My three years living in Paris gave me a taste for life outside the UK, where the weather, for the first time in my life, started getting me down. I fantasised about moving to Spain or Italy, where Brits were flocking to take advantage not only of the sun but the euro, which, three years after its inception, was still at an exchange rate that benefited us considerably more than the countries where it had become standard currency.
My trips to Paris had taken place exclusively on the Eurostar. I had not flown for nine years, a fear that had not been alleviated fn January 2005, that was all about to change, when I was invited by a PR company to attend the opening of a new television channel that was launching on the Costa del Sol in southern Spain. For legal reasons, let’s call it Costa TV, and also change the names and personal details of every single person involved in the entire venture (I might even include my own in this). Travelling by private jet, along with several journalists and TV executives hoping to get a slice of what seemed likely to be very lucrative action, we arrived in hot winter sunshine and prepared to meet the brains (and, more importantly, the money) behind the venture that we hoped would change all our lives.
The channel had been set up by a Russian called Mitya (I repeat: as I value my limbs, all personalities and details have been substantially changed, but Mitya, meaning “lover of earth”, captures the essence of this driven, but also very spiritual, individual – just as Karp, as I shall call him, meaning “profits”, captures the spirit of his financial sidekick).
Mitya, who had launched his own property company (let’s call it Sunkissed Villas) saw the television station largely as a means to advertise his properties. When we arrived at the station’s headquarters in Estepona, there was just one programme being aired on Costa, a truly dreadful magazine show featuring C List ex-celebs from the British entertainment scene, talking in monotones on golf courses about the joys of buying a place in the sun. Mitya had turned to the high-profile PR company to find the right people to run the station, which he wanted to use not only as a means to sell property, but as a vehicle to change the world. What Mitya wanted most of all was a channel that would convert the Western World to fasting, preferably for weeks at a time; what the people the PR firm brought in to run it wanted was hardcore show business (involving some of the talent the PR already had on its books). These managers therefore included an ex-soap producer, an ex-talent show producer, and people very close to top-notch showbiz personalities, who, it was hoped, would hop aboard and sprinkle their gold dust on the project.
They really were the top people in the world of television: award-winners, who had made their names on hugely successful shows and who clearly thought they were going to be able to repeat that success for Costa, with the added bonus of enjoying a great climate in which to do it. The Spanish company could not have wished for a better dream package, but in bringing in the best, it immediately showed up how weak the already resident incumbents actually were.
One major problem from the start was the confrontation between an American called Bill, who was the station boss, and the main PR man, Sam. Bill’s first problem was that he spoke millions upon millions of words, seemingly in one breath; his second was that not one of them meant anything. Sam, by contrast, seemed quiet, but was hugely successful and highly experienced in the art of subtle manipulation, and the two men hated each other. Bill flew everywhere First Class, having meetings with heaven knows who, about heaven knows what; nobody really knew, and he wasn’t going to start explaining it to Sam. There was still just one programme on the channel, and as a new workforce arrived each morning, usually beautiful young Russian girls whom Mitya had met in a bar the night before, it became increasingly unlikely that Costa and the great British entertainment establishment were ever going to join forces.
Mitya and I got on very well from the start; so much so, that he invited me back to talk more about TV – which would, of course, involve more drinking. We both enjoyed red wine, lots of it, and Mitya had the cash to pay a couple of hundred euros a bottle for it. Who was I to turn it down? I returned for another three weeks when, between bottles, Mitya tried to make sense of what was, to him, the nonsensical workings of British TV; but there was excitement in the air, as one of the ex-talent show producers was due to start work on a new “secret” show, and talk of other ideas was filling people with optimism. Or would have done, had Mitya known the first thing about TV or, more importantly, viewers. His pet project was a fasting show in which three Ukrainians went to live in a villa for six weeks and starved themselves. There, they would do yoga, meditate and drink water (apart from Olek, who had decided to go the first 11 days living just on air). Big Brother it wasn’t, but it was to this gem that the ex-talent show producer was assigned. Mitya was beside himself with joy: this, he was convinced, would be the show to make the world see how much healthier you could be if you stopped stuffing your body with toxins. This philosophy did not extend to his own rather excessive drinking habits, but making a programme about people stronger than he was in this respect was clearly his form of abstention. In order to enter into the same spirit of deprivation and give myself a much-needed two day break from alcohol, I suggested to Mitya that I join the Ukrainians in the villa for 48 hours and write a piece about the experience.
Mitya was ecstatic, as he always was during the first two minutes when anyone suggested a new idea to him. So, I was put on the case.
