Herbert Lom, the Pink Panther, and a lucky escape from being trapped in the meltdown at Lloyd’s
By Antony Delderfield
Herbert Lom, the much loved actor, who died at the age of 95 on September 27 2012 in London, was greatly tempted to invest his impressive earnings in Lloyd’s in the 1970s during the ‘gold rush’ to the market by wealthy individuals – but heeded wise advice to stay clear. The Lloyd’s crisis of 1993 ended in bankruptcy and worse for many names. The venerable institution, which attracted more than 32, 000 outside investors at its peak in 1988, almost sank amid scandals and massive claims from marine disasters headed by the 1988 explosion of the Piper Alpha rig and the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill, and by the aftermath of Hurricane Hugo.
Herbert appeared in more than 100 films including Spartacus, El Cid and The Ladykillers. He played the agitated boss of the Peter Sellers character Inspector Clouseau in the Pink Panther films.
The London-based star’s very dear friend, and mine – the Lloyd’s broker Frank Novak – predeceased him by three years. They had been born in adjacent streets in Prague, then at the heart of the Austro-Hungarian bloc. Herbert escaped to London in 1939 with the generous help of a few English friends in politics and show business, just before Hitler’s forces entered his country.
Frank survived the war there, and came to England in 1947 with Herbert’s help and the assistance of Dennis Healey, who at that time was an intelligence officer with the British Army in Europe, and was later to become one of Labour’s senior ministers. I have no knowledge of Herbert’s religious beliefs, but Frank was brought up as a devout Jesuit and had his own interesting life, which was a love of languages (he spoke 12), lawn tennis, music, and surrounding himself with important people connected to the insurance Industry, directors and actors of stage and screen, politicians and the Vatican.
Both he and Herbert frequently dined or lunched together with Edward Heath, Peter Walker, Peter Ustinov (probably his dearest friend), many international underwriters and other entrepreneurs, in Garbo’s restaurant just off Baker Street, London.
Except for his much loved Pope John Paul II, I met most of his acquaintances. The London restaurant was tiny, with about ten tables on the ground floor and a trestle table laden with the most enticing smorgasbord. The Swedish family who ran it served many show business personalities and Swedish politicians. Sadly the venue closed in 2011 after 25 successful years.
The last time my wife and I saw Herbert and Frank together at a long, happy Garbo lunch, I was the host and Herbert – his typical calm and urbane self – listened to Frank hogging the conversation as usual, telling us what happened when he and Miloš Forman, the very talented film director, had attended a Baden-Baden music festival a month before, and recounting many other anecdotes that leapt into his head.
The point of this narrative is that during the late 1970s Herbert had a very lucky escape from what might be termed… “the joys of being a name at Lloyd’s.”
Herbert, as far back as 1940 had appeared on stage and film sets of 70 or 80 productions, earning modest fees, but his fortunes became brighter when he was picked by Blake Edwards to play the long suffering police chief in charge of the idiotic Inspector Clouseau. The first three Pink Panther films were a great success, but the last one saw a big audience of young people upgrading their interests. The Pink Panthers made him a lot of money.
About that time Frank was still working with me in Lloyd’s brokers Stewart Wrightson – having followed me after Stewart Smith was taken over by Bray Gibb Wrightson in the 1970s – and one day we were lunching together in Lloyd’s Club. I remember well that we were discussing how we could win the Czech airline account from the holding broker. Frank, of course, was very friendly with the then chairman of the airline and wanted me to fly with him to Prague that week and have a meeting.
Having dealt with all that, he then told me that the previous evening he had dined with Herbert in their favourite Italian restaurant Como Lauro in Holbein Place in Chelsea. During the course of the evening Herbert had confided in him that he was very keen to become a member of Lloyd’s, which seemed to him an extremely good investment opportunity. Herbert, like most jobbing actors since 1940, was paid very little for his many stage roles, but slightly better for appearing as a supporting actor in several films (some quite forgettable), and occasionally rather better paid for TV parts.
