An encounter with Bob the Bouncing Czech

Welcome to the first in a new series. I’m creating a new page at The Slog allowing me to enjoy some R&R – while hopefully at the same time entertaining Sloggers with some of the more bizarre experiences I’ve had as an advertising strategist and general all-round oddball.

Robert Maxwell was an incorrigible monster who took over and ran many newspapers – usually into the ground. The European was one of the few titles he launched (in 1990) and at that time I was the Deputy Chairman of a large London-based ad agency called Bates.

Being Czech by birth, Maxwell was a great EU enthusiast. No amount of reality intrusion could dissuade him from his view that everyone was just dying to read a newspaper about a non-existent country called Europe. Indeed, you can judge Bob’s insight for commercial success from the headlines in the shot above. They are from the launch edition, and they call for ‘One Money for Europe’. He got his wish posthumously. The rest of us are still alive, and dealing with the consequences.

One winter mid-afternoon, I got an internal call from my Chairman to say that we’d been summoned into the Maxwellian presence that evening. At 6.30 pm, the chauffeur took us to Maxwell House (yes, it really was called that) where his flagship tabloid the Daily Mirror was then housed. With surprising promptness, we were ushered into his private quarters by a retainer, and there we waited as Robert Maxwell continued a multi-directional set of conversations on phones of varying colours from a place we could not see, only hear.

Across from where I sat was an enormous wardrobe. It was enormous mainly because Maxwell was an enormous bloke. I doubt if I have even seen a man since who was quite so wide and tall at the same time. Inside one of the wardrobe doors hung a series of baseball caps, all of which said ‘Cap’n Bob’ on the front. Given this was Private Eye’s mischievous nickname for the tycoon, I was surprised he’d adopted it. But then, on all four walls of this room were originals of umpteen cartoons about him – every last one of which was critical of its subject.

Eventually, we were led up to the higher level of a small office hidden around one corner of Maxwell’s personal space. He was still on the phone, taking  a call from one of his editors about a Princess Margaret story. Even hearing only half of the conversation, it was obvious that the Queen’s sister had scalded herself after falling pissed into a very hot bath. Maxwell said simply, “Spike it”, and slammed down the receiver. This was dramatic stuff.

Maxwell explained that he wanted “a jolly good fine old English agency like Dorland” to launch his new pan-European organ. We were by then not called Dorland at all, but it seemed churlish to interrupt the great man in full flow. Having fired a few inconsequential questions at my boss, he turned to me and asked “What dooo yooo dooo?”

Although an affected Englishman, Maxwell talked in this strangely sonorous tone during all the occasions when I met him over the ensuing weeks. I began to explain my arcane strategic function, but after about four seconds he lost interest and picked up another phone. He asked his pa to get hold of an extremely famous journalist of the day. After a few minutes, the hack came back to him, at which point Maxwell dictated to the unfortunate personvarious fictitious versions of recent events for use as Opeds. Shortly after the Big Yin fell off his yacht eighteen months later, I was greatly amused to hear an interview with this journalist, in which Robert Maxwell was described as “an excellent proprietor who never interfered with editorial policy in any way”.

During the ensuing months, we produced a range of TV commercials and poster ads for the launch. The paper was a White Elephant from Day One ( they didn’t hide invisibly in rooms in those days) although it did outlive its inventor. Somewhat predictably, we never got paid.


30 thoughts on “Anecdotage

  1. A great story JW I cant help but but feel a bit of nostalgia for big bad Bob even though he was a complete monster. He had something like 36 separate libel actions going at the time of his demise and of course immediately following the announcement of his death there was an avalanche of stories in the newspapers about him. He fell of his perch owing almost 1 billion pounds and even managed to stiff his chauffeur whom he borrowed money from to leave a tip at a restaurant in Tenerife on the last night ashore before he fell overboard. I wonder how it would have turned out if he had still been proprietor of the Mirror during the phone hacking saga.
    I’m sure he would have been up to his neck in it just like his arch rival Murdoch.


