What is it with the c-word all of a sudden? One minute it's the most offensive expletive in the English language, not to be uttered in even the most liberal of circles, the next it's being bandied about everywhere.
Caprice, the American model, was recently caught dropping it in casual conservation on ITV1's squeaky clean This Morning, and Duncan Heath, chairman of talent agency International Creative Management Limited, employs it a mere 10 seconds into his interview with the FT. "I'm 32," he lies, when asked how old he is. "Why are you laughing? No, I'm not double that age, you c***. Is the tape recorder on?"
Insulting your interviewer in the rudest way possible is certainly not the most conventional beginning to an encounter with the press. But then, there's very little that is conventional about 55-year-old Heath. The story of his route to the top of ICM UK, which represents some of Britain's biggest actors (Michael Caine, Ben Kingsley, Rupert Everett, Catherine Zeta Jones, Sir Anthony Hopkins), biggest TV stars (Steve Coogan, Johnny Vaughan) and biggest directors (Mike Newell, Danny Boyle, Guy Ritchie), is so unconventional that it's preposterous.
The adventure began in 1974 when Heath went against the wishes of his father, the late Sir Barrie Heath, one-time chairman of engineering giant GKN, by trying to get into agenting ("My father wanted me to go work in some dark Satanic mill somewhere," he says). Heath started at the very bottom of the industry, working as a gopher at the William Morris Agency in London, but within a year he had been fired for behaviour he cryptically describes as "insolence and mild violence".
Unemployed and nearly broke he decided to gamble all the wages he had left on a horse that his mother had running at Newbury. Luckily for Heath, who now owns several race horses and greyhounds, it came in at 35-1. Suddenly, the wannabe agent found himself with £3,500 - "a shitload of money in the 1970s". That evening, various members of his family went to the horse-trainer's home to celebrate and, according to Heath, his aunt got "so arseholed" that she drowned in her bath later that night.
As a result (the aunt left all her nephews and nieces with £10,000 each), Heath's bank account swelled to more than £13,000. He used the money to buy a 50 per cent stake in a talent agency run by a former ICM agent Christopher Long. Unfortunately, it turned out that Long didn't actually have many clients. "We spent most of our time hanging around theatres asking actors if they wanted an agent. Most of the time they just told you to fuck off."
It wasn't until Heath met actress Hilary Dwyer that business picked up. Dwyer gave up acting, married Heath and came to work at the agency. "She introduced me to a lot of people - if it wasn't for her it wouldn't have happened." Long then retired, the firm changed its name to Duncan Heath & Associates and very slowly began building up a meaningful roster of clients. Dwyer eventually divorced Heath in 1989, after 15 years of marriage, and became a successful film and TV producer.
In 1985 ICM Inc, the giant US talent agency, bought Heath's agency. Then, in 1991, ICM merged Duncan Heath & Associates with its former UK office, and Heath became chairman of ICM Ltd in London. During the 1990s, ICM benefited hugely from the explosion of interest in Hollywood for British talent - clients like Hugh Grant (no longer with the agency), Rupert Everett and Gary Oldman became sought after, and directors like Mike Newell hit the big time.
Heath will not reveal how many clients ICM has, but it has a similar turnover to Peters Fraser and Dunlop, and together they dominate the British talent agency business. Over the past decade Heath, who has been paid a salary by ICM, has gradually strengthened his position, signing a series of increasingly lucrative contracts, to the point where, this month, he was able to conduct a management buy-out of the agency from its US parent, the second-largest talent agency in America.
Heath, together with his 17 agents, now owns the majority of the business in London, while ICM Inc retains a minority stake. The seven-month-long negotiations were no doubt aided by the simple fact that talent agencies are worthless without the agents - they are the ones who have the relationships with the talent. The agency plans to continue using the ICM name for the time being (although both parties have the option of removing the name if it causes complications), and will maintain its relationship with ICM in the US, exporting British talent to LA.
The buy-out is being financed by the agents with their own earnings - it is understood that the American parent company will be paid over the next few years. "My neck is on the line," says Heath. "We have to work our arses off."
Apart from having the freedom to do as they wish, and the ability to keep the profits they generate, the strongest factor behind the buy-out has been the fact that ICM was restricted in what it could do because of its US parentage. In the US, regulations prevent agents from operating as producers, so ICM Ltd, as a wholly-owned subsidiary of ICM Inc, could not get involved in co-financing and producing projects.
In the UK, many of ICM's competitors have been developing production projects - the agency's main rival, PFD, is thinking about setting up a TV production arm, Peter Bennett-Jones Management set up Tiger Television (now Tiger Aspect), and Artists Rights Group, an agency set up last year by Heath's former co-chairman, Michael Foster, who left ICM in 1997, has struck a development deal with SMG TV, the production arm of Scottish Media Group.
Surprisingly, however, Heath, who admits that the US regulations were "frustrating", says that the buy-out doesn't mean that he's suddenly going to plunge into production. "I don't want to produce," he insists. "Firstly, it's very time-consuming - it would take you away from the job of looking for work for your clients. Also, you can fuck up your relationships with you clients if you're a producer. How do you negotiate the best deal for your client when you head the production company the client works for?"
He also rejects speculation that he might start "packaging" projects - whereby a talent agency helps set up projects so that it can fill it with its various acting, writing and directing clients. "A really good director like Danny Boyle or Sam Mendes would fire me if I said I wanted to package their film
with my clients."
But the lifting of restrictions does mean that ICM can now, says Heath, "facilitate" projects for its clients - raise money to back projects in their early stages of development. "I want to have a great agency that carries on doing what it does. Agenting. Finding people work in the marketplace. But I also want to help make the marketplace."
This "facilitating" might, for instance, involve raising finance for a star director who is interested in making a film of a book he has read. ICM could raise money to buy the film rights before they are snapped up by someone else. Also, whereas ICM was only allowed to "advise" Catch 23 Entertainment, an independent US production company, when it set up a new UK film production venture last summer, in the future it could be a more active partner.
The potential for growth at the agency, which has an annual turnover of about £7m, is huge, insists Heath. "If we're involved in successful movies, that's a growth business. TV development is a growth business. Also, we have ICM-I, a joint venture with Telewest, representing games developers, and if we have a hit game, that could be very lucrative. I think we'll acquire a book agency at some point too."
Heath will have to watch his back while he's doing all this - the number of talent agencies is growing all the time and poaching is becoming a real threat. The William Morris Agency tried - and failed - to bump up its British talent business a few years ago, but ICM still faces threats from the likes of PFD, which is under pressure to recruit more talent and bring in money for the shareholders, and Artists Rights Group, which makes the argument that smaller agencies like it are able to provide a better service.
"In the States poaching is an art form - it's not like that here, but it's absolutely more of a threat," admits Heath. "There are some aggressive agents out there - I think we know who's one of them."
He adds that he doesn't really understand how ARG's Foster, who he jokingly refers to as "Frosty", gets away which charging 12.5 per cent commission, when ICM only charges 10 per cent. "I haven't heard him doing anything for his clients that we're not doing. I was slightly pissed off when he recently said that an agency like his could add value - we've already added that value. I have a TV development side, a film development side and a business affairs side - some of those things he hasn't got yet.
"It's an interesting time in the agency business though. PFD have just been bought, while we have just bought ourselves out. But their excitement must be about the riches; our excitement is, what the fuck are we going to do in the future?"