Michael Grade

Why I’ll miss Tim Bell

Why I’ll miss Tim Bell
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A memorial service was held for Lord Tim Bell on Thursday at St Paul’s Church in Knightsbridge. Lord Grade delivered the eulogy, which he has kindly allowed us to reproduce below:

I’m not sure if Tim were with us today he would see this as a memorial service so much as a golden networking opportunity!

Timothy John Leigh Bell, Baron Bell, was born in Southgate, in North London, on 18th October 1941. The postcode, N14, will tell you that he certainly wasn’t born with a silver spoon in his mouth. He was blessed, however, with a silver tongue.

He made full use of this gift, as we all know. ‘The only talent I have,’ he once explained ‘is charm.’ With this quote, he certainly undersold himself for possibly the only time in his spectacular career. No one could tell me where the label ‘spin doctor’ originated, but my research certainly confirmed that he was the very first.

To Guardian readers, it was an insult. But to Tim, it was a badge of honour. He was so proud to be the first spin doctor. Many have followed, none has surpassed. He talked his way from his first job as an office boy at the old ITV television company ABC, climbing the greasy pole through various advertising and marketing companies to a job in the new Saatchi agency. The brothers had spotted him and hired Tim to provide the front of house salesmanship and relationship building that they felt they lacked.

Charles was brilliant one-to-one, while Maurice at that time was the somewhat shy, but with brilliant business brains. Tim was there to schmooze the clients. The brothers couldn’t have chosen better. Tim was born to ‘pitch’. He enjoyed the good life, fine food, fine wine and fine clothes.

But in the early days, the young Bell’s weekly salary didn’t quite match his taste. Ever inventive, he persuaded his then flat mate, Bill Muirhead, that they could find expensive clothes shops with names that sounded as if they could be a restaurant. So, in went the expenses, (those were the days!) substituting lunch or dinner with a client for the apparel bought. This worked a treat until he was summoned to the finance director who said: ‘Mr Tim Bell, I see you have eaten a mohair suit at Herbie Frogg.’ Game over.

As the iconoclastic business took the sector by storm, Tim’s fortunes rapidly improved as did their international reputation. Tim was invited to pitch to the prime minister of Malaysia in Kuala Lumpur. The country was anxious to raise its profile. Tim and his colleague Stephen, now Lord, Shelbourne duly arrived in the magnificent modern penthouse office of the PM ready to present. ‘Before we get down to business,’ said Tim, somewhat wistfully, ‘I just want to say, on a personal note, that if you look out of that window to the hills beyond, that is where I spent the happiest few weeks of my life in a wonderful hotel on my honeymoon. That is where I fell in love with Malaysia and got to know and admire its people, and I am so moved to be here again.’

He then switched mood into the formal pitch, where the central idea was to get a Bond film shot in the country and/or persuade Formula One to stage a grand prix there. He won the business. Some months later, he and Stephen were summoned to pitch to the prime minister of Jamaica. Similar brief; raise the profile. In the prime minister’s office, Tim began: ‘If you look out of that window to the hills beyond…(you are ahead of me!)’

The formal pitch was – you’ve guessed it – get a Bond film or a formula one grand prix to Jamaica. The same routine went on a successful world tour, including business won in Instanbul for the Turkish prime minister. It was a winning pitch – why re-write a hit? These international forays didn’t always go smoothly, or rather in one case, far too smoothly.

Summoned to the Sultan of Brunei, Tim was told to remove his shoes before entering the throne room for his audience with the Sultan. When the summons came to enter, business-like, he rushed forward in his socks onto a highly polished marble floor. To his dismay, the Sultan was seated immediately in front of the entrance. Tim applied the emergency brakes and slid to a horrible stop – in the Sultan’s lap. Cue the Sultan: ‘Sir Tim (as he was by then) I heard your client services are legendary, but you don’t have to go this far.’

As we all know, Saatchi & Saatchi re-wrote the advertising agency textbook and with Tim out front wagging that silver tongue of his, business boomed. Tim’s particular gifts are hard to analyse without making him sound glib or shallow. He certainly wasn’t. He was supremely gifted. He had an almost miraculous ability, instinctive, not taught, to command a room, to articulate the clients’ problems, come up with a solution and then make you think it was all your own idea.

He could turn himself into an expert on stuff he knew absolutely nothing about, he just had a flair for picking up the nub of the problem. One former colleague described him to me thus: ‘Tim was brilliant at making you feel you were the smartest person in the room.’

I suppose one key to his success was that he was so easily and genuinely likeable. You were always so pleased to see him, to chat to him. Yes, he was funny and gossipy but he was also a great listener. I cannot be alone in this hall knowing how much better I always felt after time spent in his company. Tim was a superb raconteur and loved to make you laugh.

