Messing with Miss Beckles

It was only a matter of time before disgraced ‘educational guru’ Yolande Beckles hit the headlines yet again for her murky financial dealings. Yes,  four years after she disappeared from Britain, the Independent on Sunday have  tracked her down to Hollywood, where she’s up to the same old tricks.

Why should this bother me? Well, me and Yolande go back a long way.

Yes, yours truly is not only one of the many people she’s conned, but I’m actually  the man who closed down her former company, Global Graduates. Spare the applause and prepare yourself for a tale of femme fatale treachery and double crossing that would make Raymond Chandler moist.

Back in 2006, the BBC launched a three-part TV series hailing Beckles as the new tough talking  woman on a mission to bring old  fashioned values back to Britain’s  education system. Don’t  Mess With Miss Beckles treated us to the sight  of her failing to make any difference whatsoever to the academic performance of  school students in various parts of the country.

Despite being a  BBC Birmingham production, the city of Birmingham  didn’t make it on Yolande’s tour itinerary. Little wonder. For Birmingham is where you’ll  find most of the skeletons in Miss Beckles’ closet.

Beckles came to Birmingham in 2002 with  her company Global Graduates, having secured a major deal with BASS, the city’s  education authority,  to deliver two courses to a range of students across  the city. Young Graduates was aimed  at 14-15 year old students who were doing well at school, offering a fast-track  to university for the most talented kids. Making  The Grade, on the other hand, was for kids of the same age who were  talented but not doing well – this course was designed to get them back on  track and motivate them to succeed.

I was working as a  freelance copywriter at the time but had had a colourful background in teaching  and TV production; a triple talent that was of particular interest to Yolande.

A TV acquaintance called one Friday morning to tell me Global Graduates needed someone to teach a Study Skills class the following  morning. I went along to talk to them and met Yolande Beckles for the first  time. She was holed up in acres of very expensive office space in Millennium Point. She talked passionately and persuasively  about her mission to get kids motivated and into university to fulfil their  wasted talent.

It struck a chord  with me because I’d gone to a crap Birmingham  comprehensive and left it with a handful of embarrassing qualifications and no  idea what a university actually was, let alone a notion that anyone could go to  one. I only finally got to uni as a mature student after ten years of McJobs  and got a First in English Literature, so I knew all about wasted talent. I  decided to go along for the ride.

And what a ride she took me on.

The real story

I taught classes  on both schemes throughout the summer of 2002. The Young Graduates classes were very rewarding, composed as they were  of motivated children who wanted to do well. Making The Grade was another matter though: the scheme struck me immediately  as badly organised. Hordes of kids were bussed in from all over the city for a  week of classes, and I was the only teacher there on the first day. I struggled  to captivate a group of 43 kids, most of whom I could tell had been shunted out  of their schools for a day, much to the relief of their teachers. These weren’t  the kids who were ‘talented but not doing well’; many of them were educationally  challenged to say the least, and handling 43 of them turned out to be the worst  teaching day of my life. A day that led me to cross ‘school teacher’ off  my list of possible career paths.

Yolande was  significantly absent that day, but by the end of the week she’d drafted in   other teachers to help and a sense of sanity had returned. But it was the first hint that  all was not well at Global Graduates.

On 6 June 2002 I  met with her at her College of Law office in London  to discuss a number of copywriting jobs. She hired me to write two major  pieces: the Diversity in Law report, and  a 60,000-word booklet to be published by Trotman & Co ltd entitled The Real Story, which would be a no-nonsense  guide to the law sector for ethnic minority students

I worked away on  both reports throughout June-November, whilst also dealing with other leaflets  and brochures  for which she needed snazzy copy. It  seemed perfect. I’d landed two well-paid  writing jobs that would sort me out financially for a good few months; the  client was happy with the work I’d done and now regarded me as her own personal  copywriter. Which is pretty much as good as it gets when you’re a struggling  freelance writer.

Then we hit the  iceberg.

