Auntie in his pocket

The new BBC chairman is a 1980s-style success, writes Marianne Macdonald; profile; Sir Christopher Bland
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The Independent Online
EXAMINING Sir Christopher Bland's personality is like looking into a kaleidoscope. One view offers a gruff, hard-nosed chairman. But twist the tube and you see in quick succession a multi-millionaire bon viveur, a dewy-eyed romantic, a complex political animal and a voracious arts-lover.

His instincts are, above all, political: he has an innate grasp of the power of contacts. It was this talent, coupled with fierce energy and impressive intelligence, which last week catapulted the 57-year-old businessman into public consciousness as the next chairman of the BBC.

The BBC chairmanship is the quintessential establishment position. And, like his predecessor, Marmaduke Hussey, Sir Christopher is undeniably a member of what used to be called "the great and the good": one-time lieutenant in the North Irish Horse, deputy chairman of the Independent Broadcasting Authority in the 1970s, chairman of various NHS bodies, more recently a member of the Prime Minister's advisory panel on the Citizen's Charter. But, unlike Hussey, who came from newspapers, Sir Christopher has a background in television. Indeed, it was at London Weekend Television that he made his pile, through a famous and controversial "incentive" scheme, designed by himself as chairman.

Is this the right background for a man who will have to guide the BBC through all the pressures of what is likely to be a stormy general election campaign? His friends and former colleagues have no doubt that he would be steely enough to see off political interference if he wanted to. The questions are about his instincts. Is a former Conservative councillor and Bow Group member, a man who did well out of the 1980s, really the best person to protect the BBC's independence?

SOME people go on to great things from small beginnings, but even at Sedbergh, his Yorkshire public school, Sir Christopher seems to have thought big - bigger perhaps than contemporaries Sir Thomas Bingham, who went on to become Master of the Rolls, or Sir Jock Slater, now First Sea Lord. He is remembered by contemporaries for a certain scornful arrogance. They had no doubt he would do well in life.

"As I look back on a lifetime of teaching about a dozen boys stand out: Christopher was one of them," says David Alban, his English master. "I can see him now. Not terribly big: like a very cheeky bird. He's got these bright eyes. He wasn't in the business of taking down what you said and working from that. You had to convince him. I once handed him back an essay with a mark of 11 out of 20. He said: 'I don't mind being given 11 out of 20. But I want to know what's wrong with it.' He was very challenging."

He became editor of the Sedberghian, winning several school poetry and literature prizes. One was for a poem entitled "Big Brother" which began "He gazed at us from every Moscow wall/ Benign, all- seeingly the People's Friend/ He was the Leader, Brother of us all/ And when he died the world seemed near its end." Later, he was to edit Crossbow, the Bow Group magazine. He has even written a book: Feasts, an anthology of food.

He was not noted as particularly athletic. Yet at Oxford, where he read history at Queen's, he captained the university modern pentathlon team and fenced for the university and the 1960 Irish Olympic team.

It was already apparent at Oxford that Sir Christopher's talent was for making contacts. "Oxford was a very important time in his life," says Greg Dyke, LWT's former chief executive. "A lot of people he knows now were with him at Oxford - particularly his political group of friends."

While an assistant advertising manager with Currys and then an area manager at Singer Sewing Machines, he became a Bow Group member. He was considering a parliamentary career and he strengthened links with the group of political friends he still sees today - Norman Lamont, Michael Howard, Douglas Hurd. "He was interested in politics," Lamont recalls, "and I think at one stage he might have gone into it. But he was a very successful businessman and very engrossed in that. If he had decided to, I'm sure he could easily have become a Cabinet minister."

Instead, he went into local politics, perhaps by accident. He stood for the Greater London Council in Lewisham in 1967. "I was assured I couldn't win," Sir Christopher has said, but in an unusually good year for the Tories he did. It proved a fortunate move. He rose to become deputy chairman of the Inner London Education Authority and there met another GLC luminary, Christopher Chataway. Later, Chataway became Minister of Posts in Edward Heath's government and, in 1972, asked Sir Christopher to join the IBA as deputy chairman.

