THE STAR MAKER
BY JOHN HUDSON (June 2006)
The following article by John Hudson appeared as a two part series in the Western Daily Press on 20 and 27 June 2006.
JOHN HUDSON looks at the early career of John Miles, who runs a multi-million-pound showbiz empire from his luxury HQ at Clapton-in-Gordano.
John Miles has made a multi-millionaire of himself and several other people as a showbusiness manager and entrepreneur.
That's hardly surprising when he counts Noel Edmonds, Carol Vorderman, Des O'Connor, the Wurzels, Martin Bashir, Jethro, Timmy Mallett, Keith Floyd, Terry Nutkins and the Tommy Cooper estate among his clients past and present.
So was he always one of those little boys enthralled by the magic of showbiz, aching for Christmas to come around so that mum and dad could take him down to the Bristol Hippodrome panto to bask in the stardust of Arthur Askey, George Formby or Tommy Trinder?
"Not really," says John, who is the kind of 65-year-old you don't dare think of asking whether it's time for him to stop and put his feet up a bit. "To tell you the truth, what I was really interested in when I was a schoolboy was what I'm interested in now. Doing deals."
What kind of deals?
"Well, when I was in my early teens at Portway secondary modern, I'd buy jars of sweets and sell them at two a penny, and I'd also sell ice creams at sports day."
So that was the beginning of it all?
"Well, no, because before that, when I was 11 or 12, I would cut neighbours' lawns and hedges round where we lived in Clifton Wood at 1s 6d (7.5p) an hour, and sell them bedding plants I'd grown in my parents' two greenhouses."
So that was the beginning of it all?
"Well, no, not really, because my mother used to say that when I was nine or 10, I started a stamp club. Collecting stamps was a big thing then and I'd buy them in bulk and then sell them in sets, like in the approvals catalogues that were around at that time..."
When John Miles was a boy you could leave school when you were 15, and he very nearly made it. "I left in the July before my 15th birthday in the September, and I couldn't wait. I had a year setting machines to make cardboard boxes at ES and A Robinson's but I was still interested in horticulture, so went on to work at Long Ashton research station. I then went to college for a year when I was 17, and when I came back I got half an acre near Pill where I grew lettuces."
So he could just have easily made his millions out of garden centres?
"I often think that. When I was at Long Ashton I noticed how they grew things in tins, and I saw the possibilities in that. At the time, a builder owned 1.5 acres next to the research station. He wanted £250 for it, and I was interested in buying it. I didn't, but if I had, well yes, in 1956 I'd have been the first garden centre in the country!"
It was when he was 18, tending his more modest plot near Pill, that the course of his life was set. "I had a friend leading a semi-pro group in Bristol, 'Daryl Grant and the Descants'. They were earning £2 a night, and Daryl must have thought I was capable of getting them a better deal than that, even when I'd taken my 10 per cent. When I got their fee up to £5, other groups started sitting up and taking notice. The word got around: 'If you want work, ring John Miles'.
"I set up an office in my mum and dad's house in Clifton Wood, and more and more work rolled in for me and my clients. As for Daryl Grant, we're still in touch. I see him quite often."
If you know your Britpop history, you will be aware that for a year or two before the Beatles' big breakthrough in the autumn of 1962, there had been a thriving beat scene spreading out from the big cities, and that it was nowhere more popular than in German industrial towns and seaports. "By the time the Beatles really happened in 1963, I already had 40 groups in Germany out of a total of 350 on my books," says John.
So who made it big from the John Miles stable? That's the funny thing. Nobody much did, really. The Bristol group The Cougars nibbled at the lower reaches of the charts with 'Saturday Night At The Duckpond', a farrago based on Swan Lake which the BBC refused to touch because it desecrated the classics. This made Luxembourg "play it to death". Other Miles bands had hits in Germany, quite big hits, some of them, and some of their musicians are still living over there. But it never happened for most of the West Country bands, and John thinks he knows why.
"When the Beatles happened, I was talking to my opposite number Danny Betesh in Manchester," he says. "We were wondering whether we should go to work in London, but Danny said why bother? He'd heard that after they'd scoured Liverpool for talent, the big record companies would then be doing Manchester, Birmingham and Bristol in that order.
"It was all right for Danny. They were in Manchester instantly, signing up all his best acts - Herman's Hermits, Freddie and the Dreamers, Wayne Fontana... Then they went on down to Birmingham and lost so much money that they never did bother with Bristol..."
John Miles has always been a manager, rather than an agent."The way I see it, an agent looks for work for his clients, while a manager is there to build them up, organise their careers, make the right decisions." He's done most of the backroom work of showbiz - promoting shows, running a record shop in Bedminster, publishing the Bristol Beat magazine, booking the Beatles and the Kinks at local gigs for £25 and £35 a night.
