Before I meet Gerald Ratner I meet his wife Moira. She is in their kitchen, wearing sportsgear, on her way to pilates. The couple live in an Edwardian house with electric gates on the outskirts of Bray, Berkshire. It’s not the sort of grand house they once lived in — ‘The house that crap built’ as the Sun rather cruelly called it — but it is comfortable, and big enough to have a tennis court. That is where he is now, with our photographer. Just wrapping up.
I tell her that a friend of mine heard her husband give a speech recently on the rise and fall and rise again of Gerald Ratner, and thought him not only funny but engaging. ‘Oh,’ she says, in a deadpan voice. ‘I think you’ll find he’s pretty unengaging in person.’
I like him already, and her.
The ‘rise again’, it should be explained, relates to his on-line jewellery business geraldonline.com. We shall come to that. For now it is worth noting that, at its peak in 1991, the Ratners jewellery chain had a turnover of £1.5bn, with profits of £125m, from 2,500 shops in Britain and America. He had taken over the company from his father seven years earlier — when there had been 100 shops, most of which were making a loss — and had expanded rapidly, swallowing up the opposition, including H Samuel and Ernest Jones, to become the most successful jewellery business in the world.
Then came his infamous — and much misquoted — speech to the Institute of Directors at the Royal Albert Hall, the one in which he joked that the reason his cheapest sherry decanter was so cheap — £4.95 — was that it was ‘crap’. He had told the joke in public several times before — it had even been reported in the Financial Times several months earlier — and, because it always got a laugh, he thought that the line would be the perfect way to lighten what was to be a heavy speech about the business and the economy. But by the time it was reported in the tabloids the next day the quote had turned into him saying that all his jewellery was crap. Overnight, Ratners had become, to quote another Sun headline, ‘Crapners’. The Mirror’s front page informed its readers that they had been taken for “22 carat gold mugs”.
The company unravelled with astonishing speed. Women no longer wanted to wear jewellery that came in a Ratners’ box, however cheap it was. Shares plummeted. Within 18 months, Gerald Ratner was not only out of a job but broke, and broken. Gone was the yacht, the helicopter, and the chauffer-driven company cars, including a Rolls Royce and a Bentley. Both his town and country house had to be sold. He even lost his family name — the people who took over his company wouldn’t allow him to trade under the name Ratner in future business projects.
When Gerald Ratner saunters into his kitchen now, the photographs done, he does indeed seem a little disengaged, with a resigned, Eeyore-ish manner and a delivery even more deadpan than that of his wife. But there is a friendly openness about him that is disarming, and a certain vulnerability, too. Like Uncle Tom in PG Wodehouse, he has the look of a pterodactyl with a secret sorrow. But not that secret…
He takes off his tie, opens the collar of his lilac shirt, and leads the way into his sitting room. ‘My eldest daughter Suzy,’ he says, when he notices me noticing a framed photograph of an attractive young woman. ‘She works on The X-Factor. A producer. I never watch the show on principle, because I’m a music snob.’ It seems the habit of saying what he thinks, however tactless, dies hard. ‘I tend to listen to new Indie bands, which I download from iTunes. I keep telling my wife the stuff she has on her iPod is abject. There is no excuse for Westlife.’
If there was vanity once, it seems to have gone now. ‘Back in the old days someone took my photograph from below and it made my already big nose look twice as big, which I wasn’t keen on, but now I don’t care how I’m photographed. Your photographer asked me to lie down on a bench, which I would never have agreed to back then.’
Yet he did pose for that ironic — and now iconic — photograph in which he held a toy gun to his head, shortly after he became the author of his own downfall in 1991. ‘Yes, I felt cursed by that because it kept being used whenever there was a story about me in the papers. I only agreed to it because Kelvin MacKenzie, who was then editor of the Sun, said they would be more positive and lay off me if I apologised to my customers. So I played the game, and it didn’t work.’
Did he feel he was going mad? ‘It was like being in a Greek tragedy. I remember walking in Hyde Park with the dog, and there had been stories about the collapse of the company in the Sunday papers that day, and I was thinking: “This is horrendous. How could it go from the crest of wave to this in such a short space of time? How did I ever let this happen?” I was cursing myself. That was when it hit me. Up until then I thought I would get through it.’
He went to see the banks to try and find a way of rescuing the company, but he soon realised that there was an elephant in the room. ‘And the elephant was me! No one would mention the fact that I was the problem. Eventually someone did and said that I was the one who had brought all this bad publicity on the company. What could be done about it? I said there was nothing that could be done because, for the press, this story ticked all the boxes and wouldn’t go away. I mean, they only stopped picking on Jade Goody when she got cancer. Then she was popular again.’
