My Succession summers of excess with the Murdochs
Like most people I shall avidly watch Monday’s final episode of Succession, Jesse Armstrong’s satirical drama about media mogul Logan Roy and his scheming family, based on the life and times of Rupert Murdoch.
Unlike most people, though, I know the truth of it.
I don’t remember a time in my youth when the Murdoch family wasn’t in my life. The first time I met Rupert, his second wife Anna and their three children, Elisabeth, James and Lachlan (the inspirations for Logan’s children Shiv, Kendall and Roman) I must have been 12 or 13. Murdoch and my father, the late politician and writer Woodrow Wyatt, were close friends and it was hoped that I would get on with Elisabeth, who was the same age as me.
At the time, we had a picture-book house in Wiltshire, and one breezy spring day all the Murdochs were invited for lunch. I expected there to be something grand or forbidding about them, yet what struck me was the opposite: their seeming normality.
Power can be subtle and can come in different guises to the standard Hollywood depictions of it. Rupert had the sunny warmth of his Australian homeland. His charm was beguiling and he had an allure that crossed all frontiers, but unlike Logan Roy he was a prig about bad language and people’s morals. I never heard him once utter Logan’s notorious catchphrase ‘F*** off!’
Anna Murdoch was a chic, beautiful blonde with little resemblance to Harriet Walter’s brittle English aristocrat, Lady Caroline, who is Logan’s ex-wife. James and Lachlan were scrubbed and scrupulously polite. They called my father ‘Sir’
I don’t remember a time in my youth when the Murdoch family wasn’t in my life. The first time I met Rupert, his second wife Anna and their three children, Elisabeth, James and Lachlan (the inspirations for Logan’s children Shiv, Kendall and Roman) I must have been 12 or 13
Anna Murdoch was a chic, beautiful blonde with little resemblance to Harriet Walter’s brittle English aristocrat, Lady Caroline, who is Logan’s ex-wife.
James and Lachlan were scrubbed and scrupulously polite. They called my father ‘Sir’. Liz was vivacious and enviably fair, like her mother. There was a lot of laughter, and suddenly we were friends. We had roast lamb for lunch followed by apple fritters, and we children took bets on who could eat the largest number of piping hot sugared rings.
I remember it ended in hilarity with James, who managed to swallow 14, throwing up under a tree, to the barely disguised horror of our mothers. But it was the start of something; a golden ticket to the Succession world of Gatsby-esque villas in the South of France, private planes, uniformed chauffeurs, palatial penthouses, ranches, super-yachts and lavish parties groaning with champagne.
That summer we began a tradition of holidaying together. Rupert had rented a house on the French Riviera, by Saint-Jean-Cap-Ferrat.
It was perched on a cliff and all the rooms overlooked the crystalline sea. There was a private beach and jetty, with boats at our disposal.
I learned that, like the Roys, the Murdochs were jealous of their privacy. One could hardly blame them. In 1969, there had been a kidnap attempt on Anna. The perpetrators abducted the wrong woman, whose body has never been found. No wonder the Murdochs were nervous. We children stayed on the villa’s grounds and if we went into town it was with a driver.
It is strange how quickly the young become used to such things. I could not help but be covetous of the life I was being introduced to, and comparing it with my comfortably off but unglamorous existence, without chauffeurs and the pick of Riviera properties.
In its never-ending parade of luxuries, Succession is incredibly true to life but it is also poignant and insightful. To my mind, it is the most terrifyingly cautionary tale ever brought to screen, for it also vividly illuminates what that sort of money, privilege and pressure does to people.
Along with the old trope that money destroys the human soul (unless, of course, it is in the hands of someone Left wing!), Succession is a dark, comedic diatribe against untrammelled capitalism and the impure appetites it inspires.
Brian Cox’s Logan is the rage of Caliban seeing his own reflection in the mirror. He is at once angry and tragic, while Shiv, Kendall and Roman, as well as their older half-sibling Connor (inspired by Prudence Murdoch, Rupert’s daughter from his first marriage) are fractured beings.
