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.

Greene and Philby in The King’s Arms

Graham does it gently.

‘Castle, ever since he had joined the firm as a young recruit more than thirty years ago, had taken his lunch in a public house behind St. James’s Street, not far from the office. If he had been asked why he lunched here he would have referred to the excellent quality of the sausages; he might have preferred a different bitter from Watneys, but the quality of the sausages outweighed that. He was always prepared to account for his actions, even the most innocent, and he was always strictly on time’.

The first paragraph of The Human Factor by Graham Greene, 1978. (Greene had a thing for sausages. In the mid-1960s he nearly went bankrupt after he was defrauded in a bogus sausage factory scam fronted by Hollywood villain George Sanders.)

Number 14 Ryder Street, off St. James’s St., was where the Secret Intelligence Service’s Section V (prototype for MI6) was based during the later stages of the 2nd World War. Another wartime SIS location was a flat at no. 5 St. James’s St., which was used to brief agents due to be sent into occupied countries. Graham Greene, who worked for SIS during the war, used a description of the flat for The Human Factor, his novel about a Soviet spy in British Intelligence. Greene’s wartime boss was none other than Kim Philby, the most damaging Soviet spy in the history of the Cold War.

Philby and Greene became good friends and they took their lunches together in The King’s Arms, located – as per the description in The Human Factor – ‘behind St. James’s Street.’ (The King’s Arms is no longer in business, and Greene left no description of it beyond the one given in the above extract. Anyone seeking a simulacrum is advised to try The Red Lion in Crown Passage, an old and atmospheric little pub which retains a pre-war flavour: a Greene-ish combo of cosy and seedy. It’s easy to imagine sausages and secrets being bandied about in there.)

Greene and his whiskies in his rooms at the Albany.

When Philby’s fellow spies Guy Burgess and Donald MacLean defected in 1951, suspicion fell upon Philby. Summoned to a series of meetings at MI5’s HQ in Curzon St., Philby was subject to increasingly sharp interrogations. But Philby refused to confess and his friends in MI6 stood by their man, even though MI5 remained suspicious. Philby resigned instead. The frustration of unimpressed MI5 investigators may be judged by the fact that they kept Philby under surveillance after his resignation from MI6. It is worth noting that MI6 was made up of well-connected, ‘clubbable’ old boys and toffs; whereas the ranks of MI5 were largely drawn from the armed forces and the police.

Philby’s victory lap: the ‘exonerated’ spy lies through his teeth to the press.

In 1955, Philby was named in the House of Commons as a possible traitor once rumours of a ‘third man’ began to circulate: but he faced down these accusations with extraordinary chutzpah, calling a press conference in his mother’s South Kensington flat after his ‘exoneration’ by an internal MI6 inquiry, and received an apology from the Labour MP who had made the allegations. Amazingly, he was later re-recruited into MI6 and worked as a journalist, agent and double agent in Beirut until 1963, when MI6 finally realised his treachery, courtesy of a Soviet defector. Philby fled before he could be arrested; although some believe he was allowed to run, as a public trial of a traitor who’d spent years at the heart of the British establishment would have been even more embarrassing than having one turn up in Moscow. It was eventually revealed that there were actually five Soviet spies at the heart of British intelligence: Anthony Blunt was outed in 1979 and John Cairncross in 1990. Neither was prosecuted.

It’s fascinating to consider what Greene and Philby talked about during their lunches in The King’s Arms. The bond between them seemed strong, forged over a mutual love of booze and a natural flair for subordination, albeit one that ran a lot deeper on Philby’s part. Greene even contributed a foreword to Philby’s memoir, written in Moscow, My Secret War. In his biography of Greene, Norman Sherry was sharp with his subject on this point: Greene had a horror of personal betrayal and Philby betrayed everyone, so why make a moral exception in his case? But after Greene’s death Sherry received a letter disclosing that Greene was feeding information about his later correspondence with Philby back to MI6, suggesting that Greene might have remained a British agent well into his seventies – and that his public indulgence of Philby was an elaborate front.

Paperback edition of ‘The Human Factor’ with very silly cover photo.

The Human Factor is an interesting foray into Le Carre territory, although its depiction of late 1970s English life seems anachronistic. It was made into a dull film by Greene’s friend Otto Preminger. They ran out of money during shooting and Preminger had to sell a Matisse and a spare house to finish it. The film is notable for Nicol Williamson’s performance as Greene’s conflicted spy, but its cramped budget makes it looks a bit like late 1970s TV: a dud episode of The Sweeney, perhaps, one without any car chases. It is also hampered by a wooden performance by supermodel Iman as Williamson’s screen wife. (An amazing piece of trivia about this film is that Preminger reportedly considered author, Tory peer and former jailbird Jeffrey Archer for the lead – but this was dropped when they realised that Archer was about a foot shorter than Iman.)

Nicol Williamson and Iman in ‘The Human Factor’.

Philby, like Guy Burgess, was an old Etonian; and, whilst they might have been traitors for Stalin, they never abandoned the privileges of their own class. That nameless, numberless people might be tortured and killed as a result of their actions was to them an abstraction; the same mechanism that allowed 18th century old boys to squander colossal fortunes in the gaming rooms of White’s, Brooks’s, et al. It is a very specific kind of entitlement; one only has to look at the Britain of our own time to see that high-stakes gambling regardless of consequences is still pursued with zeal by old Etonians at the highest levels of government. Europe was lost in the debating chambers of Eton.

Philby in Moscow, 1980s.