Friday, December 13, 2013

Strictly Not Dancing

Ola Jordan may not return to BBC's Strictly Come Dancing. Having been voted out with partner Ashley Taylor Dawson on Sunday night, she has been reported as saying that grief from “a fellow pro” (a row with Karen Hauer, who allegedly called Ola “a rubbish dancer”) has made her reluctant to return and that discussions are under way with the BBC.
My guess is that she won’t be back. The world of ballroom dancing is a nasty, back-biting, vicious world in which only the tough survive, and just because Strictly is a TV show rather than the real thing, don’t let the sequins fool you. As Shakespeare said: ‘All that glisters is not gold.’
The world of ballroom dancing wasn’t always that way. When I was seven, I came fourth in my first dancing competition, the Solo Waltz, at the Brittle School of Dancing in Newport. Having failed at ballet (I was cast as one of six plump fishermen in gingham and shorts, as opposed a tutu-clad snowflake), the world of ballroom dancing – in my case, Old Tyme - looked a lot fairer.
But fourth? The girl who came first had her arm in a sling, so clearly had won the sympathy vote. As for second and third – well, they weren’t in my league. For one who emerged from the womb with a competitive umbilical chord, it was a painful experience.
However, on just half an hour’s lesson a week, my partner Janette and I (because of a shortage of boys, girls could dance with girls until hey were 12) went on to win every trophy going, becoming national champions at the ages of ten and nine, respectively. Len Goodman judged me on several occasions and was one of my biggest fans. Dear Len. I still won’t hear a word said against him. He clearly knows his stuff.
In those days (and Len was barely out of short trousers), if you were the best, you won; it was as simple as that. There were couples who travelled the length and breadth of Britain, taking lessons with different teachers, in the hope of being recognised on the dance floor when their teachers were judging the competitions. It made not a jot of difference.
That all changed when I started to participate as an adult in Modern Ballroom and Latin American competitions. Score sheets were available at the end of the night and you could check who had marked whom, and it was clear why some couples, who had not delivered on the floor, walked away with the trophies.
The plan was simple: you checked in the dance magazines to see who was judging in forthcoming competitions and then booked a number of lessons with them in the weeks leading up to the competitions. Hey, presto! Judges marked “their” couples through just by looking at the programme with dancers’ names in it; then they could watch the others without having to put up the pretence of judging all couples equally. This is how bad it was: at one national competition, one couple made it through to the final and they hadn’t even turned up, having been involved in a car accident en route.
Strictly Come Dancing is an incredibly popular show, and judges Len and Bruno Tolioli in particular bring some intelligent, incisive criticism to the proceedings. Craig’s act is hilarious, if a little forced these days, but he delivers what he promises to do on the tin. As for ballerina Darcey Bussell, after a very shaky start when she joined the panel (“Yah? Yah? Yah?”), she has blended into it with sophisticated ease – and she remains one of the greatest dancers of her generation.
But, let’s be honest, Strictly is not a dance show. It is, at best, an acrobatics contest, and, at worst, a personality contest. Every time a contestant is lifted in the air, the audience erupts into rapturous applause. Why? It’s not a weight-lifting show. The male non-professionals can be made to look good because they are lifting human Twiglets in the air (which, quite frankly, I could probably do with two fingers); the female non-professionals can be made to look good because the men carry them psychologically, leading them forcefully when they make mistakes, like the ice-cleaners directing the route of the stone in a curling competition.
Everything changes, we know that; but this is dancing that is anything but “strict”. Far more than the X Factor (which really does produce stars, no matter what your opinion about the means by which it does so), Strictly is just a showcase for frocks and shocks. That’s fine, but let’s not pretend it is a dance show.
It is, like all reality shows, carefully cast with celebrities who will gather the most headlines, in mind. There’s the love interest, the overweight older woman, the comic character . . . It’s like a Shakespeare play – or Sesame Street, depending on your viewpoint.
There is a proliferation of so-called dance shows on both sides of the Atlantic these days, and Dancing with the Stars in the US undoubtedly adheres to the “strict” rules of dancing more than its British counterpart. Unsurprisingly, Bruno and Len are both judges on that, too, and are brilliant.
But let’s stop pretending that Strictly is about dancing, any more than the “real” world of ballroom dancing is anymore. It’s about making money for the BBC the world over, which it has done. By the bucketload. I hope that if and when Simon Cowell brings a dance show to our screens (as he is rumoured to be doing), he will make more dance stars than he has already done with outstanding acts on Britain’s Got Talent and its American equivalent.
But please let’s acknowledge this: “Strictly” Come Dancing is anything But.


Saturday, December 7, 2013

Cowell on the Couch

Simon Cowell is in love. 

