Tea with Simon Cowell, and why the Health Lottery is no bad thing

Simon Cowell asked me to go to tea with him this week. Actually that’s only partially true: more accurately, I was invited by a PR person to a rather civilised afternoon tea hosted by the TV talent guru and the media mogul Richard Desmond to celebrate the Health Lottery.

The lottery, which manages 51 society lotteries across Great Britain, has ruffled some sector feathers since it was set up in 2011, but it has also raised £50m for charities, CICs and other organisations working to combat health inequality. That’s good going: of course only a nasty cynic would point out that Desmond, who launched the game, had said it would raise £50m in year one alone.

Celebs galore

With brushed hair and top button fastened, I arrived at the buzzing Savoy Hotel, which was awash with celebrities (from people I semi-recognised off the telly through to Roger Daltrey); a smattering of MPs, including Vince Cable; 300 staff, volunteers and beneficiaries from 20 of the 1,300 charities the Health Lottery has given money to; and around 100 representatives of the retailers who sell tickets.

I managed to find a seat right at the back on a table of editors and medium-to-big-sized cheeses from Northern & Shell, Desmond’s company, who were comparing notes on what coverage the boss’ big bash was going to get in their organs the next day.

“We are on the way to raising hundreds of millions of pounds for community projects around the country,” Desmond told the crowd. It was rousing, feel-good stuff, drawing plenty of applause, but did stray into some more serious matters.

“I’ve never comes across a bad charity, and I’m sure neither have you,” he proclaimed (with charity malpractice so high on the media agenda, this was slightly puzzling). “I’m not here to score political points,” he continued, “but my only plea to politicians and policy-makers in this room is this: don’t make raising money for charities any more difficult than it is, it’s already difficult enough.” The next line was delivered with patriotic feeling: “We’re building something that will deliver for the British community” – he punched the lectern – “not the European, for years to come.”

The most famous man on TV

“And now I’d like to invite the most famous man from television up on stage,” Desmond concluded, “because that’s why everyone’s here: Jim Davidson!” Cowell was clearly not there yet (Davidson was more punctual).

When Cowell did turn up, I must say I was slightly disappointed to see him in a (very) open neck shirt, with no tie or jacket. The invite had stipulated ‘lounge suit’, but then it was a rather muggy day.

Taking the stage, Cowell’s first words were: “In case you don’t know, the final’s next Saturday.” As if Britain’s Got Talent didn’t get enough publicity.

The awards followed, with videos on the work of several Health Lottery-funded organisations shown on big screens, and their representatives asked to come up for a grab and grin with a trophy for the cameras. “It makes you proud to be British,” Cowell said.

And the winner is…

The organisations in question were local groups the LS14 Trust from Leeds, South Wales-based Ferndale Skate Park,  Hertfordshire’s The Number 1 Hatfield Community Resource Centre and Birmingham’s Junior Rock, while national charities The Conservation Volunteers and The Royal Voluntary Service took home some silverware for their respective work in North London and Ayrshire.

It was all genuinely moving and impressive: motivated volunteers doing really fantastic, meaningful things for deprived communities and groups. I’m not sure it reinforced my patriotism as Cowell suggested, but not far off. Some of the Northern & Shell people even stop playing on their phones.

The Health Lottery is clearly funding some fantastic work, and there’s nothing wrong with a philanthropist asking for a bit of congratulation now and again, is there?

I will however reserve the right to be a little bit of a cynic about the goodie bag, grateful though I was. The contents included a copy of three Northern & Shell mags (OK!, Star and new!), a mug boasting that the game had “raised over £38m”, and – rather inappropriately for something called the Health Lottery, I thought – six boxes of chocolate.