Peter Cook and Private Eye drink Robert Maxwell’s Champagne

‘Mrs Maxwell and all our children were utterly shocked to have me, their father, compared to a convicted major gangster.’ Robert Maxwell giving evidence at the Royal Courts of Justice in 1986 during his libel action against Private Eye.

(Private Eye had, amongst other things, printed a photographic ‘lookalike’, comparing Maxwell’s photo with one of Ronnie Kray.)

On the south western corner of Holborn Circus is a vast 21st century office block that is the corporate HQ of Sainsbury’s. This site was once occupied by a 1950s block that was the home of Mirror Group newspapers. In the 1980s Mirror Group was bought by the media tycoon Robert Maxwell. A preposterous but menacing figure, a natural and inveterate bully, Maxwell blustered his way through the British media scene from the 1950s through to his mysterious death in 1991.

There are a great many Maxwell stories and more than a few are apocryphal; but all are informed by his authentically monstrous personality. Maxwell inspired real fear and real loathing. The top of the Mirror building served as a parking spot for Maxwell’s personal helicopter and witnesses testified that he liked to urinate off the roof, joking that people in the street below didn’t know he was pissing on them. But it was also said that, after one particularly hairy landing in a sudden squall, his pilot discovered a brick in the heli-pad’s wind sock. He was not a popular man.

Maxwell atop the Mirror Building.

I have heard Maxwell stories from people who experienced his temper at first hand but my favourite story involves his feud with Private Eye. Maxwell had long been a target of the ‘Eye but when he sued the magazine for libel in 1986 he was awarded damages of about a third of a million quid, a sum that nearly sank the magazine. This was over an article suggesting that Maxwell was funding the Labour party in the hope of getting a state honour (‘cash for peerages’ as the phrase went). Following his victory, Maxwell – in what we might now characterize as a Trump-ish gesture – decreed that the Daily Mirror produce a one-off publication called Not Private Eye. Meanwhile, the Eye’s staff mused that if they could only get hold of the dummy magazine they could persuade W.H. Smith’s to reverse their decision to stock it – but how to get it? The Eye’s owner, the great Peter Cook, had an idea … Here’s Ian Hislop, quoted by Peter Cook’s biographer:

‘So Cookie said, ‘Let’s send a crate of whisky over to the people who are putting it together, because they won’t want to do it, they’ll have been ordered to do this.’ So we sent this crate of whisky over. About two hours later, Cookie said ‘Let’s phone them up and see what’s happened.’ We phoned up and the four people doing it were completely legless. So Cookie said ‘Sounds like really good fun there, we’re coming over.’ And they were all so drunk they said, ‘Yeah, fine.’ So we all got into a taxi and went to the Mirror building; and it was the first time I realised that if you’re famous you can do anything, because security stopped us and said, ‘Have you got passes?’ and we had to say ‘No’ and then Cookie appeared and said ‘We’re just going upstairs lads, is that all right?’ And they said ‘Oh, it’s Peter Cook’ and let us in. So we went up to Maxwell’s suite, where they were all lying across the floor, and stole the dummy.’

Peter Cook outside the Royal Courts of Justice, Strand.

The others were keen to head for the exit, but Peter had only just begun. He sat at Maxwell’s desk, rang the Mirror’s catering department and ordered champagne. Then he telephoned the picture desk and ordered them to come up and take a picture of the Eye staff relaxing in Maxwell’s suite. He graffiti’d the walls and windows with crayons, writing ‘Hello Captain Bob’ everywhere. Then he telephoned Maxwell’s mistress in New York, and got Maxwell on the phone to explain what he’d done. Maxwell went ballistic and telephoned Mirror security at once. Before long a party of security men burst into Maxwell’s suite; such was Peter’s charisma, however, that before long they too had joined the party. (Taken from Peter Cook: a Biography by Harry Thompson, Hodder, 1997.)

The mission was a success: on seeing the dummy copy W.H. Smith were persuaded not to stock Maxwell’s lumbering ‘Eye parody.

The Mirror announces Maxwell’s death, before their journalists realised that he’d stolen their pensions.

In December 1991 Maxwell died at sea, falling off his yacht in open water near the Canary Islands. After his death he was found to have embezzled the Mirror’s pension fund to the tune of about £460,000,000. One theory has it that Maxwell jumped off his yacht as he knew the game was up; another theory is that he was murdered by Israeli intelligence agents. Others who knew Maxwell say that the man would never have done himself in; and falling off the boat whilst peeing into the sea was as plausible as it was fitting.

(As it happens, my then-wife was working for a Maxwell company at the time of his death. As the chaos of Maxwell’s finances was revealed – it wasn’t just the Mirror that was affected – employees saw their end of year wage packets disappear from their bank accounts, and desperate office managers wrote personal cheques to pay for staff Christmas parties. My ex attended a grim lunch + discotheque, curtains drawn so staff could get shitfaced, dance, do karaoke – ‘I believe that children are the futuuure’ – and try to forget their missed mortgage payments. Ah, the memories …)

1991 Christmas edition.

The Drinker.