The Manhattan Affair, Chapter Two

Playabout is a big outfit based in an old high-rise office block in Chiswick.
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Big for a licensing agency, that is. Forty five staff on two floors, full team of sales, marketing, retail liaison, artwork approvals, finance, the lot. Been in the game even longer than I have, opened up in Soho in the early seventies before anybody in the UK had even heard of licensing. Forty five staff and only six blokes. The same six blokes who’ve been in the firm since 1985. The same six blokes including the three who started it all off, Ted and Brian Harris, the terrible twins, the salesmen, the pioneers/buccaneers, the take-the-money-and-runners, and Peter Jaye, their straight-shooting, laced up accountant.

Don’t get me wrong, there’s a lot of women work in the licensing business, from straight-out-of-college young wonders to mature matrons who like to curl up and listen to Barry Manilow with the best of them. There was just something about the Harris’s very masculine ego that made them want to surround themselves with females whom they could either lord it over, lust after or be mothered by depending on how the mood struck them. The women have run that business for years, truth be told, but Ted’s not going to give up until he’s got himself into the Hall of Fame and Brian won’t give up until he’s beaten Ted to it. Peter just does the numbers like he always has.

Actually I lied about the six blokes. There used to be seven. Ted’s protégé, brought into the firm in 1986 from a music marketing outfit. Hot-shot, did well for a few years working on publishing, then food, then finally headed the toys division. Regular visits to China to see all the big toy firms before he was caught in a Hong Kong hotel by a surprise visit by Brian Harris. In the room with the protégé was a hot Chinese bird and an even hotter business plan for a new licensing agency to be headed by the protégé. Tut, tut. Not very sporting. Protégé fired on the spot, comes back to the UK and starts his own agency anyway. The protégé? Phil Menwith. The agency? Coolthings. The rest? History.

So it’s not really surprising that when the trade press got the story about Phil’s parachute-free sky-diving stunt the first people they called for obituary stuff were the brothers Harris. Not surprising, but stupid. Maybe it’s another reason why the Harris’s employed so many women, but they certainly didn’t intend to be ‘betrayed’ again. No love lost. Ted wouldn’t say anything to the press, Brian managed to get the words ‘we haven’t had much contact with Phil since he left the firm in 1995’ out through gritted teeth before putting the phone down.

So after the Harris’s it was me. Why me? I did the first deal that meant anything to Phil back in his Playabout days. I was running the licensing for a children’s book business and signed the small-format paperback rights from Phil for Andy’s Adventures, a TV series running on BBC 1 that was doing quite nicely at the time but then hit it big when a piece on News at Ten claimed that children learned to read twice faster than average when introduced to the Andy’s Adventures books. Over the next three years a ten thousand pound guarantee produced two million quid in royalties for Playabout, a promotion to marketing director for me and a twenty grand bonus for Phil.

Everybody in the business for more than five minutes knew about this deal as Phil never tired – after he’d left Playabout – of complaining about the pile he’d made for the twins and how he’d never been suitably compensated for it. You usually got the story about midnight at the Licensing Awards or the LIMA Gala or the Spring Fling after Phil had drunk his customary eight bottles of red wine and felt compared to share this tragedy with you.

So I pick up the phone and it’s Dave Sutton from Licensing Review.

"Lance, I wanted a few words from you about Phil Menwith. We’re doing an obit and we’re talking to all the folks who knew him for a fair while. Can I ask you a few questions or do you want to do me five hundred words and email it over?"

I decide I don’t want to talk about Phil so I promise the five hundred words. By tomorrow. Morning. I hang up the phone. Phil’s been dead for three days, it’s five o’clock on Thursday afternoon and I’ve had enough. Then, Meryl, my cleaning lady, arrives with her cat on a lead as usual and her hair hidden under a pink wig, wearing a get-up like the girls on the ‘Clinique’ counter at Harrods only she’s twice as lovely as any of them. Not really a cleaning lady by profession since she won three million on the lottery two years ago. She used to do the entire floor of this office building but now she just does mine. Keeping her hand in, as she puts it, should disaster strike. I saved her cat once, from two Doberman pinchers who were part of some hare-brained licensing presentation some berk was giving me about the Powerdogs or some such idiocy. Died the death, anyway, unlike Meryl’s cat. I think that’s really why Meryl still cleans my office. I hum a bit of ‘My Old Black Cat’ by Ian Anderson, apologise to Meryl that I’ve got to go, and skip out before she starts a conversation.

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