Truly, madly, deeply in love. Who would have thought it. And that love is most definitely reciprocated. Twice over. He cuddles the female love of his life in his lap, squeezing her face and saying ‘How much do I love you!’ over and over. Her brother is attacking his head in what seems to be an attempt to lick his ear off. ‘Aren’t they adorable?’ he says, hugging the two tiny brown balls of fluff.
Meet Squiddly and Diddly, the five-month old Yorkies who, according to the music mogul, have transformed his life. Always an animal lover and one who grew up with dogs, usually inherited, these are the first he has ever actually bought, and he is clearly besotted. Relaxed in jeans and T-shirt in “the Frank Sinatra Room” of his exclusive Beverly Hills home (pictures of his idol adorn the walls), his housekeeper brings him a bottle of beer and a massive burger specially ordered in from the Ivy, one of his favourite LA restaurants.
He picks at it carefully, lifting the bacon, readjusting the filling and examining it. ‘Darling!’ he says to the burger bearer (he calls everyone darling, male or female, old or young). ‘Could I have some of those lovely pickles, please.’ The judge in him is ever present; you can almost hear the verdict. ‘D’you know, it’s not the best burger in the world, but it has potential; it’s just missing that extra something.’ He dives into the pared down remains, to which X Factor pickles have now been added, with great gusto. His first enormous bite screams ‘So it’s a Yes from me.’
This is clearly a very happy man, both personally and professionally. Syco, the company specialising predominantly in television entertainment formats that Simon founded in May 2002, is not only a transatlantic success story but a global phenomenon, producing shows for countries as diverse as Azerbaijan, Vietnam and Israel. The company’s first feature film, One Direction: This is Us grossed over £50,000,000 worldwide on its opening weekend, while the band has clocked up 64 official albums and single number ones worldwide. They are also the only British band to have their first two albums debut at Number 1 in the US. Not bad for the boy band that finished third in X Factor series seven and their mentor, who began his working life in a mail room.
And in addition to enjoying the spoils from the company’s success, Simon’s girlfriend, Lauren Silverman, is due to give birth to his first child in February. He is, he says, very, very happy, and the baby has totally changed his outlook on life.
He seems genuinely content and a far remove from the Simon of last year, when he appeared to go into a very public meltdown on Twitter (today, he laughs loudly at the recollection). Friends expressed concern that he spent so much time home alone, watching TV and staying up right through the night phoning people on each sides of the Atlantic, seemingly desperate for company. Was he suffering from loneliness?
‘No, I don’t get lonely. When I’m on my own, I sometimes think of it as a luxury. I’ve got no distractions and I can concentrate and clear my mind, because at other times I’m literally surrounded by people. Everyone’s talking to you, and you can’t concentrate, so I have good, close friends around me. Not millions of them, but enough I consider to be very good friends and I don’t need any more than that. And also, when you run a company, a lot of people there become your friends. Not because they work for you, you just like each other. And I like that: that you can work with friends.’
He is also close to his siblings – one brother, three half brothers and a half sister. ‘I was close to them when I was growing up, but we’re closer now we’re older. My half siblings feel like they’re my proper brothers and sisters and I talk to them a lot.’
So what happened during the Great Twitter Depression of 2012? ‘I was very low and I don’t know why. It’s not that it was a bad year and it was a good one in terms of my work. There was nothing really wrong in my personal life, either, but for some reason I wasn’t getting a buzz out of anything, which was unusual. I started to get a bit lethargic; I just wasn’t myself and I couldn’t get myself out of it. And then the baby happened.’
The circumstances surrounding his relationship with Lauren – she was the wife of his good friend, Andrew Silverman (the couple have since divorced) – nevertheless make him uncomfortable.
‘I let down a friend and I feel bad about that, but the good thing about it is that I am having a baby and I never thought I would. And it totally changed everything. It was like coming out of a fog; that’s the only way I can describe it. Stop feeling sorry for yourself, you’ve got nothing to feel bad about, and it just makes you feel like you’ve got a responsibility. I definitely feel better. I thought I was going to freak out, but I didn’t. It was only the circumstances that were problematic.’
Looking around his LA home, it’s hard to imagine how the inevitable mess of a child is going to fit in. It is an exquisite place: not ostentatious, but high end Italian style (all Simon’s choice – he has a great eye). There is a long pool in the garden alongside fire and water features; a proper cinema indoors and, in the Frank Sinatra room, a TV screen that is almost as big as the cinema screen. There are fresh cream roses in the hallways, and white tiles and cream furnishings just crying out for a child’s chocolate-covered fingers.
‘This is probably the most child unfriendly house in the world right now, but I’m used to mess these days because of the dogs. But they’re the best thing I ever did – but so naughty.’
It has been confirmed that Simon and Lauren are expecting a son, and Simon wishes his own father, who died in 1999, could have known about it.