Actually, Ratner was told he might have cancer around that time. He had an emergency operation to remove a suspected tumour from the roof of his mouth and, at that point, felt so low he considered killing himself. ‘Jewellery was all I knew. The only thing I was in interested in. Losing my family company was like loosing a child, God forbid. I suppose I become inward looking and self-absorbed but I was also as miserable as hell and there was one day when I was walking around a shopping mall that I thought, well, if it had been on the second floor, who knows? I thought of my father and grandfather building up the business only for me to destroy it. I thought of my kids growing up being called Crapner for the rest of their lives, and I just thought: “It can’t get any worse than this.” It was probably the lowest point in my life. But as Joan Rivers said, suicide is so Eighties.’
It is an odd subject for him to make light about, given that when he was 19 his sister Juliet killed herself. A defence mechanism, perhaps. ‘Religion has a lot to answer for,’ he explains. ‘I still have an affection for it and I have started going to synagogue again because it’s my roots, but Jews don’t welcome non-Jews into their family. They have this ghetto mentality. My parents certainly did. They disapproved of my sister’s boyfriend because he wasn’t Jewish and when they drove him away she became depressed and eventually took a fatal overdose.’
His parents were certainly domineering to their children. He had what amounted to an arranged first marriage the following year, with his parents buying the engagement ring and giving it to his first wife before he had a chance to propose himself. The marriage didn’t last. They had two children then got divorced. ‘I think because of what happened with Juliet, my parents were going to the other extreme of not standing in the way with me.’
His father died of the hospital superbug MRSA shortly after Gerald Ratner had re-made some of his fortune in 2001, so that was a blessing of sorts. But his mother died right at the height of the ‘Crapner’ episode, just as he was having his cancer scare.
A dark period followed in which he sank further into depression. Saw therapists. Stayed in bed all day. ‘I felt everything was against me. I did take some pills. A type of Prozac. And that was a terrible mistake because I needed to get back on my feet and you can’t do that if you are feeling half asleep. I did a lot of damage in that state because I was meeting people and not making a good impression.’
Did he confide in his wife, as well as his therapists? ‘Well I was in a bit of denial for a while, so I probably didn’t talk to my wife as much as I should of done. I was hoping it would go away and everything would be back to normal. I suppose there was an element of pride in it too.’
He found therapy, meanwhile, a fairly pointless exercise. ‘I went to see one shrink and I was the only one in the clinic apart from the actress Charlotte Rampling, so that was a nice experience, even though I was quite drugged up. She said it was all-wrong that the press had driven me to that clinic.’ The shrink didn’t cheer him up particularly. ‘One I saw just kept saying ‘OK’ and left me to do all the talking. Another one did give me one good tip. He said the man who has 2000 shops is no happier than a man who has one shop, and that helped because I realised that material things were not that important, that it was all about self-gratification.’
Talking of materialism, why did he buy a Bentley when he made some money again? ‘I thought if I got a Bentley again it would be a way of proving to myself that I had made a come back. But I’m over that now. I sold it last month because I realised how ridiculous I was being. That’s the old Gerald. It’s not me anymore. I guess I wanted to prove to everyone that I could still have it.’
The removal of his chauffer when his own company fired him in 1992 was, he felt, a particularly gratuitous insult. ‘And I wasn’t equipped to deal with it. I drove myself home that day through pouring rain and nearly ran out of petrol. I found a garage just in time, and as I pulled up to the pump I realised I didn’t know what side the petrol cap was on: the chauffeur had always filled up. After a bit of fiddling around, I eventually got the petrol cap off, but it had been years since I’d used a pump and I only succeeded in covering myself in petrol. I must confess, I actually found myself in tears at that point.’
This black dog lasted for about seven years. ‘In all that time I didn’t have a sense of humour about what had happened at all, because it was quite serious and meant all my staff — we had 27,000 — might lose their jobs. I resented what had happened because I had become known for one thing only, and that thing was stupid and negative.’
He became obsessed with fitness, especially cycling, and he still clocks up 28 miles a day. ‘Cycling beats the depression and makes your mind much more alert. I get my best ideas cycling. I’m totally addicted to it now. When I’m not cycling I go mad. Whatever the weather I have to cycle.’
He also started doing public speaking and found that when he made jokes at his own expense, the audience really warmed to him. ‘My delivery is quite deadpan, I suppose. Moira is right; I come across as quite dour and hang dog, so no one expects jokes. I think they laugh because they have such low expectations of me.’ People often come up to him after his speeches and say how much they enjoyed them. ‘They also admit that when they heard it would be me they thought it would be a miserable person feeling sorry for himself. Some people say: “You really cheered me because your situation was worse than mine.” I suppose there is an element of schadenfreude to it.’
