You know that creepy feeling you sometimes get of being watched? Well, that’s what it’s like all the time when you’re with Max Clifford. It’s not him doing the watching, it’s hidden cameras, as if you’re taking part in The Truman Show. The acting is stilted, the colours unnaturally saturated and the shadows don’t quite correspond to the movements of their subjects. Things seem suspiciously ordinary, tidy… staged.
The master illusionist and his family – Liz, his wife of 32 years, and Louise, his 28-year-old daughter – recently moved from a house in suburban Raynes Park to a chalet-style bungalow set in private parkland near Weybridge in Surrey. There is a spotless silver Jaguar in the driveway, a hanging basket above the door, and, in the leafless trees surrounding the bungalow, songbirds. You can hear them but – how Truman Show – you can’t see them.
It is a mild morning, the sunlight is watery and I could swear that the middle-aged woman walking her dog is the same one who passed by, heading in the same direction, two minutes ago. Max Clifford is wearing sports casuals: a white tennis shirt and tracksuit bottoms. When I leave at noon, he will play tennis with one of his old schoolfriends, Dave – because it’s a Wednesday, his tennis day, the one day of the working week he doesn’t go in to his London office, in New Bond Street. Clifford is a thickset but fit-looking 56-year-old. The most alarming thing about his appearance is the area between his eyes and his thick thatch of silver hair. His eyebrows are so black and dense they look as though they’ve been bought from a novelty shop as part of a Groucho Marx kit. He has never considered pruning or dying them, he says, even though his wife and daughter have made constant mocking reference to them over the years. The close proximity of the black eyebrows to the silver hair has earned Clifford the nickname ‘the lugubrious badger’.
But he has been called other names. At school, he tells me, he was Maxi Tree, because he had legs like treetrunks. Edwina Curry called him ‘the little turd’. David Mellor preferred ‘the sleazeball’s sleazeball’. I’m not sure how I expected the interior of his house to be decorated. Framed tabloid front pages of his PR triumphs, perhaps. FREDDIE STARR ATE MY HAMSTER!, I’M GOING TO HAVE MY EIGHT BABIES!, MELLOR MADE LOVE IN A FOOTBALL STRIP! Or maybe there will be Tory scalps presented in glass cases: Piers Merchant’s shrunken head, Jerry Hayes’s beard, Jeffrey Archer’s impish grin. But I suppose chintz, family photographs in frames, and a mantelpiece laden with china spaniels is about right. Clifford has a cocker spaniel called Oliver. It sits in his lap and he strokes it as he talks: this twilight zone’s equivalent to Blofeld’s cat.
I don’t suppose little Oliver would be much use against intruders, but I bet Clifford could handle himself. He is, after all, a great believer in defending property. In the next few weeks, when the case comes to trial, you can expect to see him on the evening news most nights as he throws his weight behind Tony Martin, the Norfolk farmer accused of murdering a 16-year-old convicted burglar last August. He is working for Martin free of charge because, he says, he feels sorry for him. ‘If someone broke into my home in the middle of the night and I had no electricity and I’d been burgled several times already, I wouldn’t make them a cup of tea,’ Clifford says in his softly spoken and ponderous south London twang.
Clifford likes to see himself as an arbiter of public morality. Last autumn , just days before he acted as stork and brought us news of the Blair baby, he broke the story of Jeffrey Archer’s false alibi and represented Allison Brown, who made accusations of sex abuse against Gary Glitter. (The Glitter case failed when it was revealed that the contract Clifford had brokered for Allison Brown with the News of the World was worth £10,000 plus an extra £25,000 if Glitter was convicted.) Clifford likes to boast about how he played his part in bringing down the last government. ‘I do think I contributed to the word “sleaze” being attached to the Tories,’ he says. ‘There were other stories I could have brought out about them. But if I am going to bring out, say, my Portillo story, it will be much further on, nearer the next election, when the public need to be reminded of Tory sleaze. The reason I brought out Jeffrey Archer when I did was the Tories were becoming more popular. I tried to warn Archer six months earlier that he shouldn’t run for mayor – Ted Francis, the man who gave Archer his alibi, is a friend of my brother – but he carried on and I have no sympathy for him. He’s as hard as nails, and I find his arrogance and hypocrisy ugly.’
Max Clifford doesn’t go to church but he considers himself to be a Christian and he does pray. He also talks to his mother, Lilian, who died 24 years ago. ‘I’m very close to her now. When I’m in situations I know she is smiling and laughing. I feel it very strongly.’ He attributes his unflappability to his mother’s influence. ‘It’s a matter of how you look at things. She was a very capable woman, very loving and caring. Everyone came to her with their problems – whether it was laying someone out who had just died in the night, or sorting out abortions, whatever. She would get on with it and then cook us breakfast as if nothing had happened. Mum was a giggler – fat, jolly and flatulent. Dad was more reserved and distant. Didn’t think the flatulence was funny. He wasn’t the type to say he was proud of me. He was 43 when I was born. A very good classical pianist.’