But by 1966, with the grass-roots beat boom past its peak, it was time for a rethink. "I'd been doing it for eight years, during which time I'd slept about eight hours," he recalls. "I needed to concentrate on a couple of acts, and felt I could afford a few months to look for them. Then, the first person to walk through my office door in Whiteladies Road was Adge Cutler. He'd been Acker Bilk's roadie for years, but he had all these rustic songs he'd been singing around the pubs in Bristol, and between us we came up with this idea for the Wurzels. Adge went to a pawnbroker's in Old Market and bought all the gear - corduroy trousers, grandad shirts, neckerchiefs...
"I spoke to Bob Barratt at EMI, the A &R guy who had produced the Cougars' record. "I told him about Adge, and he thought I'd gone round the twist. Record companies made a lot of money, but they signed a lot of acts that didn't make it, and it was hard to get a contract. Bob said I could bring them to London, but he didn't sound hopeful.
"Much against their better judgment, I had them changing into their gear about 10 miles out of town and rolling up to Abbey Road in a camper van crammed with milk churns and straw and other yokel paraphernalia. They made a great racket as they came in through the doors, rolling milk churns and so on. All the girls in the offices rushed to the windows to see what was going on.
"We'd been in Studio Two - the Beatles' studio - for about half an hour when a silver-haired guy came in and talked to Bob. It turned out he was the chairman of EMI, wanting to hear the tape and know what all the fuss had been about - so the noisy entrance had been worth it. The record books tell you that Drink Up Thy Zider had one week in the charts at 45 early in 1967, but it seemed bigger than that.
"Adge and the Wurzels got on the David Frost Show, and were building up a cult following. They had their own HTV series, Great Western Thunderbox, and then it went national. There were no more hits with Adge, but after a long, hard struggle they were making it, and we had a national tour lined up for the autumn of 1974. Then, in May that year, came a day I shall never forget. Adge was killed in a late-night road crash, and early the next morning it was my job to phone each of the Wurzels in turn to tell them.
"I told them right away that I wanted them to carry on. They replied that they couldn't possibly do that. Adge was the star. They were just the backing group. I said 'If you carry on, I'll get you to number one'.
"I don't really know why I said it, as their only previous hit had been such a minor one seven years before. But Bob Barratt at EMI agreed that their recording career should continue, and in 1976 we came up with Combine Harvester, based on Melanie's Brand New Key of four years before.
"By this time I was involved with the Radio One Roadshow, one of the great sounds of that hot summer of '76, and I gave Noel Edmonds a copy of Combine Harvester. 'I suppose you want me to play it every day,' he said, and he did. It was in the charts 13 weeks and was the number one I told the boys I'd get them.
"When we got to the top with Combine Harvester, EMI sent us a case of champagne. The boys were round at my house at Clapton-in-Gordano helping me drink it, and we started kicking around ideas for a follow-up. The previous year Jonathan King had a big summer hit with Una Paloma Blanca, a real holiday song, and I said why don't we do something with that?
"One or two of the boys weren't sure, but then Pete Budd started singing 'When the moon shines on the cowshed...', and we were away. When we were on Pete Murray's show soon afterwards, Pete couldn't believe it would click. But it was a top-three hit."
And that, as far as chart success was concerned, was just about it for the Wurzels. Songs the West Holds Dear, Morning Glory, When The Common Market Comes To Stanton Drew, Moonlight On The Malago and the like, never got a sniff of the top 40. In fact, many of us scarcely remember the group's last entry in 1977, Farmer Bill's Cowman.
John stopped managing the Wurzels in 1987, after 21 years, but he says it was an amicable split. "They'd done so much, and achieved what I'd promised, that number- one hit," he says. "While an agent is happy to keep on taking bookings, as a manager I wanted to be more creative. Tommy Banner and I agreed that an agent was all they needed. We're still very friendly."
As for John Miles, the task of building careers was only just beginning.
THE STARMAKER - PART 2
John Miles takes an amused pride in the fact that he has managed two acts that have made number one in the charts, despite not having managed pop performers since his novice days with Sixties West Country beat groups.
"There are plenty of out-and-out pop managers who can't make that claim," he muses. "They might have scores of top 10 hits to their name, but you know what they say about 'that elusive number one'. And here am I, done it twice - with the Wurzels and Timmy Mallett, who'd admit he's not the best singer in the world!"
It was after John and the Wurzels parted amicably after 21 years in 1987 that he set out to build up the career of Mallett, an off-beat children's TV personality now looked back on with a mixture of irony and affection by today's thirty-somethings who were his audience at the time. In fact, irony was always a part of his armoury - if not, how could he and his manager possibly have promoted such an unhip character as a pop star?
The story behind the hit record is as bizarre as the record itself. "In 1990 I was talking to the head of Polygram about ways in which we might promote Timmy beyond his TV-Am show, and a few days later he came back and said Andrew Lloyd Webber had suggested that it might be a good idea if he re-released Brian Hyland's old hit Itsy Bitzy Teeny Weeny Yellow Polka Dot Bikini", John recalls.
"A few days later, Timmy and I met up with Lloyd Webber, and the record went ahead, with Timmy as the focal point of a group they called Bombalurina. There was a tremendous champagne party at Lloyd Webber's country house when it went to number one. There was such a buzz in the air - and none of it would have happened if I hadn't spoken to that chap at Polygram".
