The knack of getting money out of people

The latest letter was from a young man asking me to sponsor a motorcycle ride across the Himalayas
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The Independent Online

Only time, I observed philosophically to a friend who delivers meals on wheels and library books to the elderly in Hertfordshire, will tell whether Ray Marshall is a brilliant entrepreneur or a twit. Who's Ray Marshall, she asked. When you're a lynchpin of community welfare you clearly don't have time to listen to the radio or read newspapers. You must have heard of him, I said. He's the man who's trying to make a new Catherine Cookson television series but ITV turned it down so he hasn't got the £3.2m he needs to make it. Now he says that if 200,000 viewers send him £16 in advance for the video he'll be OK.

I can tell you right now, said my friend, Mr Marshall is quids in and will be laughing all the way to the bank. The only author that any of her elderly library customers is interested in reading is Catherine Cookson. If Mr Marshall had asked them to cough up twice as much for yet another mawkish saga about innocent young mill girls being ravished by dastardly factory owners they'd have been happy to oblige. I was going to ask what would happen if it's a lousy production, and then I remembered the first law of entrepreneurship. Know your customer base. Cookson readers prefer quantity to quality - I doubt that any of her 85 bestsellers are less than 600 pages long, so if this new series turns out to be a flop reviled by the critics, who cares so long as it has eight episodes?

Ray Marshall is only, after all, doing what people in the property business have been doing for years - namely getting the money upfront so that they can afford to build their ambitious new developments. Back in the 18th century the Adams brothers did it with the New Town in Edinburgh. Right now, from my kitchen window, I can see the massive golden dome of Chelsea harbour where 20 years ago people like Michael Caine bought bargain flats for £400,000, which are now worth £4m.

Let's not be sentimental about the arts. They're a business like everything else, as every publisher who has paid a multimillion-pound advance to a novelist will tell you. It won't be long before posh restaurants, the kind you have to book two months ahead to get a table, will insist that you send a cheque for your meal in advance, refundable only when you've eaten it. But what happens if you don't like the meal? The same as what happened, I suppose, to the young man at the table beside me at Schmidt's, a restaurant off the Tottenham Court Road famous for its bad-tempered waiters. Alas, it's no longer there. "What are you having?" the waiter asked the young man. "A steak for the lady and veal for me," he said, "and we would like the steak medium rare." "So what if it isn't?" snarled the waiter.

Someone somewhere must have spread the word that I'm a soft touch because I get as many begging letters these days as bills. The latest was from a young man asking me to sponsor a motorcycle ride across the Himalayas in aid of the World Wildlife Fund. He is looking for £3,000 for his airfare, his petrol and general expenses. That's the downside. The upside is that the motorbike he's riding will be delivered to a tiger sanctuary in Bengal for the use of the game wardens. What a noble ambition, the Dr Jekyll within me thinks. What a splendid young man he must be to undertake such a gruelling and dangerous mission for the sake of the poor beleaguered tiger. Twaddle, replies Mr Hyde. All he wants is a free holiday in the sub-continent breezing through the mountains on a bike, which is probably doing more to poison the natural habitat of the tiger than a posse of big-game hunters. I'm going to write back and ask him how much it would cost to ship the bike to the tiger sanctuary by parcel post.

One advantage of not having an e-mail address is that I don't get junk e-mails like the one my neighbour had the other day from a widow in Gabon. Please help me, it started. She had got his address from an international business directory. Her husband had left her $8.9m in a pension she was unable to access without a foreign sponsor. Would my neighbour agree to be that sponsor? It wouldn't cost much. Oh yeah.

At least the letter my restaurateur husband got from a customer the other day was more modest. Could he be refunded £32 to dry-clean the trousers that had been ruined by the waitress who spilled red wine over him? My husband quizzed his staff. They didn't remember a red wine incident. Further investigation revealed that the poor fellow had written 12,000 similar letters to restaurants all over England. You have to take your hat off to him. Maybe he wanted to finance a mini-series too.