The late Frank Clifford, Max’s father, had come from a prosperous Tory family, which owned properties around Wandsworth. His job had been to collect rents on these but, being a ‘natural socialist’, as his son puts it, he could never bring himself to evict tenants who couldn’t pay. His family turned their backs on him and he moved to a poor part of Wimbledon – tin bath, outside privy, no car. Frank also gambled, which may be why Max has always feared compulsions: he has never drunk alcohol, smoked or taken drugs.
Max Clifford is the youngest of Frank and Lilian’s four children. He has a sister, Eleanor, whom he describes as ‘terribly, terribly’ and ‘a natural Tory’, and two brothers, Bernard (or Bunny, because his ears stick out) and Harold (or Cliff, because he doesn’t like his Christian name). Last-borns, it is believed, resent their elder siblings’ power and authority, and they are said to be far more likely than first-borns to challenge the status quo. This has certainly been the case with Max Clifford, whose hatred of the Establishment borders on the pathological.
Sir Peter Harding, the defence chief and Establishment figure par excellence, was an archetypal Clifford victim. He felt obliged to resign in 1994 when the publicist’s client Bienvenida Buck kissed, told and earned herself £300,000 from the tabloids. But any authority figure deserves a good kicking as far as Clifford is concerned. ‘I resent anyone telling me anything at all,’ he says. ‘I’m that kind of person. I don’t think I’m arrogant but I’ve got an awful lot of faith in my own ability… There’s no one I’ve been in awe of – if the Queen or the Pope was sitting here, I wouldn’t treat them any differently to the way I’m treating yourself.’
There are three recurring themes in Clifford’s conversation. One is that he ‘doesn’t want to seem arrogant’. Another is that he has never pitched for an account in his life: he tells me at least five times that stars always come to him, he never goes to them. The third is that he can’t stand people with ‘affected’, that is, ‘plummy’ voices – and this seems to stem from a need he felt as a teenager to prove he was just as good as ‘the snobs at the top of the hill’ in Wimbledon Village (he lived at the bottom).
‘I always resented being talked down to. And I hated arrogance and pomposity. I had my first experience of it on my first day at junior school. I was kicking a ball about and this boy began speaking to me in a very affected voice, telling me to clear off, so I hit him. He turned out to be the headmaster’s son.’ Clifford left his secondary modern school at 15 and went to work at a Wimbledon department store called Elys. He hated being patronised by the ‘snobby customers’ there and was sacked after a year for putting glue on his manager’s chair. He had three passions at the time – boxing, football and water polo; aggressive, competitive sports which, he says, taught him to stand up for himself. It was writing match reports about the latter that won him a traineeship as a reporter on the Merton and Morden News. He started a record column there and in 1962 talked his way into a job at the publicity department of EMI. He always uses the same pat phrase to describe what happened next: ‘My first job was to promote an unknown band from Liverpool. The Beatles.’ Hmm. It sounds like a claim worthy of Jeffrey Archer. Clifford glibly acknowledges that he lies all the time when promoting showbiz stars – because it doesn’t matter, because they are ‘light relief’ – so it follows that his recollections of his own career might also be clouded. ‘I learnt early on that by window dressing, by colouring, you get the big coverage,’ he says. ‘I would always exaggerate record sales and get the big headlines. I was always instinctively good at lying, you know, telling someone they look really nice when they looked in a right state. As long as your distortion of the truth isn’t harming anyone, it’s fine.’
He went on to promote Jimi Hendrix (‘he was so out of his head, he didn’t know what he was, let alone where he was’) and Bob Dylan (‘a miserable sod’) but found rock stars boring and irritating because they never turned up for the PR junkets he had organised. Maybe they just found his brassy manner a bit uncool. Clifford is vague about precise dates and times but he believes he set up his own PR company, Max Clifford Associates, when he was about 27, in 1970. Neither myth nor history really relates what happened in the years between then and his great fictitious scoop in 1986, the Freddie Starr story, but presumably he was busy learning about the perverse nature of fame – how it can be manufactured out of very little substance, how it can take on surreal forms, how you can use one client to promote another. Freddie Starr never ate the hamster – but the publicity the story generated helped him sell out his tour. Derek Hatton, the former Militant and would-be pantomime star, didn’t really have a torrid affair with another of Clifford’s clients, Katie Baring, the aspiring actress and merchant banker’s daughter.
