Interview-lord Chadlington: Lord, what a nightmare at the opera

Lord Chadlington - aka Peter Gummer, younger brother of John - is talking about opera, about which he is passionate, of course. He says that if he could have a one-to-one with anybody it would be with Wagner, "so I could ask him some questions about the Ring cycle, and better understand it".

If he gets through, I say, could he also ask him if he's thinking of doing another series of Hart to Hart with Stefanie Powers? It was jolly good and is much-missed. Oddly, Lord Chadlington looks at me like I'm totally bonkers. That's the thing about opera buffs, they don't watch any old rubbish on the telly like the rest of us. Some might even say they're a bit estranged from the real world, which is why they're in the trouble they're in.

Last week, Lord Chadlington, the multi-millionaire PR whiz who founded Shandwick PR, now the largest PR company in the world, was forced to resign as chairman of the Royal Opera House after one of the most savage reports on a national arts body ever.

No, the report did not, as it happens, take him by surprise. "If I was an outsider looking in, I would think this organisation smells bad. It does look like a group of friends running it for their own self- indulgence."

Which it is, isn't it? "No! There are 58 people - clever business people - who work there for free, but are never acknowledged." But if you're all so clever and financially astute, how come the house is in such a mess? Because, possibly, you treat it as a kind of extension of the Garrick Club, only with singing and dancing? "No. It's because it is underfunded," he claims. Oh come on, I say.

The report by the all-party committee - chaired by Gerald Kaufman - said that although the ROH had received pounds 98m of taxpayer's money over the past five years, plus pounds 78m of lottery cash, it was guilty of "incompetence, disastrous financial planning and misjudgement". The debts currently amount to pounds 7m. The failure to secure a permanent home while Covent Garden was being rebuilt was the result of "abysmal management". The chairman should go. The chief executive (Mary Allen) should go. The board should go. Sack the lot of them, Kaufman effectively said. "They need a good boot up the arias," concluded The Sun.

Lord Chadlington describes the report as "outrageous" and "scandalous". The trouble, he sighs, is that "we all care too much about the quality of the productions we put on". But, still, you resigned? "It seemed, in the circumstances, the only honourable thing to do. Lord Carrington, who is something of a hero of mine, resigned over the Falklands crisis even though it wasn't his fault. Someone had to accept responsibility, so he did. I am accepting responsibility in this instance." So you don't consider yourself personally to blame in any way? "I actually saved the house from going bust! Twice! Which is no small thing!" Lord Chadlington, clearly, is not about to fall on his sword.

Has he, I wonder, spoken to John about it? "Very sweetly, he phoned me this morning from Kyoto where he is at an environmental conference." And? "He said: `Why, Peter, why?'" To which you replied? "Because, John, I don't want to sit on the fence until pushed. I would prefer to get off by myself."

I tell Lord Chadlington it's a good job he didn't go into politics because in politics you have to hang on in there until the last possible minute. It's almost de rigueur. Look at Piers Merchant, who kept sticking his head out from under the duvet and saying: "It's not what it seems. Vote for me!"

Lord Chadlington - who has advised the Tories on the presentation of controversial policy areas such as the Gulf War - accepts I may have a point. "I spent 18 years supporting the Tory government and when I look back the one thing they did wrong was not accepting responsibility when things went wrong." Does he admire New Labour? "I do think they are doing the right things, yes." Would he say he was more Labour than Tory now? "I tend to go for people more than policies. I admired Thatcher enormously. I admired John Major enormously. He was a man of great principle and great courage. I don't know anyone in the Labour party very well."

We meet at the headquarters of Shandwick in Mayfair. His office, with its big, fat Hello!-style sofas and twinkling chandeliers is very cosy. Lord Chadlington opens a very good bottle of chablis, then asks: "How long are you going to want me for?" I am so snug, I tell him, there'll probably be no getting rid of me. I imagine that is how the board at the Opera House felt up until last week.

No, Lord Chadlington won't have a drink himself. He gave up alcohol 14 years ago after a bout of hepatitis. His doctor told him not to drink for a year, so he didn't, then when he could he found he didn't want to any more. "I didn't get hangovers. I didn't get jet lag. I felt better." This is a great shame because the wine is lovely.

Peter Gummer is much better looking than John, which isn't saying much, I know, but it's still better than not being better looking than John, which would be very distressing, I imagine. He is wearing a Val Doonican- style red cardie but is still quite dandy and dapper, with a sort of John Inman look about his features and a high-pitched, rather girlie laugh. If you were to meet him at a cocktail party, you'd assume he was a bachelor.

He's not, though. On the contrary, he is a great family man. There are photographs of his four children - Naomi, Chloe, Eleanor and James, who range in age from 7 to 14 - everywhere. He actually always wanted six children but his wife, Lucy, put her foot down. He was 40 and, yes, very much established as a bachelor ("with a nice little flat in Knightsbridge") when he first met Lucy 15 years ago. She, then 25, turned up at Shandwick for a job interview. "And the moment she walked in I thought oh-oh, I can't have her working here." Why? Because you fancied her from the off? "Yes. I guess so." He arranged for a friend to employ her, then phoned her up to ask her out for dinner. They were engaged within five days of meeting. How romantic, I say. "I think I was looking to get settled down," he says. Would he describe himself as a passionate man? "I am affectionate and demonstrative, if that's what you mean," he replies. Do you ever cry. Yes, he says, opera makes him cry.

