My wife and I met in the modern way – that is, down the gym. In Bannatyne’s Health Club in Edinburgh, the Tuesday night bodypump class was highly popular with time-poor, city-centre workers prepared to invest £40 a month, minus Lycra costs, in their fitness and for long enough one of its rituals was having to troop past a giant image of the owner in reception. Yes, there were three of us in that courtship – myself, the future Mrs Smith plus a cardboard cutout Duncan Bannatyne, grinning unctuously and plugging his autobiography keenly.
Pretty soon we ditched Dunc and dated outwith the club. We didn’t buy the book and would later cancel our memberships but we never forgot him or the part he played in bringing us together. On the train to Darlington to meet him, I’m wondering: do I bring this up? After all, Bannatyne’s current story – one necessitating a whole other book – is of romance turned sour, a thoroughly broken marriage and, if you believe the screaming headlines, a £345 million divorce.
The train arrives with foreboding. Is this the very platform or was it across the tracks where Bannatyne, in the nadir of his despair, contemplated suicide by jumping in front of the non-stop express? He’d once been a passenger on a train which struck a jumper. He remembered the sickening thump and changed his mind. Now, after a short walk to Bannatyne House, past the 4x4 Mercedes bearing his initials in the plum parking-bay and up five flights in a speedy lift, I’m in his huge penthouse office, big enough for bodypump for most of his HQ staff, and he seems friendly enough or at least not quite as gruff as his TV persona, so I decide to tell him my story of how he played cardboard Cupid.
“Yeah?” he says in broad Clydebank. “And yooz are still together? That’s brilliant.” He chortles. “Maybe I should get up to Edinburgh, do something like that, to try and meet my next wife. It’s about time I had a Scottish one.” This makes it sound like he’s had a lot; in fact there have only been two. But while he and first wife, Gail Brodie, had what he calls a model divorce, the break-up with Joanne McCue has been “horrendous”.
It was in 2011 that McCue, after 18 years, five of them as his wife, and the mother of two of his six children, told the Dragons’ Den panto baddie: “I’m out.” She didn’t actually pinch his catchphrase from the BBC business wheeze reality show but the bombshell did arrive via text. He was in the car park at Pinewood Studios at the time, taking a break with fellow Dragon Peter Jones after another hard day being unimpressed by the tycoons of tomorrow. He’s still staggered by the “brutality” of the message.
Today Bannatyne is in his trademark pinstripes, that remarkably dark hair for a 64-year-old falling over his eyes the way it does on TV, like some jokily sinister count. But his shoes, I have to say, are quite scruffy. Mine are no better but then I’m not worth £85 million, his most recent rating on the Rich List. It used to be £430 million so you can see how the tabloids have used some rather crude arithmetic regarding the fallout from the divorce. Both Bannatyne and McCue are bound by a confidentiality agreement and so cannot discuss the financial settlement. But there’s a major business wobble to factor into the saga.
In 2006 Bannatyne wanted to expand his empire of hotels and health clubs by buying another 24 gyms. He borrowed £180 million from the Anglo Irish Bank, just before it went bust amid the big meltdown. While he continues to repay the loan he can’t expand. Before I arrived he was working on a letter, making the bank an “offer” in an attempt to get the loan off his back. He does his best to explain the situation to a business thicko and easily loses me. Although he’s someone who clearly enjoys making money, he claims the inability to grow the business isn’t frustrating him, and that his personal wellbeing and happiness are taking priority.
“I’m living day-to-day right now, just like everyone else,” he says. “But I’m on the up after all that’s happened and looking to the future. I’m spending a lot more time with my older children who I didn’t see so much of before because my second wife didn’t get on with them, as well as my younger children which is great, and I’m rediscovering the joys of the Lake District.” You imagine that to him “cutbacks” are relative; they’re not of the kind the rest of us are having to make. Nevertheless, after being forced to sell the luxurious villa on the French Riviera, he finds himself weekending in something considerably more modest at his old stamping-ground at Lake Windermere. “I’m mad for the wakeboarding,” he says. “You huvnae tried it? You should.”
