Interview: Mary Portas: Queen of the High Street

Mary Portas is known for her televised takes on revamping Britain’s retail sector. The former Harvey Nichols creative director is now purveying her latest, Government-backed, offering – Mary: Queen of the High Street, discovers Shereen Low

Mary Portas started off as a Saturday girl in John Lewis. Picture: Contributed
Mary Portas started off as a Saturday girl in John Lewis. Picture: Contributed

MARY PORTAS often gets stopped by people on the street. A quick “Hi” is quite common, as is a chat about her projects. Then there are the discussions about underwear – something of a new development. “Most people will say ‘Hello’ or ‘Good luck’,” says retail expert Portas. “They also shout, ‘I’ve got your knickers on Mary!”’

The knickers are a reference to Portas’s underwear range – Kinky Knickers – created last year on her show Mary’s Bottom Line, where she attempted to “resurrect the UK manufacturing industry” by increasing production at home.

Briefs sorted, Portas is moving on – if not to pastures new, then to old pastures about which she is passionate.

Mary: Queen of the High Street follows in the footfall of her previous programmes in which she dished out frank advice to resistant retailers in the hope of changing their fortunes.

This time, the cameras will be tracking Portas as she attempts to revive ailing high streets as part of her “Portas Pilot” scheme. Portas was commissioned by the Government to recommend improvements to high streets, with towns making their case in the hope of securing a Government grant and support from Portas’s team.

The three-part series will focus on two of the winning towns (Margate, Kent, and Liskeard, Cornwall) and another location – Roman Road in east London.

“This is a problem everywhere so I wanted to try to give some hope and inspiration to any town really,” says Portas, 52. “What was interesting about Roman Road was that here was an area of London that had the Olympics and they were too embarrassed to even put it on the map.

“I just couldn’t believe that it couldn’t have a successful market, so I thought it would be an interesting one.”

Portas’s experience in the field is wide-ranging. Starting off as a Saturday girl in John Lewis, she rose to become creative director at Harvey Nichols.

A weekly shopping column in a newspaper followed, as did her brand-consultancy business and first television series, Mary Queen of Shops, in 2007.

Despite being immersed in retail, Portas still enjoys shopping, often taking her children from her first marriage with her. Teenage son Mylo is a willing partner, but daughter Verity is less keen.

“Interestingly, my son really likes it but my daughter doesn’t shop with me,” says Portas, who recently became a mother for the third time, to a baby boy, Horatio, with civil partner Melanie Rickey. “Mylo loves my knowledge on stuff. And people are very sweet and look after us well.”

But what about those people who expect to find her frightening? The shop assistants who fear her disapproval? Portas has, after all, garnered quite a reputation for being ever so slightly fierce.

“Am I terrifying?” she demands to know, when asked whether people are ever scared of her.

Determined is more like it. She can be passionate, offering effusive praise for her local butcher and Pret A Manger alike. She expects good service in shops but is refreshingly supportive of sales assistants, saying: “I’m really the one to overcongratulate good service.”

The forthrightness that has been at the heart of her success with unyielding councils and pen-pushing managers comes to the fore when she is asked if she is doing the new programme to carve a TV niche for herself.

“TV niche? I’ve been doing this for years,” she replies. “Do I need this? It would be much easier if I was doing a few shops, walking up and down the high street.

“I said we can’t have me going across the country and doing another TV programme, this has to be real.

“I wanted this documented, I wanted people to look at towns [on the programme] and say, ‘You know what, maybe we should try a bit of that’. I wanted people that are down on their heels – including market towns – to go, ‘God, that’s an idea’.

“I cannot tell you the number of people I see that say, ‘I saw your show and I have to tell you I copied your idea’ and ‘I’ve got this business and it really meant a lot to me’, and that’s what this is about.”

Portas says she wants to empower local shop owners, bring back markets and improve the overall “high street experience” so that consumers will be lured away from internet shopping. Most people have welcomed her ideas, but there were a few naysayers along the way.

“You always get a mix. You get 90 per cent of people going, ‘Brilliant, let’s make a change’ and then you get 10 per cent who moan and moan and moan – and that’s who the press write about.

“Most people go, ‘Thank God. We live here, this is important to us’. In Liskeard, Cornwall, there’s this beautiful street, just stunning, you could tell if it got painted it would be a lovely place where people would just want to hang.

“So I was like, ‘Let’s get the town out, get everybody involved to clean up’. I got all the businesses from Lloyds TSB, HSBC, the Co-op – everyone came out, the Cubs, the Brownies, the police. It was amazing.

“I remember it was pretty cold, and this woman was sitting outside a coffee shop with a man and I went, ‘Isn’t it a great day?’ And she said, ‘No, you’re in our way!’ And I just went, ‘Oh my God, why did I pick the one nutter!”’