  2. I was highly amused by the “great loss of a great man” type of eulogies given by those such as Ann Robinson when he died, only to be replaced with the “I didn’t ever realise he was really such a crook” type excuse when it all became public (in other words when he was no longer around to threaten). The spinelessness of his acolytes was a wonder to behold. And the bigger laugh is Robinson now posing as a woman of steel-you could barely make it up!


  3. Maxwell was just about the biggest Sh*t in the Labour party in the seventies. I remember that while an MP he made a speech in Parliament calling for the Government to round up people of Irish descent who lived in the UK. He went on to suggest that for every person that the IRA murdered that ten innocent Irish people should be executed. An utterly disgusting despicable thing for an MP to propose. When you consider that this man claimed that his Jewish family had suffered NAZI persecution his stance was quite extraordinary. Despite dis tyrannical views what did the Labour party establishment do to censure this monster? Well absolutely nothing! They were completely in the pocket of this shi**y piece of low life!

    PS and he did use to pee on the people below his roof garden.


  4. Douglas Hurd’s eulogy on Maxwell was probably the most vomit inducing thing I have ever heard in 50 years. I dont know whether any tape of it still exists. The sad thing is that Hurd already knew the truth about Maxwell when he uttered his sweet goodbyes and platitudes. Rather than keep his gob shut he was and say nothing about the monster Hurd was arrogant enough to believe that the truth about Maxwell would always be suppressed.


  5. On a lighter side, does anybody remember the Christmas single “I’m a Christmas Cracker” by the Bouncing Czechs? It must be 30 years ago now.

    Well you all know my age anyway, so there is no need to hide it.


  6. Funnily enough Gemz ” I’m a Christmas Cracker” completely passed me by. However at the time I was enthralled by the Christmas single from George Cole and Dennis Waterman of Minder. Their song ” What are we going to get for er indoors” is an absolute must listen for any self respecting doyen of the early eighties post sentimental neo-sarcastic white trash music scene.


  7. They ALL knew the truth about Maxwell-but kept quiet usually because they were paid or afraid. Hurd, of course, falls into a third type, being of the upper class who believe their s**t doesn’t stink and it doesn’t matter what the people are told, because quite simply we don’t matter. I doubt that he even considered whether the truth could be suppressed, because it would be a matter of supreme indifference to him. Utterly loathsome creature.


  8. Gemz

    I’m A Little Christmas Cracker by the Bouncing Czechs circa Christmas 1984 was voted one of the worst ever Christmas records.
    You ought to be ashamed of yourself for even mentioning it.
    I bet you’ve still got the single tucked away somewhere. The ghosts from Christmas past.


  9. Good piece John, even for a colonial reader. Wonder, have you ever seen the US series MADMEN? If so, care to comment on it?


  10. He was also the master of the ‘this collateral is so good why use it just once?’ plot long before it became hypothication.


  11. ‘The avalanche of stories’ didn’t come ‘immediately following the announcement of his death’

    I was impressed at the time by the extreme circumspection of all the newspapers; nobody said a word until the body had been recovered. Even in death the Israeli spy monster could still wield the threat of a libel action.


  12. I am pleased you are going to have some R&R. Having read one of your resent blogs, I thought you were going to explode, with the frustration of all. As I enjoy ‘The Slog’ I would not want that to happen to you.


  13. As one goes through life, one can look back without regret and with satisfaction if one can reflect on the correct analysis of people one encountered on the journey. Of course it gets easier with age, but career should never in the way. This was an obvious case to all, imho, of
    ”go and jump in the lake you fat t*sser”.


  14. @Treefrog

    Have to agree. I despise bullying ‘leaders’, bossess et al as much as the next man. Whilst trying to avoid being unnecessarily unpleasant about them the only way to deal with them is to cut your lossess and move on. That sometimes costs in more ways than one, of course. But the people I reserve my particular contempt for are the sychophants who keep the bully in place. Without them, the Maxwells of the world would end up alone in an empty playground with no-one to play with.

