Why don't you please, Gerry Robinson?

The ruthless head of the Arts Council charms even his enemies. So far. Interview by Rachel Sylvester

The heavies were lying in wait for Gerry Robinson at the Irish ambassador's party during the Labour Party conference in Blackpool. Whiskey flowed as the trade unionists prepared their ambush for the head of Granada and chairman of the Arts Council. They wanted to know why staff at his flagship Grosvenor House Hotel were being asked to sign a piece of paper exempting themselves from the Government's new tranche of workers' rights.

He may be one of Tony Blair's favourite businessmen, but Mr Robinson is a controversial figure. He has a reputation as one of the sharpest operators in business. When he took over Granada and sacked several senior figures, John Cleese famously sent a fax telling this "ignorant upstart caterer" to "f- off out of it". When he captured the Forte hotel business one of the heirs, Olga Polizzi, denounced his corporate raiders as "bastards". Now he is turning his attention to the Arts Council: the 320-strong workforce have learned that more than half of them will have to go.

Mr Robinson is not afraid to make enemies, but he does somehow have the knack of seeming to persuade them that he is their friend. When the animosity of the Granada takeover of Forte had subsided, the staff at the hotel chain made their new boss a video starring him and Rocco Forte at various points during the deal, set to the sound- track of the Frankie Goes to Hollywood hit song: "When Two Tribes go to War". It seemed apt.

This is a man who is charming even in his most ruthless moments. "A split personality," says one acquaintance; "a shark in a Val Doonican sweater," adds another. Few can resist his twinkling eyes, open smile and booming laugh. Some cultural grandees who dismissed him as a "philistine in a suit" when he took over at the Arts Council now praise his determination to change it - although others still moan that he is "selling us down the river". "You'll love him," says one. "He even makes people like him when he's giving them the boot."

The Arts Council chairman is armed with a large coffee pot when I arrive to interview him. "Let me pour you a cup," he beams. "How are you? Tell me about yourself." He is as relaxed about answering questions as asking them. His own life has, he says, not been easy over the past six months. The new job as head of the arts establishment is one of the most difficult he has done. In fact, he turned it down when he was first approached by a headhunter, and was only persuaded to take it on by a deputation led by Lord Puttnam, followed by a personal phone call from the Culture Secretary, Chris Smith. The Tories said the decision to give this Labour supporter (he has given the party a total of pounds 30,000) such a plumb job was another example of "cronyism"; he argues he is "doing the Government a favour", not the other way round. "I didn't want to do it - it's like being the judge at a beauty contest. The girl who wins thinks she should have won anyway; the other 19 think you are a complete idiot because you have chosen the wrong one. There's a definite lose-lose element," he says. "But I've always been passionate about getting something that doesn't work to work."

Mr Robinson is, says one insider, the "battering ram" brought in to "get tough on the luvvies". His pronouncements against elitism in the arts last week were only the latest example of the changes sweeping through the institution. Decisions will be made at local level, leaving more than 150 people redundant in London; grants will be distributed according to the values of "cool Britannia", putting the "tired" organisations which have always relied on state aid out in the cold.

This has annoyed some traditionalists. But the new chairman is determined to knock heads together - even those Nicky Clarke-styled mops at the Royal Opera House. "This job's a gift if you're after the kudos, if you want your knighthood and want to go to all the events for free," he says. "But what's difficult is to genuinely pick it up and make something work. You're going to upset the people who will make the most noise."

Mr Robinson is not bothered by the complaints from people (Sir Peter Hall, Jarvis Cocker and Ben Elton) critical about the Government's handling of the arts. "These are very articulate people and they're passionate - there's a very positive side to that, they're intelligent, they're bright, they're absolutely wrapped up in what they're doing. But there is a capacity to whinge." He pauses. "And they're rather good at it. They play to the audience."

He can't help admiring the artists and writers who occupy his world. "I love the English because they whinge," he says. "It's wonderful when you've been in the US and everything's 'yessir' to get back to Heathrow and be told that they've lost your luggage and they don't care." John Mortimer is, he says, "just great - did you see that thing he said about 'bugger the listeners'? - fantastic, he just says what he thinks."

