Interview: Just don't mention the Spam fritters: Tim Bell, PR guru, has fought a few battles in his time: for his heroine Mrs T, for David Mellor . . . and now he's taking the flak over D-Day

There was a large Jaguar drifting around, looking for a parking space outside the Mayfair offices of Lowe Bell, public relations advisers to the discerning classes. Sir Tim Bell, chairman of said firm, was entering the front door. 'That's the executive in charge of our D- Day account,' he said, watching the Jaguar fail to find a space. 'Let's hope he can't park. I don't think I want to hear any more bad news about D-Day.'

This talent for self-deprecation, mocking himself and his work, has been missing in the torrent of words - most of them abusive - flung at Tim Bell these past 20 years. Not surprising that this element in his nature has been hidden: he hasn't given a newspaper interview for 25 years. So we only presume he's a total baddie, the cunning manipulator behind Margaret Thatcher, the conduit for captains of industry, the mouthpiece for foreign leaders as he tries to persuade us that deep down they are lovely human beings.

The latest rubbishing began when his firm was paid pounds 62,500 to advise the Government on next month's anniversary. It all turned - no, not nasty, funny really, when Dame Vera Lynn rose up against the idea of Spam fritter contests.

We sat down in his office, surrounded by framed newspapers. Actors have theatre bills. Footballers have medals. A bit harder for PRs to garner concrete proof of their existence, but he had managed a goodly number of headlines representing a triumph for his hidden art.

'I'll take my jacket off, if you don't mind, even though it will show how fat I am. You'll find me extremely unprecious. I don't take myself too seriously. Some people think that could be a fault. Of course there are days I do feel quite self-important, but really I haven't felt self-important since, oh, I was in my teens. So go on, ask me anything.'

Are you really an Australian? (It rarely pays to ask a hard question, first off.)

'My mother was Australian, I was born in London. My father was Irish, served in the RAF, then became a rep for Crosse & Blackwell. One day in Manchester he saw this man with a hump. He went up to him and said, 'Can I touch your hump?' The man said, 'That's most unusual, people don't normally comment on my hump. Would you like a job?' He turned out to be a boss of Pan Am Airways - and he gave my father a job in South Africa.

'While he was in South Africa, he turned to radio broadcasting. Remember Uncle Mac, on our radio during the war? My Dad became Uncle Paddy in South Africa. When I went out recently, to advise President de Klerk on his election campaign, I found that people still remembered Uncle Paddy. In fact, they knew more about him than I did. He left my mother when I was about four years old, but that's another story . . .' He does tell them well, our Tim, no wonder Mrs T found him so entertaining.

Age 52, brought up in north London, educated at Queen Elizabeth's Grammar School, Barnet, good O- and A-levels, but decided against university. Seems strange, as his mother had remarried, to a solicitor, the sort of background where parents might insist on higher education.

'I didn't fancy university. They wore duffle coats, smoked pipes and liked trad jazz, whereas I wore Italian suits and liked modern jazz. I played the trumpet in a band, and did have hopes of becoming professional, but I just wanted to start work and earn some money.'

He began at ABC Television, on pounds 7 a week, then after two years moved into advertising, rising spectacularly through the ranks, becoming managing director and then chairman of Saatchi & Saatchi.

'I started on what was considered the down-market side, media buying, never on the creative side. Basically, I was a suit.' In his days as a Saatchi boss he was renowned for having his chauffeur drive him from the office in Charlotte Street to lunch at the Etoile - all of 200 yards away. True? 'Oh, absolutely true. I liked to use the car phone, and to be seen arriving with a chauffeur. As a kid, I always hoped I'd be the sort of person who could walk into restaurants and be well known.'

