Last Night's Television: Rich Man, Poor Man - A Knight's Tale, BBC4

Money isn't everything
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The Independent Culture

Rich Man, Poor Man – a Knight’s Tale fell into the awful trap of assuming that the very rich are very interesting. Anyone who spends much time in their company will soon let you into the big secret: the ratio of fascinating to dull plutocrats isabout the same as it is for postmen. “Business is business and I don’t really get toostrung up on it,” the country’s 168th richest man told his interviewers during the documentary, prosaically, giving little away about how he came to be worth some £325m.

A shame, that. Inexplicably,the programme-makers failed to mention that Sir John Madejski made much of his vast fortune from Auto Trader. He apparently got the idea in the 1970s during a trip to Florida where he saw a magazine that used photos to sell cars. Now, that’s interesting, much more so than gawping at Madejski’s new and old mansions, various Rolls-Royce and Bentley cars, his art collection and his friend Cilla Black – “John is my best friend. John is my mentor now.” This crucial chapter in the Madejski story – how he made enough money to afford and attract such trappings– was omitted from this account of his life, hinted at only from a slightly insulting description of him as “honest John, the car salesman”.

Not revealing. We did, though, get a better idea of what he’s up to now. In the show’s words, “no local pie goes unfingered” by the King of Reading. Much the most touching aspect of Madejski is his local patriotism for a place that few others seem to cherish, especially its town planners. But Madejski does, judging the local “Has Reading Got Talent?” contest apparently with as much pride as he had in watching Tony Blair open the Reading city academy that our man funded.

The gigantic Lutyens-style mansion he’s building in Berkshire for himself, complete with turret, has magnificent views – of Reading. He’s trying to redevelop a particularly ugly part of his home town, though the credit crunch seems to have stymied that. Madejski is the chair of Reading football club, which he took from receivership to Premiership, though he’s now trying to offload it – to someone “completely stupid” with very deep pockets. He is Chancellor of Reading University. He is Deputy Lieutenant of the Royal County of Berkshire. He got an honorary fellowship from Henley Management College, which he has endowed, one of his many generous contributions to charity that bear his name. Literally: the Madejski Stadium; the John Madejski Fine Rooms at the Royal Academy; the John Madejski Academy.

Except it isn’t his name, in the sense that he was born illegitimate as a Hughes and his father’s name was different again.Madejski is the name of a Polish pilot who married Madejski’s single mum during the war. MrsM was glimpsed in the film, but, rather like 1950s newsreels of the Queen, the sound was deferentially turned off during her appearance, and as the commentary said, “There was little to see of the relationship that made John Madejski the man he is”, which was another maddening gap in the Knight’s tale.

There was one strange sequence, like something out of a Louis Theroux encounter when he was seen chatting to an incredibly lifelike bronze figure of a girl in bikini. But apart from females in sculptural form, we didn’t meet any of the women in his life. Well, apart from Cilla, and there isn’t much surprise, surprise about her. The new house seemsto have an unusually large number of portraits of Madejski himself dotted around the place, and he was filmed having another one done. Perhaps he thinks he can gain insight from that, or maybe he’s just vain.

He seemed a bit lonely to me, and I wasn’t convinced about some of his friends. He has evidently been tortured by his early life and illegitimacy, more on his late mum’s behalf that his own, but he is hardly unique in that. She resisted telling him about his origins, again not so very unusual in that generation. We saw no pics of his adoptive father, who is not recalled with any great affection. “I was a bit pass the parcel. It left me with a chip on my shoulder. I needed to assert myself no doubt subconsciously. I thought, ‘Right, I’ll show you all.’”#

Madejski did discover that, contrary to family folklore and “through thewonders of DNA testing”, his biological father did not die in the war, and he does have half-brothers and sisters– and feels much more at ease in his own skin than he used to having cleared all that up. He is even thinking of naming his new-build home after his real father. But, unlike the constant revelations dredged up in Who Do You Think You Are?, we never found out what happened to Madejski’s dad, or whether he ever regretted not keeping in touch with his businessman son, or even whether he is still alive (though he would be extremely old). After watching a film that promised too much, I too felt that I’d missed out on getting to know John better.