Design Council chairman and rector of the Royal College of Art, inveterate committee-sitter, writer, TV presenter and pundit on popular culture - he's full of zestful geniality. What's he running from?
Sir Christopher Frayling has to be dragged out of the party to see me. Music is pumping, brawny men swig beer, skinny women pull unwilling partners onto the disco floor. I'm stepping through all this just to get to his office. What is going on? Only the Royal College of Art's Christmas lunch. These guys clearly know how to party.
'Phew,' puffs Frayling, 'thank God you're here, people were threatening to make me dance!' He laughs as he strides towards me, tall, slightly dishevelled, wearing a rumpled suit and limp tie, his unkempt curly hair and bushy moustache making him vaguely-out-of-date-man. He looks like Lord Winston's scruffy younger brother.
Before we have even shaken hands, he's already chatting away, a big smile creasing his squishy face. He'd scheduled this interview, it turns out, as a bit of disco-avoidance. What a wag. Frayling, 55, seems to approach everything in his busy life - college-running, book-writing, committee-sitting, programme-presenting - with the same boyish bonhomie, great gusts of zestful intellectual enthusiasm blowing through a multi-talented, churning mind. Most love him for it, though some say it is a bit of an act, camouflaging a very ambitious drive. As one of the most influential people in the arts today, he would have found it hard not to make some enemies, I suppose.
But he works at his niceness. He unpeels a sticker from his lapel - it says BOSS - and gestures grinning to a seat round the circular meeting table in his book-strewn office. Large windows on two sides frame the December traffic rumbling past Hyde Park on London's Kensington Gore. Nice view out, good view in. Occupants of the number 9 bus - hello! - get a pretty good close-up as they trundle along. Frayling, a natural performer who made his name with his analyses of popular culture, is clearly more at ease in the public glare than most. He even uses the window to display a few of his own books. He apologises for this with the hint of a wink.
He has been rector of the Royal College of Art for six years, a job that most acknowledge he has done pretty well, forging closer links with business than ever before. The college, set up well before the Great Exhibition a century and a half ago and now pitching itself as the Oxbridge of art schools, is unusual in mixing fine art and design disciplines, and numbering artists like David Hockney and industrialists like James Dyson among its alumni. It is also a large, complex organisation to run: 800 postgraduate students, 100 contracted academic staff, 800 visiting academics, 250 support staff, pounds 20 million turnover and a plum site opposite the Royal Albert Hall.
Enough, you might think, to keep most people busy, but Frayling, an avaricious job-taker, likes to put himself about. He has, while working at the RCA, been on the Arts Council, Crafts Council, Design Council and the Dome board, and contributed to a clutch of other organisations as well. On top of which he churns out books and radio and television programmes as a full-time hobby. Where does he get the time? 'Oh, I've always liked being busy,' he chuckles. 'I wouldn't know how to spell the word relaxed.'
Which is what he usually says to the media, but I'm not so sure. Frayling is so good-humoured, so attentive, so garrulously charming that you tend not to question what the underlying agenda is. He's constantly going off on a conversational tangent like a frisky horse that has to be reined in, so you're continually preoccupied, just holding on. He does, it has to be said, notice my growing exasperation at this. It doesn't stop him; he simply prefaces each lunge away from the subject with: 'Sorry, this is another digression ...'
If all that makes me sound unduly suspicious, it's only because I'd been warned that his chatty cheeriness can occasionally be an exercise in evasion. There are 101 subjects you can quiz him on - his life is so multifaceted - not least academic management, at which he is adept, the Arts Council, on which he sat for 13 years, and the doomed Dome, to which he contributed guidance, of a sort.
But I feel all Domed-out, and more intrigued by his chairmanship of the Design Council. It's the one element of his lengthy CV that puzzles some as, despite being in charge of Britain's most prestigious educational institution for art and design, he doesn't seem a very design-fixated person. His obsession is popular films and television - his most recent book was a biography of spaghetti western maker Sergio Leone - and his expertise is administration; anyone expecting to find him surrounded by iconic design pieces would, looking at his office, be sorely disappointed. By his own admission, he's a scruffy academic.