It was through Saatchi's work with the Conservative Party that he met Mrs Thatcher - then carried on working for her personally when he left advertising for PR. His company, Lowe Bell, is now the second biggest PR firm in the country, employing 160, and is worth pounds 20m. It is about to go public, which should make him personally about pounds 2m. This will be his second killing. He netted pounds 4m, pre- tax, when he sold his Saatchi shares. He has a splendid house in Belgravia and drives a Bentley.

'I'm not rich. I'm well off.' Do explain the difference. 'Rich people have more money than they can ever spend. Well-off people have enough to live well without borrowing.

'I'm a capitalist, always have been. The only problem until now is that I've had no capital. The Saatchi money went on the house and other things, some of them foolish, such as clothes.

'I wouldn't say I was obsessed by money. What has obsessed me is having a successful career.' Which you have, no question, so what's the secret?

'My only real strength is objectivity. I try not to bring my own opinions to bear on someone's problem. I'm a bridge between the maker of something and the market they want to reach. In advertising, you are using paid-for media. In public relations, you are looking for third-party endorsement. Advertising is controllable. PR isn't.

'One-third of the accounts are straightforward launches, offering opportunities. One-third is basically communication, keeping the name alive. Only the other third is what one might call people with problems.'

David Mellor had a problem and came to you - and ever since you have been mocked and criticised for advising him to have that photo opportunity with his family. 'He's a friend who asked for my advice. He couldn't use his Civil Service office, as it was a private affair. The tabloids had had a five-day extravaganza, in which things had been totally fabricated, pure invention, later admitted to be false. It was David's idea to have the family photo, to disprove something which had been said. I said it would look phoney, don't do it. But he decided he wanted it - and I agreed to help organise it.'

What about Sir Ian MacGregor, chairman of the Coal Board? Your firm is supposed to have got a nice fee for advising him to wear a light suit on television so his dandruff wouldn't show. 'Perfectly true, but of course we did a lot more, which was never known.' Well done. But surely now and again you make mistakes.

'Loads of times. I remember Colin Moynihan asking me about the Pamella Bordes story. I told him not to worry, it was only a one-day wonder. I got that completely wrong.'

It's also been said you worked to get Baroness Thatcher her consultancy with a tobacco company. 'I don't work for her. She is just a friend. Anyway, I think you'll find the story is untrue.'

OK, so untrue or unfair stories about you keep on being repeated. If you are so good at PR, why can't you handle your own better? 'Because sections of the press tell fibs.' Haven't you told the odd fib in your time? 'Yes, of course.' He paused. 'Let's say I've sometimes handled things badly, when I've been rung at 5.30pm, when a paper's going to bed, and been asked for a comment. I've also been economical with the truth, in the sense of not giving more information about a client than I need to.

'The thing is, being in PR, the press are out to get you, and they have become very malicious. They don't like the fact that I'm Sir Tim Bell, but I'm proud of my knighthood. It's a manifestation of Mrs Thatcher saying 'Well done.' Columnists like to attack PRs as trivialisers of modern life.'

Are you suggesting that PR is important? 'No. PR is not important to society, but it has a function in society. It doesn't make the world a better place, but it does serve a practical purpose. Advertising and public relations are bastions of free speech.

'I love journalism and journalists. The British press is still the best in the world. I've just had to be tough when they set out to get me, and not let it hurt, but it does hurt my family.'

He and his wife, Virginia, who is 16 years his junior, were married in 1988 and have two children, five-year-old Daisy and three-year-old Harry.

He was married before, but this marriage is not mentioned in Who's Who. Why not? 'I don't know.' Oh, come on. Must be a reason. 'I married my first wife when I was 23. After five years, we realised it hadn't worked out and we parted, but we remained friends. She died later of cancer. We had no children.'

Two years ago, he found he had cancer of the colon. 'I naturally blamed my life of self-indulgence, but I'm told it's genetic. I suddenly started getting the most awful stomach pains, lost a hell of a lot of weight, and then had internal bleeding. I won't go through all the tests and stuff. On one vital day, when I was supposed to eat nothing, I was invited to the banquet at Buckingham Palace for the Sultan of Brunei, one of my clients. I couldn't miss that. The doctors weren't very pleased.

