THE PARTY BOYS
Waheed Alli - who's just become a peer at 34 - and Charlie Parsons are young, gay and very, very rich. Rachel Sylvester profiles the `yoof TV' tycoons who are at the heart of the New Labour establishment
Sunday 06 September 1998
In the old days this scene would have been set in the inherited pile of a Conservative lord. Crusty grey-haired men in Savile Row suits would have sipped port after dinner and gone fox-hunting the next day. But last month this party near Tenterden in Kent - a double celebration for Charlie Parsons' 40th birthday and Waheed Alli's elevation to the House of Lords - was devoutly New Labour.
The multi-millionaire heads of Planet 24, one of the most successful independent television companies in Britain, may not be household names. But this couple - young, media-conscious, gay, and one of them Asian - is at the heart of the new British establishment. "Waheed and Charlie", as everyone calls them, are the subject of awe, admiration and fascination in both the political and television worlds. They're the people the telly researchers gossip about in the pub on a Friday night, the ones the MPs call the "men in the dark" operating around 10 Downing Street. The great and the good are regularly invited for dinner at their Georgian house in Islington, or for weekends of party games and the housekeeper's "wonderful" pea soup in Kent. When Peter Mandelson was drawing up the Labour Party general election "grid" - the day-by-day war plan for the campaign - he stayed at their Kent mansion. When Mo Mowlam flew back after signing the Good Friday agreement she headed straight to their home. They are already influential - but as Labour makes its presence felt in Whitehall, they will become more powerful still.
Yet the couple are notoriously private. Alli has only ever done one interview (as his press officer boasts repeatedly), and that was back in 1994. Parsons is slightly less publicity-shy, but still only tolerates, rather than enjoys, lunches with journalists, wolfing his food down in five minutes flat, knees jiggling with pent-up energy. Many of their friends and acquaintances will speak about them - even in the most glowing terms - only on condition of anonymity, as if their membership of the Waheed and Charlie circle depends on some unwritten contract. But the secrecy simply adds to their mystique.
IT IS Alli who is the political mover and shaker. He is the person the Prime Minister rings on the mobile phone when he wants to know what young people think, whom Chris Smith asks for an inside account of the broadcasting world, whom Robin Cook appointed to reinvent the country's image abroad (via the Foreign Office's committee for cool, "Panel 2000"). Alli turned Labour's party political broadcasts from the traditional address to the nation into mini- dramas (starring that swoony new cinematic heartthrob, Tony Blair); he helped organise Elton John's "peace concert" in Belfast. His appointment at the age of 34 as Britain's youngest life peer was not only a sign of favour from the new administration, it was a symbol of the way the Government intends to change the traditional order of things, an emblem of the Prime Minister's beloved "New Britain".
But Parsons has been no less influential within the television establishment. In a sense, he reinvented television in much the same way Mandelson reinvented the Labour Party. Along with Janet Street-Porter, he was one of the primary creators of "yoof TV" - the anarchic, presenter-driven format which first appeared in the Eighties show Network Seven, and was later developed by Parsons in The Word. Both were irreverent, self- consciously post-modern - TV for the twentysomething, low-attention- span generation. To the Daily Mail, it was tabloid telly, dumbing-down, cultural pornography. To commissioning editors, it was a gold mine - a way to win back the 15- to 35-year-olds who at the time were switching off in droves.
When Michael Grade wanted to spruce up Channel 4's early-morning output in the early Nineties, he turned to Parsons. While the BBC dressed its presenters in diamond-patterned jumpers and sat them on a sofa, Parsons got Paula Yates to lie on a bed in a series of low-cut tops and flirt outrageously with her guests. Within weeks The Big Breakfast had 1.5m viewers, and Planet 24, its production company, was confirmed as a spectacular success.
Planet 24 is the money-making machine behind Alli and Parsons, now said to be worth pounds 10m each. It has enabled them to lead a lifestyle of legendary glamour - the "extraordinary" holidays in the Caribbean, the flying lessons so that Alli could helicopter between London and Kent, the lavishing of Prada bags and Paul Smith shirts on staff. Then there are the infamous Planet 24 Christmas parties (which other companies queue up to sponsor, knowing that le tout London will be there): the one in the "Ark" building in west London, where flavoured vodka flowed all night and lasers lit up the huge, empty office spaces; the one where invitees had to bring a trendy accessory - competition was so intense that one girl brought her 85-year-old grandmother in the ultimate ironic gesture.
"Planet 24 is incredibly Eighties," one former employee says, "all glamour and nastiness - but it's very seductive. It has this fiery creative force, which is very exciting to be around when you're young. When the Canary Wharf bomb went off, the Planet building was the first one on that road not to be destroyed - that's typical of them. It's a modern-day fairy story. And they are suitably mythical characters."