Now, as we all here know, Tim could be an incorrigible name-dropper. But he knew he was, which makes this exchange with Norman St John-Stevas at a dinner party so endearing. ‘Norman,’ opened Tim, ‘You have to stop name dropping.’

Lord St John-Stevas replied, according to Tim’s version: ‘I agree with you, Tim, as I was saying only this morning – to the Queen Mother.’

He had a wonderful twinkle in his eye, always, and that was coupled with a sense of mischief. When he moved on to help found Lowe, Howard-Spink & Bell, Campaign, published its annual league table of top industry ‘presenters’. Tim came out top, Peter Marsh, another colleague and legend, came second and Frank Lowe was third. Tim immediately buzzed through to Frank: ‘Number one here, is that number 3? How is number 2? etc etc’. This went on most of the rest of the week.

In his later days, he and I would gravitate together to the back row of the Conservative benches in the Lords and he would chunter, stage whispers, as those on the opposing benches he saw as the enemy, rose to speak. Retired trade union leaders, old Labour front bench foes, and, yes, the bishops. On and on he would chunter until the Lib Dems came to speak: ‘What’s the government doing about this? I am going for a fag, can’t take this any more…’

One time in a break, I asked him if he was involved in an incident when I was running Channel 4. We had a current affairs programme which I had to approve for transmission. This was at a time when Margaret Thatcher was at the very height of her powers and Tim was her consigliere. The programme accused Denis Thatcher of being involved with the American mafia. I kid you not! The husband of the prime minister was a non-executive director of a waste disposal firm in Florida who were under investigation by the authorities for un-American activities.

I could see no reason not to broadcast but told the team to call No. 10 and give them a full briefing of what was in the programme and offer them a right of reply (those were the days!). We got no comment back before the report aired and we waited with high anxiety for the incoming flack, my career flashed before my eyes. Tin hats were in short supply around our office in Charlotte Street. In the end, nothing, no follow up, no threats from Messrs Sue Grabbit, no injunctions, nothing but – silence.

Tim remembered the incident very well. He told me: ‘I had an almost hysterical call from Margaret and Denis in a panic asking me what they should do. I listened and said to them, just ignore it, its only Channel 4.’ Brilliant advice. That was Tim at his best. It was brave, too.

No covering his back by advising lawyers, no back stairs calls to the regulator or the board of channel 4. Succinct, unconventional and SO brilliantly judged – and effective.

Tim, as we all know, had an addictive personality, and top of his list were fags and Margaret, as he always called her. Tim was Margaret Thatcher’s go-to man. When Saatchi won the Conservative party account ahead of her 1979 election, Tim was judged the man to manage the formidable Margaret in the run-up to her first election.

Let Tim’s own words describe the first meeting where he was accompanied by her adviser Gordon Reece. Tim writes:

‘Thatcher was there at her desk, head down, writing something. All she said was: “Sit down.” There was a brown velvet armchair and a brown velvet sofa, so I plonked myself down in the middle of the long sofa, where there was no arm support, so I just floated there, like a complete prat. She said, “What’s your favourite poem?” And I said “‘If’, by Kipling”.

She frowned at me really suspiciously, and said “Who told you?” I said “Nobody told me. It’s my favourite poem.” Then she said, “What’s your favourite speech?” And I said, “Abraham Lincoln’s state of the nation” and I quoted him, “I fail to see how making the rich poor makes the poor rich”. “Who told you?” she said.

“Nobody. They’re my favourites.”

She said “Well, we’re going to get on.” Then she said: “I want you to understand three things. First, politicians have very, very large toes and very large fingers, and it is easy to tread on them. I have neither. You will always tell me the truth; however painful you may think it might be to me. Secondly, if you have any tricks that will get me elected, don’t use them, because if people don’t want me, it won’t work. And finally, you will get a lot of abuse for working for me. I hope you are a big boy.”

I said, “I hope so, too.”

She said: “Right. Well, we’ll get on then. Take him out, Gordon.”

And at that we got up and fled.’ And, as Rick says to Captain Louis at the end of Casablanca, “this is the start of a beautiful friendship.”

It lasted until Baroness Thatcher died, Tim stayed loyal to her end and was so proud of that friendship. Again, in Tim’s own words:

‘I absolutely loved, if I am honest, sitting there at the seat of power, and I loved her, because she wielded her power in such an extraordinarily accomplished and visionary manner.’

I am sure I can speak for all the friends, former colleagues and family here today when I say all our lives have been enriched by knowing Tim. Many here, I am sure, owe their living to Tim’s pathfinding career.

We all have our indelible memories of time spent with him and how we always smile when we remember him. He was the most loyal friend, the most generous employer, and unarguably the most brilliant and innovative operator of his generation.

If pitching and spinning were an Olympic sport, Tim would be up there with Sir Stephen Redgrave and Sir Ben Ainslie as multi-gold medallists. In my world, I would say he was quite simply ‘a star’. Now, he is a legend.