'Anyway, I've had the operation and chemotherapy, and everything seems fine, though they say you need to live five years to count as clear.

'I was petrified at the time. When I lay in hospital recovering, I did plan to change my life. I haven't really. My biggest fear in life is still the same: boredom. But I do spend more time with my kids.'

Is Lady Thatcher still your heroine? 'Certainly. I have met some remarkable people in my life, but she was the greatest. She was in touch with the mood of the people more than any PM has ever been, and she freed the people from the burdens of the state.'

Right, the D-Day fiasco - sorry, account. You don't seem to have achieved much for your fee of pounds 62,500? 'Our price was very competitive. Others quoted three times as much.' But your ideas do sound a bit potty. 'What ideas?' Those I've read about.

'Oh God,' he sighed. 'Listen, the Spam fritters were suggested by the Royal Marines, not us. The idea of street parties was created by the Sun, not us. We were asked by the Government to interface with all the organisations involved and come up with ideas for 'commemorating and celebrating'. Note those words. Our title for the project was 'The Nation Gives Thanks'. I leave you to decide what that wording means.'

Have you been carrying the can for the Government? More sighs. 'The point of D-Day is that we are commemorating freedom from oppression, so I do think people should be free to commemorate as they feel best. People are also free to criticise me.'

Which they are, alas for poor Sir Tim. He is still a keen luncher, in all the best places, despite his operation, but in the past couple of weeks, boorish strangers have been heard to shout as he is led to his favourite table, 'How's D-Day?' Very annoying. For an amusing, unaffected sort of chap, only doing his best to do his job.

This is the last of the present series of Hunter Davies interviews. Angela Lambert takes over until his return in the autumn. His book 'Hunting People - 30 Years of Interviews with the Famous' is published by Mainstream, pounds 7.99.

(Photograph omitted)

voicesGood for Lana Del Rey for helping kill that myth, writes Grace Dent
The Pipes and Drums of The Scottish Regiments perform during the Opening Ceremony for the Glasgow 2014 Commonwealth Games at Celtic Park on July 23, 2014 in Glasgow, Scotland.
Commonwealth GamesThe actor encouraged the one billion viewers of the event to donate to the children's charity
Karen Dunbar performs
Entertainers showcase local wit, talent and irrepressible spirit
Members of the Scotland deleagtion walk past during the opening ceremony of the 2014 Commonwealth Games at Celtic Park in Glasgow on July 23, 2014.
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Life and Style
ebookA wonderful selection of salads, starters and mains featuring venison, grouse and other game
Arts and Entertainment
The Tour de France peloton rides over a bridge on the Grinton Moor, Yorkshire, earlier this month
Life and Style
fashion Designs are part of feminist art project by a British student
Very tasty: Vladimir Putin dining alone, perhaps sensibly
Life and Style
Listen here: Apple EarPods offer an alternative
techAre custom, 3D printed earbuds the solution?
Arts and Entertainment
Top guns: Cole advised the makers of Second World War film Fury, starring Brad Pitt
filmLt-Col Steven Cole is the man Hollywood calls when it wants to borrow a tank or check a uniform
The University of California study monitored the reaction of 36 dogs
sciencePets' range of emotions revealed
Snoop Dogg pictured at The Hollywood Reporter Nominees' Night in February, 2013
people... says Snoop Dogg
Arts and Entertainment
A scene from Shakespeare in Love at the Noel Coward Theatre
theatreReview: Shakespeare in Love has moments of sheer stage poetry mixed with effervescent fun
Joining forces: young British men feature in an Isis video in which they urge Islamists in the West to join them in Iraq and Syria
newsWill the young Britons fighting in Syria be allowed to return home and resume their lives?
Arts and Entertainment
The nomination of 'The Wake' by Paul Kingsnorth has caused a stir
Life and Style
food + drinkZebra meat is exotic and lean - but does it taste good?
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs General

    BI Manager - £50,000

    £49000 - £55000 per annum + competitive: Progressive Recruitment: My client is...