Yet he took over the role of Design Council chairman in a flurry of publicity two years ago, promising to boost design's profile, after which ... silence. Hmmm. A few in the design world suggest that Frayling's appointment had more to do with ambition than logic, and the council has payed the price. I have to admit that, before I read the cuttings, I wasn't really sure if the Design Council still existed.
Frayling, who seems impossible to offend, barely breaks his smile when I tell him. 'No, no, no,' he laughs. 'It has completely changed, though. When I came into this business it was the ministry of taste - it gave its seal of approval to products, it told us what to like ... That's patronising to the consumer now, so it has flipped itself into a lobbying, opinion-forming, context-creating organisation. Instead of directing itself towards the design community, it directs itself towards government, education and business ...'
He then launches into a long lecture on the growing popularity of design in schools, how the Design Council is directly involved in the curriculum, how the challenge is now to get higher education to take it seriously, how business schools are so fusty about design - all good points - GCSEs, truancy, surrealism, British adverts, cigarettes, bus queues, William Morris, pots with thumbprints, JCB, Scandinavian chairs, jamjars you can open, crime in Wales ...
Like so many of Frayling's speeches, it's not the rapidity of delivery that throws you off-course - in fact, he speaks slowly and lucidly - just the way the pertinent points spin out mesmerically in so many different directions. Eventually, you quite forget whether he's answered the question.
His main argument, and I precis here, is that the Design Council is very good at trying to 'create the context in business' in which design can be important and successful - so don't mess with it. It's not like the Arts Council, trying to engineer policy by giving money to people. It's different. Nor is it about plugging big-name designers. 'Design with a big D. That concept is out. Why should they have a trade association paid for by the government (pounds 6 million last year) which hooks for them? It's more about trying to understand the concept of design.'
Then he's off again on another anecdote, about Hovercraft and how the French named theirs after its design engineer and we called ours Princess Margaret and that says it all really and ... When I report all this later to Andrew Summers, the Design Council's chief executive, he laughs and says: that's Christopher. The point about him, he adds, is that he is very good at interfacing with government and business. Cogent arguments and contacts are the name of the game, not designer clothing.
I have to admit there are probably cogent arguments against all this too, but I am not sure I can get a word in anyway. What's in it for Frayling? Boosting the RCA's grip on the design world, for one. He has spent much of his time as rector of the RCA plugging the profile of its design courses and their links with industry. Business brings in money and provides jobs for his students. Hence his tight links with Dyson - a big RCA graduate employer - and others. 'We are judged on the destination of our students,' he smiles.
Frayling has always been good at turning circumstances to his advantage. Born in south London, the second son of an affluent furrier - Major Arthur Frayling, OBE, chairman of the Hudson's Bay fur auction house in the City - he says he gets his interest in business from his dad and his love of the arts from his mother's family. His mum, however, was fascinated by cars: she and her brother won the RAC Rally in 1952. She was born into a German immigrant family that ran a music shop in New Oxford Street, terribly exotic, early gramophones, music boxes, Bauhaus-design bags. All of that gave Frayling an insight into the allure of arts and crafts at a young age.
His father was also an inveterate music hall fan, dragging Frayling and his elder brother to the Kingston Empire to see terrible old acts shortly to be driven out of work by television. His dad was a loud extrovert too, loving piano singalongs and military music. That, says Frayling, is probably where he got his ease with popular culture from, and his desire to perform.
And the fur trade? He never really encountered the sensitivity of his father's fur trade links till the issue became political in the late '60s. His father, after retirement, became spokesman for the whole industry and eventually had to be given police protection.
'I have to say it in hushed tones now, of course,' says Frayling, who hastily makes plain he has no truck with the fur trade. 'At home, dad was incredibly affectionate to our pets and then would go into work with all these corpses with fur on them. He just didn't make the connection.'
Frayling and his brother, three years older, were sent away to boarding school at a very young age, probably to facilitate their mother's rally driving. She also suffered from terrible back pain, brought on by all those suspensionless cars, and wanted a break from the kids. Frayling was just six. 'I went with my brother because they thought we worked well together, but when we got there, of course, we were barely allowed to speak to each other.'