They cannot break away from the cycle of competition and heartbreak. They cannot live as the rest of us do while walking among us, which makes them like the undead. Viewers who think the Roy children are monsters don’t get it. They can’t be happy in that world. But they can’t live outside it, either.
Although Liz, Lachlan and James seem to have side-stepped most of the major pitfalls of rampant ambition, even then I noticed how the children were fiercely competitive. Sometimes, when we played tennis or ping-pong, which I was very good at, you thought the future of the world was at stake.
Like most people I shall avidly watch Monday’s final episode of Succession, Jesse Armstrong’s satirical drama about media mogul Logan Roy and his scheming family, based on the life and times of Rupert Murdoch
Although Liz, Lachlan and James seem to have side-stepped most of the major pitfalls of rampant ambition, even then I noticed how the children were fiercely competitive
This wasn’t Rupert’s fault. Some disagree, but I don’t believe he ever deliberately set his offspring against each other. He was so magnetic you just yearned for his approval. Shiv says at Logan’s funeral that they used to play outside their father’s office, but were continually told to be quiet. On the rare occasions their father let them in, it was like bathing in sunlight.
Rupert never shut his children out, but he was a Sun King. He had a puissance that I had never known before. Does that amount of money corrupt? It’s hard to say.
My father had other friends who were wealthy, though not nearly as wealthy as the Murdochs, and some were utterly degenerate.
One summer, when Liz and I were 15, she came to stay with us in Italy. My father had rented a small house that belonged to his friend Tony Lambton, an aristocrat and former minister who had been involved in a Tory sex scandal in the 1970s and was living in exile with his mistress. Ironically, Villa Cetinale, where Tony lived in Renaissance splendour and where we spent many evenings, featured in the final two episodes of the penultimate series. Harriet Walter’s Lady Caroline rents it for her sumptuous nuptials to entrepreneur Peter Munion.
It contained priceless frescoes and paintings, yet the rooms were always dark and forbidding. It was supposed to be haunted. One night I heard a woman screaming and was told it was the ghost of a woman who was murdered in her sleep by an old cardinal.
I preferred it when we stayed with the Murdochs. They had a penthouse in New York, overlooking Central Park; a large country house in New York State, with swimming pools and stables; and a luxe property in Aspen, Colorado, which we called the Citizen Kane House. It had rooms linked by Venetian-style bridges over running water and one of the drawing rooms contained an enormous swimming pool.
Like the Roys, the Murdochs used private jets like taxis. We crisscrossed America in their delicious plushness. There is nothing like a private plane. You get addicted to them more quickly than to any drug. It’s like the difference between vintage champagne and cheap prosecco. Once you feel the leather seats, the beds, the absence of airport hassle, you never want to fly commercial again.
It’s the same with holidays. The super-rich don’t stay in hotels or resorts — even the best ones. They buy large houses in beautiful places or rent them for months on end. That summer in New York State, the Murdochs gave a party in our honour, a dance to which 100 guests were invited. It was black tie, and marquees and a dance floor were erected.
Liz and I were secret smokers, and I used to sidle off the floor to have a cigarette by a picket fence.
Rupert caught me, but I blessed him for not telling my parents. Nor did he grass on me when I rashly kissed one of my dancing partners. The most ordinary thing about this extraordinary man was his geniality, a trait less in evidence in his fictional alter ego, Logan.
Rupert was approachable and a good sport. He wanted his children to have as ‘normal’ an upbringing as possible, so we did normal things like have picnics — even if there was a private plane on standby to take us home again.
The boys would haul coolers full of drinks and steaks into Range Rovers and in the evenings we’d huddle in blankets around fires we made ourselves. On one occasion we went hungry as Lachlan had laid all our steaks on a rock and mountain dogs had carried them off with triumphant howls.
Another time, Rupert took us white-water rafting and we queued for our shared raft with other members of the public.
‘Hi, I’m Rupert,’ the world’s most powerful media mogul would say. He liked to talk to people. Like Logan Roy, he was on the side of the ordinary man, and wanted to know what he thought.
He was no snob and gongs held no appeal for him. He respected the people who bought his newspapers or watched his television channels.
