On Her Majesty’s Secret Service

A deep dive into the private life of a public servant with a dangerous penchant.

When Michael Gillard approached us with a story for the magazine, we were thrilled to be working with a journalist we have long admired. The story he writes below, of the life of the diplomat Sir John Guinness, is unlike anything we’ve ever published before. It’s a salacious slice of reportage, yes, but it’s also an exposition of the private life of a man who died two years ago. We feel that there is an overwhelming public interest in running this piece: it fits within those tropes of post-war British society that are so familiar that they almost feel redundant: the government mandarin, aristocratic kink, private members’ clubs and hints of an establishment cover-up.

It’s the world of Ian Fleming, le Carré, Graham Greene, but it’s all too important to remember that their rich fictional imaginings were based on a series of scandals that revealed a grim and unsustainable hypocrisy in the way in which this country was governed: that rules didn’t really apply if you were one of the chaps, and that you could lead a life of wild indiscretion – while running the country – as long as you kept your mouth firmly shut.

When John Vassall, an admiralty clerk, was caught spying for the Soviets in 1962, Prime Minister Harold Macmillan upbraided the director of MI5, Roger Hollis, for broadcasting the news with an exuberantly patrician simile:

‘When my gamekeeper shoots a fox, he doesn’t go and hang it up outside the Master of Foxhounds’ drawing room; he buries it out of sight.’

The Profumo affair, which happened the following year, produced an extraordinary media frenzy and suggested to the government that such scandals should be swept firmly under the carpet: the liaisons between Ronnie Kray, the East End gangster, and Lord Boothby, government minister, might well have been broadcast in the national media had Boothby, who was bisexual, not been the long-term lover of Dorothy Macmillan – the Prime Minister’s wife.

Boothby, Profumo, and most of all the icy academic Anthony Blunt – these shades of history shape the way we read the life of Sir John Guinness.

The Spy and his Lover

A former diplomat responsible for Britain’s energy security was a security risk who indulged a dangerous compulsion for sadomasochism throughout his distinguished political career, including while advising on the Queen’s art collection.

An investigation into the secret life of this loyal mandarin at the heart of Britain’s establishment can reveal that Sir John Guinness, a permanent secretary at the department of energy and advisor to prime ministers, risked all in pursuit of dungeon masters to thrash, torture and choke him out. Indeed, towards the end of his life, Sir John, who died in 2020 aged 84, paid more than £400,000 in hush money to a ‘master’ known on the BDSM scene as Ares.

Their 25-year relationship began when Sir John left Whitehall, where he had helped privatise the energy sector, to run the government agency responsible for UK nuclear security.

The pair met for ‘master-slave’ sessions in dungeons across the country and also in Sir John’s Chelsea flat, which he bought to hide his high-risk compulsion from colleagues, enemies and his family.

Documents seen by The Fence show that through his relationship with Ares, Sir John was unwittingly sucked into scandals involving other establishment figures, including the chairman of a leading private members’ club and the death of a British spy found rotting in a sports bag.

Ares, whose real name is Shaun O’Driscoll, came from the other side of the tracks. As a young man in the 1980s, he graduated from being a sex worker in Piccadilly Circus to a private punisher to the elite.

Sir John was not his only high profile punter. There was a senior policeman, alongside cross-party MPs, including, O’Driscoll also claims, Stephen Milligan, the Tory who later died from autoerotic asphyxiation.

Sir John’s complex relationship with O’Driscoll eventually soured when the working-class dungeon master suffered a breakdown and started requiring substantial payments from his upper-class slave. O’Driscoll used a sex tape secretly made for a Channel 4 documentary, a self-published autobiography and a thinly veiled fictional play about their escapades as leverage.

Fearing exposure, Sir John made six-figure payments to his dungeon master through a Swiss trust, but never reported O’Driscoll to the police. In a bizarre twist, Sir John continued using Ares until just before he died from pancreatic cancer.

The revelations of yet another security scandal in the kinky Establishment, while lurid, raise important questions about what the intelligence services knew of Sir John’s predilections and vulnerability at the height of the Cold War.

John Ralph Sidney Guinness came from the banking side of the family and appears to have got a taste for BDSM as a young man during national service. After a brief stint in the City, he joined the Overseas Development Institute in 1961 and then the Foreign Office 12 months later – where he stayed for 18 years. His diplomatic career involved overseas posting to Canada and the United Nations in New York.

He moved to the department of energy; first as deputy secretary, then as permanent secretary. The high-flying mandarin advised Margaret Thatcher and John Major on energy privatisation before leaving in 1993 to chair British Nuclear Fuels (BNFL) until 1999, when he was knighted.

