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Mr Nice Guy's return

Mr Nice Guy's returnIt was not the sort of bed you could ignore. It wore eight contrasting cushions, two bolsters, a gold brocade cover, gold canopy, swags, tails, tassels and tiebacks. Caligula’s personal party-planners could not have improved on its lavishness. I looked at it for a long time, because it seemed difficult to imagine a greater collision of image than occurred between this absurd extravaganza of drapery and its current user: the man whose voice I could hear murmuring in the adjacent sitting room of this opulent London hotel suite.

When Phil Collins eventually opens the bedroom door (a sentence several million lovelorn suburban women of that certain age would have pledged their vodka and Kleenex ration to write) he is wearing crumpled cargo pants and a baggy sludge-green jumper which do not entirely disguise a fit-looking, compact body. At 51 his face is barely lined, and though his hair is galloping towards twin exits at the rear of his scalp, piercing blue eyes and an easy grin lend him a timeless affability which only a brace of ex-wives would instantly challenge.

Collins is in the UK to publicise his new album, Testimony, a task which naturally involves a brisk canter through the bristling terrain of his 30-year music and acting career. If we did nothing more than revisit the Genesis years, the hit singles and albums, the Grammys and Oscar nominations (plus the Oscar itself) the stage beginnings, the film roles, film themes, jazz and charity ventures ... our allotted interview time would vanish. For this is one packed CV: a spot-lit life so weighed down with success that a recent profile writer felt obliged to highlight a year of comparative struggle which beset Collins at the ripe old age of 18. He shakes his head in amused disbelief. "I’ve never really been struggling for success," he begins, "because I never really thought about it. All I ever wanted to be able to do was earn a living playing the drums. That’s all. So my only ambition was to be respected by other musicians.

"I remember when I was 17 and appearing in Oliver getting to know all the guys in the orchestra pit and coming home on the train with some of them and thinking, ‘my life’s going to be like this: if I’m lucky, I’ll get into a pop group, and when that wears off, I’ll join the Ray McVeigh show band, and then I’ll end my days in the orchestra pit’. That’s how ambitious I was!"

It seems his parents held stronger stage ambitious for their youngest child. His mother worked for a theatrical agency, and his father was an insurance broker in the City, but they were members of Richmond Yacht Club - "a grand name for a small boat club", Collins explains, and every Saturday night there was a club social, where absolutely everybody got up and performed. "I was always encouraged to go on stage" he recalls, "so in a way my parents seemed very free and easy. Yet my Dad was insistent that my brother Clive went into Sun Alliance, like him. My sister Carole followed. But I escaped, and I’ve often thought Dad rather liked that. At the time I thought I was letting him down. But I found out from my brother quite recently - something I’d never known- that my father had actually run away to sea, and his father brought him back, because he was a big nob in Sun Alliance. So he made my father do the same, and for 40 years he did. It’s odd, you think of your father one way for 50 years, then find out suddenly that he wasn’t like that at all. He was a romantic …"

Collins gazes into the distance. "I suppose we keep finding things out about other people, just the way we keep finding things out about ourselves …" Which sounds as if it could be the first line of one of his songs. For he has never made any pretence that his melancholy, fag-ends-of-love solo numbers were based on anything other than his own traumas and preoccupations. "I don’t write figuratively or metaphorically." So the major fissures in his emotional life are vividly traceable. Face Value, his first solo album, released in 1981, is the musical response to the disintegration of his first marriage to Andrea Bertorelli, mother of his two eldest children, Simon and Joeley. Collins returned from a Genesis tour to discover she had run off with the painter and decorator who had been working on their home. He performed Something in the Air Tonight on Top of the Pops with a can of paint and a paintbrush alongside him. Andrea responded by making a (failed) bid for a share of the album’s royalties, arguing that she had inspired all the songs.

The initial stability of his second marriage to American Jill Tavelman allowed the next two solo albums, No Jacket Required and But Seriously, to focus on wider concerns, including homelessness, the subject of the hit single Another Day in Paradise which, to Collins’s pained surprise, earned him accusations of hypocrisy. The critics apparently mistrusted someone who earned several million a year singing about poverty, though why this should be any less acceptable than the multi-millionaire John Lennon pleading "imagine no possessions" is curious, and in Collins’s own words, "frustrating".

So it is the moody, introspective flip side of love with which he is most associated, never bleaker or more nostalgic than on his 1993 solo compilation, Both Sides, which, with 20-20 hindsight, his then wife Jill might have realised was a warning that the end was nigh.

It concerned the anguish of a re-encounter with an old flame, "a bridge that could not be burned". At the time, he said to the press: "Jill has let me do this. She knows I can’t write about anything I don’t feel. And she also knows our marriage is rock-steady."

For a few months more, at any rate. During the tour to publicise the album, Collins met 22-year-old Orianne Cevey, his present wife, in Lausanne when she was assigned to him as PA and interpreter. And that was the beginning of a whole new chapter.

Not just musically (though a final severance was made with Genesis in 1996) but in terms of the ubiquitous Phil Collins myth, the "Mr Nice Guy" who had helped us make it through the night.

"The whole Nice Guy thing really started with my mother," he says. "It was back in the height of everything, in the mid-1980s, when I was never anywhere other than in your face. One newspaper had gone to interview my Mum, and they said, ‘You know, there’s all this Prince’s Trust stuff, there’s Band Aid and Live Aid, all the good works … so what is it that annoys you most about Phil? What does he do that really irritates you?’ And my Mum, bless her, said, ‘I can’t think of anything. He’s always been a very nice boy …’ And that was it. It was ‘No-faults-Mr Nice-Guy’ ever after."