But if his audiences come away feeling better about themselves, that is as nothing to how his after dinner speeches make him feel. ‘I do find them quite cathartic. I should point out though that if I’m self-deprecating in these speeches, it’s only because I’ve got a lot to be self-deprecating about.’
Boom, boom. Does he ever think his ordeal by tabloid might have been a positive experience, in that it has given him a form of immortality? After all, ‘doing a Ratner’, has entered the language as a synonym for being the author of your own downfall. ‘I know what you mean. In those lists of History’s Worst Decisions, I always come top, ahead of Nero allowing Rome to burn and the guy who failed to install a Tsunami warning system in the Indian Ocean.’ He rubs the back of his neck. ‘I was doing a speech at a university in the Midlands and a professor came up and said: “Do you realise you will be remembered 500 years after you die for this?” And I said: “I knew it would be with me till I die but I was hoping that would be an end of it.” It is a fact that people know me for that. I was in the Isle of Man not long ago and a taxi driver just said out of the blue: “Why did you say it?” It is extraordinary. I don’t know why it stuck, yet here we are talking about it 19 years later.’
Actually, he is being self-effacing again, because the story of his come-back will also surely feature in the obituaries. After seven years of feeling sorry for himself and, as he puts it, ‘watching too much Countdown’, he decided that the best therapy would be to start again. Realising how therapeutic he had found his cycling, in 1997 he decided to open an upmarket gym, converting a warehouse in Henley. Because no investors would go near him, he hit upon the idea of selling membership for the gym before it was even built. By 2001 it was making £75,000 a year and he was able to sell it for £3.9 million. With the money he bought himself this house, and that Bentley. He also set up his on-line jewellery business, which now has annual sales of around £25 million. Ratner says his best days are Mondays when customers have been round the shops, seen what they want, and then go online to buy it cheaper.
‘The gym was the stepping-stone and I did it with no money, selling membership in advance for a non-existent club. It was a great way of market testing something without any risk. Now with Geraldonline I am trying to manufacture products after we have sold them, because they are so quick making them for us in India.’
Has this enterprise given him almost more pleasure than Ratners, given that this has been his baby from the start, rather than something passed down to him? ‘I was happier sitting in the portacabin in the site for that gym than I was in Ratners’ huge, lavish office on Stratton Street. I felt I was really achieving something. I’d had my success taken away from me and so to get it back I really appreciated it. As Joni Mitchell sang, you don’t know what you got till it’s gone.’
Now that he can run his business ‘from a deckchair in Southend’, he finds it a bit soulless though. ‘I’m stuck in front of a computer all day. That’s why I love doing the speeches because it means I meet people. I miss that from Ratners. My trouble is, I spend too much on the Internet when I’m bored. Buying cycling stuff. And one-clicking on ITunes. Looking out for new bands.’
He may get bored and restless from time to time but he does seem comfortable in his skin these days and reconciled to his peculiar fate. A couple of years ago he even published a memoir, The Rise and Fall… and Rise Again, which he found a therapeutic exercise. ‘Because I’ve made some sort of a come back I can put my head above the parapet now. I didn’t want to write that book before because my story didn’t have a happy ending.’
It is time to wind up, so before I go I feel I ought to ask my Mrs Merton style question: So, Gerald Ratner, any regrets? He has the good grace to laugh. ‘What do you think!’
OK, here’s another one, why was his jewellery so cheap? ‘Actually that is a good question. I only achieved the success I had back then because the jewellery business was so conservative and traditional. Like they wouldn’t have prices in the window, which was crazy. I came up with the idea of having one price for everything on a display. But the reason we could be so cheap was that we cut the margin, bought in bulk and used gold that wasn’t of the highest carat. It was a simple formula and other jewellers hadn’t thought to do it because they considered it beneath them.’
Gerald Ratner has acquired a degree of composure these days, it seems. The only thing that annoys him now is if the press call him hapless, as one tabloid did a few week ago, when making an analogy. ‘Such lazy journalism,’ he says with a shake of the head. A final question then. What has he learned from his extraordinary experience? ‘That there is a certain kind of peace that comes with accepting bad luck.’ Pause. ‘It was Noel Coward who said that the secret of success is the capacity to manage failure, and I have managed to be successful two or three times now, despite making that dreadful mistake.’
There is something else he has learned of course, that the only way to stop it hurting when people laugh at you is to laugh at yourself. They are making Gerald Ratner the Musical, he tells me with a grin. ‘Simon Nye is writing the music and the BBC have put money into it. I’m told the first line is “I had it all in my lap, until I said the word crap”.’ He gives an Eeyore-ish shrug and adds: ‘And I don’t even like musicals.’
It is time for us to part company — he has two children from his second marriage, as well as his first, and it is time to do the school run. Parked outside, I notice, is a smart Volvo 4×4. It’s not a Bentley, but it is new.