I’m standing in an empty parking space at a Kent retail park, when Paul Lake tells me this was the exact spot he realised how to become a millionaire. I ask him if he was sitting in his car when it happened.
‘In the Eighties all this was industrial space. Here’s my studio…’
He starts jumping up and down with his arms raised, stretching out his fingers. ‘It was on the first floor, about here,’ he says, chopping the air with his hand.
It’s a beautiful warm evening and Paul is in his mid-fifties, sweating through a flaking biker jacket that has a peeling Norse symbol on the back.
He bends down for a moment to catch his breath in defeat, and looks up at me through a pair of aviator sunglasses.
‘Let’s get a Costas.’
We head through the car park to the coffee chain outlet, a sidecar to a large branch of Halfords, queuing up with a group of men speaking Polish and overrun mothers with buggies.
‘Shopping replaced religion,’ he tells me. ‘This is one of the last places people congregate with their fellow man.’
Around thirty years ago, Paul Lake ran a corporate VHS business, Broadgate Media, managing a small studio space and leasing production equipment for clients to produce their own low-budget training and business-to-business tapes. He recently became an internet meme when he was revealed as the man responsible for disturbing the Freeview transmitter at Bluebell Hill, Medway, which broadcasts to over 200,000 homes in the southeast. His protest interrupted a local Meridian news bulletin for just over four minutes.
‘I broke into the transmitter hall and just started turning things off,’ he tells me. ‘The engineers were alerted after a few minutes so I shifted up one of the bigguns.’
The Bluebell Hill site features five towers, and in April last year Paul scaled one of the transmitters that supported the digital TV aerials, owned by a private telecommunications company, and hung a turquoise and pink gradient flag emblazoned with the letters C N S. He was snapped by a passing motorist and briefly became the Twitter trend #transmitterman. Eventually coaxing him down after several hours, Kent Police issued him with a suspended sentence and an undisclosed fine. So why do it?
‘Fake news,’ Paul claims. ‘Big dick corporations like ITV Meridian have had a monopoly for decades.’ He is distracted by the dying foam of his cappuccino, streaking the melted chocolate sprinkles into rotating circles making his own little milky way.
Paul held a series of informal talks with a Meridian communications executive who had convinced him the broadcaster was about to move into the corporate video market. Legal representation for the unnamed executive, now a Conservative peer, insisted no formal promises were made to buy Broadgate Media, but Paul remains adamant.
‘Here was an old Etonian trying to get his fingers into my Filofax,’ says Paul. ‘Through Broadgate I had the skeleton key to the entire business world within the north Kent area.’
The meetings continued and Paul insists he hosted ecstasy and cocaine-fuelled parties for a network that would include local councillors and future members of the government.
‘It was the second summer of the funky drummer, but I didn’t even drink. I was the kid in the corner trying to change the world.’
Believing the deal to be done and the culmination of several years work, Paul invested heavily in state-of-the-art broadcast graphics equipment, that at the turn of the 1990s only the major television studios could afford.
‘In business you jump out of the plane first, and work out how to make a parachute later.’
Paul’s studio hosted an unofficial after party for the launch of a new Meridian logo; an animated ident that bursts onto the screen in a celestial outage of light, with multiple layers of revolving crystalline rays enveloping an interdependent moon and sun, basking in a palate of Mediterranean sandstone and fresh water azure. It was considered a triumph of the British-made Maunsell Quartz, the world class non-linear editing system that had exploded the possibilities of on-screen graphics and flag-shipped a renaissance of television idents and stings.
‘The graphic designers were carving up lines and had girls on the editing desk,’ says Paul. ‘I remember thinking, I just want to jump into the screen.’
The Meridian executive began to slowly distance himself from Paul and stopped answering his calls, leaving him within huge loans to pay off which meant selling the studio. Lake consolidated his assets into ‘BizCall’; an unsuccessful attempt to break into the booming premium rate call market by offering recorded business advice down a telephone — eventually left on hiatus as a motivational answering message. Not long afterwards, Meridian Broadcasting won the ITV franchise for the southeast of England and the rest was history.
But Paul kept the Quartz editing suite, and moved all the monitors, sound mixers and hardware back to his flat, above an unused commercial rental opportunity in Bromley. Friends said he had become obsessed with 3-dimensional video graphics and believed they held the latchkey to a heightened vista of perception. It was around this time he had started to draft his manifesto, The Companion, or, How to Make a Million Quid the Easy Way. Planning to produce his own instructional video, he recorded it to batches of VHS tapes to sell in the shop space below. It was marketed as an aspiring entrepreneur’s self-help handbook to becoming a millionaire in ninety days or your money back. But was the real aim to become a millionaire himself?
