BLOG  4 - Millionaires, tanks and Frankie Vaughan

BLOG 4 - Millionaires, tanks and Frankie Vaughan

15th December 2020

IN Part Four of his blog for the Armour Group, former Fleet Street journalist Terry Manners takes another look at the opportunities for writing that book you always dreamed of and looks back at his own experiences and adventures taking on major projects for some of Britain’s leading publishers. He unveils the ups and downs of the world of words and the trails that sometimes lead to nothing but heartbreak … but could just take you to that pot of gold. This week he looks at non-fiction and the wealth of material all around us.

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FIREWORKS crackled and multi-coloured sparks of rockets fell like confetti in the eerie half-light over the Thames as Prime Minister John Major stood in the shadow of the Tower of London and announced that the UK’s first National Lottery was launched. It was 6.30am on Monday, November 14, 1994 and Lotto tickets were going on sale at last, after a year of political wrangling and fierce arguments with the clergy. I watched the ceremony with more than a passing interest because I had signed a contract with Headline Publishing to write a non-fiction paperback on the stories of the first millionaire Lottery winners. The country was in a gambling frenzy. Camelot was King.

It had been the biggest single advertising campaign ever to hit the UK. The slogan ‘It Could Be You’appeared on over 3,000 poster sites; magazines and newspapers ran Camelot ads for weeks. Millions listened to radio jingles and every night TV viewers saw a blazing comet leave a sparkling trail, as it shot to planet Earth in the dark sky and suddenly burst into a vast, shining, translucent golden hand and tapped a finger on the window of a London tower block as a Godly voice said to its inhabitant: ‘It’s You!’ But I can remember smiling to myself when John Major said to the nation on that chilly November launch morning: “The lottery will unlock the door to a higher quality of life for millions of people. irrespective of income and without extra taxation.” He was to mean The Few of course.

My book, called appropriately: ‘It Could Be You’ was to be a classic non-fiction paperback and for me it meant research, interviews, telephone calls, drinks with former Fleet Street hacks who worked for the Camelot publicity machine, keeping newspaper cuttings and more … all helped by my job at the time as Assistant Editor of the Daily Express in London. In this blog I refer to the National Lottery as an example to open a door to non-fiction book writing for you. For there is a gold mine of material to go at out there … you just need the idea – and as I said in my previous blogs – the package … a synopsis, a sample chapter if possible and a vision of how and why the book will sell and why you are the person to write it. Then you need to approach an agent to get a publisher. With the lottery idea, I had found the key to a golden box and others were later to follow with their revelations of the big winners.

The stories I followed up were even better than I imagined. The first multi-millionaire winner was Mukhtar Mohidin, a 42-year-old, devoutly religious, chemical factory worker living with his wife Sayeeda and three children in a £50,000 terraced house in Blackburn, Lancs. He was nicknamed The Curry King because at work, he would heat up a little curry every day. He scooped a staggering £17.8million. The UK went wild. Everyone wanted to know Muslim Mukhtar - but Camelot were keeping him secret. Lucky for me they sent in a mate of mine to spirit him away, a fellow former Fleet Street hack whom I shall refer to only as Andy. He knew how to handle the Press pack.

From almost the moment of the big win, Andy was at Mukhtar’s side in his home. But the following day the Press tracked down his address and over 20 reporters and photographers arrived at his front door. Andy pulled him through a back window and dragged him over a garden fence to get him away, treading over his precious evergreen shrubs on the way. “He seemed more worried about his shrubs than what to do with his new life,” Andy told me. “I had to stop and apologise for crushing them”. From that day on Andy was to mind a series of millionaire winners and spirit them away to secret hotels over the coming months and even years and his tips put me ahead of the game for the book.

Sadly, it was only just recently that I discovered the mega riches that utterly transformed Mukhtar’s life, had turned him from a hard-working family man into a violent, womanising playboy gambler, divorced by his wife and shunned by the muslim community. He ended up hiring calls girls at £1,000 a night and spent his last years living with an escort lady. Today, he is buried in an unmarked grave.