His brother later entered the church, and is now rector of Liverpool. Two rectors in one family? 'He says he's the real rector,' laughs Frayling, 'not me.' But their early school experience has not made him a fan of the boarding system. His worst moment came when he started calling the school matron 'Mum'. 'That,' says Frayling, laughing nervously, 'is a bit scary, isn't it?'
Did it all affect his character?
He frowns in concentration. 'I think one develops a double life early on. There was the social me, the one that operated in the rather compressed society of boarding school, and the different me, in holidays. You do become rather duplicitous ... I am still very rigid about public and private. In fact, I've never really done an interview where I have talked about myself like this.'
Really? Some who have worked with him say he never hides anything, yet Frayling seems to imply the opposite. Summers says: 'What you see is what you get.' Lord Palumbo, Frayling's chairman at the Arts Council for many years, describes him as a fan-tastic communicator, 'palatable, logical, doesn't shout or scream'.
A few who have crossed him suggest there is another side. Stephen Bayley, former design director of the Dome, was interviewed against him for the RCA rector's job in 1992 (both failed) and later worked with him on the Greenwich project (Frayling ended up 'godfather' of the Faith zone after Bayley left). They are not friends. 'Christopher always reminds me of a koala,' says Bayley. 'He looks cuddly, but can be vicious if you're not careful.' He adds that, during their time at the Dome, Frayling seemed keener to get preferment from the Government than provide any cogent view of what should be in the tent.
Ouch. Certainly Frayling has proved adaptable throughout his career. After getting good A-levels at Repton, he went to Cambridge to read law, and switched to history after three days. 'Law was so dull.' He went on to do a PhD in the history of ideas, ducking and diving to avoid his father's ambitions for him to enter advertising. 'That was commerce-meets-art in a slightly panic-stricken way,' he laughs. 'Dad was terrified I would go arty on him.'
Eventually, he got a post lecturing at Exeter university, then a job at the Imperial War Museum researching amateur film footage, and helping to contribute to the World at War television series. That fascination with the moving image was to become a constant theme in his working life. Posts at the university of Bath and the RCA followed. His first lecture at the RCA was 'History through Film'.
He became professor of cultural history at the RCA in 1979, pro-rector in 1992 and rector - effectively chief executive - in 1996. In between, he survived the turbulent regime of Jocelyn Stevens at the college, rector from 1984 to 1996. Stevens, a former newspaper executive more used to bashing the unions on Fleet Street, arrived at the college with a mission to impose firm management on its reluctant academics. Frayling was one of only two professors who survived.
'There was a lot of rough stuff, people coming and going, but I rather admired Jocelyn. He was a great ambassador for the place and he certainly made it more manageable. He gave it its confidence back.'
Why did Frayling survive? He chuckles and says: 'The Vicar of Bray springs to mind ...' But comparing himself to the time-serving cleric who survived multiple kings does not really do him justice. The truth is that Frayling liked Stevens, wrote some of his speeches and learned more about leading and managing than many might imagine (as the two men have rather different styles). He failed to get the top slot in 1992, but when Stevens' successor left four years later, Frayling was well placed to step into the breach.
He says he loves the job, but he is also passionate about his media work too. He has presented television series on advertising, Tutankhamun, the Middle Ages, horror - you name it, he can enthuse about it. He is, most agree, a terrific presenter. 'He has that wonderful ability to perform in public,' says Palumbo, who has seen him do the same on committees. 'He has a serious purpose but he cloaks it in geniality.'
Frayling is so good at it that, in 1993, he thought about leaving academia behind and taking up television as a full-time career. Any regrets that he didn't? 'No, because television has a short memory. What happens is they over-expose you, then drop you.'
But don't other academics think he is trivialising his talents? Frayling shrugs. He says he has spent his life being told his interests were 'too prole', right from his Cambridge days when he co-founded a magazine about cinema - not seen as a serious medium in mid-60s academia. But that's not going to stop him. 'I hate the argument about dumbing down,' he says. 'I can't believe whole genres are dumb, I really can't.' Frayling's next book, for the record, is about images of science in popular films - in short, why so many scientists are portrayed as bonkers in the movies. It's unlikely to appease his serious critics.