The government-owned BNFL managed nuclear reactors and sold electricity. Its headquarters were in Lancashire where one day he came across an advert for ‘Ares’ – a self-styled ‘Correction Specialist’.

Shaun O’Driscoll had moved to the north-west of England after learning his hustle during the early 1980s on the ‘meat rack’, an infamous stretch of pavement outside the flagship Wimpy in London’s Piccadilly Circus.

There, strays and runaways waited for respectable men in need of sex, company, punishment and sometimes love. O’Driscoll was a ‘Dilly’ regular with a reputation for the rough stuff. BDSM, he later wrote, was a way of exorcising anger as an abandoned son and rape victim. In that context Ares seemed an appropriate handle for an apprentice dungeon master wanting to unleash his self-loathing on others. Nevertheless, it was a dangerous occupation for a traumatised young man, not least because the serial killer Dennis Nilsen was prowling the ‘meat rack’ for victims.

Talented hustlers like O’Driscoll were looking for older, rich regulars and, in 1990, he found one in Duke Roberto Ferretti di Castelferretto, an art-loving wealthy aristocrat in his mid-sixties. The Duke had a wife in Italy but lived a double life on Upper Montagu Street with a younger man, an accountant who handled his money. O’Driscoll was put on a £50,000 annual retainer to beat and choke the Duke while enacting scenes from the films of Pier Paolo Pasolini, the Italian director who recreated the works of the Marquis de Sade on the silver screen in his 1975 film Salò, or the 120 Days of Sodom.

Records show a UK company and Nationwide bank account were set up for O’Driscoll to purchase townhouses in Chorley and Blackburn that he had refurbished as dungeons with spy holes for the Duke and his friends. One room was done up like a barracks, another had a surgical theme and others had various cages and a full-size crucifix. The Duke also had set up a Swiss bank account at E. Gutzwiller & Cie into which he deposited £100,000 for O’Driscoll to buy a home for his wife and young children.

The dungeon master’s wife was aware of the full extent of her husband’s activities as a young man, but believed the generous Italian aristocrat had hired O’Driscoll as his personal bodyguard. In fact, the Duke used him to ‘dirty’ friends after black-tie dinners in London. Ares believed that the Duke was using these soirées as back-pocket blackmail material. On other occasions, O’Driscoll picked up strangers who’d caught the Italian’s eye.

One of these is said to have been Gareth Williams, who was studying at Manchester University when O’Driscoll claims he persuaded him to watch Pasolini re-enactments with the Duke at one of the dungeons.

Williams went on to work for GCHQ, the government listening post, and MI6, until 2010 when his decomposing body was found in a zipped bag inside the spotless bathroom of his Pimlico flat.

Documents show O’Driscoll contacted the police with the story of the Manchester encounter when it emerged that Williams had used Pasolini’s first names for kinky encounters.

Throughout his time with the Duke, O’Driscoll was also servicing Sir John. He’d retired from the BNFL and in 2001 was appointed a trustee of the Royal Collection Trust, the Royal Family’s art collection overseen by Prince Charles, who became a friend.

Still married and still a devotee of being punished by men in uniform, in 2005 Sir John bought a £1 million flat off the King’s Road in Chelsea that he kitted out for BDSM sessions. He liked a dungeon master known as ‘The Cossack’, who specialised in electronic torture in between trips to Russia.

O’Driscoll, however, remained Sir John’s favourite tormentor, but at the age of 45, the veteran dungeon master was beginning to unravel with bouts of depression and heavy drinking that he kept from clients. His wife had also kicked him out of the family home after learning of a plan in 2005 to participate in a Channel 4 documentary on the dark side of the sex trade.

He was going on national television to discuss his relationship with the Duke, who’d recently died, in an attempt to get a bigger slice of the Italian aristocrat’s estate.

Documents show that Hitesh Tailor, the Duke’s boyfriend and executor of the will, was only willing to pay £66,000 from the estate. O’Driscoll, however, claimed he was owed £1.5 million – based on an alleged agreement of £100,000 for every year of his service to the Duke.

It was at this point that Sir John was unwittingly roped into the scheme. He had agreed to come to Greater Manchester for a session in the barracks-themed room of one of the dungeon houses bought with the Duke’s money. Sir John didn’t know that he was going to be secretly filmed with his military trousers around his ankles while receiving lashes from a dragon cane. It turned out that O’Driscoll, dressed as a drill sergeant, had provided the Channel 4 programme-makers with a forged consent form.