But sometimes there is more to a book than just 80,000 or so words. You can use it as a springboard for other writing ventures and with my lottery idea, two things happened. One guy I wrote about was Mark Gardner, known as The Lotto Rat, because of his long trail of wives and women who claimed he cheated on them. Double-glazing fitter Mark and his business partner had netted a cool £18million Jackpot. Now he wanted his life story told. And by chance at the time, I was talking to a TV production company about a series on the Lottery winners called: Everyone’s A Winner for Channel Five. The idea was to make one of the episodes the story of Mark’s big win … and have me appear in it as his ghost writer, recording his life story, going out and about with him in his new life.

So, it was with this in mind that I arrived at the gates of his mansion up on The Ridge, a swish part of Hastings. Mark had built the house originally as a five-star hotel - but got bored with the idea halfway through and decided to make it his home. I was to find out he got bored with a lot of things.

The house was a dream and the lounge led to a wall of French doors that opened onto a hotel-sized indoor-heated swimming pool with the Lottery hand logo It’s You carved in mosaic on the bottom. One room had been set aside as his music room and he took me along the vast hallway to it. He couldn’t play or read a note of music but when he opened the door the large, sound-proofed studio, I saw it was crammed with every conceivable instrument there was to play. From trombones and saxophones to a piano, drums and guitars and even a double base. “This is for when I decide which instrument I will take up Tel,” he said. We then went for a quiet stroll in the garden and he revealed his main worry.

“What shall I do with that big mound of lawn over here Tel?” he asked pointing to an area in the 10 or so acres. “A pond, with a waterfall, perhaps?” I suggested. The next time I visited, he was excited and hurriedly led me back to the garden. And there on the mound was his proud new purchase … An ex-British Army WW11 Challenger tank standing majestically on the mound, its gun turret turned to the sea. “Do you know I am legally allowed to drive this on the road if I get the right licence,” he said. Of course, we had to spend the next half hour or so clambering all over it, playing war games. I insisted on being Montgomery, he liked the idea of being General Patton, I think. Good fun. But driving tanks wasn’t for Mark. Ferraris were his style now.

He picked up a yellow one from the Hastings showroom a few weeks later - but still couldn’t make up his mind about the red one he had also seen. So, he went back to the beaming salesman and bought that one too. Of course, we had to go for rides in it … all over the town and slowly along the seafront for people to see. Bloody uncomfortable, I don’t know why Rod Stewart loves them so much … and collects them.

The book progressed, as books do and so did filming for the TV script. But if you ever come to write a life story you will discover what all ghost-writers discover … the person you are writing with and about, wants to project a squeaky-clean image of themselves … and there was nothing I could get my teeth into to persuade a publisher it would be a big sell. Not only that, but the ghost-writer has to have great patience. I would take a week of late nights writing up 15,000 words from interviews and notes, then cut it back to say 5,000, only to receive a message back later to take out half of the finished version because Mark didn’t like it, even though it was what he told me. He had simply changed his mind. Not the image he wanted, never mind the truth.

This happens over and over again when you write about someone else, they simply want a different slant on their self-perceived image. But they don’t know what it is. But they do want to be seen as famous icons and not warts and all which the public want to read. It is heart-breaking and frustrating. But I had fun, especially with the TV stuff.

The TV crew and I flew to Barbados to stay at Mark’s new Caribbean shore mansion, not far from neighbours Cliff Richard and Cilla Black. Mark had bought his home in the sun in true Mark style … on a whim while taking 20 of his friends on a Caribbean cruise. A villa sales company had staged a champagne event on board the liner to sell their new luxury, sunshine homes and our high-living lottery winner liked the pictures. He bought one cash after being chauffeured by limousine to it during a barbecue stop-off on the island. I don’t think he was there long enough to put the kettle on. But Barbados was a hoot. We stumbled around one beach rum shack after another and went sea fishing in mint green waters on luxury yachts, looking for fish through the empty bottoms of our beer bottles. Caught nothing.

Then on our final night on the island paradise, our multi-millionaire announced we would be going to Death Wish film Director, Michael Winner’s favourite restaurant, near the Sandy Lane Hotel, where rooms were around $3,000 a night without breakfast. There were six of us - myself, the film producer, a sound man, a camera man, Mark – and the new lady in his life who was to become his next wife.

