A few minutes after I meet Charles Allen, he says something that staggers me. I’m talking to the quietly spoken businessman about this week’s Secret Millionaire, in which he appears.
The programme opens, as usual, with the narrator painting a picture of the protagonist’s wealth – in order to provide a contrast with the poverty-stricken world into which he’s agreed to be plunged before he opens his chequebook.
However many times I replay the DVD I’ve been sent, I tell Allen, I can’t quite pick out one word in the commentary. Would he clear up the ambiguity? “Your house – is it worth £15 million?” I ask.
Allen – a former chief executive of ITV, now chairman of the largest commercial radio group in the country – pauses for a moment. “I think...” he says, his voice tailing off, “it’d be worth more than that. I think they might have said £50 million.”
So there it is. Allen lives in a £50 million house. If you’re wondering what you get for that sum in his part of west London, the answer is a mere six bedrooms. How many rooms in all? He starts counting under his breath. “One, two, three, four... Not many actually. Fourteen.” I think we can agree that Allen comfortably qualifies for a role in the programme.
Life on the breadline
The Secret Millionaire is a peculiar show. The participant must give up ten days of his or her life and survive on a benefits-level income of £64 a week. He or she is parachuted under cover into a grotty neighbourhood and invariably put up in a supremely nasty flat – “I found a dead mouse under a chair in the sitting room,” says Allen, who knew what his first priority was: “I got up at 6am, put my Marigolds on and cleaned the place.”
There are often more indignities to come: while investigating a homeless charity, Allen was persuaded to sleep rough for a night – without, it should be added, the company of the film crew – on a pile of corrugated cardboard boxes underneath an iron bridge. (“You could hear rats scurrying around,” he recalls with a shudder. “It was only one night, but it was very unpleasant.”)
And then, of course, at the end of their fact-finding mission, the millionaire is expected to lavish thousands of pounds of their own money on some of the good causes they’ve discovered. (Since the programme began five years ago, the total amount donated is more than £4.5 m.)
So why do it? What’s in it for you, Charles?
Getting a true picture
“They’d asked me to do it a couple of times and I’d always said no. I know the games that can be played in the editing room,” says the former head of Granada. But he came round to the idea because he wanted to learn more about himself.
In the past when he’s donated money, he’s been treated like a VIP. “You go along to an event, you write a cheque and you’re the most important person.”
This time, the charities thought they were dealing with an ordinary bloke, “and I thought it would be intriguing to see things from the bottom up. The selfish bit was, how am I going to react to this? Is it going to be easy? Is it not? How would I react to that environment? It was a journey of discovery.”
It would be mean of RT to reveal how much Allen decides to donate in the programme, and to whom, but do the programme-makers offer guidance on how much they expect the millionaire to hand over? “They give an indication, but it’s really up to you... They said that the ideal is a total of £50,000-plus. That’s where they start.”
He also tells me that he has kept in touch with and provided advice to the charities he helped in the programme (recorded in September 2010).
There’s an amusing scene in the programme, where he sends his housekeeper out to buy him some scruffy clothes so that he does not look like Charles Allen, millionaire, but can pass himself off as “Charlie Adams”, a writer supposedly researching a book about the work of small-scale charities in Britain.
She proudly hands over a pair of jeans that she bought in a charity shop for £1. “But actually many of the clothes she bought looked too smart,” he smiles. “So I ended up wearing some of my own clothes, which were quite expensive but didn’t look it. So I’m in a £400 Loro Piana designer donkey jacket.”
Path to success
Allen’s own story is fascinating. He’s one of the surprisingly small band of openly gay businessmen. A senior figure in the boardroom for more than two decades, he’s on first-name terms with four of the five living prime ministers (David Cameron once worked closely with him, as communications director at Carlton TV). But it wasn’t the old-school-tie network that led to the top table.
“My father was a hairdresser, ran his own business and then died when I was 14. So we went from being working-class but comfortably off to literally having nothing.”
With no income and nowhere to live, the family moved into a council house in the coal-mining town of Holytown, near Glasgow. His mum got a job as a waitress in the directors’ dining room at British Steel.
And it was she who launched his corporate career – by securing him a place on British Steel’s management trainee scheme. Fast-forward four decades, Allen, now 54, says: “I’d still say I’m working-class, I don’t think your class changes.”
He’s run the catering group Compass, Granada TV and ITV plc, and served on the boards of Tesco and the Olympics 2012 bid team. He left ITV with a pension pot said to be worth £11 million (and, it should be pointed out, a reputation as a ruthless job-cutter).
Today, as well as his day job as chairman of the radio group that owns Classic FM, Capital, LBC and Heart, he’s a senior adviser to the investment bank Goldman Sachs.
That last job is particularly interesting. Goldman Sachs was up to its eyes in the sub-prime mortgage market, which helped trigger a worldwide recession. Last year the company paid $15.3 billion in bonuses to its staff.
So is this Labour-supporting boy from the council estate happy to take money from a company that, to many, epitomises the very worst excesses of the “greed is good” culture? Allen rejects the question with the same single-mindedness he displayed when confronted by the dead mouse. “I don’t see it in that way.”
There’s nothing wrong with capitalism, he says, adding that some Goldman bankers give large sums to charity. “It’s wrong to portray money as bad and lack of money as good. I think it’s about how you use it, what you do as an individual. The people I work with are incredibly generous and they don’t make a song and dance about it.”
And that is how he goes about most of his own charitable giving, he says. Away from the spotlight. But he’s pleased that this time he took a more pro-active, public approach. “I’m quite emotional and I’m not afraid to cry. I was touched by what I saw. I really was.”
The Secret Millionaire is at 9pm tonight on Channel 4.
This is an edited version of an article from the issue of Radio Times magazine that went on sale 22 November 2011.