A seven-picture deal had substantially increased his bank balance. Because of crippling income tax in the UK at the time, he was seeking ways of “tax avoidance, ” but distrusted the many financial advisors all eager to assist him. The only man he knew, to my knowledge, connected with Lloyd’s was Frank, whom he trusted completely. Frank was a very skilled and successful business producer for Stewart Smith, but understood very little of “underwriting membership, ” which in our company was handled by a specialist department.
Frank asked Herbert why, after many years of their friendship, he was suddenly interested in investing his money in Lloyd’s.
Apparently, some months before in Paris, Herbert was in make-up being prepared for his morning performance on one of the Panther films, when he was introduced to a young actor who had a small part in that particular scene. While waiting to be called the young man told him that his older brother was an underwriting agent with a large broking house in the City and was becoming very rich. He then sketched the workings of Lloyd’s, and said that provided Herbert invested in a few profitable syndicates he would receive a very large cheque each year for doing nothing.
It is well known by anyone over the age of 50 that under the Wilson government we were all forced to pay a huge slice of our salaries to the Inland Revenue. Frank, at that time, held dual nationality and never remained in England for more than 90 days at a time, always renting his apartments. I cared for him very much, but he was always so secretive. He may have died rich or poor, I will never know, except that I believe that he never paid income tax anywhere.
During that lunch in Lloyd’s Club, Frank said that Herbert would like to meet me and learn more about the wonderful opportunities at Lloyd’s. That meeting only took place much later. I told Frank that I could be of no help to him unless he showed me copies of all correspondence, and the names of the syndicates being proposed to Herbert, and the amount he wished to invest. Frank returned to the office and I went to Lloyd’s to do some broking in my marine speciality.
Several days later my secretary was given copies of all the correspondence and several glossy brochures. I took one look at the three syndicates proposed; I knew all the underwriters. I called Frank on the intercom and begged him to tell Herbert “not, REPEAT NOT!” to invest one penny on any of them. The syndicates involved had better remain anonymous as there is some ongoing litigation involving many unhappy “outside names.” Herbert would have lost a lot of money if he had gone ahead, and probably his home, too.
In those days anyone wishing to share in a syndicate at Lloyd’s went before what was known as the Lloyd’s Rota Commitee, where the workings of the unique market were fully explained to the “eager punters.” For the many rich and famous people, the last words they heard were, in effect, “Mr Hopeful, you must realise that you will be liable down to your last shirt button for any claims arising from any syndicates the agent had arranged for you: IT IS UNLIMITED LIABILITY.”
Happily, that policy has since been changed, and profits are now being made in the changed market. Herbert, who was a very shrewd man, presumably invested elsewhere. I was never told. At the time of the chairmanship of Sir Peter Green, many scandals were exposed and Sir Peter paid a high the price for his lack of leadership and for practices then common in the market. In 1987, a disciplinary tribunal tribunal found that he had not acted dishonestly, but was guilty of “serious or gross negligence” and of conduct “detrimental to his names.” Sir Peter, who died in 1996, had earlier in his career been praised as a reformer of Lloyd’s. He came from a family steeped in shipping since the 18th century.·
(When I rejoined Lloyd’s in 1947, Peter’s father, Toby Green, was one of the most feared underwriters in the room and probably the most successful. If he wrote your risk you would finish it, with many underwriters following suit. He was, however, the man who thought up “rollover policies” which was a cunning method involving the transfer of funds described as reinsurance to tax havens. The least said about this the better.)
Herbert was a wonderful actor with a beautiful voice. He had immense charm and a mischievous sense of humour, and I can say that it turned out that he was lucky to have known Frank Novak, and myself for my inside knowledge as a broker, which accumulated during what is now 60 years in the Lloyd’s market.
At the last meal I shared with him, Frank and my wife Hella at Garbo’s, she was extolling the virtues of her favourite restaurant in Chelsea, inviting them to join us for dinner the following week. Herbert listened to all that and said, “Thank you, Hella. I will come because it is you who asked me. The food is unimportant.”
Sadly Herbert and I never met again.
Antony Delderfield, consultant to insurance broker Arthur J Gallagher (UK), wrote this article in a personal capacity specially for www.allaboutshipping.co.uk
Picture credit: The Times