Well, all the way to 1994 and Switzerland, when the press revealed his new romance, and a fax from Collins to wife Jill was reproduced on the front page of the Sun. Was there perhaps some relief at finally having attained a measure of "mad, bad and dangerous to know status" I wondered? Collins frowns.

"I can’t say it pleased me. The big issues - um, including the fax - were complete misinterpretations. I didn’t do that. I couldn’t do that …" He is choosing his words very carefully now. "That fax was way down the line, you see. It only concerned access to Lily. It wasn’t the first announcement. I mean … faxes were written because phones kept going down, kept going down … but this was nothing to do with the divorce, it was way after …"

He sighs. "Every day got a little worse. It’s the most unpleasant, difficult, heart-rending thing, splitting up, even if you’re the person who wants to leave, and to have all that stuff enlarged and exaggerated in the press can be really intolerable. I mean I know I’m public property, but I had a four-and-a-half-year-old daughter, and they were camped outside her school. One day I went to pick her up, and I thought: they’re going to stone me or burn me at the stake. And I went to Lily’s teacher and said: ‘I’m really sorry about all this,’ and she said: ‘All what?’ And I said, ‘You know, all the stuff in the papers’ And she said: ‘I don’t know anything about it. I read the Independent.’"

There was further furore when Collins announced in 1996 that he was staying in Switzerland permanently. Not, he insists, for tax reasons, or because a Labour government seemed imminent, as most commentators had concluded. Only because he had fallen in love. "I can work anywhere; so, if she lived in Grimsby, that’s where I’d be."

Grimsby of course would not offer him Jackie Stewart’s former house, a splendid view of Mont Blanc on one side, Lake Geneva on the other; the tennis court and swimming pool could no doubt be built, but there would be no vineyards and very little skiing. For the Mark II Phil Collins has managed to curtail the workaholic tendencies which undermined his first two marriages. At least a little bit.

"I’m still the same man, but living here has enlightened me as to what I might have been missing - or what I should have had more of in terms of quality of life. But who knows? I might have discovered that it’s nice to take breaks and relax a bit, even if I’d stayed in England. But Switzerland is a lovely place to come home to. I enjoy what I have: sitting by the pool; going out in my little boat. I used to find that sort of thing strange. Now I understand."

But this is no semi-retirement. To say Collins "stays challenged" is an understatement. His involvement with Disney, which began in 1999 with the songs he wrote for the Tarzan movie (for which he won an Oscar) has gone from strength to strength. He is doing the score for Tarzan 2, which will be followed by a stage show, Tarzan: the Musical.

"I suppose as one gets older there are some things you want to do less," he says, referring to his decision to stop touring owing to a serious ear infection which blighted almost 50 per cent of his hearing on one side. "Film music is an avenue that I’d been trying to get into, but it didn’t happen for a long time. Why should anyone with a $90 million movie take a risk? But Disney were brave enough. Maybe it was the jungle and drums link that did it.

"But you’ve got to be a team player. Elton’s job in The Lion King was very different. He wrote the music for the songs, and then walked away. Tim Rice did the lyrics later, but Elton didn’t play on it; he didn’t sing on it. With Tarzan, they wanted something different, so they asked me to do both. I wasn’t sure I could do it, because I’d never done any comedy, but they said ‘try your best, and we’ll help if you need it’. And that worked for me. It was like being in a band again, throwing ideas around.

"There was no point in being a prima donna, saying ‘work your film round how I like to do things’. That’s where it went wrong for Sting. He did The Emperor’s New Groove, and they rewrote the whole thing, because he refused to; and in the end it was not a musical, which was an unhappy experience for him.

"I was lucky. I had a great team. I was easy to work with and I tried hard. I knew I was visiting this other world; their world. So I knew I needed guidance. And it went well. Not just with the Oscar, but the whole experience."

This is sounding alarmingly like a return to Mr Always-on-Time, the perfectionist. Maybe not the one who used to send written reprimands to musicians after concerts berating their on-stage errors, but certainly Mr Conscientious.

Is he the same man who is so famously ill at ease with his vast fortune? Who has an almost Calvinistic regard for the simple life?

"I’m not uncomfortable any more. Perhaps I used to be. I know I get paid ridiculous sums. Occasionally I’ll do something, accept a commission and think: what am I doing this for? I’ve got more money that I could possibly spend, even if I started spending it stupidly now … But I do give away a lot of money. My secretary deals with hundreds of letters a month."

And, if you scatter your bread upon the waters … it sometimes comes back in the form of a big contract, as Collins discovered recently when he teamed up with TDK during his Dance into the Light tour (the telling title of his first album after meeting Orianne).

"We filmed the rehearsals of the tour, put them on TDK tape, and sold the tapes at the gigs for a tenner, all of which went to homeless shelters. Then Toyota approached us and said they had a programme of building inner-city social centres all over Europe, and could I help promote that?"

Equally logical is Toyota’s choice of the Phil Collins version of Can’t Stop Loving You (from the new Testimony album) to be used in their forthcoming global ad campaign.

Everything nicely dove-tailed. Reassuring and reciprocal. Rather like his brand-new life.

© The Scotsman, by Gillian Glover

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