Back in the dim and distant 1990s, rubbish recycler to the stars Benjamin ‘the binman’ Pell was living proof that grime really does pay. A modern-day Uncle Bulgaria, making good use of things that he found, Pell built a reputation on rifling though celebrity bins and selling their secrets to the press.
From Richard Branson’s lottery balls-up with Camelot (remember that?) to Elton John spending twice the gross national product of Puerto Rico on silly specs, the binman’s was behind more cool late 20th century scoops than Baskin Robbins.
And with more than five million documents filled away in his bedroom, including 75 bags on Sir Elton alone, Fleet Street’s finest had good cause to spend five years camped permanently outside his front door.
In 1999, The Sunday Times lined Pell’s pockets to the tune of £3,375 for three scoops on Jonathan Aitken, Princess Diana’s ex-squeeze James Hewitt and alleged ballot rigging in East London. It was Pell who leaked a hush-hush government memo warning the prime minister that he was hopelessly “out of touch” and compelled pop group All Saints to issue an injunction blocking the sale of a discarded memo detailing a shocking meeting with their record label.
And so petrified was the Football League of “unscrupulous individuals” fishing through their bins during its recent contract clash with Carlton and Granada that it issued a memo urging staff to hide documents and tidy desks.
“I’m the best thing to happen to British newspapers for 200 years,” the superstar scavenger told me at the time. “Dumping sensitive documents is a criminal offence in 43 American states, but in this country it’s almost compulsory! It’s celebrities I feel sorry for, not lawyers. Ask Victoria Beckham how she’d feel if her lawyer left private papers on the street. If you’re a lawyer, paid a fortune by somebody like David Beckham to get his latest Adidas contract sorted out and you’re stupid enough to throw away major documents, you deserve everything you get.”
Pell may have long chucked his life of infamy away for a media, which began as a television show host, but his glorious litter legacy lives on.
Ask the police, law courts, newspaper editors, celebrity agents, PR firms and of course Reg Dwight, and they’ll paint Pell as a unscrupulous shark feeding off the flesh of the great and the good.
Ask the man himself (and paper shredder manufacturers), and they’ll gladly lay claim to him being a social leveller, on a one-man Blues Brothers-like mission to uncover the negligent nature of modern society.
You had to admire his commitment to the cause. Bringing new meaning to the term “gutter press”, the now 48-year-old qualified solicitor, who suffers from an obsessive-compulsive disorder, stalked London’s streets every morning to rummage through the refuse of law and accountancy firms. “I’d leave home at 8am to catch the early bins in the West End, which are collected by the council at 9am. I’d grab around 100 bags a day, photocopy anything of interest and file the original away safely. Nothing has ever been chucked out, so if lawyers deny the information came from their rubbish, the public can decide.”
So why did rubbish become his raison d’ětre? “When I worked in the property business I searched estate agents’ bins. Then one day, soon after Princess Diana died, I found a letter from Richard Branson asking if Elton John’s Candle In The Wind tribute could feature on a Virgin Christmas record. Elton’s manager John Reid told him to get lost and the story ended up across the first five pages of The Daily Mirror. So I guess Elton helped create the Pell monster.
“Then I found an amazing story about All Saints and their record label, then another about the Spice Girls, and it just grew from there. I had Ali G’s movie script in my hands two years before it was released. If Sacha had taken my advice, he never would have made it.
“I knew more about the Spice Girls than their agency did! I could have rung the girls up on a Monday morning and told them where they were going that week. It was absolutely outrageous. Home addresses and mobile phone numbers were my favourite things to collect. Imagine the sort of fun I could have had pursuing these people if I were a detective. Maybe I should have been – it’s certainly more lucrative.”
With a career that involved treading a legal tightrope, you’d think Benji’s court appearance record would have rivalled Lindsay Lohan’s. Not so.
