'Cool' accountant to the creative arts at the
heart of the John Birt BBC tax controversy
Barry Miles in The Guardian, 4 October 2007
In her memoir of 50 years in publishing, Stet, Diana Athill describes the disorganised life of the novelist Jean Rhys: "Jean's finances were, by a miracle, kept in order by an accountant recommended by Sonia [Orwell] on the grounds that he liked good writing and drank a lot." This was Michael Henshaw, the famously unorthodox London accountant who specialised in "difficult cases involving creative people", and who has died, aged 76.
Michael waged a one-man crusade against what he saw as the unfair treatment of artists and writers by tax inspectors. He insisted that the arts made a substantial contribution to the economy and, as far he was concerned, for a poet to go on a walking tour of the Lake District was just as valid a business expense as a visit to a factory by a businessman – a concept the Inland Revenue had trouble understanding. But many artists and writers were delighted to discover someone who appreciated what they were doing and was prepared to take on their financial problems, and his reputation quickly spread.
He is perhaps best known for having set up the unusual tax arrangements between the BBC and John (now Lord) Birt, its director-general from 1992 to 2000. Rather than pay Birt a salary, the corporation hired John Birt Productions Ltd, which gave him a tax advantage. The arrangements caused controversy when they were discovered in 1993, and there was further outrage when it emerged that Birt's company paid his wife two salaries, as a secretary and as a director, further reducing his tax bill. Though perfectly legal, the ploy infuriated the tabloids.
Michael's other media clients included television and film producers Ken Loach, Ken Trodd and Tony Garnett, theatre director Michael Bogdanov, broadcaster Humphrey Burton and actor Anthony Hopkins. Among his writers were David Mercer, David Hare, Fay Weldon, Alexander Trocchi, Simon Gray, Monty Python collectively, then Terry Jones and Michael Palin, as well as poets Ted Hughes, Basil Bunting, and even Allen Ginsberg when he was in Britain.
He looked after the finances of poetry publishers Fulcrum Press, sorted out William Burroughs' tax problems and also assisted Procol Harum. In the arts, he represented painters Tom Phillips, Ralph Steadman, Joe Tilson, Pauline Boty, Derek Boshier and Derek Jarman. At one point, he did the accounts for the controversial psychiatrist RD Laing, and in 1977 he subsidised the launch of Vole magazine by letting its founder and editor Richard Boston live rent-free in his basement.
21 July 2007: Gary Brooker amusingly name-checked
Michael Henshaw, among others, from the stage of St John's Smith
Square during BtP's 40th Anniversary Procol celebrations:
Michael was the "cool" accountant, zipping around
town in an open-topped sports car, living in a large house overlooking Regent's
Park, filled with books and art, his first-floor study dominated by a huge (and
extremely fashionable) Arco lamp made of marble and chrome, the epitome of
swinging London. In 1967, an Observer article on the counter-culture
described him as "the eminence grise of the underground".
Born in Derby, Michael attended the local Bemrose Grammar School and after national service with the Royal Rifle Corps, took the civil service exams. He joined the Inland Revenue as a tax inspector at Shepherd's Bush, west London. His teenage friend, John Dexter, had also moved to London, where he became a theatre director, and Michael began to informally handle Dexter's tax for him. Together, they frequented the Partisan coffee bar on Carlisle Street, Soho, where Dexter introduced Michael to playwright Arnold Wesker.
In 1960, the TUC passed resolution 42, a call to promote working-class theatre, and Wesker was given a £10,000 grant to set up Centre 42 to translate it into action. He asked Henshaw to become the organisation's administrator – and Michael, delighted to leave the Inland Revenue, leapt at the chance. Raymond Williams, Frank Cousins and Doris Lessing were all involved in Centre 42, but the day-to-day work was done by Wesker and Henshaw. Centre 42 acquired the Roundhouse in Chalk Farm Road, Camden, intending to convert it into an arts centre, and though that dream was never accomplished the organisation ran a series of successful arts festivals around the country.
In 1965, Michael set up a magazine company for myself and the underground activist John 'Hoppy' Hopkins. Within a year, this enterprise had evolved from poetry and spoken word records into International Times (IT), Europe's first underground newspaper, of which Michael was company secretary. Within a few issues we were raided, and Michael was obliged to root around the basement of West End Central police station, where all our files had been dumped, trying to find chequebooks and bank statements. A huge fundraising benefit called the 14-Hour Technicolour Dream was organised at Alexandra Palace. The event is now seen as the pinnacle of 60s London counter-cultural activity.
Michael was also the accountant for the Indica bookshop, in whose basement IT first [sic] started, and Indica gallery, where John Lennon first met Yoko Ono. When Jim Haynes started the Arts Lab in Covent Garden, Michael was, naturally, its accountant. "Who else would I have used?" said Haynes.
But things did not always go smoothly, and Michael's unorthodox approach sometimes caused mayhem. Many clients left, horrified at unexpected tax bills; others had problems getting their papers back – there seemed to be a black hole into which his files vanished. His method of dealing with the Revenue was a mixture of stonewalling, combined with the kind of personal confrontation that no tax inspector wants. He won a number of important concessions, but it was nerve-wracking for all involved. In spite of it all, at the time of his death he still had 100 or so loyal clients.
He is survived by his wife Penelope, whom he married in 2003 after a long association, and Rachel, Bryony and Ben, the children from his marriage to Anne, which ended in 1980.