A date with Caprice
From celebrities in wet muslin, to pop stars, the Arsenal football team and this year's best of breed, calendar king Laurence Prince is the Pygmalion of pin-ups, says E Jane Dickson. Portrait by Trevor Ray Hart
Laurence Prince is the managing director of Danilo, the UK's leading manufacturer of licensed "celebrity" calendars, with more than 100 titles currently in print. Prince's top signings for 1999 include Michael Owen, Robbie Williams, Natalie Imbruglia, Boyzone, Cliff Richard, Dannii Minogue, the Arsenal football team and a best-of-breed West Highland terrier, a spread of interests that ensures that in just about every household, garage and post-room in the land there is a calendar-shaped space that is forever Danilo.
In his richly veneered office, Prince, a short, brisk man with highly active eyebrows, is beaming, as well he might. "Danilo's annual turnover is currently in excess of pounds 9million and we're looking to double that in the next five years," he reports. And every penny of this, he is at pains to make clear, comes from properly licensed goods. Danilo's celebrities earn a royalty from every copy sold - a nice little "Christmas box" of up to pounds 200,000 for the best-selling stars. In the cut-throat world of calendar production, the bootleg editions sold on every high street are public enemy No 1.
"Just say," says Prince, heroically hypothetical, "that I was going to produce a calendar for you. If I was in America, you could stop me. But in this country the courts just don't give protection to the licensed and official producers.
"Take Caprice," he goes on, rather more probably. "There are plenty of unofficial Caprice calendars out there, but they're rubbish. The packaging may look the same, but when you look through it, it's full of pictures you've seen in magazines. They'll have Caprice going into a restaurant or coming out of a premiere, but I guarantee," he says, patting Caprice's official pouting image as if it were a talisman, "that they haven't got these kinds of pictures."
Danilo calendar shots are photographed in conditions of strictest privacy, and you can tell by the way that Prince rolls the formula "secret location" around his mouth that he enjoys this part of the process tremendously. He personally superintends his "star shoots" and, while shooting Caprice on a secluded beach in Portugal, was outraged to discover photographers "from a very famous newspaper, I won't say more than that" snapping Caprice's assets for free with telephoto lenses. "It's like you getting undressed at home and somebody taking a picture," he begins, but the image doesn't quite catch and he lets it drop.
Displayed in his office, alongside endless shots of him grinning matily at the elbow of "names" from John Major to Paul Gascoigne, is an official Graceland award for being the longest-serving Elvis licensee. Prince, who served his apprenticeship as a compositor in the printing business, had moved into sales when "The King" died, and he had the idea of producing an Elvis memorial calendar. Showing extraordinary enterprise, Prince and a friend tracked down Colonel Parker, Presley's famously reclusive business manager and secured the rights to the only official, Graceland-approved calendar.
"That's where it all started," says Prince. "Then I progressed to David Bowie, Cliff Richard and to working with film studios to promote new films, followed by more pop and sports stars." The son of an East End antiques trader, Prince has dealing in his blood. "I was pulled up by the local council for selling, while I was under-age, from a stall in Petticoat Lane," he recalled, proudly.
But the volatile calendar market requires more than just entrepreneurial skills. Sales peak at the Christmas period, although Danilo has adopted the US "added-value" system of the 16-month calendar to encourage year-round sales. You have to be quick (the current B*witched calendar was turned round in just three weeks) and you have to take risks. Speculating on which celebrities will be the hottest tickets come Christmas takes a cool nerve and a precise mixture of expertise and instinct. Just occasionally, Prince's "nose" has let him down. A Richard Clayderman calendar famously "stiffed" - "I still think he's a great entertainer," says Prince, loyally - but much more often than not, he is right.
"At the beginning of 1998, if I had said I was going to produce a Michael Owen calendar, they would have said I was completely mad. But I was watching the World Cup, like every other person in this country, and I suddenly had The Idea," says Prince, who clearly relishes his role as Pygmalion of the pin-ups. "Michael is such an incredible guy," he goes on. "He's a handsome boy and a clean- living person, but you have to remember that this is a boy who has been catapulted to stardom, so he needs looking after. He turned up on the day of the shoot at a secret location in central England with just the clothes he was standing up in. So we went in to town and bought a load of stuff for him - I won't say what store because that would be an endorsement - then we sent them back the following day and said they didn't fit." It has to be said that in the finished calendar, Owen looks faintly embarrassed by his Man-at-C&A look, like a well-mannered boy forced to wear the new Christmas shirt his auntie bought him, but this will do him no harm at all with his teeny fans.
If Prince is not above cutting the odd corner, he is not ungenerous. This summer, accompanied by the lovely Caprice, he presented a cheque for pounds 100,000 to Great Ormond St Children's Hospital. The money represented all the profits of his one-off Diana, Princess of Wales memorial calendar. Less scrupulous entrepreneurs might have seen this as the archetypal licence to print money, but Prince stands firm. "Maybe my policy is wrong," he says with perfect rectitude, "but I think I run a successful company and I think that with that, you have got to have a certain amount of morals."
On the politically vexed issue of the girlie calendars, he allows himself a little more latitude. "I'm not after the dirty raincoat brigade," he says firmly. "Our calendars are not top-shelf material. I know we do topless calendars, but if you look at them, they're not really what you would call topless. I'm not a pornographer. I have my own family [Prince has been married for 28 years and Danilo is named after his three grown-up children, Daniel, Nicola and Louise] and I wouldn't like my kids to see pornographic material. But on the same basis, I don't think you can have censorship and dictate what people want. If I don't bring out a topless calendar, someone else will, so what do you do?"
It is not perhaps the most compelling argument, but certainly Prince's calendar girls trust him with their assets. "I've had a lot of experience with models," he says, with no hint of lubriciousness. "They know that I know what sells and, without mentioning names, a lot of the girls come to me for a calendar. I had a model in here four months ago, a very attractive young lady, sitting where you are now. I won't mention names, I refuse to do that, but she came in and at the end of the interview she said, 'Look, the difference between me and all the supermodels is this' - and she took them out right there across the desk from me - 'mine are real and theirs are false.' And I thought, 'This is fabulous!'"
Occasionally, Prince exercises his own rules of censorship. At the beginning of last year he struck a deal with the game-show hostess Emma Noble, but when Ms Noble became engaged to James Major, son of the former prime minister, it was clear, says Prince, that the original ideas for the calendar were "no longer appropriate". The 1999 Emma Noble calendar that he ended up with is a hilarious exercise in hoiking the genre upmarket. In poses designed presumably to appeal to the Huntingdon smart set, Emma appears variously as a jaunty gymkhana girl in plaits and jodhpurs who has simply forgotten to put on her top, an ice sculptress and, most bizarrely, a lady doctor taking a rest mid-shift in white coat, stethoscope and frilly undies. "Maybe," suggests Prince, "John and Norma will buy them for Christmas presents for their friends." Who, after all, is he, to question the punters? The recent upsurge in sales of boy calendars including the new "Site for Sore Eyes" issue, featuring hunky builders in states of sweaty undress, suggest what Prince quaintly terms "a more unisex market". "Let's put it this way," he says, "I think members of the Cabinet are now buying our calendars.
"Basically, concludes Prince, "we'll produce what's wanted." Society, he honestly believes, gets the calendars it deserves, and maybe there are worse barometers of public taste. Certainly Prince's real zeal for his calling is unfeigned. For Laurence Prince, you are left in no doubt, every day is a red letter day
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