New book Riding the Storm – “I could do with the money” is his rationale for it – describes a perfect storm of credit crunch and divorce and despite the publishers’ attempts to position the title in a section they call Business & Management, it’s the personal stuff we want to read, how the Dragons’ Den tough-nut broke down and cried over his failed marriage, how he glugged three bottles of wine a night to blot out the misery (“Expensive ones, eighty quid a pop”), and so on. He tries to be instructive for others as he wakeboards through the recession and maybe there’s advice on the personal front as well. “I wish I’d put a pre-nupital agreement in place,” he says. “My best man told me to do it but I thought it was unromantic. And my mother, who died earlier this year, warned that Joanne was only marrying me for one thing... ”
McCue, 17 years Bannatyne’s junior, was working as a nursing manager in one of his care homes in her native north-east of England when they met. “It’s obvious to me now that meeting my second wife was partly the cause of my first divorce,” he writes in the book. Despite this, he and Gail parted amicably. “Gail and I put the children first and she wasn’t overcome by greed or suspicion. She wanted us to buy the kids’ birthday and Christmas presents together because she’d seen other couples compete over the most expensive gifts. And when it came to handovers she told me: ‘I’m not having you staying outside and tooting the horn. You’ll always come in and have a cup of coffee.’”
The divorces couldn’t be more different. While the first, according to him, was quiet, civilised and private, Bannatyne exploded on Twitter when the second was finalised in January, telling his 600,000-plus followers: “Just received my Decree Absolute by email, isn’t that nice? #DivorcedForMoney by a #GoldDiggingFamily.” Bannatyne and McCue’s attitudes to money, he claims, couldn’t be more different. Although happy during the good times to lavish upwards of £80,000 annually on family holidays, the man who got started by buying an ice-cream van for £450 was generally careful with it. “My mother, when the tomato ketchup was running low, would fill the bottle with water and shoogle it to get the last drops. I still do that now.” He backs various charities, helping a Romanian orphanage and providing school meals in Malawi, and hates waste. There’s a reference in the book to shoes, how he doesn’t see the point in buying another pair just because he can. Are we to presume that McCue owns quite a few? “Oh God, yeah. She spent tens of thousands of pounds on clothes and I’m still finding more now. When I was closing down the villa there were kids’ things still with the tags on them. The shopping was ridiculous.”
They were happy once. “Joanne and I were very compatible, despite the fact that she’s 17 years younger than me ... I fell deeply and completely in love with her,” he writes. Then in 2005 came Dragons’ Den, the fame, more reasons to be in London and they drifted. McCue bought a house on a Co. Durham estate popular with Newcastle United footballers but Bannatyne purchased one just round the corner and suddenly they were “LATs –living apart together”. He reckons if they hadn’t tied the knot they’d still be a couple, though he was up for marriage. “I loved being married. I think it suited me. I was 57, I was successful, I was in love – it was absolutely the right thing to do.”
He was so stunned by the car-park divorce text that Peter Jones didn’t think he should be alone that night and offered to put him up. It’s quite an image, the one-time rivals and suffer-no-fools alpha males, who’d previously competed to be the most fire-breathing of the Dragons, sharing such a tender moment. “At first on the show Peter and I couldn’t stand each other,” he admits. “I suppose we saw each other as a threat. Now we’re really good friends with the ability, we realise now, to laugh at ourselves.” The show is spoofed mercilessly on the Harry & Paul comedy show and somewhat bizarrely Harry Enfield and Bannatyne used to be gym buddies, though the latter doesn’t reveal whether they swapped tips on how to combat headband rash.
He simply hadn’t seen the divorce coming. “If I had been unfaithful or abusive I would have understood,” he writes, “but I just didn’t know how my wife could have been thinking of something like this without me knowing. I thought about the lazy Sunday mornings in bed, the trips with the kids, the holidays in Barbados – suddenly every happy memory I had of our marriage was tainted. ”
McCue, though, has since broken cover and spoken of her frustrations in an interview. Bannatyne happily deals with each of the criticisms in turn, starting with the one that he was “controlling and aggressive”. “It was Joanne who was controlling,” he says. “She decided where we went on holiday, what I wore. I wasn’t allowed to wear anything she hadn’t chosen.” Again, a remarkable image presents itself: that of Bannatyne being ordered into a pair of beach shorts tailored for a younger man, and told to bin his favourite bobbly cardigan. “What I did try and control was the business. If I’d left it to Joanne it would have been ruined.”
