David Walliams' involvement at a controversial Presidents Club Charity Dinner has attracted criticism, including from some booksellers, who have removed his titles from sale.
The Financial Times published an exposé of the event, which took place last Thursday (18th January), where the hired female hostesses were allegedly asked to wear "skimpy black outfits with matching underwear and high heels" and were then reportedly subjected to "groping, lewd comments and repeated requests to join diners in bedrooms elsewhere in the Dorchester". The FT report was written by Madison Marriage and based on the testimonies of female journalists sent undercover. It has since made the headlines across other media outlets and led to the closure of Presidents Club late on Wednesday (24th January) following the allegations.
Walliams compèred at the event but also provided a lot for the charity auction, offering the chance to have a character (or characters) in his next book, World's Worst Children 3 (due spring 2018, published by HarperCollins Children's) named after the highest bidder's child or children. The prize would also include artwork featuring the child/children from illustrator Tony Ross, with Walliams also presenting the book to the winning family over afternoon tea, according to the event brochure, published in the Guardian. Other lots included lunch with the Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson and afternoon tea with Mark Carney, governor of the Bank of England, with the auction altogether raising £2m for the Great Ormond Street Hospital. However, charities are now refusing the donations, including Great Ormond Street Hospital and Evelina London Children's Hospital which have also said they will return previous donations from the organisers following the allegation, according to the BBC.The Bank of England has now denied sanctioning its prize, and withdrawn the offer.
Walliams, who compèred at the event for the third year running, said he was “appalled” by the reports of harassment at the dinner and defended his appearance there saying he was hired in a “strictly professional capacity” and was not one of the guests. He tweeted: “Last Thursday night I hosted the Presidents Club annual charity fundraiser. I agreed to host as it is one of the biggest charity fund raising events of the year. I was there in a strictly professional capacity and not as a guest.
“I left immediately after I had finished my presenting on stage at 11.30pm. I did not witness any of the kind of behaviour that allegedly occurred and am absolutely appalled by the reports.”
He has also withdrawn his lot from the auction, HarperCollins has confirmed.
However, Walliams' response has not been enough to allay the frustrations of some independent bookshops, three of which have told The Bookseller they have removed his titles from sale.
Eleanor Lowenthal from Pages of Hackney in East London, who had earlier criticised Walliams’ silence on the subject on social media, said she wasn’t persuaded by the comedian’s response. “I have already taken the books off the shelves and they won’t be going back on unless I hear something different,” she said. “His title certainly formed a big part of our children’s section, so removing his titles is a big step for us to take.”
The only way she would be persuaded to re-stock his books was if he gave a “proper apology," she said. “For me his response doesn’t cut it. I find it difficult to believe he didn’t know what kind of event he was attending – it has been running for 33 years in the same way. For me, if you are hosting an event in a professional capacity you have more responsibility to research it, not less.”
Natasha Radford, owner of the Chicken & Frog Bookshop in Brentwood, has also removed his titles from her store. “We have taken that step because in his position of being a very popular children’s author, his decision to take part in that event is unacceptable," she said. "He is saying it is his job, but I cannot buy into that. To make matters worse, he auctioned a character off in his next children’s book. We are shooting ourselves in the foot because we do get a lot of parents coming in asking for Walliams’ books. But sometimes we have to stand up for what we believe in. We have had support for our stance – someone phoned us from Cambridge and bought a (different) children’s book from us to support what we were doing.”
Rachael Rogan of Rogan’s Books in Bedford said Walliams’ attendance at the occasion clashed with its ethos of promoting feminism and the empowerment of young women. “We want to be very clear about our principles and what we are saying to children,” she said. “For a bookshop to stock, sell and promote books by an author who hosts such an event, and where a character in one of his books was auctioned to one of the people attending, is saying we endorse this, we are happy with this. We cannot promote that we believe in one thing, and with our actions do another.”
However, author Susan Hill spoke out in defence of Walliams. She told The Bookseller she didn't think bookshops should refuse to stock his books on the basis of one report.
“David Walliams is a good friend of mine. He is a gentleman and very supportive of women," Hill said. "He would never indulge in this sort of behaviour himself I am sure but a lot of this does go on, all over the country, in lads-only situations, clubs etc.
“…I believe everything David says in his tweets today. He is a man of great honesty and probity, kind and gentle and generous and hugely supportive of a wide variety of charities with both his money and his time."
She added: "And to refuse to stock David's wonderful books for children because he chanced to host an event at which this happened is unwise because it is judging on the basis of one report. None of it involved him, and surely booksellers want to sell books not ban them. Of course if he had been personally involved and proven to have been so, that would be a different matter, but he has not.”
HarperCollins Children's Books, which publishes Walliams, has not yet responded to requests for comment.
The event was attended by 360 figures from British business, politics, finance and entertainment and also featured other performers, such as burlesque dancers.
The Presidents Club has been running for 33 years. Names on the guestlist included Philip Green from the Arcadia Group, Ocado boss Tim Steiner, Labour peer Jonathan Mendelsohn and Nadhim Zahawi, the undersecretary of state for children and families, although the FT said it was not clear whether all the invited guests turned up.
In response to the FT’s article, the club said: “The Presidents Club recently hosted its annual dinner, raising several million pounds for disadvantaged children. The organisers are appalled by the allegations of bad behaviour at the event asserted by the Financial Times reporters. Such behaviour is totally unacceptable. The allegations will be investigated fully and promptly and appropriate action taken.”