One of Clifford’s more memorable triumphs was making the world believe that two of his clients, the supermodel Claudia Schiffer and the magician David Copperfield, were having a passionate romance when really, until Clifford introduced them, they hardly knew each other. Clifford, who reckons he makes about £750,000 a year, describes the PR world as empty and sycophantic. I ask him whom he has more contempt for, the stars who are prepared to prostitute themselves shamelessly at his behest or the media which is prepared to swallow the scraps of gossip he throws? ‘I don’t think you can generalise,’ he says. ‘Neither really. Some journalists loathe me, others love me. Which is fine. It works well for me. And I don’t have contempt for the stars because I know most of them are only really in love with themselves. I don’t mean to sound arrogant but stars generally need you more than you need them, so they are nice to you.’ Well quite, who would have heard of those fly-by-nights Hendrix and Dylan, or Lennon and McCartney, had it not been for the sterling work of their junior press officer? ‘What I mean is that I can keep things out of the press that will destroy them. I do it by calling in favours with editors, by being aware of a problem in advance so that I can take care of it. If Hugh Grant had been a client of mine and I’d known about his weakness for going off with ladies in cars, I could have dealt with it. I could have supplied the cast list from friends of mine who are madams, worldwide. Or I’d have fixed things with my friends in the LA police department.’
Can almost any compromising situation be recovered through PR? ‘I don’t know about that,’ says Clifford, speaking in the slow voice of one on Mogadon. ‘I’d hate to represent Gary Glitter right now. But you can make things better, yes. Jeffrey Archer would be easy to turn round. One year or two, provided he played the game and did what I asked him to do. I could present him as a loveable rogue, an Alan Clark figure. He hasn’t done anything that we find too odious. He’s been economical with the truth, but aren’t all politicians? It’s often a matter of damage limitation. Look at Mellor and Paddy Ashdown. Both caught out at about the same time. Paddy turned it to his advantage and if anything it made him more popular. He showed humility. He didn’t blame anyone else. Mellor did the opposite, tried to hide behind the very family he betrayed. He came out crawling. The garden gate picture. That’s revolting.’
Although Clifford denies it – he says he doesn’t want to risk being sued – it seems unlikely that David Mellor ever made love to Clifford’s client Antonia de Sancha while wearing a Chelsea FC strip. But it was this inspired detail that made the story funny and marketable – de Sancha made £100,000 from it. Clifford grins and says, ‘All I will say is that it made a lot of sense that he would wear that because anything that would draw attention away from his face would be an advantage.’
He does admit, though, that he put Judge James Harkess up to saying that he wanted to horsewhip Alan Clark who, having languidly confessed to serial womanising in his diaries, was forced by Clifford to face the ‘Harkess coven’, the South African mother and daughter who were his mistresses. ‘The Harkesses? They came to me, I didn’t go to them, and said we want to stand up and put our side of the story and make money. What a pantomime that was. Alan Clark loved it, sold more books, and the mother and daughter got what they wanted too. They didn’t think they were making fools of themselves.’
So, as Clifford sees it, his clients usually emerge from their dealings with him happier and richer and that’s all they care about. Their total humiliation is never an issue. De Sancha never lost her dignity, he says, because as an out-of-work actress who hated the situation she was in, she didn’t have much dignity to lose. And Mandy Allwood, who became pregnant with octuplets only to lose them? ‘Mandy approached me, as everyone does, I don’t ever approach anybody. I did a very quick deal with the News of the World that was never about how many babies but about paying her a lot of money for her story.’ And her threat to sue him for the £350,000 she claims he still owes her? ‘There’s no substance to it. All the accounts were there. Her people have seen everything and in point of fact, having looked into it, they discovered they owed me money.’
Max Clifford is friendly enough but he has cruel, thin lips and he doesn’t use them to smile much. He is, I suspect, driven as much by chippiness as he is by moral indignation. He can sound sanctimonious on the subject of his charity work: visiting the sick and elderly, donating the money from all his television appearances to the Marsden Hospital. And there is something of the Dickensian humbug about him; protesting too much about sleaze, when clearly he needs to keep us interested in it in order to promote himself.
All this makes it very difficult to gauge the purity of his motives when it comes to the subject of his daughter, Louise, who has been disabled since the age of six with rheumatoid arthritis. She has had 12 major operations – hip and knee replacements, a rod fixed into her spine – and at one time was in hospital for eight months. It was at this point that Clifford came to hate the Tories for what they had done to the NHS. ‘I set out to do everything I could to embarrass the last government because of the NHS,’ he says. ‘Because of what I saw daily, going in and out of hospitals with Louise, talking to nurses, seeing the effects of shortages.’
As if on cue Louise appears and sits on the arm of her father’s chair. ‘How’s mum getting on?’ Max asks her. Fine, she says in a small voice that is just as soft as her father’s. Then, turning to me he explains: ‘Louise has been told she needs a kidney transplant and we’ve been having tests. Unfortunately I’m the wrong blood group but Liz is OK so she’s out there today on a treadmill at the hospital. And she’s not sporty like I am!’ I ask Louise – who has a degree in Communications from Bournemouth University and who plans to take over her father’s company when, if, he retires – if she ever felt uncomfortable about being, well, used by her father as a weapon against the Tories? ‘It really wasn’t an issue,’ she says, ‘because it was something we were passionate about. When you care about things you want to talk about them. His attitude to the NHS wasn’t entirely shaped by me, it came from talking to nurses and doctors as well.’