‘I was thinking about him and how he would have loved it, I mean really would, I know he would have done, and I still miss him – when you just want someone to talk to about stuff, just basic advice, when you can’t make up your mind about something. He always gave me amazing advice. He didn’t always go on my side and sometimes said you’re doing the wrong thing, but he never made me feel worried or panicked, even when I’d screwed up, and he was always incredibly fair. He was terrible at discipline - that was Mum’s job. But if I really went too far, then I knew I’d crossed the line.’
He is keen to pass on what he learned from his own father to his son.
‘I never inherited anything in my life, and everything I had, I had to earn. But I think that’s what made me enjoy life more. You see a lot of these rich kids, 17 or 18, who are given everything – huge car, whatever – and they look bored out of their minds. And I don’t want my son to be like that. I want him to feel that he’s got to prove his own way and I’d like to do what my dad did for me. He taught me the basics – about respecting other people, how you’ve got to be a good listener. He once said to me that you’ve got to realise that everyone around you has a sign on their forehead that says Make me feel important. And I’ve always remembered that. Of all the things he ever told me, that’s the one that stuck in my head. So if you walk into a venue and see someone whose job it is to hold the door, you’ve got to understand that that’s part of what your production is, and they’re as important as the producer or the director, because it’s a job. You’ve got to recognise and be aware of what everybody does around you. I think more than anything, that was the best piece of advice I was ever given.’
His mother, too, is excited about the baby, despite the circumstances of the situation. ‘She was actually very cool about it, but it was fairly traumatic when it happened and I had to call her before the press story broke, but she was very calm and understanding.’
Invariably surrounded by different women, and certainly classed as a woman’s man, he attributes his relationships with them to his mother’s influence. ‘And also, I can’t bear that kind of macho rivalry. It bores me, all of that. Although I’m very competitive, I just never got caught up in that kind of stuff, even when I was young. I like women, and I listen to them. It’s probably why so many of my ex-girlfriends are my closest friends now. I just feel really, really comfortable with them. Not every one, but a lot. I’ve never really had a bad break-up.’ Isn’t it also because they get houses at the break-up? He laughs loudly: ‘Not everyone gets a house, darling, or I wouldn’t be living in this one now.’
He inherited much of his work ethic from his parents. ‘When we were kids, my mum said to me one year, We’re going on holiday, which we will pay for, but you’ve got to earn your spending money. So I washed cars, mowed lawns, did whatever I could - but I absolutely loved it. And that moment when you’ve got your first £5 note, the sky’s the limit, it’s changed, it’s the best feeling in the world. So I always understood the notion that if you want to make money, you’ve got to work for it, and sometimes you’ve got to work really hard, but I always enjoyed it.’
He also gets incredibly bored if he is not working. ‘I was watching a commercial the other day about somebody looking forward to retirement at 65 and how much they can’t wait. I thought . . . people who sit on piers when they’re 70, having a cup of tea? I would just jump off the pier. I get bored so quickly and this keeps me interested. I met with a really smart director earlier, and we were talking over a couple of ideas, and he got excited about what we were talking about and that makes me excited. And the fact that you can literally just sit here, have an idea in your head, and potentially, a year and a half later, you’re watching it on TV or listening to it on the radio - I never get bored of that; I get a real high from it. And I like the people I work with as well. I like people, so when they respond positively to what you’ve done, it’s incredible. I went to a One Direction gig in Vegas and there were 12,000 people going wild and you think: You’re a part of that. It’s a fantastic feeling. Now that, compared to having hot chocolate on Brighton Pier...’
Boredom was something that dogged Simon’s childhood and he had an aversion to formal education. Recently, he was attacked by Education Secretary Michael Gove for seeming to claim in a radio interview that qualifications are not important. ‘The point I was trying to make was, there are thousands of kids who leave school with no qualifications who must think it’s the end of the road. I hated school. On Sunday night at 7 o’clock, this religious programme used to come on - I think it was the one with Jesse Yates – and I would have a pit in my stomach because that would signify my mum saying Right, get your homework done, it’s school tomorrow. Noooooooo. And then I’d go to bed, wake up Monday morning, thinking it was the weekend, and then remember it was a school day, with a two hour maths lesson or something. I was bored out of my mind. So I was just saying that if you’re smart enough to get qualifications, then great, but if you’re not, then you can do what I did: roll your sleeves up, find a job you love, work hard, get someone to teach you, and you can have a good career. I don’t hire anyone based on their qualifications. I never ask; I couldn’t care less.’
Turning down the opportunity to go to college was, Simon believes, absolutely the right decision for him. Because I was academically stupid, it was a complete waste of time for me to take exams. I just wanted to get in the mail-room, put the post where it was supposed to be, get a foot on the ladder and work my way up. That was right for me. If you want to be a doctor or accountant, then obviously you’ve got to go an alternative route, but we all have different brains and I didn’t have that kind of brain.’
