There’s no such thing as bad publicity
T WAS another go-on-impress-me day on the Festival desk of the Edinburgh Evening News and, really, for a hack of such tender years, I was carrying far too much cynicism in the pockets of my copy of a Paul Smith pinstriped double-breaster. These were the 1980s and, even then, the biggest arts extravaganza in the world could sap you of the will to live.
The biggest problems with the biggest arts extravaganza in the world were the people trying to sell you their shows, make you write about them, for free. Sometimes they were the actual performers, sometimes not. Hardly any of them had the faintest idea of how to do this.
“Hello, we�re an amateur dramatic company all employed in a bank in Milton Keynes who do a completely straight version of The Sound of Music…” Next. “Hello, have you ever heard of a play called The Mousetrap? You have? Well, we�re civil servants from Slough and we bet you�ve never seen a version like ours before. It�s entirely faithful to the text.” Next. It wasn�t altogether the performers� fault; in those days the News didn�t take the Festival, or at least the Fringe, ultra-seriously. It wanted silliness, it wanted scandal.
“Hello, my name�s Mark Borkowski,” said the voice on the other end of the phone one day, “and I�m promoting a one-man circus act.” And? So? “The show�s called The Smallest Theatre in the World and it�s completely housed in a small wooden cart this guy drags around behind him.” Go on. “And all the time he�s on stage he sniffs glue.”
What? Didn�t Mr Berkowsksi know that Edinburgh had a serious drugs problem and didn�t he think this stunt was in extremely poor taste? Next…
But the following day he called back. He was joking about the glue, he said – his man only used his nose to hammer nails into. Result: I got a story and he got some front-page publicity.
That was 21 years ago. Since then, Borkowski has gone on to become one of the most respected names in PR, a profession not massively endowed with respect. He�s not as famous as Max Clifford but claims that�s out of choice. PRs, he says, should not be seen, hardly even heard. This year on the Fringe, however, he�s joining the cast of thousands and blinking at the spotlight.
I�ve been trying to think of the best way to describe a publicist who becomes a performer. Is he a gamekeeper-turned-poacher? Or is he like Al Pacino in the film Cruising, a cop who after a prolonged undercover stint in the gay netherworld, starts wearing sensible shoes out of choice and humming show-tunes? Whatever, this fan of big-top thrills is entering the den and putting his head in the lion�s mouth.
He admits he�s probably setting himself up for a fall with his one-man show, Son of Barnum: A Stunt Too Far. As the title suggests, it�s the history of the publicity scam. PR might seem like a modern phenomenon, a product of the media age, but it�s been around for yonks.
“This is a very self-regarding industry which doesn�t acknowledge the past,” says Borkowski, on a flying visit to Edinburgh to promote his little entertainment. “Some PRs think they invented the whole concept last Tuesday over lunch and it�s quite arrogant of them to think every day they�re forging a brand new dimension.”
Borkowski uses Michael Jackson in the flyer for his show, to inform his potential Fringe audience of how he�s progressed from The Smallest Theatre in the World to possibly the largest. Well, fair�s fair, Jacko used him once, to smooth his entry into the UK for a speech to the Oxford Union. The pop prince�s people were looking for puffery, image-enhancement without intrusion. Borkowski told them the British media didn�t work like that, they told him he was being “negative”, so he quit the job – or as the flyer puts it, with a keen eye on the box-office, he “sacked Jacko”.
But Borkowski, who�s also been a gun or maybe water-pistol-for-hire for Diego Maradona, Uri Geller and, ahem, Gary Glitter, insists the show is not an advertisement for himself. Until a few years ago, he didn�t know PR�s hidden heritage either. “I�m not saying I don�t enjoy my public profile. �Where ego, I go� and all that. But the real aim is to put these guys� genius on the record.”
So who are they? “Well, in 1998 I was working for Gerry Cottle [the circus impresario] and one day he said: �You know, Mark, you�re just like Jim Moran and Harry Reichenbach.� �Who the hell are they?� I said. So he dug out some old books for me.”
One of America�s greatest publicists, who regularly fooled the public in the 1940s and 50s, Moran�s career took off when he flogged a fridge to an Eskimo and got the story in the paper. He walked bulls through china shops, contrived an actual change of horses in mid-stream during an election campaign and, to publicise a piece of real estate, spent 10 days searching for a needle in a haystack.
“When he died in 1999 I could only find one obituary, and the so-called biggest story of the day was some bollocks spun by Matthew Freud about whether Jerry Hall was shagging Chris Evans. Ironic or what?”
So Borkowski decided to write a book celebrating the high-jinkery of Moran, Reichenbach – the first to make the jump from street showman to corporate adviser – Harry Brand and Marty Weisner.
“In Hollywood, the clients of these pioneers of PR were silent movie actors and the likes of Brand actually had to put words in their mouths. He dreamed up a killer line for Marilyn Monroe, so that when asked what she wore in bed, she was able to reply: �Chanel No 5.�
“It was Weisner�s idea for the world premiere of Blazing Saddles to be held in a drive-in movie theatre with the invites reading �For horses only�. Hollywood would never pull a stunt like that now because they would be too scared of headlines about �lonesome cowboys� if it didn�t work. Studios are terrified of failure.”
The world is a duller place than it used to be but, as an old-school scammer, Borkowski says a stunt can make us smile if everyone – publicity man, client, newspaper and public – is in on the joke. But what about the stories that end in tears? “Well, I was advising Ray Parlour�s wife Karen during her divorce battle [with the Arsenal footballer]. Newspaper budgets are tight and there isn�t the same big money splashing around. I�ve told her that if she sells her story they�ll want blood and guts. There�s always a downside.”
Borkowski is the wheeze-merchant who convinced Sir Cliff Richard it would be a good idea to lead the Wimbledon crowds in a singsong when rain stopped play – yes, that was a stunt, too – and although he�s looking forward to returning to his old Fringe stamping-ground after a few years� absence, he reckons that, like Tinseltown, you can�t have as much PR fun there as in the past.
“Edinburgh doesn�t get its knickers in a twist about the Fringe any more,” says the prankster, whose old circus mates Archaos never actually juggled chainsaws, despite what it said in his press releases. “Councillor Moira Knox [the Fringe�s Mary Whitehouse] had Victorian values; people who are the age she was then were hippies in the Swinging Sixties and so don�t get so shocked. And the authorities can�t be fooled into making bumptious statements because they�re all media-savvy now. Bloody PRs…”
And with that Borkowski continues on his publicity rounds. “Write something nice about me,” he says. We�ll see. I can make �em and I can break �em.
� Son of Barnum: A Stunt Too Far is at Edinburgh�s Assembly Rooms (0131-226 2428) from August 10-14