I hadn’t thought it possible to lose patience with an interviewee before we’d even met. But it turns out to be quite easy when her people keep on badgering me for weeks about what I’m going to ask. It’s not unheard of for a PR to ask in advance for an outline of topics the conversation might cover. But I’ve never had emails and calls from three different members of staff, chivvying for the “briefing” or pestering me about the interview, as if Mary Portas weren’t just their boss but mine too.
I have to say, I’m glad she isn’t. When I arrive at the London hotel where we’re to meet, Portas is rigged out in a fabulous dominatrix bondage look, but her young assistant has committed the unforgivable crime of fetching the wrong kind of coffee, and been dispatched out into the cold to buy Portas’s preferred brand, returning in a fluster of anxious apologies. Once the interview is under way, the assistant’s conversation with another employee is very faintly audible from the adjacent room. In a flash, Portas is on her feet and at the door. “I can hear you!”
Who does the woman think she is? Madonna? But then again, only the day before I’d found myself longing to be more like Portas, wishing I had more of her nerve when I tried and failed to buy a scarf in Tie Rack. The branch was about the size of a linen cupboard, staffed by three sales assistants, each more unhelpful than the other. “Pay attention!” I’d wanted to scream. But of course, I didn’t say a word, and stomped out, thinking, “I bet Mary Portas wouldn’t stand for that. I’d like to see her put a rocket up the useless idiots.”
And there, in a nutshell, is the modern British condition – sick of rubbish service, but disinclined to do anything about it for fear of looking grand.
Anyone who has ever seen Portas on television will be unsurprised to learn that the formidable retail expert is now turning her attention to the parlous state of British customer service. Portas first became famous for her BBC1 series Mary Queen of Shops, in which failing independent shop owners invited her in to explain why they were losing money. As is the way with reality TV, they would then get dreadfully upset with her for pointing out what they were doing wrong. After the requisite tears and tantrums, her makeover magic would usually set the tills ringing again, and off she’d swish to sort out the next bunch of halfwits. Imagine a cross between Alan Sugar and Simon Cowell in high-fashion hosiery and heels and you get the picture.
For her new series, Mary Portas: Secret Shopper, she goes undercover in big chain stores and films their hopeless customer service, then tries to persuade them to let her do something about it. It’s classic Portas stuff – fearless, funny, but occasionally furious – and she’s certainly not faking the rage. It is, she says, what she feels in about “80%” of high street stores.
“I find myself becoming a bit Tourette’s. I walk round going, ‘I hate this, I hate this!’ Normally I do a food shop at Waitrose, but the other day I had to go locally and the only one was a Tesco Metro. I went up to these guys, and they’re stacking the shelves, and I said, ‘Do you have any Yorkshire puddings?'” She affects gormless incomprehension and a foreign accent. “Pooding?”
“Now that gets me. You’re not allowed to say that, cos it’s politically incorrect if someone can’t speak English – but he’s just not going to know what Yorkshire puddings are! So I go up to the next guy, and he takes me over to the flans and the puddings. So then I’m walking round and I find myself going, ‘I hate this, I hate you all, I hate the fact that I have to be here.’ And I do become actually slightly quietly insane. I hate it so much. It makes me want to just cry with depression that we’ve got this bad. It’s really, really tragic. I went into Homebase at the weekend and actually thought I was going to kill myself.”
Things have got steadily worse in the last 15 years, she thinks, with the growth of supermarkets and the advent of “fast fashion”. Her children’s generation has never even seen service culture, “so when they get ignored in shops they just accept it”. But the flipside, presumably, is that her children can afford to buy things her generation never could. Who needs some obsequious old sales assistant, if getting rid of him makes everything more affordable?
“Hah! That’s their clever argument, and people have believed it. But look at Primark – £730m profit this year, 52% up on the year before. £730m profit! Why don’t they put some of that money into making the shopping experience better? I went to the Nottingham store undercover, and there must have been 40 or 50 people in different queues on every single level, clothes on the floor, fitting room queues. And it wasn’t the staff’s fault, I just saw them running around and thought, who’s looking after you? Who’s training you, developing you? And in the end I felt really sorry for them. I just looked at all these kids – bright Saturday kids, running around, out of breath, just sticking stock out, throwing it out on to the shop floors. These stores have told the consumer it’s cheap, therefore this is what you have to accept. But their profits are those of the big luxury brands.”
Who could disagree? Before long we’re having a lovely time bonding over the horrors of modern shopping. But I still wonder if there’s something slightly unseemly about caring quite so much about shopping, which can’t be that important. We’re only talking about buying stuff, half the time from people earning the minimum wage – so really, does it matter if they ignore you?
“I do think there is an element of that,” agrees Portas, “and sometimes when I’ve had bad service I think, I’m not going to complain cos this is someone’s job. I just think, get over yourself. But what I can’t accept is that these businesses are making a fortune – and we’re paying them our money and keeping this whole thing going – and I feel embarrassed for my country. I actually do. This is my industry, I’ve been in retail all my life, I’ve made my name in this. John Lewis makes me proud to be British – so why can’t we have more of that? It just needs someone highlighting it, and if I can do that,” she says, by now practically evangelical, “then at least that’s a step forward, isn’t it?”
That rather depends on whether reality TV can ever actually change anything. It’s great fun to watch, but there is a view that the only culture it’s ever really changed is our appetite for public cruelty and humiliation.
“But I don’t work in that way,” she says quickly. Well, I think, up to a point. In one episode of Mary Queen of Shops she tells a pair of homeware store owners: “It’s a real shame this shop is so awful. It’s like a dirty old swingers’ party, isn’t it? I don’t mean to be cruel but it’s pathetically bad.”