The backgrounds of these two 20th-century heroes could not be more different. Alli, the son of first-generation immigrants, left his south-London comprehensive at 16, because he had to support his parents, a South American mechanic and a West Indian nurse. Now he dresses in tailor-made three-piece suits, has a regular table at The Ivy, and travels in a Jaguar driven by a traditional English chauffeur. Parsons, on the other hand, is a clean-cut, public- school smoothie. He grew up in a nice middle-class family in Kent and spent his holidays messing about with a model railway. These days, he is most comfortable in jeans, and is too busy thinking to worry about food or cars.
When Alli left school, he ignored the careers master's advice to become a bus conductor (the same teacher had told all the white boys to become doctors and lawyers) and paid a visit to the Job Centre. There were two vacancies on offer that day - one as a trainee solicitor and the other as a researcher for a small business magazine called Planned Savings. Alli applied for the first and was turned down, then sent in his CV for the second and got it. He found he had a natural aptitude for figures and became an expert at breaking down pages of data, coming up with the handful of crucial numbers investors needed. His tips became legendary and to his surprise he was headhunted by Save and Prosper as head of investment research. It was the 1980s, the era of Thatcherite yuppiedom, and he went on to become a publisher, then a financial consultant earning pounds 1,000 a day. He wowed the banking world ("extraordinary ability, an amazing man", according to one grey-suited pillar of the establishment ) and in return it made him rich. But Alli was looking for something more creative.
It was at this point, in 1992, that he met Charlie Parsons. Parsons had just teamed up with Bob Geldof to form Planet 24 - an outfit of such youthful cool that its name was rumoured to be inspired by the average age of its staff. Parsons knew that no one would take them seriously unless they had a businessman behind them. But he didn't want a boring City type who would make them tone down their ideas and refuse to let them take risks. Alli was the perfect compromise.
He set up a management structure - complete with graduate- trainee scheme and lots of cheap and eager work-experience staff ("total exploitation", grumbles one). He moved the company to Docklands, where he rented office space for a fraction of the price competitors were paying in Soho; he knocked through three terraced houses in the East End to create the set of The Big Breakfast. And he set about turning Planet 24 from a group of programme-makers into a business with an annual turnover close to pounds 20m and a staff of 200. Within months, the best researchers and producers were rejecting jobs at Panorama and going to work on the latest Planet venture.
INDIVIDUALLY, Parsons and Alli had been doing well, but together their careers went into orbit. Duncan Gray, a former Planet 24 producer and now controller of entertainment at Granada Television, says theirs is a "marriage made in heaven. At his best, Charlie was the most brilliantly creative person I ever sat in a room with, and Waheed had very sound business instincts. What they have done is to wring the maximum commercial advantage out of their creativity by marketing themselves ruthlessly." Which is, of course, what Tony Blair has done for the Lab our Party.
Parsons has an astonishing instinct for spotting the people who will be next year's stars - Chris Evans, Gaby Roslin, Zoe Ball and Mark Lamarr are only a few of the unknowns signed up by Planet 24. "You will trawl the country for months looking for possible presenters," one former employee says. "Then when you're just about to go mad Charlie will say `That's the one' - and usually he's right."
But it is Alli who takes the ideas and packages them. While it was Charlie who dreamt up the idea for The Big Breakfast, it was Waheed who submitted the proposal - not, like the 31 other production companies who were competing for the slot, on two sheets of A4, but on the back of a cornflake packet. "They've always been three steps ahead of everyone else," one television executive said.
Their secret has been to keep innovating and expanding. There was Hotel Babylon: "truly appalling", said one former employee, "but fantastic for European franchises". They have made a fortune from selling formats abroad - one series about desert-island survival has been a massive hit in Sweden, but never reached the airwaves here.
Gaytime TV was another ground-breaking experiment. Neil Crombie, its editor, says: "It was a bold step to do a gay show that threw off PC solemnness, didn't buy into the culture of complaint. That flowed from their basic programme philosophy, which is a delight in pushing the boundaries out, being deliberately frivolous where others will be earnest." So far it has worked - when Channel 4 was about to axe The Big Breakfast, Planet 24 pulled Denise van Outen and Johnny Vaughan out of a hat and produced The Bigger Breakfast. Alli, conscious that the loss of that daily slot would be a financial disaster, now gets up at 5.30 every morning to go to the set and keep it on the rails.
Charlie and Waheed's personalities are also complementary. Parsons can, by all accounts, be "difficult". "He'll have huge temper tantrums, screaming matches with people and sack staff on the spot," one former colleague says. But Alli holds the thing together, snuggling up to presenters on the sofa, sending flowers to producers and commissioning editors on first nights. Colleagues detect a "piranha instinct" under the charm. This surfaced spectacularly two years ago when Parsons and Alli fell out with their "golden boy" Sebastian Scott, an old friend who had helped create The Big Breakfast. There was a huge row in which Planet 24 accused Scott of trying to help a rival company bid for a new afternoon series, then sued him for breach of contract. In a typical gesture, the writ was delivered at his birthday party. "They're pretty ruthless," one former employee says. "I think they're great, but I wouldn't want to be on the wrong side of them."