Sir John remained none the wiser when the documentary was broadcast in 2006 – only his reddened buttocks were fully exposed to the camera – and happily continued to engage O’Driscoll’s services.

But by now O’Driscoll had lost all sense of discretion, so vital to his trade, and in 2008 published an autobiography, Memoirs of a Beast: Me and My Slaves, with poorly pixelated photos of the Duke, Tailor and others.

The following year, he penned a play about his relationship with the fictional ‘Sir James Gilfroy’, who O’Driscoll described as an ‘ex-government minister, millionaire businessman, ruthless and arrogant’.

With Tailor still refusing to pay any more money from the Duke’s estate, O’Driscoll saw in Sir John someone who would cough up to keep quiet. The kink enthusiast might even enjoy it, he reasoned. O’Driscoll convincingly claimed Sir John would be drawn into litigation the dungeon master was taking against Channel 4 over an alleged unpaid fee for his co-operation in the documentary. Channel 4 disputed the claim but quickly came to an agreement with Sir John’s lawyers to hand back all of the secretly filmed BDSM session.

However, O’Driscoll switched the tapes for blank ones before they were handed over and took £70,000 from Sir John in return for all copies of the autobiography and the play. O’Driscoll was still determined to continue his war with Channel 4 and also with Tailor until they saw commercial sense and paid what he felt he was due.

To that end, the dungeon master made a legal claim against Tailor over the loss of a black briefcase allegedly containing sex tapes of the Duke and similar blackmail material of other society figures. In a statement to the court, Tailor denied any knowledge of the briefcase and the claim was dismissed.

The legal action came at a bad time for Tailor, who was chairman of the Reform Club and facing a revolt from members over his management style. Tailor says he voluntarily stood down as chairman, which happened shortly after losing an attempt to anonymise the legal case brought against him by O’Driscoll. In a separate witness statement Tailor said he had not approved of the Duke’s ‘private liaisons’ with O’Driscoll, but had been unable to stop them.

Separately, the dungeon master had instructed a Manchester lawyer. But he turned out to be even more of a hustler than O’Driscoll and was robbing clients while pretending to have won them large settlements.

O’Driscoll was conned into believing that Tailor and Channel 4 had agreed to pay him £700,000 and £2 million, respectively. It’s a measure of how deluded he’d become that these figures seemed credible.

The police eventually caught up with the crooked lawyer and prosecuted him for fraud. But Sir John now feared the trial at Bolton Crown Court would expose his double life because O’Driscoll had made a witness statement with a copy of the Channel 4 BDSM video attached for good measure.

In an effort to placate O’Driscoll, in 2016 Sir John paid him £100,000, claiming it was for his retirement, but hoped his dungeon master would keep him out of the court case. Revealingly, the pair continued having sessions at Sir John’s Chelsea flat and also met for lunch and drinks. The frisson of blackmail that now permeated their master-slave relationship appeared to excite Sir John; something O’Driscoll happily exploited by asking for another £100,000.

In January 2018, Sir John paid him £40,000. Predictably, O’Driscoll threatened to sue for breach of contract if the remainder was not forthcoming. Again Sir John, now 81 and with a weak heart, relented. However, this time he decided to end their working relationship but hoped they could remain friends.

O’Driscoll agreed but was peeved. He professed concern when Sir John boasted of a replacement dungeon master with a military bearing willing to beat him.

But by the summer of 2019, O’Driscoll’s alcoholism was spiralling and he uploaded something to YouTube: the Channel 4 tape of Sir John during a BDSM session. The essential trust in his master had gone and Sir John hired a former tabloid hack turned private investigator, who secretly recorded O’Driscoll making compromising comments.

It was enough for a judge to slap an injunction on the dungeon master. O’Driscoll told Sir John that he was no blackmailer and dared his client to report him to the police. He never did. And not just to avoid the public humiliation of cross-examination about his political life as a walking security risk. Sir John’s health had started to deteriorate soon after he secured the injunction against O’Driscoll and he died on 27 July 2020 in a hospice.

A neighbour at his Chelsea flat recalled watching a woman remove all traces of Sir John’s secret life and drive away. All that was left on his large desk was a half-eaten box of assorted shortbreads, a wilted orchid and a box of tissues.

The messy ending to the distinguished life of a loyal servant of the state was nowhere to be found among the many paragraphs of praise in the obituaries of Sir John Guinness. But still, the question remains: Did he pay hush money to anyone else?