But it is accessible and, for Frayling, getting the audience is almost more important than winning the esteem of his peers. He seems, anyway, to be tiring of academic life. When I ask him if he will see out his five-year contract at the RCA - he's already done five and is in year one of the new deal - he makes a face, and says, probably not. He has things he still needs to do, like pushing through his plan for a new building, bolted on the front of the RCA, but maybe his energy is waning. 'I do think the point is reached when you're repeating yourself. I can't bear people who hang on too long. The academic world is full of them.'
So what would he do next? 'Oh,' he says, 'I just want to be incredibly busy.' He has his committees and his writing, and his beautiful house on Galway Bay in Ireland that he and his painter wife Helen built. He met Helen at the RCA - 'no, she was not my student' - and has three step-children through her. They live mainly in a beautiful house in Bath, but also in a flat, no doubt equally beautiful, overlooking the river at Chiswick in London. You presume Frayling has to be busy just paying upkeep on all that property.
'Actually,' he says, mulling over my last question, 'next I would like to be the David Attenborough of the arts.'
Isn't he called Melvyn Bragg?
Frayling creases up. 'No! No! No! Alright, I had better be careful. Ultimately I would like to broadcast more. I don't want a university job. I want to write too - I have got about eight books I want to get out of my system.'
Goodness. He wouldn't fancy, then, returning to the Arts Council as chairman? He's an obvious choice. God no, he says, you can never win there, never enough money, just like the NHS. But there are a host of other things he can do.
Can't he slow down? What's he running from?
'Oh, my Lord,' he says, as if no-one has ever asked him before. 'I don't know. My idea of hell is lying on a beach getting sun oil on my books ...'
Does he think he is difficult to be around? He pauses. 'Yes, I am fairly driven. I like to have three lives at least. One of my philosophies is that road sign: Do not enter yellow box unless your exit is clear. And I think if you have other lives it enhances your performance.'
Then he tells me an anecdote about his mother, who died last year: how he took her to a dinner to celebrate 50 years of the RAC Rally, and how all the past winners walked in to See the Conquer-ing Hero Comes, and she was the only woman, and they had film of her going across the finish line back in 1952 and he was so proud of her.
And while he's telling me I realise that Frayling perhaps has a lot to live up to. We part well, as he does with just about everyone. Outside, the disco's almost over, only a few blokes left rounding up the last unfinished bottles of beer. Frayling laughs and says he's going to stay skulking in his office, mission accomplished. He seems so totally at ease with his world. But behind the good humour, the desire to be liked, the urge to communicate, the huge capabilities for organising and teaching and contributing, I wonder if there's a kernel of insecurity inflaming his drive, part of him still the little boy urgently seeking his mum's attention. Look at me, Ma, top of the world!
I may be wrong, but I bet Frayling loves the movie reference.
< frayling="" in="" a="" minute="" 1946:="" born="" 25="" december="" in="" london.="" educated="" at="" repton="" and="" churchill="" college,="" cambridge="" 1971:="" lecturer="" in="" history="" at="" exeter="" university="" 1972:="" film="" archivist,="" imperial="" war="" museum="" 1973:="" lecturer="" in="" the="" history="" of="" ideas,="" bath="" university="" 1979:="" professor="" of="" cultural="" history,="" royal="" college="" of="" art="" 1992:="" pro-rector,="" rca="" 1996:="" rector,="" rca="" 2000:="" knighted,="" appointed="" chairman="" of="" the="" design="" council="" sir="" christopher="" frayling="" has="" been="" a="" trustee="" of="" the="" v&a="" museum,="" a="" governor="" of="" the="" british="" film="" institute,="" a="" member="" of="" the="" crafts="" council,="" the="" arts="" council="" and="" the="" national="" advisory="" body="" working="" party="" on="" higher="" education="" in="" the="" arts,="" among="" other="" positions.="">