Birmingham Post Editor Alun Thorne caught up with an entrepreneur who made his fortune from animation and is now looking to branch out into the care sector.
James Driscoll, or Jimmy as he’s known to his friends, never forgets. For a man who spent his formative years moving in the same circles as the likes of Robert Plant one might consider this quite a feat.
But more than a quarter of a century after getting his first break, Driscoll knows exactly who he owes the greatest debt for his almost Hollywoodesque rise from rags to riches – because he still carries both their business cards in his wallet.
It was the early 1980s when Driscoll was selling stocks of toys left over from Christmas by mail order that he first came up with the idea for the Shoe People.
“I was buying and selling things like Mr Men and started kicking about this idea of shoes and boots coming alive and started to wonder if it could work,” he said.
He ended up sitting down with a man called Peter Elias who at the time was head of children’s programming at Harlech TV and slowly but surely the idea began to develop.
“I spent a lot of time talking to him and he said he really loved what I’d got. He said if I listened and took his advice then he would help me.”
He introduced Driscoll to illustrator Rob Lee – who went on to create characters such as Fireman Sam – and the Shoe People came alive.
The next trick was to get people talking about it and that’s where the other person whose battered card he still carries to this day came in. The individual in question was a certain Fred Bromwich, one time business editor on the Birmingham Post as well as its sister paper the then Evening Mail. It was Bromwich who penned the first ever story about Driscoll’s plans and he’ll never forget the impact it had.
“Fred was absolutely brilliant,” said Driscoll. “He was a great supporter of mine and wrote the first ever story about what I was doing and then as things started to pick up he followed it through and gave me some absolutely invaluable coverage which I will never forget.”
Speaking to Driscoll it is clear that he absolutely means it, but listening to his life before the Shoe People it is difficult to believe that anybody but himself is responsible for transforming his life from sleeping four to a bed in a rented room to wealthy friend of the stars.
Born in 1946 in Ireland, Driscoll came over to the UK when he was eight and grew up in West Bromwich – his father was a labourer in a steel foundry while his mother was a gold liner in the Pilkington factory. He grew up in a single room in a house on the Yew Tree Estate in West Bromwich.
He got his first job in West Brom before moving to Edgbaston and getting a job as a clerical assistant at the National Assistance Board.
“My father told me to get a decent pension so a civil servant seemed like the right job.”
It was around this time that he met his wife who he has now been with for 43 years. He started DJing on the local pub and club scene, playing venues that have become part of Birmingham folklore like the Rum Runner, the Ceder Club and the Elbow Room.
It was then that he met people like Robert Plant, Bev Bevan, Roy Wood and Justin Hayward from the Moody Blues – people he still likes to call his friends today.
With the DJing going nowhere he got a job on the roads, testing soils in a lab for the new motorways and the runway at Gatwick Airport.
“It’s been said that’s the reason Spaghetti Junction is falling down,” he jokes.
But an underlying entrepreneurial spirit continued to smoulder away and after getting that first meeting with Peter Elias, the rest, as they say, is history.
Almost a decade after the Shoe People was first broadcast on TV-AM in 1987, Driscoll sold the company, but not before it was being watched in 62 different countries and had sold 25 million books.
After that it was a something of an upward trajectory in the fortunes of Driscoll.
He ended up buying Leeds United and then sold it again after the shares rocketed.
He bought the rights to 140 hours of classics such as the Wombles and Paddington and got to work properly exploiting the merchandising opportunities.
In 1994 he received an MBE for his troubles and was spending his time travelling the world, launching companies, turning others around, taking some public and generally working himself to an early grave – which is precisely what he nearly did.
In 2005 he went to the doctors with chest pains which he thought were no more than indigestion and within weeks he was in hospital having major heart surgery.
“I said to the doctor ‘have you got this right?’ because I felt absolutely fine really. I know now how lucky I was because there is a terrible history of heart problems in my family. After that I quit everything and just sat back and reflected on things.”
Before long he got itchy feet and did some writing for the enterprise pages of the Sunday Times, started dreaming up a new animation series called the Barbearians and did some TV with a programme called the Real Deal – a forerunner to Dragons’ Den.
“It was quite a success and Channel 4 said we’ve had about 200 enquiries from people who want to meet you. I said just don’t give them my phone number.”
Then in 2009 he acquired the site of the old Labour club in Stourbridge next to another site he owned and started to wonder what he could do with it.
A couple of chance meetings and the odd fateful conversation and Driscoll decided that the site would be perfect for a special care centre.
“This is a centre where people over 55 can move," he said. "The apartments will have two bedrooms not one so that people can stay with them but also have all the care they may require on site.
"I think it is natural that we all feel that we will be able to look after ourselves forever but there comes a time for many when they will need 24-hour care and we want it to be special care. This isn’t about people ending their days here, it is about them starting their days here.”
The scheme is working its way through the planning system and has been described by Dudley Council as iconic, the kind of statement that Driscoll is also hoping to attract for his second care project at nearby Park Attwood in north Worcestershire.
Park Attwood is a large house set in eight acres overlooking the stunning Worcestershire countryside that was once a Steiner School which Driscoll knew well so when it went on the market after years as a clinic he tore their arm off.
“My memories of the place from 30 years ago were that it was such an uplifting place and I know everybody else who visited the place felt the same.”
Driscoll has invested in renovating Park Attwood from top to bottom and believes he has created an almost unique 15-room care facility for those who have suffered serious brain injuries as well as a separate respite centre for their families.
“We are looking to change people’s lives,” he said.
“The reason we have spent so much money getting this right is that these families have been through hell.
‘‘We have worked extremely hard to make sure that this is a facility that is anything but institutionalised and we are proud of what we have created.”
With everything that he has achieved since squeezing into that dingy room in West Bromwich, he has plenty more to be proud about.