Some of my favourite holidays were in New York City. Murdoch’s penthouse on Central Park was breathtaking. It shimmered in its glass mountain, reminding me of the F. Scott Fitzgerald story The Diamond As Big As The Ritz.
At night we went to the most fashionable restaurants, before Liz and I slipped away to go clubbing. I had never been clubbing before, and at one venue there was a rope which was only lifted when they recognised Miss Murdoch’s face.
I wasn’t used to spirits and became very drunk. At four in the morning I was throwing up. My parents were horrified. Rupert didn’t drink much, and had a terror of drugs. I never saw any of his children behave like the Roy offspring and snort cocaine.
One summer we went on Murdoch’s yacht. It was in Italy, berthed in a port near a house where we were staying. The yacht was state-of-the-art. We sailed to an island with Roman ruins for a moonlit dinner. The silent crew served champagne and endless amounts of caviar.
We listened to music and then sailed back sated and replete, drunk less on wine than on the loveliness of the shooting stars.
The Murdoch child who was never with us on holiday was Prudence, whom the makers of Succession turned into Connor, who has daft presidential ambitions. The two share surface similarities.
Rupert’s first marriage, to Prudence’s mother Patricia, foundered. Prue, who lives quietly and happily in Scotland, was about ten years older than the rest of us.
She lived in London and became fond of my father. She was idealistic but ambitious and hoped to become something big in her father’s empire. It never gelled and my father often had to manage her expectations.
I always thought Liz was very like Rupert, though in appearance she resembled Anna. Married to her third husband, British artist Keith Tyson, she lives mainly in London now.
All the children have enviable lifestyles. Like the Roys, they would find it hard to live in penury. They would struggle to ‘break away’ from money, and I don’t blame them.
There is a hectoring side to Succession that says wealth is evil and corrupting. It can be.
If you can buy anything you want, the temptations are great for the weak, and I have seen many children of my father’s richer friends become drug addicts or even criminals. It’s hard being a Roy, and it was hard being a Murdoch. The expectations are naturally great and come as much from the outside world as from the family.
As we all reached our late teens and early 20s, there would be speculation about the Murdoch child most likely to succeed him. It can’t have been a picnic, yet the children held themselves together.
Elisabeth has made an independent life for herself outside the family business and was awarded a CBE for services to the arts. James severed ties with the family business in 2020. Lachlan, who is co-chairman of News Corp and CEO of Fox, is now considered the de facto heir.
They are far more nuanced than the Roy children. Shiv, Kendall and Roman are tragic, displaced rich kids; caricatures of the real Murdoch siblings, at once less attractive and infinitely more damaged.
If I have a problem with Succession, it is its lazy ethos that capitalists like Logan and Rupert are motivated only by selfishness and cannot have real friends. This isn’t true of Rupert. When my father died in 1997, Rupert was one of the first to visit my mother and me to offer his condolences.
When I planned my father’s memorial service, I hoped Rupert would do a reading. The text I chose was the Parable of the Talents, the biblical endorsement of free enterprise. I never thought he would agree, but he did, and flew over from the U.S. to be there. He even held my mother’s hand.
The parable of Succession is very different. Jesse Armstrong appears to think the best thing for the Roy children would be for none of them to succeed to the throne, and there are rumours of deaths and derangement; all four finally eviscerated by all that money.
Last week’s penultimate episode saw Roman, who did a wobbly at his father’s funeral, hurling himself into a street protest. Shiv is up to her usual political machinations, but expecting Tom’s baby and in constant teardrop mode.
Kendall, who appears the most pulled together for now, seems the most logical heir, but perhaps he’ll throw it all up for a career in the priesthood.
Like the Roys, the Murdochs will never be normal in the way us poorer and less significant mortals are normal. It’s hard to re-plant rarefied orchids in the backyard of a council flat and expect them to thrive, yet they seem to have found a balance within the universe.
When I look back on those summer holidays, they take on a dream-like quality. I know I will never live like that again. Am I nostalgic? Hell, yes. I never pass a private plane without wishing I was in it.
When you’ve spent your youth in The Diamond As Big As The Ritz, it’s irksome to settle for paste.