It is an educational philosophy he is determined to employ with his own son, too. ‘If my son said to me I’m not going to be any good at school, I’d rather come and work for you, I would do what I’ve done with a lot of my relatives and say Fine, but you’ve got to start at the bottom. I’ll give you an introduction, but I’m not going to give you a head start. And then it’s down to you.’
It would not matter to Simon whether his son received his education in the UK or the US, although in his working life, he would veer towards starting in the UK. ‘I’d probably say, get yourself a skill-set, then take it over to America. When I first came here at 21/22, I’d just started out in the music industry with this tiny company that was doing badly and we’d set up all these meetings hoping for these people to advance us money and to represent us in America, and I did about 10 meetings. Everyone was polite, charming and interested. Never heard another word back. In fact, where I’m living now, I drove around thinking This is the most beautiful place I’ve seen in my life, but I understood even then that you can get really sucked into it here and if you come here without some form of leverage, it’s tough. It’s almost like this beautiful flower that’s beckoning you, but you’ve got to be very, very careful about that. So I said Forget about America. Just do what I’m doing in the UK and if something happens here, then it happens, but I never thought it would, not in a million years. When the show was sold here and I came over, I was obviously much older, so I could appreciate what was happening more than I could at that time, so now I’m kind of glad I had that bad experience.’ That experience also helps him keep his feet on the ground, because ‘You’ve also got to understand that it’s not going to last forever. And when it ends, you’ve just got to look back and say you had a great time.’
Fifteen years ago, Simon stood on the stage at the annual Edinburgh Television Festival and said: ‘I’m not daft, I know it’s not going to last forever’ and yet here he is, at 54, one of the most successful people on the world entertainment stage and having the accolade of having been named by Time magazine in both 2004 and 2010, as one of the 100 most influential people in the world.
‘At that point, things were just starting. I was still having a great time, but then I thought if it lasts two years, three years, fantastic. It’s lasted longer than that, and now, every day is like a blessing. But if it all stopped tomorrow, well, you do something new, and that’s part of life. What you can’t do is just pray that it’s going to last forever, or think it is, and then get depressed if it doesn’t work out. There’s always something new ahead of you.’
Despite his American success, Simon enjoys the LA lifestyle in short bursts and still hankers for the UK. ‘After a while, I think I’ve got to come back to the UK and I’ve got to become British again. I actually appreciate Britain more now. We have a different sense of humour and we take the mickey out of each other all the time. I miss that. And I also miss that tabloid love/hate relationship we have with each other. Yes, we get slaughtered in the press, but there’s something about it, when you do something wrong and you’ve to react to it the following day because it’s in every newspaper; I love that. It kind of makes it more exciting. Here, it’s much, much slower, the press, it’s much more serious, much more online.’
Surely it must drive him mad, though, with the paparazzi following his every move, and when even holding a vegetable in Wholefoods makes the news? I’ve got to know all these guys. If I’m going somewhere and I see them and I don’t know the way, I just say can you take me to where I’m going. I don’t care. It makes me laugh when I see them, because I always think if I’m holding a couple of melons, what’s the caption going to be? There was one I found that was the most crazy piece of fruit I’ve ever seen and I made Lauren hold it. It makes me laugh. But you know, I’ve learnt this: you can’t take it seriously. I mean, I take it seriously as a job, but all that other stuff, no. All these people who bleat about the press? Come on. If you’re an actor or singer or on TV, it’s crazy. And by the way, when they stop writing about you, it’s all over. That’s the way I feel.’
His relationship with the press has generally been good and he accepts criticism with good grace, but some of it must hurt, particularly recent attacks on his personal life, not just from the press but the public? ‘Well number 1, don’t read it. And secondly, never go on the message boards. I mean, seriously? I went on them once and it was like Wow! I don’t know who these people are, but the stuff they were saying, it was unbelievable. And what bothers me is the fact that they’re anonymous. If somebody I know criticises me, I can deal with that. When someone’s hiding behind some weird name they give themselves and they don’t know about you - that, to me, is weird, because I think if you want to say something, at least tell me who you are. But I think I’ve had a good relationship with the media because I’ve learnt that when we screw up and they completely hammer us, or we make a bad show and we’ve got a bad review, you learn from it. I’ve taken terrible reviews into meetings, all saying it was a terrible show, but I say They’re right. “How can you say that, when they say all these awful things about us?” I’m asked. I say I don’t want to make the same mistake again. But I’ve also understood that without the media’s support, my company could not have achieved what we’ve done. You’ve got to take the knocks along the way. But I’ve gone through weeks where it’s been, literally: “Don’t bring the newspapers up today.” Especially recently. I don’t want to read it.’