“I can be very direct,” she concedes, “and sometimes I come across as horrible in the edit, but what they haven’t shown is the back story. There have been times when people have written that I’ve been harsh, and I really don’t like that.” Well, yes, I agree, people do say you’re one tough bitch. “I know!” she exclaims indignantly. “And I don’t like that. I don’t like that at all.”
Like most women with such a reputation, Portas is, inevitably, more complicated than her spiky caricature. The fourth of five children to Irish immigrant parents, she was 16 and heading for Rada when her mother suddenly died of meningitis. Her father went to pieces, leaving Portas to look after her younger brother, abandoning any idea of becoming an actor. Eighteen months later her father went off to live with a new girlfriend – but two years later he too suddenly died, at which point her stepmother threw her out of the family house and sold it, leaving Portas homeless. “It was catastrophic. From about 16 to 21 were really seriously black years.”
Portas is now 50, but her mother’s death remains the defining event of her life. “Yes, I do think so. Oh God, one could go on for ever about the psychoanalysis of losing one’s parents, but I do think I was put in charge, and I learned that if I did this, this and this, then I could protect my world. I protected my world, I did protect my world.” She has a habit of repeating herself once she’s found the right phrase, making her sound rather vehement. “I think I worked harder, cos I thought if I lose this, I lose everything – and I’ve been there with nothing, and so you work that bit harder. I never had that, ‘Ooh well, I’ll just go home to mum.’ I know the worst place I can fall to, cos I’ve been there, and I’ll never fall that low again.”
Portas studied visual display and in 1982 joined Harrods as a window dresser, before moving on to Topshop, and then Harvey Nichols in 1990, where she made her name by transforming it into an edgy fashion emporium and persuading Jennifer Saunders to namecheck it shamelessly in Absolutely Fabulous. In 1997 she left to set up Yellowdoor, a retail consultancy whose clients include Oasis, Westfield and Clinique, but there remains more than a touch of Patsy and Edina about her manner – hyperbolically emphatic, indefatigable, with a hint of acid camp – and it’s a wonder she never appeared as herself on the show.
It’s no surprise she was snapped up for telly as soon as she appeared as a guest on Richard and Judy six years ago, for she is reality TV gold, which perhaps explains why she says her new career hasn’t changed her life all that much. She is only being herself, after all. The bigger change came when her 13-year marriage ended and she took up with Melanie Rickey, fashion editor-at-large for Grazia, whom she married earlier this year. They make a sensationally glamorous couple, and she is keen to stress that that they all get along famously – her ex-husband, her teenage son and daughter – but sounds slightly pricklier when I ask whether she’d say she was a straight woman who fell in love with another woman, or a lesbian who met Melanie.
“Errrr . . . when you look at female sexuality it’s very different. Lots of women have been in love with men and then women and vice versa, it’s just not so defined and I couldn’t explain it in black and white. Have I loved men? Yes. Have I loved more than one woman? No. But did I know that I’d had crushes on men and women in the past? Yes. So it was never like, oooh! But was I happy in my heterosexual relationships? Yes. That’s the way it just happened. I certainly wasn’t a suppressed lesbian thinking, ‘God, I can’t wait to get out of this marriage’, cos that would be just awful, awful, awful. No, my ex-husband and I know what we had, and it was great, some of the best years of my life, really some of the best. We just grew apart, and that happens. And I happened to fall in love with a woman.”
I can sense the PR looking twitchy. Anxiety levels among Portas’s team do seem to be very high, and as staff culture usually comes from the top, I ask Portas if she’d say she was rather a controlling person. A very long, thoughtful pause follows. Then, “Oh God, it’s such a big word, isn’t it? Controlling. Am I a controlling person? Am I controlling? I don’t think I’m controlling, no, I don’t think I’m controlling. I like my life to be pretty organised and together, but I don’t know if that’s controlling, it’s just such a negative word. I’m not that controlling that I don’t let go. So I do let go. I must let go. I do let go. Am I controlling? Tell me, what do you mean by controlling?”
I don’t mean it in a pejorative sense necessarily, I say, slightly taken aback by the searching disquisition. “I think what you’re trying to say is,” she says with more characteristic certainty, “that I want to make sure the world’s all right. I take control – I do – but I don’t know if that’s controlling.”
I think it probably is. Whether it would have the same negative overtones were Portas a man, however, is another matter. She is fantastically impressive – tirelessly capable, focused, impervious to doubt – and what can look like diva-ish grandeur would probably pass for alpha drive in a businessman, so I don’t really know why I wince when she throws her weight about. She is great company, and hilariously candid; when I ask if she’d ever dream of appearing on a show like her own, and let an expert publicly dissect her mistakes, she looks at me as if I’m mad. “God, no, of course not! No. No. No!”
So are retailers brave or foolish to submit to her scrutiny for our entertainment? “I don’t think they’re foolish. Most people’s lives can be pretty formulaic and mundane and this is a big happening, it gives them an energy and a new dimension. But you must be very careful not to abuse that.” Do other shows abuse it? “Yes. Reality TV has become what the customer wants.”
She’s quite right, of course, but there’s an obvious comic irony in hearing Portas lament that television is giving customers what they want. I ask if she sees anything unedifying in the discovery that what the customer really wants is to watch bossy people shouting at stupid people, and she throws me a look so sharp I have to laugh.
“Am I a bossy person shouting at stupid people?”
Mary Portas: Secret Shopper begins on Wednesday 19 January at 9pm on Channel 4.
guardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010