But he despises the inefficient managers who are wasting the scant funds available for the arts. "There's a direct correlation between those who are not up to the job that they're doing and their capacity to speak about how awful it is, almost a one-to-one correlation," he says. The Royal Opera House is obviously top of his mind. "Yes, it's been a fiasco. It's a pity, because it's come to symbolise the arts at their worst. In retrospect it probably wasn't the smartest thing in the world to give the first major grant to that." He would like to see tax breaks for private donations to the arts in order to encourage a more professional attitude in the way theatres and galleries are run.

Mr Robinson is frustrated that the opera house has so occupied the attention of the media, because he wants to change the Arts Council's image from an elite establishment to a broad-based champion of the people. He talks enthusiastically about plans to stage opera performances at the start of football matches, to bus people from council estates to see Hamlet, and to subsidise projected art in nightclubs. His own children, aged seven and three, listen to a piece of classical music each day on the way to school as part of their cultural education. "My own tastes are at the wrong end of this argument," he says. "I love opera, I enjoy ballet, I adore the theatre."

His taste is on the light side; he likes Verdi and Donizetti. The best plays he has seen recently are Oklahoma! and Steward of Christendom, at the Royal Court. He is reading Sebastian Faulks's new novel Charlotte Gray and before that Louis de Bernieres's Captain Corelli's Mandolin. "If you think of the books on that best-seller list, I will have worked my way through them," he says. "But I don't read Jeffrey Archer - that populism leaves me cold. And the Spice Girls don't appeal. I'm a terrible old fogey."

The Government could not have found a more different chairman of the Arts Council to his predecessor. Lord Gowrie, educated at Eton and Balliol, could, Mr Robinson says, have been "invented to do the job - he was born into the establishment." The new man was born in the village of Dunfanaghy in Donegal (population 280) the ninth out of 10 children of a carpenter. He has gone far, but puts it down to "luck combined with certain attributes - the fact that you're intolerant or have drive."

Although he spent most of his teenage years in Lancashire, he still thinks of himself as Irish. "There's something useful about being outside a society, because you can't be pigeonholed," he says. He was going to be a Catholic priest, but dropped out of seminary when he lost his faith. "It's still a source of disappointment to my mum, but girls were more interesting." The Hackney Jobcentre sent him to cost control at Matchbox toys, starting a business career which led him to become head of Coca-Cola (UK) at the age of 35. He made his first fortune with a management buyout of Grand Met's contract catering division in 1988 and has increased it several times over since then.

His style is "hands-off" or "lazy" - depending who you talk to. He spends a three day weekend with his family in Ireland, and does only a few hours Arts Council duties a week. "In any company there are only 12 important decisions a year - you can delegate the rest," he says. "The same is true of life. In fact there are probably fewer than 12 in a whole life." He identifies his own major decisions: to drop out of seminary, to launch the management buyout and to leave his first wife for his secretary. He doesn't plan to fret about the arts. "It's very hard to let the problems of the Royal Opera House keep you awake at night when you've spent the day digging in the garden."

For so successful a businessman he seems oddly unambitious. "I would never go into politics," he says. "It's too imprecise. You can't make decisions if all the time you're looking over your shoulder to see what's popular." This disregard for public opinion is the secret of his success. It has worked in the private sector; whether it will work in the Arts Council remains to be seen. "Few things are achieved if you are frightened of the consequences," he says. "Things have got to be different when we've finished otherwise what's the point of going through all this pain?" The ruthlessness bursts through momentarily, then the charm returns. He walks me to the door and kisses me on both cheeks, as if we are the oldest and best of friends.

Ministerial wisdom

"You cannot get the message across loud enough that the central theme of what we want to happen is the notion of art for everyone."

CHRIS SMITH

"Majorism has a kindlier face towards the arts."

TIM RENTON

"The arts are managing to survive."

PAUL CHANNON

"Diffusion of culture is now so much a part of life that there is no point at which it stops."

JENNIE LEE

"When I think of all the years that Covent Garden had to put its house in order... and failed to do so. Frankly, I also feel a bit sore that having gone on bended knee to me when I was in government to find money for the Coliseum to be done up, they then wanted a new opera house when the National Lottery money came along. This was management in Fairyland. Putting a bomb under them, in those circumstances, was necessary." (November 1997)

DAVID MELLOR

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