Details of his personal life revealed in Tom Bower’s unofficial biography last year must surely have hurt, even though Simon gave his friends permission to talk with the author – something he surely regrets, especially as the book revealed a relationship with X Factor fellow judge, Dannii Minogue.
‘No, not at all. I became friends with Tom afterwards. There were parts that were a bit Oh No, but if someone decides to write a book, unauthorised, about you, and he has a real reputation, there’s nothing you can about it, and I thought to myself I’d rather he actually was IN my life rather than looking from the outside, because I haven’t got anything to hide. When I read it, I thought, well, at least I suppose I’ve done enough for someone to be interested in writing the book. And lots I’d forgotten about, to be honest – stories from years and years and years ago, some of them quite funny.’
Would he ever write an official autobiography to set the record absolutely straight? ‘Yes, but I think I’d do a business type book. That kind of book I think would be more interesting for me to write. So when I’ve got the time, I think I’ll do that.’
Any fallout from Bower’s book was quickly forgotten, as Simon is a staunch believer in constructive criticism, as witnessed by his ruthless stints on numerous judging panels, most notably on The X Factor, for which he has, in turn, been criticised. ‘You’ve got to understand that everything I’ve learned, it’s been tough love. If you make a dreadful record and it stiffs and your boss gives you a really hard time, it’s the right thing. You can’t have someone coming in saying Oh, he did a really great job, pat me on the head, Do it again, because it’s not going to work. All the things I learned were really from criticism, but meant in a positive way.’
Like him or loathe him, his presence is certainly missed on the UK X Factor panel, where he thinks, as a record producer rather than a performer, his role is important – ‘Performers don’t like other performers.’ Rumours abound as to whether he will return as a judge. ‘At some point, definitely. When, I’m not sure yet. That show, I don’t know what it is, more than anything I’ve ever done . . . ‘ There is real emotion in his voice when he talks about it. ‘The UK show’s my baby, and it was such an important crossroads in my life, for so many reasons, and there was so much riding on it at the time, and it was such a risky thing to do, but when it worked out, without question it was the most important thing career wise ever to have happened to me; so, in a weird way, I feel that I owe it something. I know it sounds corny, but it’s true. And it’s such a crazy show to be on, it causes so much controversy, and we have so many fun stories relating to the time we’ve spent on it, I kind of miss it - just the nuttiness that used to go on with Louis and Cheryl and everything else and the contestants. There’s something unique about that show.’
There have also been rumours about Louis leaving, after he said that ten years would be a good time to finish. Simon is doubtful. ‘I don’t think Louis will leave the show. I actually think it would miss him if he went. I know that people complain about him, but there’s nobody like Louis. I love working with him because he really makes me laugh. He’s able to make me laugh one moment and literally drive me round the bend the next, and he’s so naughty. I can make Louis laugh at any time during the auditions: just look up and stare at him, and he literally can’t stop laughing, so he tries not to look at me, then he looks over because he knows I’m staring at him and it makes me laugh as well.’ He talks about Louis with such affection, it seems inconceivable that the two will not be reunited at some point.
Another person Simon claims would be on his “ideal panel” is be Cheryl Cole, whom he unceremoniously sacked from the US X Factor after the briefest of stints, and the pair fell out big time.
‘I love working with Cheryl. I miss her. I really do. Funnily enough, I was watching something the other night on YouTube, as I wanted to remind myself of something from the UK show, and Cheryl was on it. I was watching her and listening to her. She was, actually, a really, really good judge. She knows a lot about music and had a really good instinct, so I miss her.’
Why does he think she didn’t work out on the US show? ‘I’ve spoken to her about it and she’s still not happy with me, and I probably did react too quickly. I just don’t think she was in the same place then as she is now. I mean now, she’s back to the Cheryl I used to know - really confident, looks amazing. I think she just went through what I’ve gone through. You just get to a place sometimes in your life where you lose your mojo a bit. I think this was a very daunting thing for her to do – or maybe I was wrong. I’ve no idea. But certainly now, when I talk to her to text her, she’s the old Cheryl again.’
Is it likely, then, that she will be returning to coming back to the UK X Factor? ‘I’ll have to ask her first, but I’d have her back in a heartbeat. I think that’s when the show was at its best. I really, really do. I’m not sure you can ever recapture the magic it once had, but then a part of me goes: Actually, you probably can. I don’t know - something just clicked with Cheryl and me.’
The X Factor judges are about to be reincarnated in X Factor: the Musical, which will hit the London Palladium stage next year. Simon giggles uproariously when he thinks about it and can’t seem to believe that it’s actually happening.