I’d been sent on better jobs than ones that involved my having to watch Ukrainian TV with three people who had not one word of English between them, but the camera crew showed me where the food was hidden in their Winnebago, should I falter.
I lasted 16 and a half hours before weakening and having two digestive biscuits. No food had ever tasted so good – well, apart from the crew’s leftover McDonald’s and fries I took from the rubbish bin in the Winnebago half an hour later. I left before clocking up 20 hours, but it was enough to endear me even more to Mitya, who suggested that I do some work for the company and spend more time in Spain. The company paid for an apartment overlooking the Mediterranean for me, and within weeks I was sitting in my own office, trying to come up with ideas for programmes that Mitya might like. He was particularly taken with Good Morning Marbella, which I saw as a kind of British This Morning, and, at Mitya’s insistence, he told me to bring in the people who could do it. “I like this programme!” he squealed, lying on his back on his couch in his office. “We go on air next week!”
Pre-production was not a concept that came easily to Mitya, but he was sufficiently enthused to listen to more ideas from two producer friends working in Wales. “I like this programme!” he squealed, when they flew over and shared their ideas about Good Morning Marbella. “You come back five o’clock, we talk more about programme.” Back we went at five o’clock, sat down and started to talk about the series we had spent the intervening eight hours discussing. “Stop!” said Mitya, holding up his hand. “I do not like this programme now.”
It was the same with every idea anyone took to him. Meanwhile, back at the villa, the Ukrainians battled on, and the production team was ready to show Mitya a first cut.
He was furious, claiming that the programme was not serious enough. Okay, the producer had once worked on Stars in Their Eyes, but Air in Their Bellies didn’t exactly have people jumping out from behind a screen and declaring: “Tonight, Matthew, I would kill for a steak and chips.” The producer had really done the best he could with, let’s be honest, shit subject matter.
Mitya was especially put out when Olek was on camera, coughing a lot and saying that he was very unwell, a situation explained by the English subtitles. “No, no, no!” said Mitya, “He is not ill; it is the toxins coming out of his system.” So, the finished product featured Olek coughing up his guts and declaring his sickness in Ukrainian, but accompanied by the English subtitle: “These are just the toxins coming out of my system.”
I met with Mitya every day, when he would question me about what I thought about his station. “Eet eess sheet!” he was fond of announcing, and I had to agree. Then there were dinners, huge events, at which more strange Russians appeared, said nothing, and left. We asked no questions and just kept drinking the generous supplies of wine.
Mitya decided I would make a very good spy and I was asked to keep an eye on proceedings and report back about where the money was going. So I did. I was stunned, for example, to see how much money Bill was spending. A local lad with the level of talent that wouldn’t top an eyebath was one day filming a couple of links for a new series, and there were 17 people on the set, including three holding sun umbrellas; there was even a catering truck. I told Mitya of my concerns and the unnecessary expense (I have always treated my employers’ money as if it were my own; it doesn’t always go down well with other employees, as I was about to discover).
“You are right!” said Mitya. “I went down there! It was like a fucking James Bond set!”
He nevertheless kept giving Bill the money he wanted, until one day I was called to a meeting in Mitya’s house. We sat around a table the size of a circus ring. Bill was sitting opposite me, and the latest set of Russian babes sat with their notebooks, poised to write down yet more details about the complex world of TV that Russian property magnates were having difficulty comprehending.
“So, Bill,” began Mitya. “Jaci tells me you spend too much of my money. Jaci. Begin.” All eyes turned to me. The newcomer. I had already upset Sue, the Head of Programmes, by my very arrival. Several of my reviews had been unfavourable to one of her previous projects in the UK, which was possibly one of the reasons she had fled to Spain to begin writing a new slate. And there I was again.
“Er,” I stammered, before going on to detail some of the appalling waste I had seen (naturally, this did not include the apartment overlooking the Mediterranean on a year’s lease for a short dark Welsh TV critic).
“What the fuck’s it got to do with her!” screamed Bill. And he didn’t stop screaming. Mitya, who had a tendency to switch sides with the flip of a coin, started empathising with Bill, even down to the three sun umbrellas, which were allegedly required props in the Spanish sun. Oh, for goodness sake, I wanted to cry, Poirot didn’t have three sun umbrellas in Murder on the Nile, but I kept my mouth shut, because now Mitya wanted us to hug, make up and join forces. “My channel will be great!” he said, delighted at the outcome of the meeting.
