Tim Bell’s fond memories of QE
January 1, 2016
January 1, 2016
One of the UK’s best-known PR men, Lord Bell (OE 1953-1959), still remembers his School days with affection.
Baron Bell of Belgravia , who is Chairman of Bell Pottinger public relations, has worked with some of the greatest names of modern politics, business and media.
He won particular renown as Margaret Thatcher’s PR adviser and is famous for the successful general election campaigns he developed for the Conservative Party in 1979, 1983 and 1987, each of which put Margaret Thatcher into Downing Street. In many senses, he was the original ‘spin doctor’ and his Labour Isn’t Working poster in 1979 has earned its place in UK political history.
Born in 1941 in wartime Britain into a middle-class family living in Southgate, he grew up with his mother and sisters after his father walked out when he was only five. He passed the 11-plus examination at Osidge Junior School and won a place at QE. In his memoir, Tim Bell, Right or Wrong, published in 2014, he remembers his time with fondness: “It was a traditional, well-run and disciplined place, but I enjoyed it: there was camaraderie, it was good fun, and I don’t have any tales about being bullied or riddled with angst.”
He was good at cricket and adds: “I could play rugby to a decent standard, and was in the School’s First XV – but wasn’t really interested.”
Music, and particularly modern jazz, was a greater love – and for a brief spell he made a living of sorts as a professional trumpeter. He is, however, characteristically honest about his motivation: “I didn’t want to be …cannon fodder. I wanted success – although I wasn’t yet sure what ‘success’ meant, and possibly I’m still not. But I did, even then, measure it by visibility and success. That, I suppose, was a presage of my subsequent career.”
In fact, many facets of his later life emerged during his years at QE. “My early taste of leadership was in running the smokers’ club behind the sheds”. He remains, famously, a keen smoker to this day. “I wasn’t an outright rebel as such, but, for example, the school uniform rules annoyed me (as I liked quite flashy clothes, and I was the first person I knew to get an Italian suit) so I would try to get round them. And I hated to be told by the teachers that they disapproved of my hairstyle…Yet I respect rank and title and order and authority, and I respect wisdom and experience. And I see no inconsistency in holding these two positions, because I’m not anti-establishment so much as anti-authoritarian. Maybe that’s not surprising, being the child of an Australian mother and Northern Irish father.”
Several significant figures in the School’s history stick in his memory. Of the Headmaster, Ernest Jenkins, he remembers especially his hatred of anything modern, including television and cinema. “He would openly criticise all parents for their awful, useless, idle boys. Can you imagine a teacher doing that now?”
PE teacher Eric Shearly “always seemed to like the boys who were not only good at sport but also the most noisy and obnoxious”. As both pupil and teacher, Eric Shearly (1920-2005) devoted 76 years of his life to QE: the modern Shearly Hall is named in his honour.
But his warmest sentiments are reserved for his Latin teacher, John Finnett. “I admired [him] because he was such an unusual man. He actually spoke in Latin. He was a very sensitive, modern, switched-on guy who understood adolescent boys, and if you had a problem, you went to see him and he would talk to you in proper human-being language. But then he’d revert back to speaking Latin for most normal occasions.” John Finnett died in 1971, aged just 43.
Given the family’s straitened financial circumstances, university was not an option for Tim – a fact which never bothered him. “I don’t think anybody sat me in a room and told me, but I just understood that I’d had a good grammar-school education, and now the moment had come to go out and get a job.” (And when he turned 18, his mother made it clear that, regardless of his earnings from music up to that point, this should be a ‘proper’ job.)
So he joined ABC Television as a ‘chart boy’, putting labels on a board to say who had booked each commercial. “I was the lowest of the low, but I didn’t care, because I felt that I was at the centre of a vibrant new world, and had no doubts at all that I was on the road to somewhere modern, glamorous and exciting.”
He later thrived in the burgeoning West End advertising industry and in 1970 became a co-founder of the Saatchi & Saatchi agency.
His career eventually took him to the corridors of power and the world of international big business. In his book, as the dust cover puts it, “Bell applies his acerbic wit and resolutely right-wing sensibility” to his dealings with Ronald Reagan, F W de Klerk, the Saatchi brothers and his late friend, David Frost, and to key political events such as the miners’ strike, the Cold War, the poll tax riots and the end of Apartheid.
Tim was knighted in 1990 after nomination by Margaret Thatcher and made a Life Peer after nomination by Tony Blair in 1998.
He remained close to Baroness Thatcher after she left office. When she died in April 2013, it was he who made the official announcement.