‘It came about through Harry Hill and his writing partner, who pitched to us. I’ve had these musical pitches dozens of times and every time I think it’s going to be a complete waste of time, but they came in and he was really funny and they played me one of the songs. I’d banned the word “journey” from our shows, because I hate that word, and also banned the word “dream”. And they’d written this song called I’m on a journey to a dream or something. So it was a complete send-up. It made me laugh so much, I thought Actually, maybe this’ll work because it’s not some sort of love fest, this musical. I mean, I get it in the neck, the show gets it in the neck, but in a fun, not a cynical way. And then I heard the odd thing over the next year and I went to the workshop. I was dreading it because I hate workshops, and I told my PA to get me a seat by the exit because I thought I’d be leaving and I didn’t want anyone to see me. And in the first five minutes, I was laughing so much, and there was such a buzz in the room, I thought we should do this because it’s really made me laugh. Even though I hate musicals, it feels like a celebration of what the show has done.’
Is he happy with the way he has been portrayed? ‘He’s a complete egomaniac monster. But it actually made me laugh, it’s just so over the top. But then there are parts where you go, that’s so close to the truth: this guy really understands the process. So anyone’s who’s seen the X Factor, they’re going to recognise obviously me, lots of other contestants, obviously lots of other judges, and it’s a kind of behind the scenes look at things as well.’
What about Dermot? 

He pauses reflectively. Surely they can’t be going to send up the lovely host Dermot O’Leary? ‘That’s a very good point, actually - not as much as they will the judges or contestants. But the script is so crazy. You’ve got a talking dog, a hunchback who lives up in the rafters of the competition, who wants to kill me, and the ending of the show is the weirdest ending to anything I’ve ever seen in my life, so there was a lot to take in on that first day. And what I’ve done is, intentionally, absolutely taken a step back from it. I don’t want to see the script, anything, because I thought I don’t want to start micro-managing this. I need to feel that they could pretty much say or do whatever they wanted. And if I got involved and started saying Take this word out, take that word out, it just wouldn’t work.’
There will be people tearing their hair out at the thought of the X Factor juggernaut now reaching the West End stage, but to Simon, finding new talent and then promoting that talent is at the heart of all his work.
‘It goes back to that point about education and giving people a shot. There are a lot of people in the music business who sneer at what we do, and ironically, those are the people who have made tens, if not hundreds of millions of pounds, and then they’re saying we shouldn’t allow somebody to have a break through a show like the X Factor. Don’t they think they’ve already tried the obvious route? They’ve clearly gone to record labels, sent in tapes and got nowhere, so this is another opportunity for them. I don’t think Olly Murs would have got a deal unless he’d gone on X Factor. One Direction was obviously created on the show. So this is just a different way of giving people an opportunity. Take Cher Lloyd -16/17 when she auditioned for us, and she went through to the next round. And I remember Cheryl calling me and saying that even though Cher couldn’t sing the song, she wanted her on the show because she believed in her, and then Cher went on to sell millions of records. You feel great about that.’
Its critics would still claim that the show does not represent the country’s best talent, as is blatantly obvious during the early audition rounds. You could, for example, go to a Welsh Eisteddfod and find at least 100 great voices in one day. But while talent might be Simon’s ultimate objective, he still has to provide an entertainment show. How does he marry these two seemingly opposing ideals?
‘That’s a good question, but I think One Direction and Olly Murs somehow combine the two. Olly is a really successful artist – he was great fun on the show and an absolute pleasure to work with - just the easiest person I’ve ever worked with in my life. When he comes down to the show, he brings so much good energy with him, I always think God, I just want you here every day, because he’s great fun, he’s got great energy, and he’s a great ambassador for the show. I guess he’s what we were looking for: a guy who had some boring office job, who dreamt about being a pop star, and then through the show lived his dream but still has remained a really great guy and really is a fantastic person - and the same with the One Direction boys. They brought so much positive energy to the show and they were so much fun to work with. Every week, they were brilliant. They were a handful, but great fun. And again, with them, they got what they dreamt of doing as well, and much, much more. I must never, ever forget those moments or take them for granted. When I saw them in Las Vegas, I had to pinch myself. Las Vegas, in America – and all these thousands of girls going nuts about some group that came from your show. That’s honestly the reason, the main reason, why I love making the shows. Because when you find that diamond amongst everything else, it’s a fantastic feeling. Of course, it makes us money, I’m not doing this for nothing. I'm running a business.’
The burgeoning funds are also in no small part down to the increasing part social networking has played in the entertainment business, a phenomenon to which Simon had to be dragged kicking and screaming.