Three weeks later, Bill was gone. Next came Danny. He was already in the office and had a strong background in design, which was even more unsuited to starving Ukrainians than Stars in Their Eyes had been. He didn’t last a fortnight. Then Mitya was leaving the car-park one evening and spotted another employee, Trevor, just getting into his car. “Trevor! You must run station for me!” Trevor, who was, in fact, a vastly experienced, brilliant editor, was caught unawares and accepted on the spot, but as with all people having power bestowed upon them unexpectedly, quickly turned into another monster. Despite my continuing good relationship with Mitya, I suspected that my days were numbered and, as more and more programmes failed to make it onto the channel, so, I suspected, were Trevor’s, the Russian babes’ and the PR’s. But Trevor was going to give it his best shot.
I wasn’t optimistic when he began his stint with the words: “I don’t give a fuck what Mitya wants; that’s not what the channel’s about.” Short of going to the local DIY store and buying his own rope and beam, it was hard to see how Trevor could have been better prepared for hanging himself.
He began by working closely with Karp to try to clear the detritus left by Bill’s management, but like everyone else Mitya put in charge, Trevor was way off Mitya’s radar. So were most people, but, at the end of the day, it was Mitya’s radar, Mitya’s planet, and you either signed up to it or cleared off. That’s not because Mitya was any kind of dictator – far from it. But you had to throw yourself into the craziness of his world and his bizarre ideas if you wanted to survive.
Trevor decided that he was going to buy Eldorado. This third rate soap, broadcast by the BBC between July 1992 and July 1993, was a piece of work as far off Mitya’s radar as it was possible to get. Mitya had the makings of a 19th century philosopher, a Romantic poet and a French aesthete (he spoke French, along with five other languages), with an Eastern European passion for looking into the recesses of man’s darkest moments and innermost soul. What Mitya was not, could never be, was an Eldorado viewer. Not in this millennium or the next. Not even when the last man on earth returned ashes to ashes, dust to dust, would Mitya and Eldorado ever share so much as a sangria if they were both dying of thirst. But Trevor wanted Eldorado. Worse, Trevor got it. Even worse, Mitya was coming round to the idea. He had clearly been pushed in this direction by the arrival of the very pretty Rosetta, a close friend of one of the executives on Eldorado when it first aired. Suddenly, Trevor, Rosetta and Mitya started to use my office for secret discussions, holed up like the witches of Eastwick day and night, while I was consigned to sitting on a bench outside, drinking copious amounts of rose, but now in my new role as cast-off. Rosetta slipped in under the wire when Mitya, tired of trying to convert the world to fasting, decided that Kung-Fu was the activity that would bring about spiritual enlightenment in the Western World. Before you could say “Haaa-yaaaagh!” or whatever it is Kung-Fu folk say, Rosetta was head of Kung-Fu DVDs, and my role was fast diminishing. When the Eastwick Three briefly vacated my office one afternoon, I sneaked in and saw my business cards a little closer to the wastepaper bin than I felt comfortable with. That was how you knew when Mitya had given someone the sack: you just looked in their bin in the morning and, if the contents of their office life were there, you knew that was that.
I went to Mitya’s office to talk about new projects (Good Morning Marbella having bitten the dust long before, when the producer I had brought in got outrageously drunk in front of him). He was whingeing about his new PA, who had not been able to find the right cherries at the market that morning. Every day, Mitya’s PA was dispatched to find several kinds of fruit that Mitya would consume throughout the day. On this particular one, she had been out for five sets of cherries that came back too ripe, too red, too yellow, too hard, not sweet enough. Mitya was talking to a friend in his office when Katarina came in with bag number six. She dropped them on the desk and turned to leave. As she reached the door, Mitya took a gun from his top drawer and aimed it at her back. “She is fucking useless.” I breathed a sigh of relief when she safely made it to the other side without a bullet in her back. “It’s all right,” said Mitya. “My friend, he is police officer.” Phew. That’s all right, then. After that, I dared not ask what my future held, but I was soon to discover that it wasn’t much when, after returning from two weeks’ holiday, I arrived at the office to find it full of Kung-Fu DVDs and my name removed from the door.
Costa was sold, amid mounting debts. I was paid a small amount, but left being owed a lot of money. People who had given up everything to work there lost even more. Thankfully, I had not given up my Daily Mail column and not listened to Sue, when she suggested a programme to Mitya that would begin with me handing in my notice at the paper (nice try, love) to begin a new, penniless life on the Costa del Sol. “I like this programme!” Mitya had said.
I never saw him again. He is currently an internationally wanted criminal – for money laundering through a pretend TV station in Spain, amid goodness knows what else.
Blimey. Ever realise you’ve been had?
Still, the Rioja was real.