‘I was already a millionaire,’ Paul insists. ‘If you priced in the value of my studio equipment and portfolio of creative assets and brands. And I was setting up a production line to roll out the secret.’
Each tape was introduced down the lens by Paul, before embarking on a series of ‘doses’; 3D video graphic animations designed, he claims, to dismantle geometric and gravitational assumptions that clog up our mutual understanding of our surroundings, and open up the limitless imaginative possibilities of the human mind. Every animation was audio-synced with specific, prescriptive business instructions to successfully obtain a million pounds within three months, guaranteed.
‘If you have a job, leave it or hand in a reasonable notice. The programme will not be successful if juggled alongside a 9-to-5, nor is it a side gig, extra-curricular activity or passion project. If you are to obtain north of £999,999 within twelve weeks it will require your absolute full-time dedication and include all weekends.’
The Companion, Broadgate Media
Do any of the tapes still exist?
‘I still have my own copy somewhere,’ Paul recalls. ‘And I saw one on eBay you could ‘Buy It Now’ for 80p. But I don’t have a video recorder anymore.’
When I explain to him that it can be arranged, Paul is coy. The target of a 1995 story in this newspaper that portrayed him as a con artist, his shop was closed down and all of his stock seized. The retail space, ironically, became a Blockbuster Video and Paul retreated upstairs. He became increasingly withdrawn and was only sighted at the local Co-Op or occasionally renting videos from Blockbusters downstairs.
‘He didn’t seem to have a change of clothes and was looking out of shape,’ explains Jayson Parish, a former estate agent who now runs a talent agency for teenage eSports stars. In 1997 Jayson was a junior in the firm that managed the letting of Paul’s flat.
“The landlord was demanding we access the property as there had been complains about leaking from below. And he was proper behind on rent.’
Jayson joined a team of bailiffs to force an entry but found themselves immediately treading water, literally.
‘The geezer had lined the floor of the landing with waterproof plastic, the kind you get from paddling pools. He’d created a shallow stream a couple of inches deep that ran all the way to the living room. It absolutely ruined my trousers.’
The back wall of Paul’s living room was home to an entire bank of 4:3 television monitors, a multi-storey deck of analogue video recorders, dynamic acoustic speakers and mixing desk. It would have comfortably facilitated an entire regional television studio gallery. The monitors were arranged to display the same background, as so each individual screen played host to a smaller portion of a much larger picture, creating the effect of an illusory panorama behind the editing suite. The accumulative display was that of a deep crystal cave, with outcrops of turquoise and topaz canopying a vast, underground lagoon. The speaker system dripped ambient soundscapes and a deafening plop of electronic water caught Jayson and the bailiffs off guard, creating a ripple deep into the virtual backdrop.
‘Suddenly the bloke comes tearing down the landing in nothing but his swimming trunks and sunglasses, and bolts out the front door.’
Jayson and the bailiffs managed to peel off some of the dark tarpaulin that had blacked out Paul’s windows, blasting in some painful daylight.
‘We could see the geezer legging it down towards the High Street and that was the last I saw of him.’
What was Paul trying to achieve with his rig?
‘I’d spent every penny I had fitting it. Then I’d steal from friends, family. The shops. I ended up running a mail order pirate video service, copying the Hollywood smashes from downstairs by using the kit I had up here. That kept it running for a few years.’
Facing a court summons for outstanding rent, charges of copyright fraud, not to mention multiple refund claims from disgruntled non-millionaires, Paul eloped to the south coast of Spain. A few weeks later, guests at a three-star star hotel in Lloret de Mar complained about some loud banging in the room next door, and Spanish police we called only to find Paul coiled up inside a double sleeping bag with a 14” television set and companion VCR, playing a tape copy of 120 minutes of ‘ambient cave’ video graphics.
For Paul, evading justice on the Costa Brava represented a nadir in both career and adult life in general. Does he have any guilt?
‘The Companion guarantee was to issue a full refund should the instructions be carried out to the letter and the customer not become a millionaire within three months. There was no evidence from the claimants that any of it had been carried out.’
I finger out a passage from the print version of The Companion, the pages collectively warped from exposure to water.