‘I remember when this all started and someone spoke to me about Twitter, and the idea that I would have a Twitter page was like Well, I couldn’t do it, I wouldn’t know what to say. Now, I absolutely love it, but the trouble is, I get drunk sometimes and I send these Tweets and you wake up the following morning and you think please God I didn’t send anything out last night. Then it’s oh God, I did. But I’m used to that now. But the most fantastic thing about it is how it connects you immediately with the whole world. Literally. I remember being in LA watching the Britain’s Got Talent launch and obviously we knew Susan Boyle was in that first show and I’d seen the audition and I thought this is one of the best pieces of TV we’ve ever made. So I’m sitting in LA, watching this thing just explode worldwide, and it was just the most incredible feeling. So, the positive side of the whole social media thing for us is that it’s just the best thing that’s happened to us - ever. YouTube changed our business. How would the world know about a car-phone salesman singing Nessun Dorma? Because of YouTube. The guy has a Number 1 album in Germany three months afterwards – because of YouTube. One Direction – it was fans that promoted the band for us worldwide. So I love the fact that you can be on your Twitter page, you can be talking to someone in Canada or Venezuela or Italy and it’s as if they’re your next-door neighbour. I think it’s incredible. I’m so happy that I’m working within this space now, because it didn’t exist for us 20 years ago. We didn’t have mobile phones, we were sending packages on bikes; now, you just press a button. But I also think it’s exciting that we were there at the birth of it, when we just saw this thing explode. So we totally embrace it. Sometimes, even when I’m thinking of a name for my dogs, or if I’m stuck for a song, or a band name, I go on Twitter. The response you get back within about 30 seconds is unbelievable.
Nevertheless, the money generated seems less important than it once was, now that Simon can afford pretty much everything he wants – the houses, the private yacht and plane. ‘In the beginning, the money was more important because money gives you freedom. I had bosses who used to literally ridicule me, when I first started, doing what I was doing. It was a very sneering mentality in those days, in record labels. It was all about the artist being serious and credible; I was much more commercial. So I found that the only way I could get away from that kind of snobbery was to have enough money to do what I wanted to do. And now, probably . . . I get more out of renegotiating a deal.’
Still, surely he must pinch himself when he wakes up in that LA house every morning, a house that it seems Squiddly and Diddly have adapted to very quickly. ‘The funny thing is, when they came over, they came with their real father, the dog, and the family, and they spent about half an hour here with us and I brought them into this room. When the family left, they didn’t even look up. Not for a second: “I’ve got Simon now for my dad”. I love animals. And an animal knows if you love them as well, so they knew within seconds how much I adored them, and they couldn’t have been happier. Their first trip will be on a private jet back to the UK. They’re going to be very spoiled. I just love the idea of them sitting on a private jet, drinking champagne . . . ‘ He turns to the male ball of fluff who appears to have perfected what Simon calls “the flying lick”. ‘What do you think about that, Diddly?  And I love them so much, don’t I? How much do I love you? How much do I love you?’ The new father’s kisses are again reciprocated with licks in equal measure, as he squeezes his love into them with every finger.
For Simon, though, it is not the material goods that give him the biggest kick. ‘When I’m allowed through the studio gates where we film, and security raises the barrier, I literally pinch myself every time that happens. Because when I was trying to sell Pop Idol, we were thrown out of just about every network here, and I mean literally thrown out. I know what it’s like to be on the other side, where you can’t get through the security gates, you can’t have a meeting with someone. So the fact that they’re opening up the barrier for me now is a big deal. And I never forget that.’
With the company branching into film with the One Direction movie, does Simon ultimately have his sights set on Hollywood?
‘I always promised myself that we were going make movies, but said I wouldn’t want to make a fool out of myself, so the first one we made was the One Direction film. I mean God, it’s addictive. When you go to a premiere of your movie, like the one I went to in Leicester Square, it’s unbelievable. There’s nothing like it, but on the night I was thinking I want to do this again. So slowly, we’ve started to build a tiny little film division and we now have 2 or 3 movies that we are now producing, including an animation movie that I came up with the original story for. We pitched it, and, amazingly, a studio bought it, and we’re making it into a proper animation. I can’t say what it is because it’s such a great idea and such an obvious idea, and I don’t want anyone else to have it. So that’s a buzz.’
Although the One Direction movie had a lot of music in it, it is not what Simon would call a “music movie”, although he says the majority of the movies they make in the future will be music related. ‘And we’ll probably do more of these movies about bands – a year in the life of, stuff like that, if we find the right people to make them with. I think we did a good job with it, and the 3D stuff on it was sensational. And it was a real learning curve - brutal. You’ve got to view the film 23/25 times, you’ve got to do it every week, you’ve got to keep your nose coming in, but I loved it.’
As Syco’s operation gets bigger, with offices both in London and Los Angeles, how does Simon, a self-confessed control freak, deal with keeping in touch with everything that is going on within the company?