On Thursday 4  July, 2002, Yolande emailed her staff to tell us that BASS, Birmingham’s education authority, had refused  to pay Global Graduates for the Making  The Grade course. The large team of workers in Birmingham never found out exactly why, but  there were rumours that BASS had objected to bad organisation and  mismanagement. Yolande took it as a personal affront and threatened high court  action through her lawyers, promising that payment would soon arrive for all  her trainers and myself whose invoices hadn’t been met. A fortnight later, the  Millennium Point office was closed down as they looked for new premises in Birmingham.

As Yolande had  assured me the money would come through, I continued working on the two reports  and delivered the Diversity in Law copy to her satisfaction. Throughout the period I kept emailing her asking what  the situation was regarding BASS and when I was going to get paid for my work.  Expenses were getting tight and I was starting to borrow from friends and  family. Then, in September, BASS made an ‘interim’ payment and Yolande came to Birmingham to meet with  the team and give out some cash. She’d already opened a new (much smaller)  office in the city and the staff there were preparing for the next academic  year.

It was the last time I saw Yolande face to face. We talked in a café bar  and she was full of plans for the future and, I remember, spitting hatred for  some stuffed shirt with whom she’d just had a fruitless meeting. It was  symptomatic of her growing tendency to portray herself as a misunderstood visionary  constantly being screwed by myopic bureaucrats. But it was the people around  that table, the staff who’d stuck by her on the promise of future payment, who  were really getting screwed.

She handed me an  envelope with a thousand pounds in it and gave me an affectionate goodbye,  saying the remaining £6,000 would be with me soon. I didn’t know then that it would take  me two and a half years to get barely a quarter of it from her.

I emailed  regularly over the next two months, asking when payment would be coming and  always received assurances that her lawyers were on the case and she was doing  everything humanly possible to sort it out for us.

Then she stopped  answering my emails.

The law’s delay

Then I got a call from the woman who’d been hired to run the new Birmingham office, warning me that she was  closing the office down. They hadn’t received their wages yet again and she’d started  to hear very similar stories regarding some of Yolande’s previous business  escapades. She also told me she couldn’t be sure that BASS had been sued, or even if  they ever owed the money in the first place. It was possible that we’d all been  waiting (and working) months for a payment that would never come through.

I stopped working  on The Real Story booklet and  immediately invoiced Yolande for the work I had done on it to that point. I  also emailed her all outstanding invoices as a reminder. When she ignored two more  ‘final’ warnings, I booked an appointment with a solicitor and began  thirty months of legal wrangling.

I’d read Hamlet’s ‘To be or not to be’  soliloquy hundreds of times but had never fully appreciated that line about ‘the law’s delay’. It was August 2003 before my petition to wind-up Global  Graduates ltd (those last three little letters are so very important) was  presented in the Chancery Division of the High Court of Justice. As soon as the  notice was given in the London Gazette, a raft of other claimants   jumped on the Mess With Miss Beckles bandwagon, including the Inland Revenue,  who were owed a great deal more than six grand and would get paid before anyone  else, including the petitioning creditor: me.

In the middle of  this litigation it was particularly exasperating to hear that the Diversity in Law report that I’d written  and still not been paid for had been launched in London by none other than  Cherie Blair. Great. Not only was I up against Beckles and her army of lawyers;  now she had the Prime Minister’s wife on her side.

The matter dragged  on and on like a Bleak House throughline until I finally received payment from Miss  Beckles’ solicitors in July 2005; three years after first starting the work  she’d hired me to do. Interest and legal fees had taken my claim against Global  Graduates up to £7,107. I got about a quarter of my money: £1,871, and Yolande  Beckles walked away leaving most of her employees stranded up Shit Creek with  no money to buy a paddle.

At about this time  I bumped into the TV company acquaintance who’d originally recommended me to  Yolande. She was embarrassed about the hassle I was going through and said  she’d recently met her on the train, sitting in First Class, saying how  disappointed she was with all those people in Birmingham whom she’d thought were  trustworthy but were now taking her to court. Again, it was a worrying sign of  her tenuous grip on reality and her tendency to cast herself as the victim even  when she had so obviously screwed us all.

