Books: The colourful tale of entrepreneur Green

The epic rise of the King of the Shops makes for a good read, says Paul Murphy, but this book doesn't really pin him down.

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Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

Top Man - How Philip Green built his high street empire Stewart Lansley and Andy Forrester Aurum Press £18.99 MT price £15.99 To order, visit www.mtmagazine.co.uk

We can only fantasise about how Philip Green will have reacted to news that one of several threatened biographies charting the extraordinary rise of the King of the Shops has actually made it into print. Angry phone calls? Of course. Expletives? Plenty. Litigation? Well... difficult to say.

Green is not a man to take any questioning of his abilities or his record, or even his style, on the chin.

His name is one of those that flashes bright red when it crosses a newspaper lawyer's screen. No editor ever takes his call without a sharp intake of breath. But with Top Man, penned with admirable speed by the BBC's Stewart Lansley and Andy Forrester, Green will have no particular reason to reach for his lawyers.

Lansley and Forrester have conducted a full trawl of the publicly available information on the retailer who is without doubt the most intriguing British entrepreneur of his generation - a man who can fairly claim to be a multi-billionaire, even if some us might dispute the heroic £4.8 billion valuation placed on him by the Sunday Times' Rich List.

This is not a book of revelations. It does not kick PG's financial tyres or in any way question the integrity of his empire. But that doesn't necessarily matter, since Green's rise to prominence has been so fast, so splashed with human colour, that the tale itself is enough.

It's all here - from the unnamed contemporary at Carmel College who hoped he might never see Green again, to the two battles for control of Marks & Spencer. We get all the misfires of the early days and the glorious victories, such as Sears, Bhs and Arcadia. We learn much on the PG lifestyle: not just the famous toga party, but detail on the early flash-lad lifestyle and plenty on his wife Tina, who is the real billionaire in this story, since most of the assets are held in her (offshore) name.

The simple retelling of Green's two assaults on M&S provides a sharp reminder of just how epic the ambitions of this middle-class lad from Croydon were. You wonder what his mum fed him for breakfast, producing a man who was able to go out and borrow £10 billion to buy control of much of Britain's high street - not once, but twice.

It is a gripping tale, but somehow Lansley and Forrester never quite capture the mesmerising nature of the man. The authors frankly admit how elusive their prey proved to be. Green would not talk or guide or correct; friends of Philip - FOPs - were equally reticent. Those who know Green best are those who believe they will get a payout from one of the richer men on the planet - and that's a serious impediment to the rest of us getting at the true story.

The authors try hard in a final chapter to capture some sort of essence, to play up the vulnerabilities and to guess at where all this might lead.

They speculate, quite naturally, whether he will come back for M&S a third time. But they, like the rest of us, can't guess with any real confidence.

It's questionable whether any biographer of Green, authorised or not, will ever be able to deliver the full story while the man is still alive.

My belief is that it needs another medium. It begs the Bashir treatment, assuming the Diana/Jacko assassin can be bothered to visit these shores.

Or maybe it needs to be worked as a variation on the Brit geezer-chic flick.

Lansley and Forrester come up with one particularly intriguing fact: Green's favourite film is The Long Good Friday, with Bob Hoskins. Unlike Harold Shand, he does not shoot people or harm them physically, but he does have a tendency to get his way. Hoskins may no longer fit the age profile, but how about Ray Winstone?

Sexy Beast, Henry VIII, Philip Green... it works.

The digital wizardry of modern film could also master that gradual change in Green's complexion from the white bloke in Croydon selling shoes to the present-day orange pot of boiling acquisitiveness. The plot could look to the future - perhaps to a security-screened-and-preened Barbados beach where Green, on learning that he'd failed to win a takeover of M&S for the third time, spontaneously combusts. The man is a blockbuster waiting for release.

Trouble is, it wouldn't be a PG.

Paul Murphy is financial editor at the Guardian.

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