The number-one part of the story, on the other hand, would probably never have happened if it hadn't been for The Sun. "Timmy was at number three, and I knew that the coming week would be crunch-time," says John. "I was at home here late one night wondering what I could do to give it that extra push, when the late-night news showed some of the following day's front pages".
"All over The Sun there was a picture of Princess Di in a skimpy two-piece swimsuit - accompanied by a play on the words of our song. By the end of the week we were number one. For me, I saw it as poetic justice. Back in 1960, when I was 20 and thinking I knew it all, I was offered the chance to book a load of dates for an American package tour that featured Brian Hyland just after his Itsy Bitsy hit. I lost money, and for years I thought all I'd got out of it was the hard lesson that you don't gamble everything on promoting shows. But 30 years later, there was that bikini song earning me a bit!".
An odd tale. But the Lloyd Webber involvement still seems a good deal odder.
Of course, lightening doesn't strike twice, and while Bikini was a summer smash, Bombalurina's Christmas follow-up the old Avons' bit of nonsense from 1959 about seven little girls sitting in the back seat with Fred, only just crept into the top 20. After which Timmy Mallett simply carried on with his successful TV career.
Of the current acts on John Miles' books, Noel Edmonds and Carol Vorderman are far and away the highest earners - breathtakingly so, when books and promotions are taken into account.
John, who is 65, has known Noel since Radio One Roadshow days, and represented him informally for much of that time. At one time he had nine Radio One DJs on his books, including Kid Jensen and Peter Powell, and it was through this link that a producer on the Roadshow heard that he had built a mobile stage for the Wurzels shows at barbecues. John had a better one made for the radio show and his brother Tony Miles, who drove it, found instant fame as Smiley Miley. "As time went by he got sucked more into the show," said John. "It was great fun for him while it lasted."
Carol Vorderman has been on John Miles' books for over 20 years, in which time she has been transformed from a pretty, self-effacing brainbox on the daytime TV cult show Countdown to an A-list celebrity.
"She was looking for a manager and a director of Yorkshire Television recommended me to her;" John recalls. "When we met, I liked her straight away. She was bubbly, honest, straightforward, genuine and very talented. If they're not talented, I can't do anything with them. I've always wanted people on whom I could concentrate and built up into one-off performers. In the past it's been the Wurzels, Jethro and Keith Floyd. Today it's Noel, Carol, Terry Nutkins and Martin Bashir".
How on earth does anybody get to manage Martin Bashir? "Oh, you know," John replies airily, "Sometimes these things happen and you're never sure how". Noel Edmonds was not formally a John Miles artist until recent years, when he was looking to make a TV comeback after some time concentrating on other business interests. "He phoned me and said I'd been representing him unofficially for 35 years, so why didn't we get together properly?" Mind you, our business relationship had been a two-way thing. I'd helped him, but in return I'd got the marketing rights to Crinkley Bottom, Hissing Sid, that kind of thing.
"The first thing I had to do was find the right kind of show for him, and then we got Deal or No Deal. Noel didn't want to do it. The head of Channel 4 daytime TV sent me a copy of the French version. I showed it him and he said 'I just don't like this. It's awful'. I thought it was fine. The boxes and money and risk-taking side of it looked good to me. 'Give it a go,' I told Noel. You'll do it differently, it can work for you'. So he eventually did a run-through, we took it on, and now he's into the second series and won a Bafta nomination. The current series runs through until October, and now he's signed to do nearly 400 shows, six days a week, between then and the end of 2007. He records three shows a week. It's a lot of work".
Away from showbiz, John can point to land and property interests, a motor show room in Ashton, Bristol, with his brothers Roger and Tony, and houses in Barbados, Majorca and Spain, the latter with an orange grove attached.
There has been personal tragedy. John's first wife, Gloria, died of cancer, and since then he has become chairman of the friends of Bristol oncology unit. He also chairs a stem cell project at Hammersmith hospital, and since being diagnosed with prostate cancer six years ago, for which he underwent successful surgery, he has become chairman of the prostate cancer care and research centre appeal at Bristol's Southmead hospital. Both Carol Vorderman and Noel Edmonds have helped publicise this. It was through Gloria's illness that John met his second wife, Lyn, for her husband was a cancer victim at much the same time. They have twin daughters, Emily and Charlotte, aged 11, while John has thirty-something children, Richard and Amanda, from his first marriage. Lyn's 18 year old son, John, completes the family.
"I know I'm very lucky to be in this position," says John, a man with an affable, laid-back persona for so dynamic a figure in such a cut-throat trade, and who has never considered shaking off his local accent.
"I've been determined and I've worked hard, but you need luck, too. I've lived in Bristol all my life, and from the start I felt that if I was going to be successful, I wanted it to be in my home city. In the early days I had to work harder to achieve what I've done from out here. Now most of the good managers operate from outside London."
He only has to look around him at the material rewards his efforts have reaped to know he ranks among the very best.