Another fine mess

All of which made  it particularly galling to see her emerge on TV in 2006 preaching to kids and their  parents about old-fashioned values of honesty, responsibility and treating  others with respect.

BBC journalist and  presenter Adrian Goldberg had pursued Yolande through regular stories in the  Birmingham Evening Mail, and greeted her TV debut by providing some of her  ex-employees, myself included, with the chance to tell the breakfast listeners  of Radio WM all about her dodgy business dealings in our city (Yolande declined  to take part) .

Astonishingly,  Don’t Mess With Miss Beckles was a BBC Birmingham production. I’ve found myself  wondering how she felt when she made the trip here to discuss her no doubt  sizeable contract, paid for by license payers. Did she give a passing thought  to the people she’d hired and never paid? Did she worry about the debt we all  got into? Did she feel she’d done anything wrong? My guess is that she took the  money and ran, just like she did in 2002.

Hot on the heels  of Adrian’s  radio show, the London Evening Standard phoned me up and asked for my story.  They’d seen the controversy over the series and her ‘dangerous’ methods  (according to one educational psychologist), and decided to look into her and  found me. They     splashed it over  their 6 April 2006 front page and revealed the shocking extent of the mess that  Miss Beckles was in.

Her various companies owed total debts of £126,794.  Three of her companies had been struck off the Company House register and she  had 19 outstanding county court judgements. This is a woman for whom litigation  is as normal as text messaging.

The BBC responded  with: ‘The programme follows Yolande Beckles at work as an educational  motivator and her business dealings are not relevant to the main purpose of the  series.’

It’s a statement that is astonishing in the way it entirely misses the  point. How can a person be an example to school children, how can she motivate  them, if she can’t keep her own house in order and has repeatedly used the law  to avoid her responsibilities to others? How can she be trusted with children  when she let down so many kids in Birmingham  with a string of broken promises? How can she teach kids advanced concepts like honesty, integrity  and respect for others when she flouts those concepts every working day of her life?

While refusing to take responsibility in public for their catastophic error of judgement, the BBC, behind closed doors, quietly scotched Beckles’ hopes for a second series and dropped it like a hot brick.

Serial bankrupt

Beckles’ response  to being ‘outed’ as a serial bankrupt was to pretend that it was all so normal: ‘My company entered into a Company Voluntary Agreement that was approved by its  creditors, and I regret losses caused to any individuals or third parties as a  result. However, those parties were handled by the relevant professionals in  the normal way with their best possible interests at heart in the  circumstances.’

The phrase  ‘voluntary agreement’ makes it sound like we all met over tea and biscuits and  settled our differences and went away happy. It fails to do justice to the  stark reality of being presented with a simple choice by the small army of  lawyers involved: you either get nothing or you settle for 26p in the pound.  After two and a half years, when other creditors had long given up, I settled.

But the impression that Beckles was striving to do right by everyone under  difficult circumstances was revealed as a lie by one startling fact that  emerged in the Evening Standard’s investigation. In June 2004, Yolande Beckles  set up another company called Global Graduates Education Ltd, under her  mother’s name.

What this means is  that, while I was still pursuing her for the money she owes me, and a year away  from getting anything out of her; while her lawyers were forcing us to settle  for a pittance by ‘voluntary agreement’ based on her supposed insolvency, she  was actually setting up the same company all over again under a slightly  different name.

What it means is  that she never ‘regretted any losses caused to individuals’. She never had  anyone’s ‘best possible interests at heart’, except her own. She never had any  intention of doing the honourable thing and paying the money she owed. She never  wanted to do anything but fleece us and move on to the next bunch of suckers.

And now, here she is again, making the news for all the wrong reasons, running a new business called Think Global Kids   in Hollywood and, according to the Independent on Sunday, being sued by a former landlady and facing a police investigation into allegations of theft. Does no one do background checks any more?