The Gummer boys - John, Peter and their younger brother, Mark - did not start out as grand or lordly. Their father, Canon Selwyn Gummer, an Anglican vicar, was an autodidact from a Welsh coalmining background. Their mother, Sybille, was the daughter of a railway worker. Sybille was always very ambitious for her sons. If there was homework to be done, they did it before anything else, and did it well. Academic achievement was important, as was success. Her view seemed to be "you are put on this earth for a purpose and you will jolly well go about fulfilling that purpose".

Certainly, the Gummer family were an industrious and aspirational lot. To supplement his income, Selwyn struck on the idea of writing other vicars' sermons for them for pounds 1 a go. "He started in 1950 and by the time he had finished had about 3,000 vicars on his list." Did each vicar get the same sermon each month? "Yes." So come Easter Sunday, say, there would be 3,000 vicars giving exactly the same sermon? "Yes. And I remember once going to Broadstairs on holiday, and going to the church there, and nudging my father and saying `this is one of yours, dad'."

All the family participated in getting out the Pulpit Monthly, as it was called. Come Saturday night, they would gather around the kitchen table in the draughty rectory. It was Selwyn's job to stack up the Pulpit Monthlies into piles of 50, John's job to put them in envelopes, Peter's job to seal them, Mark's to put the stamp on and Sybille's to address the envelopes with her "addressograph machine". Their reward would be one Quality Street each after every 100 completed. Peter's favourite was "the one in the shape of a stick". The chocolate- covered toffee? In the yellow wrapper? "Yes, Yes! Whereas mother always liked the purple ones. What are the purple ones?" Brazil nuts. I don't know much about opera, I tell him, but you can't fault me when it comes to Quality Street.

Anyway, the Pulpit Monthly "paid for our educations", by which Peter means it paid for his education. John (who, of course, went on to become a Tory MP and Cabinet minister) and Mark (who now runs a successful manufacturing business) both won scholarships to King's School, Rochester, whereas Peter had to be paid for. He says he's always been the thicko of the family. John is "exceptionally intellectual" while Mark "is just brilliant". He never felt inadequate, though, "because I was better at football than both of them".

He went into PR, he later says, "because I just wasn't clever enough to do anything else". Oh come on, I say, you don't go on to build a company like Shandwick - which has 89 offices worldwide and employs 2,500 people and represents everyone from British Gas to Joan Collins - by being a total dimwit. "Perhaps," he suggests, "it just says something about the industry." Or, alternatively, "being stupid can be an advantage, because you know that to get anywhere you are going to have to work very hard. A lot of the very brilliant people I was at school with have disappeared from sight."

Peter went to Selwyn College, Cambridge, where he initially studied theology, having planned to become a priest. But at the end of the first year he decided he didn't really have a vocation. "I started reading Kierkegaard, Sartre and Camus, and my view of things changed. I realised the world was a much more difficult and complex place." He switched to a philosophy and psychology degree. No, his father was not upset. "He only ever wanted us to do what we ourselves wanted to do."

Peter isn't nearly as religious as John, who recently converted to Catholicism. "No, it wasn't a surprise. He is a very saintly and devout man." But, still, he believes in God, yes. No, incidents like Dunblane do not shake his belief. "Let's put it this way," he says. "When you listen to Bach, or smell your children's hair, how can you not believe in God?" Peter might not be an intellectual, but he is extremely cunning, I think. Certainly, God couldn't hope for a better PR spokesman.

Anyway, he was only appointed chairman of the Royal Opera House in September 1996, so he did inherit a lot of the problems, yes. The previous chairman and general director, Sir Angus Stirling and Jeremy Isaacs, should have ensured a permanent venue would be available during the closure. But, still, Lord Chadlington was specifically chastised for not revising the plans, or appointing a financial director for a year. His failure to act, said Kaufman, "ensured a fragile financial position became acute". The Opera House could not even supply any regular accounts or cost flow sheets. "There were some inadequacies in that regard, yes." The rest of the board have also resigned, but will be staying on in caretaker roles. There was no other way, he says. "There had to be an Aegean-style clear-out so that we could give the Arts Council and the Department of Culture, Media and Sport the opportunity to start again, and shed the past."

Anyway, he has to shed me, now, because he's due to go back to Oxfordshire, where he lives. He may no longer be chairman of the Royal Opera House, but that's OK. "One has to ultimately do what is best for the organisation you are serving." As he steps into the chauffeur-driven Bentley gently purring outside, Lord Chadlington is, I think, feeling more heroic than chastened. He seems elated, almost. He has done a Lord Carrington. He's taken a disaster and turned it into a personal triumph. Good PR, or what?

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