It was a swanky venue where the main course was about the price of your weekly shopping bill without the house white. Fairy lights twinkled around every table and the glass floor beneath us stretched out into the ocean, where exotic fish darted about under our feet as lobster was served on rain forests of Caribbean salads. A six-piece calypso band with exotic dancers strutted their stuff to diners in expensive white linen as rainbow-coloured birds twittered in tall cages and Mark and his new love toasted good life with the most expensive champagne. “But you still can’t beat a good cuppa tea,” he would continually tell us.

Then it was over. Mark suddenly stood up and announced he was tired, and they were leaving. Our mouths dropped open as the ‘royal’ couple disappeared faster than the champagne had flowed. We all looked at each other. Our multi-millionaire host had left us with the bill! Ughh! And that was the end of our Caribbean caper. The producer and I reluctantly went halves on our credit cards. Ouch! Just over two thousand dollars.

The TV series was screened, and I appeared in it, but I pulled out of the book for many reasons, not least after that dinner in paradise we were invited to and then got left footing the bill. But it was another adventure. Writing books will take you on a fascinating, up-and-down journey and into the company of many extraordinary people - some likeable, some not, whether your work is published or not. You can become immersed in a world of different genre … fantasy, sci-fi, crime, self-help (a top earner), memoir, autobiography, history, even haunted castles. Research is everything in all genres. One idea leads to another, one fact to another, one name to another. Of the seven books I had published, five more were never finished for various reasons, although the workload was huge.

I once worked hard on a book about legendary 1950s/60s and 70s singing star Frankie Vaughan (many of you might not have heard of him but your mums have). He had massive Top Twenty hits like Green Door and Tower of Strength and starred opposite Marilyn Monroe in the Hollywood movie Let’s Make Love.

Helping me in the project was his widow Stella, a wonderful, elegant lady who still lived in their house in High Wycombe, Bucks. His armchair in the lounge was the same as when he had last sat in it, with the TV control boxes in the same position on the arm; his music magazines were on the floor and his empty tea mug on the coffee table. Tough guy Frankie, a hero of Boys Boxing Clubs throughout the UK for his charity work, was known for his iconic London Palladium performances with a top hat and cane and one afternoon Stella asked me if I would like to see the ‘topper’. She then appeared with a gold hat box and opened it with great reverence … lifting out the shiny black head piece I had often seen on TV as a boy. It was magical to hold Frankie’s Top Hat in my hands. The hat that was world famous. Stella had tears in her eyes as she showed me how to brush the ‘nap’ … the felt around the iconic timepiece, something she had done for him minutes before many stage appearances. And then she suddenly burst into tears and had to disappear for a while. Very sad. They were one of the showbiz world’s most loving couples, although there were rumours about Frankie and Marilyn on that film set.

Sadly, the publishers decided not to publish the book, appropriately called Behind The Green Door. They, and I, were hoping that it would contain some really good stuff about his relationship with Marilyn and anecdotes of stars behind the scenes. But Stella was reticent. She didn’t want to spill the beans on her showbiz friends and the more we went on with the words, the more she was trying to make it a sort of bible of their years of love together. Lovely for her and the family, but not for the publishing market. Publishers were looking at newspaper serialisation rights, possible film deals to promote the book and much more. I was too, but I couldn’t get enough meat. There was no happy, middle way.

However, we remained great friends. Meanwhile, something I haven’t got space to touch on this time is dealing with the perils of legal action when doing a life story on someone, especially if they are alive. Even if they are not, it is sometimes tricky writing about others who were in their lives and might sue. For there are money-grabbing lawyers out there we call ‘ambulance-chasers’ in the trade, looking for cases of defamation and libel. They will simply contact the person they deem to have been wrongly written about and approach them to act on their behalf, no foal, no fee. It happens in newspapers all the time of course, but damages and awards over books can be much more penalising.

A newspaper is viewed to be a passing thing by judges, on sale for a short time and soon forgotten. But a book can last a long time - and stays in the British Library for perpetuity.

My main living of course, was as a journalist on a national daily newspaper and the books were a profitable hobby. Some more profitable than others. So perhaps this is your time to have a go and put your book idea down on paper. Don’t just say you will. Do it! Don’t just be a pretend Hemingway staring into the logs on the fire with your dreams. Get at it … but be prepared to work hard, especially if it is not the day job. Giving up your own precious time is another hard step. Back later and the story of how Frankie seemed to get in touch from the grave.

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Terry Manners