Before I met  Yolande Beckles I’d never had cause  to consult a solicitor. For most  of us in this world litigation is not a money-making opportunity. All I ever  wanted to do was write and make a living out of it to keep a roof over my head  and live with some kind of debt-free dignity and not have a £7,000  hole in my bank account. It’s not much to ask.

But unfortunately  there are people in this world who will rip you off for an honest day’s work  and walk away like nothing happened. And the law does nothing to protect  you from these people. They can carry on claiming ‘insolvency’, again and  again, and keep forming new companies and carry on ripping people off.

They don’t teach  you that in school. Maybe they should.

You can follow the adventures of Yolande Beckles at this blog where the blogger has posted a jaw-dropping story so far which doesn’t even include all the shit I’ve shovelled here (No, it’s not my blog)

BecklesWatch also has a Facebook page and is on Twitter. (No, it’s not my Facebook page or Twitter account)

Someone close to her is now challenging the Wikipedia page on her and attempting to get it deleted   as ‘biased, unsubstantiated and inappropriate content that appears to have been authored by Miss Beckles’ enemies’. This has been politely rejected, seeing as the claims are well documented in the public domain and far from unsubstantiated (No, I didn’t write the Wiki entry. But if it were written by her enemies it would be a very long page.)

Writers don’t mean shit

writers2I’ve noticed a growing militancy in screenwriters since the WGA strike. Not least in myself. It seems we are absolutely fucked off to the back teeth with our status in this industry as little more than work experience fluffers (excuse my vulgarity, but this industry makes me feel like a whore sometimes).   

A couple of incidents this week have added to the humiliation.

The nominations for the Emmys were announced and much media furore ensued. I read all about it on Digital Spy and am pleased about the recognition for Mad Men and 30 Rock (both great shows).

They provide a list of ‘nominations in the major catagories’. And yes, you’ve guessed it: not ONE writing award.

They list everything from Drama Series to Made for TV Movie and the Lead and Supporting Actors and Actresses in all of them. Not one writer.

This means that Laura Dern getting her people to fax in her supporting role in a TV movie is more of a major category than the individuals who wrote Mad Men, Battlestar Galactica, The Wire, Damages, The Office, Pushing Daisies and Flight of the Conchords.

Why? Because writers don’t mean shit.

Then I attend my regional film agency’s great big pre-launch for a new interactive media fund. Loads of people there, and we all walk away with an info pack. When I get home I discover the pack contains a DVD showcasing regional talent… and my short film is on it.

I’d heard about this DVD a while back. It was released free with a magazine. A mate told me about it: ‘I’ve just seen your film on this free DVD with this magazine.’ Oh really? No one told me. Finally, I have a copy of my own.

I look over the packaging. All the names of the creators are there, including my director. Mine isn’t. I may have written it but I am not the author.

Why not? Because writers don’t mean shit.

In 2003, the International Affiliation of Directors issued their infamous Dublin Declaration stating that ‘the director is the primary author of the audio visual work.’ They might as well have just gone round and kicked every single screenwriter in the crotch and pissed on them afterwards.

Writers guilds responded with our very own Toronto Declaration – pointing out that, if anything, the writer should be regarded as the ‘primary’ author of a film, and that their declaration flies in the face of the whole notion of filmmaking being a collaborative medium.

Whenever we writers start fighting our corner, we are always reminded just what a collaborative medium it is. A fact they conveniently forget when they release it as ‘A Name of Director Film’.

And they  do this because  writers don’t mean shit.

Filmmaking is a collaborative medium. A small army of people join forces in order to create one, each person chucking into the mix their own unique ingredient. But every film begins with a blank page. Every film begins with someone willing to mine their soul to fill that page with a story. Every film begins with a writer.

I wrote most of this last night and posted it as my editorial to the daily Shooting Screenwriters bulletin. It’s caused a bit of a stir. Some people have already pointed out that writers don’t mean shit because they don’t stick up for themselves.

This is true. Hopefully, a rant like this will make more writers realise that fact and lead to more of us doing something about it.

A version of this rant originally appeared in Shooting Screenwriters, and the now defunct 12Point liked it so much they ran it with a response from agent Julian Friedmann.