Reflecting on his life at the age of 76, Douglas Villiers tells me quite earnestly: “I don’t think I could have packed any more in,” writes Francine Wolfisz.
And having just finished reading It’s Only Rock ‘n’ Roll, the tantalising memoir of his unconventional life, I’m completely inclined to agree.
It’s difficult to categorise a man like Villiers, who has tried his hand – and generally succeeded – across a range of industries. As a businessman, he opened the first “discotechque” in London (and brought the word into common usage), as well as one of the first two casinos in England, made record-breaking property sales in London, and became a pioneering developer in the Bahamas and Cyprus.
But there’s also the artistic side – the Jewish entrepreneur spent ten years in Los Angeles trying to “make it” as a film producer and he has a proven talent for photography. His books, Next Year in Jerusalem and Carnival in Rio have both been bestsellers and in between property deals and extensive travelling, Villiers has even indulged in treasure-hunting, from his 100ft yacht in the Caribbean.
There’s probably very little in fact, that Villiers hasn’t tried at least once and in his own words, “I’ve had a unique life that I think ought to be documented.”
Not bad for the Jewish lad from Golders Green, who “started off with nothing”.
Born to a Jewish father, Louis, and a Welsh mother, Anne, who was a Baptist before converting, Villiers had a traditional Jewish upbringing. He was educated at Hasmonean High School, had summer holidays in Bournemouth and was immersed in a “totally Jewish environment” in his younger years.
He jokes however that whereas many Jewish families would discuss “classical music and philosophy, all I remember is plenty of talk about buying and selling and making profit.”
His father ran a small business selling rags off for cleaning cloths. All seemed well to the young Villiers, but then tragedy struck – when he was aged just 16, his father committed suicide.
“Like it would be for any young man, it was devastating,” recalls Villiers from the South of France, where he lives with his partner Theresa. “But I think in a way, losing my father and being responsible to look after my mother gave me the strength to get out and make it in the world. I was now in at the deep end.”
He managed to land his first job stacking shelves at Fortnum & Mason in London, before moving on to menswear retailers, including Cecil Gee.
Villiers, who is never short of an interesting anecdote, tells me that while working for one of these firms, he was sent to Germany to sell suits to American soldiers based there. Among them was Elvis Presley. Although the international star knocked back Villiers for some hand-tailored suits, this was by no means his last brush with celebrity.
As it turns out, one of his co-workers at Cecil Gee told Villiers that one day he would become an actor. Villiers scoffed at the idea. “I told him an actor was posh people with crisp accents, not a Jewish boy from the East End. I laughed at him”. But years later, Steven Berkoff is indeed an established name in the world of acting.
The name dropping does not stop there. During the 1980s Villiers moved to Los Angeles in the hope of getting into the film business. He tells me about his acquaintances with actors Michael Caine, Terence Stamp, Pierce Brosnan, Dudley Moore, Michael Brandon, as well as a host of directors including Orson Welles, Oliver Stone, Adrian Lyne – the list is endless.
His time as a producer however, was perhaps not as fruitful as his business dealings. Villiers tells me about the time he decided not to invest in Conan The Barbarian, which was going to star the relatively unknown Arnold Schwarzenegger, because: “I wanted to do something artistic! But of course, the thing to do is say ‘yes’ to everything – Michael Caine did that and now he’s a big star.”
Another “nearly” as he describes it, was the chance to invest in a film with David Putnam and Dodi Fayed, prior to his involvement with Princess Diana. “I was shown these photographs of runners and I thought, what a silly idea – but of course that turned out to be Chariots of Fire – another massive hit. I’d got it wrong again!”
There were however plenty of “right” decisions that Villiers made. “Let’s run through those,” he says jovially.
He opened La Discotechque, the first nightclub in London to only offer recorded music and which within a year or two of opening, lent its name to the general term for somewhere you go dancing. Villiers also opened one of the first two casinos in London after gambling became legal.
Another “smart move” was the purchase of the four-acre Kenstead Hall in Bishop’s Avenue, London, for £100,000. He subsequently sold it for £500,000 and the deal went into the Guinness Book of records. Today that property, which is owned by King Fadh of Saudi Arabia, is worth around £100million.
Villiers was also one of the first residential developers in the London Docklands and the first to sell developments in the Bahamas. Through some canny dealing, he was also able to purchase land in Cyprus with no money down – that same site that he bought for £1m would now go for somewhere between £50m and £100m.
Aside from business, Villiers has also shown an aptitude for his other passion in life – photography. His hardcover book, Next Year in Jerusalem, was a bestseller in the 1970s and he also worked as a photojournalist covering the Yom Kippur War in 1973, an experience he describes as “riveting, but frightening”.
Another project, Carnival in Rio, was equally successful and his images have recently gained a new audience, thanks to Made in Chelsea star and fashion designer Oliver Proudlock, who is the son of Villier’s ex-wife Lena and who has used the pictures for his T-shirt collection.
Villiers also has a son, Dan, and daughter, Charlotte, from his marriage to Lena, an adopted son, Nick, from his first wife Julie, and two sons, Sam and Jake, from his third marriage to Lucy. He is a “proud” grandfather to Charlotte’s children, Maddy and Jack.
Life certainly is busy for the multi-talented Villiers – and there’s certainly no hint of slowing down any time soon.
“Put my feet up?” he asks indignantly.
“No, I’m much too young for that! I’ve just done a little deal in Cannes and next week we are going off to drive through Croatia and Istanbul. You can only do that with money to pay for the fun times between.
“So for now, no thank you – I’m just going to keep on going and enjoy life.”
It’s Only Rock ‘n’ Roll: My Unconventional Life by Douglas Villiers is out now, published by Book Guild Publishing, priced £17.99