“That’s a myth,” he told me. “I was only summonsed three times. In November 1999, I was convicted and changed £20. But at the very height of my powers I was driving around London in an untaxed, uninsured car with three bald tyres and nine points on my licence, so getting in hot water over a few rubbish bags was the least of my worries.”
In fact, the legal ball was firmly in the binman’s court last year when he won his case against businessman John Mappin, who pledged to turn his story into a Hollywood blockbuster for the princely sum of £79,000.
“He was a conman, claiming he owned a castle,” Pell recalls. “I sussed him after six months when he asked me for another £40,000. Eighteen months later he finally admitted that he’d lied in court, but because we live in Britain that didn’t seem to matter to the judge. It appears you have to be a Conservative MP to get done for perjury in this country.”
Not that Pell need agonise over litigious litter victims any more. Having ‘bin’ there and done that, he decided to hang up his black sack for good back in 2000. “The binman has retired,” Pell declared in the third person at the time. “So it’s time to clear up the lies about him. He wasn’t a grubby little snooper. He didn’t hand over the names of British Bloody Sunday soldiers to the IRA as one paper claimed in an outrageous libel. And one of the biggest lies about me is that I took rubbish from personal bins, but I only took bags left on public streets outside offices. I have never gone through a celebrity’s personal rubbish in my life. The public loved the binman because they agreed with him. It’s lawyers and journalists who hated him because they were jealous of all the amazing stories.”
But why would a superstar scavenger on a one-man mission decide to throw it all away? “The day Big Brother winner [now presenter] Brian Darling got the same agent as Ewan McGregor was the day I decided to retire. I have nothing but contempt for these people. If I was offered exclusives on them I just wouldn’t care. There are many more celebrities now than 10 years ago, but they are the diluted, Z-list sort who get their picture in the paper and then you never hear of them again.”
But isn’t the exposure enjoyed by H out of Steps and other even less endowed artists the inevitable result of having more television channels, movies, magazines, clubs, parties, websites… more of everything than ever before? “That’s an utter media myth,” Pell barked.
“There may be more celebrities around than ever before but there’s less worth watching. And when it comes to vacuous viewing, award shows are the worst. ITV1 runs them for two-and-a-half hours as they’re easy to produce and don’t cost much. Lowly celebs turn up, drink free booze, eat free food, clap inanely and the viewers are just sick of it.”
Pell had a curious role in the Jill Dando murder trial and Barry George’s failed appeal back in 2001. In fact, the day after finally hanging up his bin liner in February 2001, he attended George’s trial – and proceeded to crack the case while the police collectively scratched their helmets. “I solved the murder,” he announced at the time. “The police had all the evidence, but didn’t understand it. They announced that George was the killer at the pre-trial a week after the murder but they didn’t catch him, giving him more time to grow a beard and destroy evidence.
“Obvious clues left in George’s house were missed. He was a Freddie Mercury fanatic and loved to quote Queen lyrics and had a collection of books about committing the perfect murder. But the most glaring clue overlooked was that George’s neighbour said he looked just like the comedian Bob Mills. Put pictures of Mills and George, without his beard and moustache, together and they could be twins. This was genuine proof of identification, but the police never put it in front of a jury. It’s fascinating to get a case where the clues are all there but the police make mistake after mistake.”
Obsessed by the sleuth and nothing but the sleuth, Pell proceeded to trace George’s steps after the murder. “Within half-an-hour of leaving Dando’s door he was at a local advice centre asking staff to remember him. An innocent man would never have done that. The police said George wore different clothes at the advice centre so he must have gone home first, giving him a time alibi. They hadn’t worked out that you don’t need to go home to change, especially in Fulham where there’s a huge park where you can hide behind a tree.
“The police actually gave the murderer an alibi. I went to the park and found the very hiding place he’d used. He wore a wig and suit to murder Dando, then changed into a t-shirt and jeans before going to the advice centre. I love figuring stuff out, so maybe I could be a detective.”