Sex, S&M and the British Body Politic

Veteran journalist Nigel Jones casts his eye over two centuries of spanking scandals

S&M. Or the modern term, BDSM. The French call it ‘Le vice Anglais’ – which is a bit rich, coming from the country that gave the world the Marquis de Sade and the spanking-loving philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau.

Despite all this, our Gallic cousins remain convinced that Britain – or at least the elite that rules us – is uniquely wedded to the joys of BDSM; especially flagellation, a habit that they were supposedly introduced to at the top public schools such as Eton, Harrow, Winchester and Rugby (Sir John Guinness’s alma mater).

To non-initiates, it must remain a mystery why being beaten by elderly perverts with hair sprouting from their ears and nostrils should induce a lifelong passion for the practice, but there’s nowt so queer as folk.

The actual evidence that the British upper crust is more fixated on BDSM than the elites of other countries is, in fact, sparse. The most notorious and frequently cited example was not a politician but a poet: the eccentric Victorian versifier Algernon Charles Swinburne. The son of an Admiral, Swinburne could never escape the sweet memories of the beatings that he had enjoyed bent over the famous Eton flogging block.

Swinburne was born too late to experience the attentions of Eton’s most prolific flogger headmaster – Dr John Keate, an Anglican clergyman rarely seen without a bunch of birch twigs in hand, who once thrashed 80 boys in a single day after they’d had the temerity to pelt him with rotten eggs. But Keate’s traditions long outlived him, and beatings, bullying and buggery became the hallmarks of the 20th century seats of learning where Britain’s ruling caste schooled their young.

Anyone who thinks that these traditions went the way of hanging and judicial birching when they were abolished may have been disabused by recent well-publicised cases, which showed that they were still very much alive and kicking. In 2008, Max Mosley – the immensely wealthy son of Britain’s fascist would-be führer Sir Oswald Mosley, and a leading figure in the world of motorsport – was exposed by the News of the World for enjoying an BDSM orgy with a group of dominatrixes dressed in military uniforms.

After a judge saw fit to decide that the exposé was of no public interest, Mosley spent much of his wealth in the last decade of his life until his death last year attempting to gag the media and prevent the reporting of similar peccadilloes by the good and not-so-great. His campaign was partially successful, leading to the closure of the tabloid that had outed him, and the Leveson Inquiry which recommended tighter press controls – a report that has not so far been implemented.

Although prep and public schools may no longer be the single-sex hellholes of sadism and misery so memorably described by George Orwell in his essay ‘Such, Such Were the Joys’, they remain green in the memory of men still in the prime of life today, who blame them for an array of problems: from a lack of emotional intelligence to an inability to form lasting relationships.

An article by the novelist Louis de Bernières in the Sunday Times last year, portraying his prep school as a nest of paedophiles and sadists, prompted an avalanche of responses from men claiming that their time in similar schools had irreparably damaged them for life. The BBC journalist Justin Webb, has just published an autobiography in which his picture of the Quaker boarding school to which his single mother consigned him when he was aged 11 reads like the memoirs of a Belmarsh lifer.

Given that of the 15 Prime Ministers since World War Two, eight attended public schools – five of them went to Eton – it might be expected that even if the accounts given by Orwell, De Bernières and Webb are only half-true, that the cruelties and deprivations that characterised such schools would have seeped into their private and public attitudes and behaviour.

In fact, compared to the sex lives of, say, modern US or French Presidents, or even our Royal Family (at least until the arrival of Boris Johnson in Downing Street), our political leaders have been models of marital fidelity and decorum. The scandals that have brought shame and embarrassment to politicians and their families, and huge entertainment to the rest of us, have mainly affected minor ministers and MPs rather than our PMs.

Such scandals additionally nearly always carried a very British, comically absurd element: a charge that has often typified Anglo-Saxon attitudes to sex. Politicians fellating guardsmen in a frozen St James’s Park (‘Makes you proud to be British!’ commented Churchill); a man in a gimp mask at a posh party naked apart from a label pleading ‘Beat me’; the assassination of a Great Dane rather than the intended target; a minister allegedly making love to a mistress wearing a Chelsea strip – such scenes seem culled from the script of a never-made Carry On Shagging film, rather than high tragedies to bring down governments.

Moreover, the decriminalisation of homosexuality in the permissive 1960s and its gradual acceptance into the mainstream of political and social life removed a guilty secret that had blighted many lives with the fear of exposure and blackmail. Now, it is likely that the posho practitioners of BDSM are the last to stand tall about it all. Who will be the first MP to come out in creaking shiny rubber, proudly brandishing a whip and handcuffs, to prove that our friends across the Channel were right all along?

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