewarded handsomely and unquestioningly, despite those services to the unacceptable face of capitalism.


Which brings us to the summer of 1984 when I was running Hickey and as usual, hungry for column fodder. One morning out of the blue I had a call from a man calling himself Paul Spicer who haughtily assumed I knew who he was but I hadn't a clue.


“You could do with a decent story in that column,” he declared, “so here is one. I can tell you that next week Angus Ogilvy will be rejoining the board of Lonrho. You can print that, no need to check.”


If he hadn't uttered that last sentence, everything may have turned out differently. But as we all know, 'no need to check' means just the opposite.


I had Ogilvy's private number and called him. I'd checked on Spicer, who turned out to be Tiny Rowland's right-hand man at Lonrho (which had continued in business, despite Heath's condemnation from the dispatch box). So on the face of it the story must be correct.


“Paul Spicer has told me you're rejoining the board of Lonrho,” I said. “Can that really be the case?”


Ogilvy let out a gasp. “I... no... that... er, can't be...” he replied after a long pause. I got the impression he had no idea what I was talking about.


“So you're not rejoining Lonrho?”


“No, Mr Wilson, I am not.”


So there was my story for the following day – royal husband caught up in machiavellian City plot. Thank you, Mr Spicer.


The story appeared in Friday's Hickey. On Saturday I was at home doing a spot of DIY when the phone rang. It was Angus Ogilvy.


“Mr Wilson – I, er... I don't know how to say this but...” Dammit, I thought, he's changed his mind.


“Mr Wilson, I'm sorry to say that in the Sunday Telegraph tomorrow...” and he went on to say that a piece written by the City editor would trash my story, and into the bargain show me up for the journalistic mountebank I truly was. He was sorry, but the matter was out of his hands. He sounded frazzled.


“So you're rejoining the board of Lonrho after all? After all that public criticism? After having to resign all those City directorships?”


I was in my home in Hampshire. He was at Thatched House Lodge in Richmond. I couldn't see him, only hear his voice, but to me it sounded as if he'd started to cry. “You don't know these people,” he said faintly. “They... they're... “ Then he put down the phone.


The Telegraph piece duly appeared next day, written by a man who evidently believed what Paul Spicer told him - but whose judgement as City editor was compromised from that moment on, for taking a story without checking it. I won't name him because he's still around, but despite his toadying up to Rowland and happily acting as his unofficial mouthpiece, Angus Ogilvy never rejoined Lonrho.


Sir Angus died in 2004 and was accorded a funeral at St George's Chapel, Windsor, followed by interment in the royal burial grounds at Frogmore.


He was, according to royal historians (and who are we to disagree?), one of the great and good.


13 September 2023