Alli's sense of control is more carefully hidden than Parsons' - but it is there. "He's like a swan," one friend said, "graceful and elegant on the surface, legs paddling frantically under the water. If you're having dinner at The Ivy, the evening will quite gracefully and naturally end at one minute to 10, when he will get up, walk to the door - and at that precise moment his chauffeur Ashley will arrive. The whole thing has been minutely timed, but you never realise it."
ACCORDING to Neil Crombie, the latest Charlie and Waheed innovation is to "grow up". "Planet 24 is moving on from high jinks and pranks to mainstream TV - it used to be The Word, now it's Watercolour Challenge. They know yoof TV was a short-lived boom, it was never going to last - and any company has to adapt to survive." Friends say this professional maturity has been accompanied by more seriousness in their personal lives. "They're very respectable these days," one says. "Their parties used to be wilder with more alcohol and lots of cute boys around, now there are politicians. They used to have a DJ, now it's string quartets and party games."
This coincides, of course, with Alli's move into politics, which sealed their position at the heart of the New Labour establishment. His elevation to the Lords in June was no surprise to those who know him, either in television or the Labour Party.
Parsons is sympathetic to the New Labour cause - but he is not a political campaigner. At Oxford, he set up the Happy Party, which campaigned against earnestness and all forms of student activism. Alli, by contrast, has been a member of Labour since his teens. Ministers respect him because they say he is not like the other "luvvies" who have pledged their devotion to the cause since the party became successful. "He's genuinely committed," one member of the Cabinet said, "he takes it very seriously."
Last year Alli considered standing as an MP - he even got as far as drafting a CV and campaign leaflet for the constituency of Bethnal Green and Bow, where the Blairites were worried about what they saw as a "dangerous" local Bengali candidate. "We said, `Okay, you're going to have to make up some Labour Party involvement'," one New Labour insider said. "And he said, `It's okay, I was chairman of the local ward.' He's had a genuine political interest for some time."
In the end, Alli decided not to put his name forward and concentrated on helping at Labour's Millbank Tower headquarters. He would turn up in the afternoon, having done a full day's work at Planet 24, and ask what he could do. Friends say that, as a peer, he can use his skills as a "strategist" better than he ever could as an MP. "His business brain would be wasted in a constituency; he's much better behind the scenes," one Government source said.
Alli's peerage was seized on by the Tories as further evidence of cronyism at the heart of New Labour - but in fact his political activities show him in a better light personally than his media ones. Through the Labour Party, he has become close to Peter Mandelson, Chris Smith, his constituency MP in Islington, and Mo Mowlam - but his best political friend remains Margaret McDonagh, the new Labour general secretary. "She's not the one you get in with if you want to go to Downing Street receptions," one activist said, "but she is if you actually want to do something for the Party." There were no celebrities invited to the lunch after his introduction to the Lords: just his family, some long-term friends, Margaret McDonagh and her sister Siobhain, the new MP for Mitcham and Morden. On the night of the local council elections, Alli was in her constituency - where, by coincidence, his mother lives - making tea for the canvassers. Every year he runs the bar for the Mitcham and Morden Christmas bash, held in a local church hall. At his recent party in Kent, Alli spent much of the evening speaking - not to the glamorous stars but to a group of constituents. "We had a reception in my house for party members recently," Siobhain McDonagh says."He was there at the end doing the washing-up - you'd never think he's a multi-millionaire. And he's not somebody who's come along just as 'Labour's got successful."
Derek Draper, the former lobbyist, agrees that Alli is not hanging on to New Labour's coat-tails for the sake of glamour. "When I was in trouble he rang; he didn't waste any time saying, `I'm thinking of you.' He said, `Is there anything you need?' I said, `Yes, I need lawyers,' and he put me in touch with some brilliant ones. He's a very good friend to have because he helps in very practical ways."
His business brain is certainly hard at work trying to help the Government save money. Friends say Alli already has his eye on the Treasury, where he would like to turn his attention to paring down the national debt - interestingly, his maiden speech was not, as had been predicted, about the gay age of consent, but in an obscure debate on the Finance Bill. He is much too canny to be pigeon-holed as the "gay Lord" and already has his mind on weightier matters. Despite his lack of government experience, Alli is almost certain to become a minister in the next couple of years - both Chris Smith and Peter Mandelson have made it clear that they would like him in their departments.
At that point the fairy tale for this working-class boy will be complete - but Parsons, the cossetted middle-class kid, will still be making TV programmes. "The big question now," says one friend, "is has Waheed really succeeded and Charlie not?" In the old days it would have been natural for the public school, Oxbridge-educated high-flyer to get to the top. In the new British establishment the order appears to have been reversed - though, as Duncan Gray says: "Waheed and Charlie are deeply conservative people, with a small `c'. They may have made their money differently to the Tory grandees of the past but they still want to be at the epicentre of power." Perhaps more than anything, Alli and Parsons are evidence that some things never change - the establishment, whatever its colour, will always survive. !
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