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Louis Theroux on Max Clifford


BBC journalist and documentary maker Louis Theroux has today recalled back to a time he filmed with the now jailed and shamed publicist Max Clifford via his Facebook page, he said:

I was on holiday when the Max Clifford verdict came down, driving an RV up the California coast. When I got back into the office I spent 50 minutes re-watching the documentary I made on him in 2002.

It was a strange experience. I was struck by the rawness and spontaneity of our encounters. Parts of it are rough, some of the jokes seem a little “inside”, but there are many compensatory pleasures, in the intimacy and the subtlety of the material – which takes place in cars and corridors and nightclubs – and the constant abrasive static between Max and myself.

The rationale for the show was that I was interested in the world of “spin” and wanted “the king of kiss and tell” to be my guide. Tongue slightly in cheek, in the opening scene, I tell Max I might be interested in retaining his services to take my career to the next level. I want the cover of a national newspaper, I say. “That’s easy,” he replies. We attend a series of low-wattage media events. A young(er) Simon Cowell – then Max’s client – wanders in and out of view, taking meetings with Max, doing celebrity appearances at Max’s behest, and grappling with the perils of his new-found fame and (apparently) a number of old flames keen to share the secrets of their nights of passion.

Max comes across as an odd mixture of playfulness and menace. He enjoys the cut and thrust of our repartee and he likes to tease, but there’s a stolid quality to his humour. His constant vigilance and suspicion gives him the air of an upscale nightclub bouncer who’s done a course on irony. At a hospital for a charity event we meet a hoard of hormonal teenage girls waiting for the boyband Westlife to arrive. Max says to me, very flat: “They heard you were coming”. In another scene, in the back of a car, he tells a friend – on speakerphone so that I can hear – that I’ve confessed to him that I had a sexual relationship with Christine Hamilton. It’s not funny; it is slightly peculiar.

Then, about halfway through the film, the mood changes. It emerges that Max has been creating a fake relationship between Simon Cowell and a lapdancer for the consumption of the tabloids. On camera I call Max on his fabrication. He’s clearly irked and he retaliates by placing stories in the press about me. He arranges for me to do an interview with Simon at Spearmint Rhino but it’s a pretext to get me photographed by paparazzi. My visit to the lap-dancing club becomes a full-page story in the Mirror.

And so it goes on, with Max orchestrating press events while denying all the while that he’s doing so. The documentary ends with Max stomping off in a huff in a supermarket after I overhear him plotting on his radio mike. Not that he was saying anything especially damaging but the idea that an arch-media manipulator might get caught out in such an elementary way clearly stung him.

Watching the show dredged up a lot of memories. It was one of the most stressful filming experiences I’ve had. I didn’t enjoy being the subject of Max’s stories. I found it hard not to resent him. For his part, when we showed him the film in his New Bond Street offices, he didn’t like it. You know what you’ve done, and one day I’ll get you back, was his attitude. For a while I lived in a low level of anxiety that one of Fleet Streets “machers” had a grudge against me, which might come due at any time.

A few years later, I read in a profile in the Observer that Max was a devotee of sex parties. In the article, he boasted about his bedroom conquests. This was a surprise. Still, I was shocked when I heard that Max’s name had come up in the context of the Yewtree investigation. It’s well known that there were dark rumours about Jimmy Savile. So far as I knew, this was never the case with Max Clifford.

Watching my old documentary I looked for signs of Max’s secret life. In our encounters, Max is pugnacious. He radiates a sense of personal power. When called upon, he lies. But he doesn’t just lie: he lies with seeming equanimity. I remember thinking at the time that it was possible Max enjoyed lying.

Max’s shenanigans on the speakerphone in the back of the car resonated, in a small way, with the accounts of victims, several of whom described him pulling pranks on the phone during his offences.

More generally, it was clear looking back on it that Max’s world revolved around sex: covering up unwanted sex stories by creating other, fictitious sex stories. Sex was a currency for him and I suppose it is not a massive leap see that trafficking in kiss-and-tell and “honeytraps” might lead to a coarse and desensitized attitude to sex generally.

Still, sexual assault is a much more serious matter. Of that I saw and heard nothing.

I’m sorry I couldn’t have shed more light on Max’s secret. I wish I’d heard from his victims while I was making the documentary, or afterwards.

After that last meeting in his office, I never had any more dealings with him; I never met him again. I seem to recall there were some unflattering references to me in his autobiography but I don’t remember the specifics.

One detail that struck many people after the trial was that Max refused to apologize to any of his victims. He continued to denounce them as liars and fantasists. It was an incalculably smaller affair, but it did remind me of my own experience with him, when he’d been caught plotting on his wireless mike. I told him he’d been caught red-handed and that I’d heard everything he said. And yet, against all the evidence, he insisted he’d known he was on mike the whole time.

And so that show’s last line of commentary was oddly prescient: “The curious thing was that when caught out he wouldn’t come clean, and I wasn’t sure he ever would.”