Really useful mogul

He's sold musicals, bought art. Now he'd like a paper. profile; Andrew Lloyd Webber
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The Independent Online
DON BLACK, a lyricist who collaborated with Sir Andrew Lloyd Webber on Aspects Of Love, once said of him, "I've always thought that if he wasn't a composer he would have been Rupert Murdoch." It seems he may yet be both.

Lloyd Webber's Really Useful Group is part of a consortium (thought to involve Tony O'Reilly, a shareholder in the Independent and Independent on Sunday) which is putting together a bid for the Daily and Sunday Express. Why Sir Andrew should want the papers is something of a mystery - although, according to his spokesman, his "interest in newspapers is well documented over a period of years".

Actually, you can search for a very long time for a single documented example of Sir Andrew's supposedly long-standing interest in the press. He has never bid for a title before; in the brutal assessment of one media analyst at the stockbrokers BZW: "It is hard to see what he thinks he knows about newspapers."

It is also hard to see how the figures add up. The Really Useful Group's most recent pre-tax profits were pounds 46.2m on turnover of pounds 110m, which is quite enough to make Sir Andrew vastly rich - the 29th richest person in Britain, worth perhaps half a billion, according to one recent survey. But not rich enough to buy the Express without substantial borrowing.

The price being talked of for the two titles is pounds 300m, and they will need investment beyond that. The circulation of both has declined steeply in the past decade (the Sunday Express sells 40 per cent fewer copies than it did 10 years ago), while the readership profile has grown dismayingly old (30 per cent of the daily's readers are over 65).

For Tony O'Reilly, the deal makes sense. It could offer economies of scale and transform him into a major proprietor in Britain.

But what's in it for Sir Andrew? Newspapers are famously the power-toys of rich men, offering an influence beyond the narrow world of business, even a handle on posterity. But he already has an activity which serves these purposes. He has one black hole into which to pour his surplus millions; why should he want another in the shape of the Express?

Lloyd Webber has assembled one of the five greatest private art collections in the world. A few months ago he bought a Picasso for pounds 18m; in 1992 he acquired a Canaletto for pounds 10m; his collection of Victorian paintings is unsurpassed. His dealer David Mason says: "In 39 years in the business, I have never come across a buyer who is as informed and knowledgeable. In his specialist area he knows more than 90 per cent of dealers in the world."

Nor are his ambitions for this collection small. "He wants it seen in its entirety," says Mason, "and not broken up, ever. Ever." As a result, the architect Sir Richard Rogers' plans for a new complex next to the Royal Festival Hall (currently looking for millennium money) propose a theatre, shopping mall, and a Sir Andrew Lloyd Webber Museum.

Such schemes not only consume wealth beyond the dreams of most of us (and, one might think, would satisfy the yearnings for immortality of the most Ozymandias-like person); they also take huge amounts of time. In the past three weeks, David Mason has accompanied Lloyd Webber to Switzerland, Russia, and to America twice.

While Sir Andrew has allegedly long shown an entrepreneurial interest in newspapers, the official line is also - and this may seem contradictory - that he has no executive involvement with the Really Useful Group. He is on the board of directors, but has never attended a board meeting. He doesn't have an office there. The business is run by Patrick McKenna, former head of the media and entertainments group at the accountancy firm Touche Ross, where he dealt with tax matters on behalf of such stars as Annie Lennox, Phil Collins and Lloyd Webber.

McKenna, it seems, was the man who suggested taking the Really Useful Group back into private ownership, when the stock market was putting unwelcome pressure on Lloyd Webber to keep writing a particular kind of music to shore up the share price.

But brilliant as McKenna may be, the official version tells less than the full story. Top executives have come and gone, but the Really Useful Group has prospered. Lloyd Webber has a long history of protesting that he isn't really all that rich and doesn't take much notice of business. Both claims are palpably untrue. Lord Gowrie, a former RUG chairman, described him as "a remarkable entrepreneur". David Land, the original backer of Joseph and His Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, once said: "Andrew's more at home speaking to seven accountants, four tax experts and nine lawyers ... when we were discussing various projects, he'd say, 'Ah, but you'll get clobbered under clause 3b'."

Lloyd Webber, then, appears to have neither the time, nor the money, nor most of the usual motives for newspaper ownership: he has little discernible political ambition, has already been knighted and will be ennobled sooner or later anyway. Newspaper ownership seems a ridiculous idea. About as ridiculous, in fact, as a musical about cats.

ANDREW Lloyd Webber was born 47 years ago; his father was director of the London College of Music, his mother a piano teacher. He won a scholarship to Westminster, where he was passionately and perhaps eccentrically interested in musicals (South Pacific in particular) and Victorian architecture, stained glass and paintings. He bought his first Rossetti drawing for pounds 15 at the age of 15.

At Oxford, reading history, he met Tim Rice and dropped out to write musicals - one flop and then, in 1968, Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat. Jesus Christ Superstar followed two years later (and will be revived to open the refurbished Lyceum Theatre in October 1996). A further flop, Jeeves, with lyrics by Alan Ayckbourn, followed; RUG is also about to revive this in a workshop production. Evita, in 1976, marked the last collaboration with Rice. And then there was Cats, which Lloyd Webber mortgaged his house to produce, and which has grossed more than pounds 1bn, twice the box-office receipts for ET, the most successful movie ever made.

Lloyd Webber did two things with the musical: he abandoned the "book" form with its spoken interludes in favour of pop-opera, in which the songs themselves have to carry the narrative forward, and he wrote sweet, globally accessible melodies. Jesus Christ Superstar alone has played in 41 countries. Lloyd Webber is ruler of an empire on which the sun never sets. He has employed a prince as a teaboy.

With his pudgy looks and tetchy manner, he has never acquired personal popularity. He is not someone about whom the British public feels warmly; he is too much the school swot, too eager-beaver. He remains on good terms with Tim Rice, and very good terms with both his former wives; but when it comes to work, he is a restless perfectionist, prepared to sack leading ladies and postpone openings to get shows right. David Mason, one of his closest friends, says he has a great sense of humour and is tremendously warm, but shy. "You see him doing a press conference and he gets all uptight. Then he does a first-class and fabulously professional job. But he pays for it. He gets terribly stressed out and ratty."

Perhaps like Steven Spielberg or Michael Jackson, Lloyd Webber has achieved global reach by never quite putting away the things of childhood. One of his musicals was written for children, two others are based on children's literature; his brother Julian believes that Phantom has its roots in a childhood visit to the cinema. "Andrew has never lived in the real world. He has created his own," says Jonathan Mantle, a biographer.

Newspapers, however, are very much the real world - an apparently declining industry, in which struggling titles are harder to turn around than supertankers. They can be turned, but only given time, money and talent; it is a labour of love. For some would-be proprietors - those with political ambition - it is worth doing. What the Really Useful Group wants out of newspapers is expansion befitting its ambitions for a multimedia approach to entertainment. Whether Sir Andrew is right in thinking that good old-fashioned newspapers are the right way of moving on to the info-tainment superhighway is a moot point. And whether the Express titles are a good investment is another one.

Still, he has been right before. He was right about Victorian art, when everybody else thought it was unfashionable, and he has been uncannily right about what will play in Peoria (and Tokyo, and San Diego, and Amsterdam, and Hamburg). He also once invented a board game, Calamity, about the insurance business. The winner is the one who best calculates the risks and ends up with the most money.