Okay, today, fast as you can say Kevin Bacon, we’re going to follow the links between King Mohammed V of Morocco and giant fighting shrimp.
In 1952 Morocco was controlled by both Spain and France; there was an international zone — perfect for crime and espionage — around Tangier. The French of Morocco had aided Mohammed V’s rise to power because they thought he could be manipulated. They were horrified to discover that he was plotting with the Moroccan independence movement. In 1953, Mohammed was forced into exile in Madagascar; meanwhile non-European Moroccans began pushing for his return.
One European the Moroccans liked was Billy Hill, English gangster. Billy served some time for a warehouse robbery in the 1940s. He swore he would never return to prison; he never did. Legendary gangster Jack Spot took Billy under his wing and the two did well at Spot’s protection rackets. But Billy also had other schemes going. “He was a thief,” says one associate, “He was a very good thief.” In 1952, Hill masterminded the robbery of a mail van that brought in a quarter million pounds, a record haul then. Billy needed a place to stash his loot. He discovered Tangier. Pretty soon he had investments in Morocco and was running a smuggling operation on the side.
The Moroccans approached Billy about returning Mohammed to Tangier and Billy set up a dummy banking corporation, bought a boat, and organized a trip to Madagascar. But the boat never left Tangier. Locals were on to Billy and when Interpol told them he was one of England’s biggest crooks, the authorities tried to seize the boat. There was a brawl on the beach, the boat was set afire, and Billy fled to Cannes.
Later, Mohammed V did return to Morocco, this time with the assistance of the French government. Spain and France quit the place and Tangier ceased to be an international zone. Meanwhile, Billy Hill had lots of good contacts with the new government and continued to invest his cash there (including the proceeds from a 1954 bullion theft). In the 60s he bought a major club, the Tangier, which became a hangout for English crooks looking for a holiday, including the infamous Kray brothers, billy’s protégés.
With Billy when he tried to help Mohammed, was a young ex-boxer named George Walker. George had served some jail time and knew his way around London’s underworld but George left the criminal life when he discovered how much more he could make through legal investment. George’s younger brother Billy boxed and, though he seldom won, kept enough of the purse for George to invest in various schemes. George became very adept at leveraging whatever assets he could claim into very large loans. He founded Brent Walker which began investing in real estate, shopping malls, and so on.
George Walker became interested in producing movies. His first big hit was Bitch based on the Jackie Collins novel. That had a successful sequel, The Stud, and George had a reputation as a film-maker. He bought up established studios and churned out the product. But George’s success was something of a ponzi scheme. He used movie profits to leverage loans for real estate deals and he leveraged the properties to make movies. There was far less collateral than there was debt. George’s biggest deal was to buy the William Hill (no relation to Billy) chain of bookmaking shops in 1989, paying more than 685 million pounds. But George had been scammed by William Hill and the betting shops weren’t worth their sticker price. George’s empire collapsed with him in arrears for more than a billion pounds. George spent the 90s battling criminal charges and trying to set up a new business empire in Russia.
Of course leveraged buyouts and over-mortgaged real estate didn’t disappear with Gregory Walker’s downfall. Investment experts swarmed over Britain like beetles on a corpse. One of these lovely fellows was Guy Hands. Hands learned his trade working for the Japanese takeover outfit Nomura. In 1997, when George Walker went under, Hands engineered Nomura’s leveraged buyout of the William Hill Bookmaking chain.
Hand’s modus operandi was to buy out a company, fire a huge number of employees, and call that efficiency. The remains of the operation could then be resold to a giant conglomerate which would keep the useful bits and dump the rest. Hands was also involved in private equity schemes where investors could put their funds into real estate or other schemes and only pay 10% income tax on the money that they made. Hands particularly liked using movies for investments. Unprofitable movies could be turned into a tax dodge whereby investors could claim their losses twice. It was quite lucrative until 2005 when Gordon Brown closed that particular loophole. Guy Hands’ most recent big deal was to buy up EMI, the entertainment giant, in 2008. Some say that was a deal too far and may bring down Hands’ empire. Of course it won’t help Hands that the over-leveraged world economy went into the toilet in 2008.
One film that Hands made that was never released in England was 2001′s Crust. A washed-up boxer and a down-at-heels pub owner try to promote a giant boxing shrimp. Somebody had seen a documentary on boxing shrimp — for their size they have the hardest punch in the animal kingdom — and decided to make a comedy about a mutant seven-foot-long member of the species. Although never shown in England, it was seen in Japan where it became a cult favorite. In fact it kicked off (ahem!) a craze for “sporting sea life” movies such as Calamari Wrestler and Crab Goalie.
So there you have it: Mohammed V to Billy Hill to George Walker to Guy Hands to Crust. It’s an amazing world we live in.
Mohammed V was a successful and much-loved monarch. Billy Hill was a successful criminal who died in bed. George Walker died in 2011 after recouping some of his lost fortune. Guy Hands shuns publicity. This year many of his debts will come due; some predict more financial horror for Britain. I expect you’ll be able to get a DVD of Crust eventually.
This item was inspired by Adam Curtis’ column for the BBC that focuses more on the Walker/Hands movie investment and what that has meant to the industry. Well worth reading!
Scenes from Crust may be viewed at the director’s website, here.