His experience at the IBA led him to LWT, where he became chairman in 1984. By then, he had already made money in the kind of daring venture that warms the heart of Thatcherites. In the mid-1970s, he had only pounds 20,000 and he ploughed it all into a 25 per cent stake in Sir Joseph Causton, a printing group which was almost bust. "I was on the beach, I was single, I didn't have a mortgage. They were good printers and plainly either would have gone bust in three months or turned around - I am an optimist." The company was sold for pounds 21m eight years later. The deal gave him his first million and, he told an interviewer, he still carries the cheque in his pocket.

But LWT allowed him to make many more millions as well as giving him the best years of his life. "His description of LWT was that it was a once-in-a-lifetime thing that a group of people could come together, get on well and have success," Mr Dyke says.

From the point of view of the rank-and-file, Sir Christopher was a remote figure as chairman, while his reputation for not suffering fools gladly - first evident at Sedbergh - grew to ominous heights. "He was very tough with people who hadn't done their homework," reports Brian Tesler, an ex-chairman. "His favourite boardroom expletive, when he heard something stupid from any of our advisers, was 'bollocks'." Sir Christopher admits this shortcoming: "My temper is shorter than I would like," he has said. "But I don't bear grudges and I always apologise."

In 1989 he masterminded the controversial option scheme. Television franchises were up for renewal and the LWT board feared that top staff and managers might defect to rivals. The share options were "golden handcuffs".

LWT retained its franchise and paid out in August 1993, creating 16 millionaires from the senior management and benefiting the top 55 executives - Sir Christopher, newly knighted for his NHS work, made an estimated gross profit of more than pounds 7m. Tesler made pounds 5m.

An ex-LWT source, however, puts a different slant on it. "The top 55 got their share of the booty but everybody from the 56th person down was completely outraged. They thought it was appalling."

Sir Christopher's fortune swelled even more the year after, when Granada made a hostile takeover bid for LWT. Neither he nor the rest of the LWT team wanted the takeover and worked round the clock to prevent it. But when they couldn't, the 40 top directors and managers found themselves sitting on a paper fortune of more than pounds 14m.

BY THIS stage Sir Christopher had much to congratulate himself on. Not only had he made his pile, he had married the love of his life and was the doting father of Archie, his only child. The story of his marriage is an unusual one: he fell in love with Jennifer May, the daughter of an Ulster politician and businessman, when she was 15 and he was 17. She was the first girl he kissed. She married the Earl of Strafford and had four children. It was only at 42 that Sir Christopher won her back.

Max Hastings, editor of the London Evening Standard and a close friend of Sir Christopher, describes Lady Bland as "extremely clever, very agreeable, extremely well-organised"; she is said to have had political ambitions of her own. A handsome blonde woman, she runs the couple's homes in Hampshire, London, Gascony and a remote part of Scotland, entertaining lavishly and doing charity work.

At home, Sir Christopher relaxes in a typically energetic fashion, inviting numerous friends to stay, playing tennis (all his houses have tennis courts), walking, shooting and fishing. His Scottish cottage is said to be quite an experience - accessible only by sea. Friends who have visited include John Birt, BBC director-general, and Douglas Hurd. One friend compares it to a North Korean prison camp: "you have to cut the peat to heat water for a bath".

So will this complex, bossy, clever man preserve the BBC's independence? Certainly, say he and his friends. "If he feels a fight is necessary, he will fight," says Hastings. "Bland will be fierce, even ruthless, in the BBC's independence," says Melvyn Bragg. "The most important job of the chairman is to preserve the BBC's independence," says Sir Christopher himself.

But one television insider raises questions. "The chairman of the BBC holds a great cultural position in the land and the sort of figure who gets the job says something about the nation. What does it say to have appointed a 1980s sort of fellow whose most striking achievement is to have found his way round the financial system and made himself and his cronies very rich?"

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