    Similar with The Shred, what about all the people who ‘let’ him happen because of their own interests. Stuff them as well as far as I am conerned.


  15. @Jwoo
    “Similar with The Shred, what about all the people who ‘let’ him happen because of their own interests.”
    Got to agree 100% there sir, in my previous corporate career and in Education I met many of the type you describe. I moved on and wished them well in the cesspool they had created. Never looked back.
    Another day above ground.


  16. @Jwoo: this is an interesting point. I’ve occasionally rejected excuses from people who say “I’m only doing my job” or “I’m only following orders” on similar grounds as you describe.
    If accountability was applied to the rank and file of many orgs especially government, State agencies and the Civil Service, it would have a serious beneficial impact.

    But as far as I can see that concept of accountability was abandoned soon after the Nuremberg trials to the point where today virtually nobody is accountable for anything they do. Hence Cameron’s “we’re all in this together” comments.


  17. When dealing with authority, the individuals always hide behind the power of the authority and claim they are not personally liable.
    This may change with the case being brought personally against a director of MI6 by people who were the subject of extraordinary rendition. It is difficult to see how there can be a proper defence-the action was unlawful.
    Of course the real case should be brought against Jack Straw, who must have known-but that ain’t gonna happen.
    It always intrigues me why no criminal or civil case was brought personally against the customs officers who stole the drink and cigarettes people were perfectly lawfully bringing into the country from other EU countries. I would have.


  18. in fact, he is alive and well and running the late Lord Moynihan’s old massage parlour in Manila in the company of Ron Milhouse, an old con from the Harold Wilson days, who alledgedly collected on a life insurance policy when his wife disappeared from his yacht in the Med some time before Capn Bob. Ron later served time in HK and the UK for his alleged involvement in the hit on the folksinger Frederick of Nina and Frederick fame but is appently still knocking around Manila.


  19. Mick your point about bringing legal action against Customs officers is most interesting. While I am 100% against our membership of the EU, I also respect the rule of law. The EU has evolved out of a Customs Union. There should be no import duties or quotas on any goods moving within the EU. Many years ago I used to be a Customs officer. If I were in that role today I would refuse to be a party to the seizure of booze and fags from law abiding citizens returning from their holidays. In law customs Officers and UK Border Authority officers are ” Constables” in that capacity they can not be instructed to either arrest a person or seize their goods. The various laws regulating their powers require that any individual officer while taking action has to be personaly convinced that their is a reasonable suspicion that a person is breaking a law. In short all Customs/Border officals know that when they seize booze and fags of innocent intra EU travellers that they are acting outside of their powers. I know that many of them are actually very unhappy at having to do this. However they justify themselves by saying that they have received instructions from the very highest level of government to take such action. They assuage their guilt by saying that if they comply with these illegal instructions it allows them to stay in post and perform more valuable work such as catching drug smugglers. Theirs is a pragmatic argument however I very much doubt that it would gain much traction in a Court!



  20. “It always intrigues me why no criminal or civil case was brought personally against the customs officers who stole the drink and cigarettes people were perfectly lawfully bringing into the country from other EU countries. I would have.”

    Right on. I was caught up in that HMC&E racket back in 2001 and I think the reason they didn’t confiscate my goods was because I told the jackbooted bimbo that HMC&E were blatantly violating the Single Market Treaty and my first stop when I arrived home would be at my lawyers offices. I was allowed to go but I did make a formal written complaint to the head of HMC&E (and the EU Commissioner) and some time later, Paul Boateng was removed from office. But we should never forget that his boss at the time was a buffoon by the name of Gordon Brown.


  21. Maxwell owned the research company RSGB, and embezzled the pension fund. This put off a good friend’s retirement for 15 years.
    During WWII, he casually swaggered around in Germany shooting any German officer he captured.


  22. Mick et al
    The other one that always gets me is “But I’m only human”. It was a favourite of my first wife’s. It is almost always the excuse for having done something utterly inhuman.
    Psychiatry started the excuses thing. I started to go wrong when shrinks became fashionable.


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