‘It’s kind of like organised chaos in some respects, because one minute the whole team is out working on X Factor UK or America’s Got Talent, or we’ve got a problem on another show - there’s a lot of kind of fire-fighting that goes on. But within that mess, there’s an incredible good structure in terms of new shows and how they’re being developed. There are a lot of young people now coming to work for us, who’ve re-energised the company, but at any one time, we could be on 30 projects. But I can tell you almost every detail on everything we’re working on: every album track, every single, every video, every show that’s in development, what’s happening in New Zealand or Australia or Holland or Israel. I keep myself informed. And what I’m learning now is just how important the whole world is. We used to think of just England and America as being the pivotal points, but now, we’ve got amazing shows being made in smaller countries and we’re starting to learn from them.’
He is clearly still a control freak, albeit one who increasingly hands over the reins to people he admires and trusts. ‘I think the way the company’s run at the moment – I’ve got so many good people working there and they’ve started to hire good people under them as well - it’s a much better place than it was 10 years ago.’
It is also, it seems, a better place because of Simon Cowell, whose inner competitiveness set him on a learning curve where he listened to others, and now, in keeping with his father’s philosophy of making others feel special, he is enabling a whole new generation.
‘Anyone who says they’re not competitive when they work in this business is a liar. If I was playing Monopoly with you now and you were winning, I’d probably tip the board up. I can’t bear the thought of coming second. Or if we’re playing Trivial Pursuit on the boat, it really bugs me if I lose. I’m the same with my work. The only thing I’ve learned to do more now, I think, is rather than get miserable by somebody else doing well, I’ve learned to respect why somebody does well and understand why they do better than us, and what we can do to make ourselves better. Because otherwise, you spend so much time looking for other people to fail - I know loads of people do that; they’re literally scanning the internet trying to find bad stories. What you actually end up doing is making yourself more unsuccessful in the same way, because all you’re doing is waiting for someone else to fail, rather than make yourself succeed. I think you start to have a very negative attitude with your staff, and I like to think that when I’m with everyone, I can motivate them. I don’t sit and say he’s done badly or she’s done badly, isn’t it great. It’s much more: Actually, they’ve done better than us and what are we going do about it.’
The Simon moving on to his second beer, cuddling up to dogs, a very different one not only from ten years ago, but last year, and it is obvious that Lauren Silverman has introduced a heavy dose of reality back into his - and not just with the pregnancy. What, for example, is he doing hanging out and being photographed in Café Rouge in Central London?
He laughs loudly. ‘We were going to the Harrrods cafe, which is outside, but there were no tables. I like the food in Café Rouge, anyway. It’s comfort food. Lauren, funnily enough, said to me: the one thing I’m going to do, Simon, is make sure you go out more, because I did get into a phase where I was having too many meetings in my house, too many dinner parties here, and she said That’s not how I want to live my life. She’s been really good for me in that respect.’
The question of whether he ever thought his life would change in this respect is interrupted by Squiddly lurking suspiciously on the other side of the room. ‘Is she having a pee? Squiddly! Come here!’ Simon snaps his fingers. ‘I think she just has . . . No, actually, it’s worse.’ He leaps up from the sofa, marathons across, and looks with horror at the installation Squiddly has deposited on the cream carpet. ‘Oh, great! Squiddly! Why can’t you go outside? Squiddly! Come here! What is your problem? What is your problem? How rude is that! Great! Perfect. Perfect. Squiddly, you are disgusting. Aren’t you? Disgusting.’ Squiddly slips and slides back across the white marble, clearly thrilled that she has gained her master’s voice. When she joins Diddly back on the sofa, the pair start playing and fighting like two over-excited X Factor contestants after being told they have made it through to Boot Camp, while Simon gathers his thoughts – although not before he has summoned the housekeeper to remove the damning installation.
‘I always hoped my life would change in this way. We get on really well and she’s completely unfazed by my job and everything that goes with it, and she loves music and is interested in the shows. She’s made me just do more normal things again – and it’s very positive. We went down to Santa Monica pier, went on the wheel, all that kind of stuff, and I like that.’
So would he say this the happiest he has been in his life? ‘I think so, yes. It’s not been the easiest year, and nothing’s easy at the moment because it’s so competitive, but I really have much less stress than I used to have. I’ve just been given a clean bill of health, which surprised them given that I smoke and drink, I’ve lost a lot of weight and I work out regularly. Even though it was a stressful year, I learned how to cope with it, so now, when we’re having work issues and stuff like that, I look at it as a challenge rather than a problem.’
He invites me into the garden to show me the pool where Lauren has taught Squiddly how to swim. As the dog dips a tentative paw into the water, Diddly is nowhere to be seen. ‘Diddly! Diddly! calls a frantic Simon. ‘Oh, there he is.’
One can only imagine how those paternal instincts are going to kick in, come February. Mad dogs and Englishman – and a baby. Surely, there’s a movie in that.