    BI Project Manager - £48,000 - £54,000 - Midlands

    £48000 - £54000 per annum + Benefits package: Progressive Recruitment: My clie...

    VB.Net Developer

    £35000 - £45000 per annum + competitive: Progressive Recruitment: If you're pa...

    SAP Business Consultant (SD, MM and FICO), £55,000, Wakefield

    £45000 - £55000 per annum + competitive: Progressive Recruitment: SAP Business...

    Day In a Page

    Screwing your way to the top? Good for Lana Del Rey for helping kill that myth

    Screwing your way to the top?

    Good for Lana Del Rey for helping kill that myth, says Grace Dent
    Will the young Britons fighting in Syria be allowed to return home and resume their lives?

    Will Britons fighting in Syria be able to resume their lives?

    Tony Blair's Terrorism Act 2006 has made it an offence to take part in military action abroad with a "political, ideological, religious or racial motive"
    Beyoncé poses as Rosie the Riveter, the wartime poster girl who became a feminist pin-up

    Beyoncé poses as Rosie the Riveter

    The wartime poster girl became the ultimate American symbol of female empowerment
    The quest to find the perfect pair of earphones: Are custom, 3D printed earbuds the solution?

    The quest to find the perfect pair of earphones

    Earphones don't fit properly, offer mediocre audio quality and can even be painful. So the quest to design the perfect pair is music to Seth Stevenson's ears
    US Army's shooting star: Lt-Col Steven Cole is the man Hollywood calls when it wants to borrow a tank or check a military uniform

    Meet the US Army's shooting star

    Lt-Col Steven Cole is the man Hollywood calls when it wants to borrow a tank or check a military uniform
    Climate change threatens to make the antarctic fur seal extinct

    Take a good look while you can

    How climate change could wipe out this seal
    Should emergency hospital weddings be made easier for the terminally ill?

    Farewell, my lovely

    Should emergency hospital weddings be made easier?
    Man Booker Prize 2014 longlist: Crowdfunded novel nominated for first time

    Crowdfunded novel nominated for Booker Prize

    Paul Kingsnorth's 'The Wake' is in contention for the prestigious award
    Vladimir Putin employs a full-time food taster to ensure his meals aren't poisoned

    Vladimir Putin employs a full-time food taster

    John Walsh salutes those brave souls who have, throughout history, put their knives on the line
    Tour de France effect brings Hollywood blockbusters to Yorkshire

    Tour de France effect brings Hollywood blockbusters to Yorkshire

    A $25m thriller starring Sam Worthington to be made in God's Own Country
    Will The Minerva Project - the first 'elite' American university to be launched in a century - change the face of higher learning?

    Will The Minerva Project change the face of higher learning?

    The university has no lecture halls, no debating societies, no sports teams and no fraternities. Instead, the 33 students who have made the cut at Minerva, will travel the world and change the face of higher learning
    The 10 best pedicure products

    Feet treat: 10 best pedicure products

    Bags packed and all prepped for holidays, but feet in a state? Get them flip-flop-ready with our pick of the items for a DIY treatment
    Commonwealth Games 2014: Great Scots! Planes and pipers welcome in Glasgow's Games

    Commonwealth Games 2014

    Great Scots! Planes and pipers welcome in Glasgow's Games
    Jack Pitt-Brooke: Manchester City and Patrick Vieira make the right stand on racism

    Jack Pitt-Brooke

    Manchester City and Patrick Vieira make the right stand on racism
    How Terry Newton tragedy made iron men seek help to tackle their psychological demons

    How Newton tragedy made iron men seek help to tackle their psychological demons

    Over a hundred rugby league players have contacted clinic to deal with mental challenges of game