Former colleagues of Caplin tell of their time in secretive organisation obsessed with control. Jamie Doward and Ben Whitford report on the Exegesis connection
Carole Caplin‘s swift rise from soft porn model to trusted confidante of Cherie Blair owes much to the lessons she learnt working for a secretive telemarketing company which had strong links to the heart of government and acted as a front for a brainwashing cult.
The revelation will raise fresh questions over Cherie Blair’s friendship with her personal guru which has come under intense scrutiny in recent weeks as senior Number 10 officials have raised concerns over Caplin’s influence.
An Observer investigation has revealed that London-based Programmes Ltd, for whom Caplin worked during the 1980s, sought to dominate every aspect of its employees’ lives as it transformed them into powerfully persuasive communicators who would be capable of selling anything to anyone.
Ex-employees have broken their silence to tell The Observer how Programmes’ desire to control them was so strong the company established its own school for their children and bought up property around the business which was converted into flats. ‘Staff were encouraged to buy the flats so they could be near work. The bosses talked about their “content zone”. They didn’t want anything interfering with their staff’s content zones – by this they meant anything coming between them and work,’ said one former employee. Caplin, who rose through the ranks to become a supervisor at Programmes, followed the advice and bought one of the flats.
But The Observer has established that the property market was not the only thing Programmes’ bosses encouraged their staff to dabble in. Employees who stayed with the firm for more than a year were put on the ‘Exegesis course’, a quasi-psychotherapy programme designed to ‘re-birth’ participants by encouraging them to face up to their inner fears. Its fundamental message was that devotees had to tell the truth at all times, no matter how painful this could be.
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Run by Programmes’ founder Robert Fuller, and Kim Coe, girlfriend of Tony Visconti (the record producer behind the likes of Adam Ant, one of Caplin’s former loves), Exegesis attendees were ordered to say what they hated about each other.
Organisers called it ‘raising the confront’. Attendees were also taught voice techniques to make their arguments as persuasive as possible.
Much came down to the irresistible personality of Fuller, a former meat salesman who changed his name to D’Aubginy. Programmes staff were instructed never to talk about him or Exegesis.
‘He was very clever, a very powerful personality. He was one of these charismatic people, a bit like Richard Branson, who could lead people,’ recalled the musician Mike Oldfield, who attended an Exegesis course.
During the four-day induction course, attendees were lined up on a stage where they would scream out their worst experiences in a bid to confront their demons. Many ended up shaking uncontrollably from the experience. Oldfield says it cured him of his panic attacks. ‘I was hyper-ventilating and I confronted my panic and found out where it came from. I turned into a newborn infant. The memory of that second birth was still there, deep inside my subconscious. I could feel the newness of the air on my skin, on my fingers and on my hair.’
But there was a darker side to the programme. ‘It made you very insecure, and it made you focus on whatever it was that was bothering you deeply in your subconscious. It sort of pushed you, like doing psychotherapy in three days,’ Oldfield said.
An ex-colleague of Caplin, who left school with few qualifications, says it gave her heightened self-esteem, made her more communicative, persuasive and focused. ‘I look at Carole on TV now and she’s using the same hand signals, the same phraseology, the same voice gestures, just as when she was trained by the Exegesis programme. It sends shivers down my spine,’ said a former member of the cult.
Those who attended the induction were encouraged to move on to the second level of the Exegesis programme. Few have talked about what happened within the cult’s inner core but it has subsequently been plagued by lurid allegations involving group sex and mind games.
Myth or not, today Exegesis disciples paint a bleak picture of the cult. ‘The simplest way to summarise Exegesis is that if you’re not a particularly strong person it was a form of brainwashing. The people whose lives had been really bad seemed to be the ones who clung onto it the most,’ said one former attender.
Nevertheless, by the mid-1980s the Exegesis courses had transformed Programmes into a thriving business which was winning contracts from the likes of blue chip clients such as Vodafone. However the company’s success was not all down to the influence of the cult. A large portion of Programmes’ telemarketing work – which involved selling everything from pot plants to fax machines – was won by its hugely successful subsidiary agency, the Exhibitionists. Staffed solely by attractive women, many of whom were ex-models, the Exhibitionists were trained to charm company directors into outsourcing their firm’s telemarketing work to Programmes.
The agency was run by Caplin’s close friend, Pearl Read, one-time wife of the East End gangster and Krays’ rival, Joe Wilkins, who ran a prostitution empire throughout the 1970s. Read, who was given a conditional discharge for helping to run a vice racket in 1976, insists the Exhibitionists was not a front for prostitution.
The combined effect of Exegesis and the Exhibitionists had a remarkable effect on Programmes. By 1985 it had been confirmed as the largest telemarketing operation in the UK, capable of making 10,000 calls per day.
The company’s turnover ballooned from £21,000 in 1981 to nearly £6.5 million in 1990. Programmes’ transformation sparked a profit bonanza for its shareholders, the biggest of whom was Kenneth Warren, Tory MP for Hastings, and parliamentary private secretary to Margaret Thatcher’s mentor, Keith Joseph.
Despite its Westminster connections, fears over the cult of Exegesis prompted questions in Parliament. Read became so worried that she quit the business, taking the Exhibitionists with her. Numerous employees followed her out of the door, although others felt unable to walk away. ‘The money was amazing,’ recalls one telemarketer. ‘I was on £500 a week (equivalent to around £1,500 now) without any qualifications.’
Programmes changed its name and methods several times and one of its divisions eventually mutated into a company called the Merchants Group, which exists today as a hugely successful telemarketing business.
Amid the fallout, D’Aubigny attempted a new route to riches, forming a record company with Visconti which was remarkable for having no hits, while Exegesis evolved into a series of splinter movements.
Caplin went on to set up a series of New Age companies including Holistix, which devised a series of health and well-being exercises for wealthy clients, who would later include Cherie Blair.
‘Carole used Exegesis as a stepping stone to move on. It gave her confidence and made her stronger, but it also made her vulnerable,’ says one ex-member. ‘Exegesis taught her to be truthful always, to say what she thinks without thinking about the consequences.’
This perhaps goes some way to explaining Caplin’s dependency on the conman Peter Foster and her naivete when dealing with senior aides within Number 10, chiefly Alastair Campbell.
As one of the cult’s former members put it: ‘People think Carole’s Machiavellian but she’s really not bright enough. She never had a plan for dealing with any of this. Exegesis made her stronger but it also made her naive. It means any of the mess she’s in now she never saw coming.’
· Additional reporting by Karin Gavelin