‘You will now need to legally register your business with Companies House. The choice regarding your business’ name is entirely your own. You may wish to follow the current fashion, like ExxonMobil, United Technologies or Pepsico. Or you may want to try a traditional approach with something like ‘Your Name and Sons’. It doesn’t matter, although consider how it will appear on stationary. What matters is you file your name to Companies House within fourteen days of carrying out steps Four to Twelve. Once you have done this, your next step is to buy a copy of the Financial Times and make yourself a cup of tea.’
The Companion, P.19, Broadgate Publishing
What about his admitted charges of copyright fraud?
‘Blockbusters?’ Paul asks. ‘What if I told you their headquarters were in a town called Meridian, Colorado. You don’t have to be Sherlock Holmes to work out what was going on here.’
I asked him was exactly he did think was going on, and he asks me if I think it’s a coincidence it shares the name with the broadcaster that put him out of business. I gently introduce the concept of a confirmation bias.
‘I could show you the Meridian line of cash flow between their offices and Blockbusters headquarters and it runs pretty fucking straight.’
Paul has some byzantine theories about conglomerates, biased news and his place in the big picture. It’s the latter that I’m looking to not get distracted from. He has a YouTube channel, Creative Network Solutions, where he is re-packaging his business advice as well as presenting his ideas about global media. I realise it is what the letters C N S on his flag from the transmitter protest represent. I ask him if he is not just creating content for the biggest media giant of them all, Google, via their video search engine YouTube.
‘The views are deliberately low,’ Paul insists, ‘and I immediately instruct the viewer to illegally rip the episode. The content wilfully swims against the YouTube algorithm in both watch time and audience in general.’
I receive a message and inform him that our researcher has secured the eBay copy of The Companion, and invite him to join me at our offices for a viewing. A brief discussion about a small fee ensues, and Paul agrees to reconvene in a couple of days time.
Paul is being adorned with a multicoloured lanyard by security staff when I ask him about his suspended sentence. One further brush with the law and he would be looking directly at a six month stretch at HMP Gravesend. Does it not make him think twice about the next upload?
‘We had a Scouse actor who came and worked with us on the corporate videos,’ Paul remembers. ‘I can’t do the accent. But he said — there ain’t never been a law against being yourself.’
The video has been converted to an .mp4, and I’m about to hit play on the iPad. Then I suddenly, stupidly remember Paul’s difficulties with motion graphics and worry about returning to the scene of the crime.
‘A cheeky nip never hurt anyone.’
‘By purchasing The Companion we can only guarantee the maturing of £1,000,000 into your bank account. Nothing more. We cannot guarantee further growth of income after that or even assure you against any depreciation of funds in future unforeseen circumstances. Nor can we advise further how to invest the sum, nor are the steps repeatable for any individual or business. We cannot promise the money will transform your life in any way, nor guarantee any happiness or true love after achieving your millionaire status. You will have a million pounds but nothing else.’
The Companion, Broadgate Media
Paul’s voiceover is the prosaic accompaniment to the conclusive set of visuals, or ‘dose’, to the video. The viewer is helplessly drawn into the scrolling animation, but it becomes apparent the motion is backwards, as if pulling us urgently out of a hallucination or session of meditation. It is a reverse trench-run through a cavern of rods and cones, bathed in a Martian half-light red. I look for the classic animator’s trick, a looping effect where Paul has repeated the same graphics over and over, but I cannot find any signs of duplication. The trench is forensically detailed and storied, individual craters reveal plunging excavations of millions more rods and cones that divide and multiply ever smaller, whilst an all-encompassing tunnel pulls further and further away from an obscure source of light. It is an engrossing, obsessive piece of animation and I am keen to let Paul know.
‘It’s my failed attempt to show the world what’s behind my eyelids. What’s behind everyone’s eyelids.’
Failed? I have nothing else to contribute.
‘And we can never ever share it with another person. I just wanted to give people a day off from that.’
So why a million quid? Isn’t Paul telling us directly that money won’t make us happy?’
‘It’s that.’ Paul shows me an Anglo-Saxon middle finger. ‘There are so many systems in place that keeps money where it is. And money likes money, which is no good if you haven’t got any. I was offering people a hollowed-out biro to jab in the corporate fuel tank.’
I close the video player, before Paul’s elongated credit sequence gets to the end. He offers to get me a cappuccino, his round, and I take him up on it. There is no shortage of everyday scammers to report on for a local paper, but they don’t ever fit a profile like Paul’s. And if that is the greatest confidence trick of them all, it is still an incredibly complicated way of going about it.