Sir Stuart Rose has staked his future (and his advertising campaign) on a firm belief that Marks & Spencer occupies a special place in the nation's psyche. "Our" M&S doesn't seem to consider itself the posh auntie in the British family of supermarkets – in fact, the retailer can't seem to decide whether it's a grocery store with all the vulgar BOGOF tactics that prevail in a recession, or a high street version of an up-market department store.
There's the problem. M & S currently has a huge identity crisis, and at yesterday's AGM at the Royal Festival Hall in London, Rose heard from a vocal minority of the 2,000 shareholders displeased at disappointing sales (like-for-like sales down 5.3 per cent, non-food down 6.2 per cent and food down 4.5 per cent).
Rose's authority will hardly have been dented by the number of shareholders (just under 6 per cent) who voted against his re-appointment as a director. The mood from most of those present was highly supportive, almost adulatory.
There has been criticism, however, of his progression from chief executive to executive chairman – a move contravening guidelines for corporate governance. Tough times for M&S, even if Sir Stuart sailed through the AGM. There's talk of a merger with Sainsbury's. Shares closed at an eight-year low at the end of last week, and the company has announced it's shutting its stores in Taiwan, just 14 months after they opened.
Does M&S still sum up, as one commentator put it, "the holy relic of Britishness"? Does its sales slump mirror the financial constraints we're all trying to cope with? The fact is, the British are changing how they shop, and Rose hasn't entirely been in step with our new thinking as we learn the long-forgotten skills of living frugally. We love shopping online as it doesn't involve driving. Where's the M&S grocery website?
The middle classes – his core market – are increasingly supporting local businesses and speciality shops, farmers' markets as well as buying environmentally friendly products. They're also those hit hardest by rising mortgages, bigger domestic fuel bills, and the cost of running their cars. Somehow Rose's Plan A – reducing packaging, turning off lights, putting aeroplanes on labelling and so on, just seems peripheral when you're learning how to make compost, growing your own veg, swapping clothes, buying on eBay and insulating the loft.
Being an iconic British brand is no guarantee the public will rally round and support you out of a crisis. Even HP sauce is made outside the UK these days, and dear old Woolworths lurches from one identity crisis to the next. Jaguar and Rover are no longer British. Rose's customers have discovered that Aldi, Lidl, Iceland and Netto – all places the middle classes would never have entered in a million years – now offer tempting bargains for everyday essentials that M&S cannot match.
Suddenly, being a snob about where you shop seems so passé. A financial journalist recently analysed the much-vaunted price cuts offered by all the major supermarkets, only to conclude that, in the end, they don't amount to very much for the average shopper. In the end, phoney price wars may turn out to alienate consumers, but at the moment the whole nation is obsessed with bragging about their latest bargain – and that means Marks & Spencer needs a radical rethink about where to position itself and what not to sell.
Yesterday, Rose was in bullish mood, claiming that M&S will be around for another 100 years. On the current performance, I wouldn't bet on it.
Thank you for the musicals
Last weekend, at Andrew Lloyd Webber's Sydmonton Festival, he unveiled his latest work in progress, the sequel to The Phantom of the Opera. I'm not allowed to reveal the plot – but judging by what I saw, he's on to another winner, when it opens in late 2009.
With Phantom the longest-running show ever on Broadway, seen by 100 million people world-wide, you can see why Lloyd Webber is writing a follow-up.
We might be facing a recession, but musical theatre provides one form of escapism we don't want to give up. The success of TV reality shows like How Do You Solve a Problem Like Maria?, have led to new box office records for West End theatres.
* One of my favourite films is Carlton-Browne of the F.O. (1959), a brilliant comedy starring Peter Sellers, and Terry Thomas as Cadogen de Vere Carlton-Browne, a bumbling emissary sent by the British government to sort out the fictional colony of Gaillardia, where the pesky ruskies were trying to gain control. Terry Thomas, clad in his trademark immaculate blazer, turns in a sublime performance. Once I commissioned a TV series about trouble in paradise and Clive Anderson had to don a blazer to report on the banana industry in Dominica.
Meanwhile, the spirit of Carlton-Browne lives on – with Lord Malloch Brown regularly making self-important statements about Africa, and the mercenary Simon Mann referring to Mark Thatcher as "Scratcher". On receiving a sentence of 34 years for organising a plot to overthrow the ruler of Equatorial Guinea, Mann's message to his wife was "chin up". Another Terry Thomas character is Thomas Cholmondeley, in Nairobi, accused of murdering a poacher on his estate.