Oscar Beuselinck: Media star's final act

Nick Gillies profiles the man who hogged the limelight as much as his clients. Nick Gillies is a freelance journalist.

Oscar Beuselinck, who died recently, was one of the great media lawyers of the century, with a career reaching as far back as the leading libel case Youssoupoff v MGM in 1934, and as far forward as the Maxwell debacle in 1991.

He had a scabrous tongue: “Come in my dear, and tell me who you’ve been ****ing” was his greeting to Penelope Mortimer when he handled her divorce from Rumpole-creator John Mortimer QC, back in the days of “judge’s discretion”. He also had a cynical view of legal practice: “I got articles because my firm, with its Jewish clients, wanted someone who looked Jewish without having to employ a Jew.” But he was a brilliant practising lawyer, and a fearsome negotiator with a superb eye for the weaknesses in a case.

The son of a Belgian sea-cook and an English mother, brought up in the inner London slums of Hoxton, and unable to take up a place at grammar school because his father was not British, he left school at 14 and went into law to make some extra money. He saw the messenger boys delivering case papers round chambers in the evening and became an outside clerk at one of the big music law firms of the day.

They encouraged him to take the exams to become a managing clerk and then a solicitor. It was while he was an outside clerk that he sat in on Princess Youssoupoff’s case, in which a film claimed that her husband had assassinated Rasputin because he had raped her.

War service intervened, part of it spent in Intelligence. This came in useful many years later when his firm acted for Carmen Proetta in the Death on the Rock libel actions, in which Proetta claimed the SAS shot members of the IRA in Gibraltar without warning. All of the newspapers immediately carried allegations that Proetta had been one of only 50 Gibraltarians who voted for re-unification with Spain. Beuselinck claimed that he realised at once that this information could only have come from intelligence sources and would be unverifiable, and successfully sued.

In these later days, however, Beuselinck had a huge ego, and the credit for the Death on the Rock case properly belongs to Philip Conway, one of the brilliant young things he reared (Keith Schilling is another).

But even Conway himself credits Beuselinck with fearsome negotiating strengths.

For example, at one meeting the lift doors opened onto a long corridor at the end of which was a meeting room in which their opponents could be seen. Beuselinck held the lift doors open and shouted “What’s your offer?” then “Don’t waste my time,” and pressed the button for the ground floor. When he got there the receptionist called out a better offer, and they went back up to a thoroughly conciliatory opposition.

After the war Beuselinck inherited the ruins of Wright Webb Syrett and built it up into the leading show-business practice of its time. At its height it was acting for half the shows in the West End. Beuselinck invested in many of them and drove around London in a Rolls Royce with a succession of tall and beautiful women: “I made a lot of money, but I spent it all on my ****.” Undoubtedly it was their genes that his offspring inherited (he is the father of the actor Paul Nicholas – real name also Oscar Beuselinck), for Beuselinck himself was short, fat and gloriously ugly.

Wright Webb Syrett later gained a leading reputation in libel work, notably after Private Eye became a client when it had been comprehensively stuffed by Beuselinck. It acted for more newspapers than any other firm, and when he retired Beuselinck went to work for Mirror Group Newspapers. That came to an end shortly after he refused to agree to the transfer of MGN’s London premises to another Maxwell company. Beuselinck always had guts. In a profession notorious for being mealy-mouthed, he publicly described one libel judge as a “wanker”, an opinion history has subsequently supported.

The last time I spoke to Oscar was just after the film Four Weddings and a Funeral had been released. The credits listed “Oscar Beuselinck” as third assistant director. Was this a new career move, I asked him? “Tea boy in 1933, trainee cameraman in 1994,” he mused. “What a life. No, that’s my grandson. He’s much better looking than I am, and much better-tempered, too.” But not as charismatic, Oscar, not as charismatic.