Grumpy, cynical, pessimistic? “Yeah!” he answers to each charge. “Good Scottish traits! I don’t actually think I was grumpy. I was pessimistic compared to her but, I’d argue, more realistic.”
Addicted to rubbish telly? He guffaws. “I absolutely resent the total lie that I used to watch EastEnders. I haven’t seen it in ten years. Coronation Street I watched a bit but I never Sky-plussed it. But I am a bit of a Deal Or No Deal addict.” Presenter Noel Edmonds has become a friend who, like Peter Jones, helped him with legal advice during the divorce – he’s grateful to both.
Over-competitive at Monopoly, even in games with the children? “Yeah!” (I sense he’s enjoying this). “You can’t be over-competitive at Monopoly. I always play to win; there’s no point otherwise. You buy, then you sell for a higher price – that’s business. I try to teach my kids that. When Joanne kicked me out of the house one of the first things I did was buy another Monopoly board. I play with friends all the time. And the kids still play with me, so I can’t be too horrible.”
Then we come to the gripes relating to Bannatyne’s TV career, his fame and, dare we say it, his ego. He’s supposed to have got annoyed when she used to fall asleep during Dragons’ Den. “Ach, she was always falling asleep. When my MD got married I was best man. She was sound asleep at the table, snoring her head off, during my speech.”
The grumble that the show and its trappings kept him away from home? “It’s a pretend issue. I was at home every weekend. Over one Christmas I was on holiday for six weeks. And Joanne was welcome to come to the London flat. She found some of the do’s hard work but didn’t say no if it was Elton John’s White Tie and Tiara Ball.”
Didn’t he once fancy himself as an actor? “I was a bit bored with the business and did a summer school at RADA. It was Joanne who encouraged me to buy a part in Guy Ritchie’s film Revolver. I paid £7,000 and was on screen for about two seconds.”
McCue also complained: “There were three of us in our relationship: me, him and Twitter.” Bannatyne doesn’t deny he loves to tweet but points out that in most households on most nights at least one half of a couple is communing with cyberspace. “That’s what happens in a normal marriage, isn’t it? And anyway, Joanne says she’s divorced me because I spent too much time on Twitter – but given she was often asleep how does she know?”
I checked his tweets before our chat. On a train journey back from London he was moaning about the new taxi rank at King’s Cross station (demanding, and getting, the names of the architects responsible), recommending a book called Guilty Wives – and posting a photo of himself with home-show presenter Julia Kendell which he captioned “Mmmm ... ” They’re just friends, he says, although she’s a “lovely girl”, there’s a mutual interest in water-sports and he’d like to see her again.
So is “Do you like wakeboarding? his chat-up line? “Yeah! The weekends at the Lakes are a big thing. Any new woman in my life would have to come out on the water with me and the kids. But I don’t know if there’s any who could put up with me. I don’t have a natural base right now, the business obviously needs attention, there’s the telly ... ” This sounds like a partial acknowledgement of what McCue viewed as problems; he disagrees. “I am who I am. She was happy for 14 years, very happy to get married, then two years later she engaged Fiona Shackleton [divorce lawyer to the Prince of Wales].”
Would he marry a third time? Not without a pre-nup, and probably not if there was such a big age difference. “I’m 64 now. I think I look fit but as soon as the arthritis comes along you don’t want to be out dancing til 3am. Joanne liked that sort of stuff but it wasn’t working for me.” In any event, that’s a question for another time. Right now he’s concentrating on looking after himself after a heart scare, on keeping up with the kids although his youngest daughter currently doesn’t want to see him – and of course there’s an empire to run.
A new health club, run by Joanne, has just opened down the road from his HQ. How’s it doing? “Terrible, I think. My son-in-law phoned the other night at what should have been its busiest time to tell me there were only four cars parked outside.”
Despite being surprised by the romantic and sentimental side he reveals in the book, I imagine that for Duncan Bannatyne business is very much business. In fact, I know this to be true. His Edinburgh gym was difficult to quit. The staff demanded an extra month’s fees, threatening court action if I didn’t pay. Yeah!” he rasps one last time. “That’s how we do it!”
• Riding The Storm is published by Random House, £18.99.