I ask Max if he has ever felt that he was over-playing the Louise card. ‘No. This is my life, and if I’m going to point the finger at the Tories, I have to be prepared to stand up and say how it is. I know what they did to the NHS. I’ve had first-hand experience of it. I’d sleep on a mattress by Louise’s bed after her operations because one of the after-effects of the anaesthetic was that it made her sick and there would only be one student nurse on duty. And Louise would be bound up like a little mummy, in traction, unable to move. I wasn’t using Louise. This is how it is. The more attention we can draw to this cruel disease the better. I didn’t blame the Tories for arthritis, I blamed them for the lack of nurses, beds, care.’
He adds that if the present government fails the NHS as badly as the last government did, he will queer their pitch too. He claims he was the first to tell the world about Ron Davies and his nocturnal walks on Clapham Common. And more recently he set up the chocolate-eclair-in-the-agriculture-minister’s-face wheeze (the self-styled ‘socialite environmentalist’ Birgit Cunningham had sought his advice). In a week when the news was full of real stories, such as the IRA failure to decommission arms and the Shipman serial killings, the stunt made the front page of every single newspaper, broadsheets included. Does New Labour have skeletons? Clifford gives an amused sigh. ‘At the moment I should think there are about 20 affairs I haven’t brought out – because I couldn’t justify exposing them. But if they start lecturing us about back to basics, who knows?’
Sounds like blackmail: a Max Clifford tactic. Although he has a short fuse – he once had to be pulled off the Tory MP Roger Gale during a heated exchange on Kilroy – there is an eerie passivity to him. Like Bridey in Brideshead Revisited, he floats with log-like calm on the ripples of social discomfort he creates. He never gets nervous, he says, and is not easily embarrassed. Like most bullies, he is a very sentimental man. ‘I can watch films and have tears,’ he says. ‘I’ve spent a lot of time up at the Marsden and I often come away feeling moved. You see tots of two or three with leukaemia, and when I’m driving my car away I have to stop and cry because sometimes life can be very cruel. I suppose the reason I go up there a lot – and have done for 20 years now – is that you can cheer people up a bit. Give them a lift. Put something back.’
The paradox about Max Clifford is that, while he clearly needs the approval and love of his family, and wants to be appreciated for his charity work, he seems not to mind if what he does as a publicist makes him unpopular with the general public. ‘If I’m sleazy for exposing sleazy people, so be it,’ he says with a shrug. ‘I don’t mind if people who don’t really know me hate me. I’m the only white person in this country who thinks OJ Simpson is innocent, for instance, and I’ve had death threats about it.’ (One of his more surreal stunts involved bringing OJ over to England and having him appear on the Richard and Judy Show and then, even more bizarrely, debating at the Oxford Union.) ‘So, if you see what I’m saying, I’ve always had the courage of my convictions.’
He certainly has. He stuck up for Geoffrey Boycott when the former cricketer was accused of beating up Margaret Moore and didn’t seem to have a friend in the world. He also advised the five suspects in the Stephen Lawrence murder case to appear on ITV’s Tonight programme. ‘I told them to put their case live on television because in a fair society you should hear both sides. My instinct is that one or two of them had nothing to do with it. These are not very bright boys who were acting on the advice of their lawyers not to answer any questions.’
And now Clifford has joined forces with that honest fellow Mohamed Fayed to promote Fulham FC. Hmm again. It occurs to me that Judge Clifford, the PR man who has become as famous as his clients, actually represents the new establishment, the new spirit of Britain: hollow, cheesy and spiteful. I ask him if he thinks he is a good man. ‘I’m extremely happy to be the person I am. I’m happy generally. I never get depressed. You get your moments, a few tears, but the laughter always outweighs them.’
He is easily bored, he adds, doesn’t read much, eats out three times a week and likes to walk around the house naked. I notice he drums his fingers a lot: is this because his calm exterior hides a tense and frustrated man? ‘No, I think it’s to do with an epileptic fit I had when I was 48. It was quickly sorted out with tablets and after a couple of years I was told I didn’t need to take them any more.’
It could just be another twitch to add to his repertoire,’ Louise adds. ‘All his siblings are twitchers. It’s like being at the zoo when they get together. Bunny is a grunter as well.’
Three hours have passed and the inscrutable Max Clifford has proved to be such an engaging talker we have strayed unwittingly into his tennis time. As I’m leaving he tells me, apropos of nothing, that Bobby Davro lives next door but one. The Clifford devil is in the surreal detail.