Interview: Claude Littner at The Cambridge Union

Scarlet Rowe 27 January 2022
Image Credit: Cambridge Union

The one and only Claude Littner came to address students at the Cambridge Union on the 26th January. As a lifelong fan of the BBC hit show “The Apprentice”, I was both excited and slightly terrified not only to meet Claude, but to interview him. By way of a brief biography, Claude is Lord Sugar’s aide in The Apprentice, a very successful businessman in his own right, and (for the football fans out there) former Chief Executive of Tottenham Hotspur.

Unsurprisingly, Claude also happens to be very popular with the student press of Cambridge University and so we (the student journalists in question) sit around a rather imposing table in the Union and are given the opportunity to ask him a few questions each. Claude is unphased by the fact that six students are all sitting opposite him and, in fact, seems quite at home.

Claude is renowned for being a formidable, no-nonsense businessman and so I am somewhat frightened to interview him in case he sends me away from the interview for wasting his time. But, as luck would have it, he turns out to be absolutely lovely. He smiles a lot, is very easy to talk to and is much less intimidating than when he is conducting interviews for The Apprentice.

My first question for Claude regards his diagnosis of cancer in 1997. The doctors told Claude that he had six months to live, and I am interested in whether this shocking news and Claude’s subsequent survival has fundamentally changed the way he thinks in both his personal and business life. He responds “inevitably”.

He continues, “a thing like that can’t help but change you. I was a young man with a young family and had no thoughts of being ill. It was devastating to be told that I had cancer, absolutely devastating. It was a shock for me but you can imagine that it was a shock for my family as well, for everyone really. It was unbelievable because I had been very fit and active and I thought I was invulnerable.

Life becomes all about one thing and that is when the doctor says come in, you have to go in that minute.

“The process of going through cancer treatment was, frankly, horrific. I can’t describe how awful chemotherapy was. Life becomes all about one thing and that is when the doctor says come in, you have to go in that minute. When he says you’re staying in hospital for two weeks, there’s no negotiating. Your life is all about hospital visits and hoping that you survive all the very harsh treatment.

“In my case, I had quite a while of that and then I was told I was alright. That was great news, but then I relapsed and just when I thought I could start my life again, I couldn’t. It’s inevitable that it changes you, not only in terms of your family and friends, but you become aware, for the first time, of your mortality. You realise that nothing is certain and that everything can change in an instant. It’s a horrible thing, I don’t wish it on anybody.”

After a pause, Claude says that “having said that, I am also the trustee of a cancer charity [Blood Cancer UK] and there have been incredible scientific and medical advancements in recent years. It is fantastic. So I think that survival rates are much higher now than they were when I had my cancer twenty five years ago.”

Claude is refreshingly candid, articulate and honest about what was undoubtedly an extremely difficult and painful time for him. My next question is more light-hearted in nature. I ask Claude what his key interests are outside of work to get an idea of the man beyond the business suit. He replies that he is “very interested in sports”, and says that “when my children were growing up, instead of telling them stories about nursery rhymes, I told them that I was a famous footballer”.

He recounts this with a twinkle in his eye, and continues, “I told them that he played in the World Cup with Pelé. They thought the stories of me being a superhero were wonderful. But then I went to an open day at one of my children’s schools and one of the teachers came up to me and said ‘I understand that you played for England’, so I had to sort of rail my stories back a bit”.

Everyone in the room (including Claude) laughs at this, and, in this moment of good humour, Claude asks me to repeat my question. Once I have done so, he says: “I like sports. I used to be a good tennis player, I used to be a great tennis player. In fact, I played at Wimbledon”. All of this is said in a highly mischievous tone, of course.

family is very important to me. I have two sons and five grandchildren, and we all live close to each other.

As well as sports, Claude says that “family is very important to me. I have two sons and five grandchildren, and we all live close to each other. I’ve got lots of friends, I’ve got lots of other interests. I like the business world, so I’m not short of things to do. I’m just very comfortable in my position”.

To round up the interview, I ask Claude what he is most looking forward to about this year. He responds, “I had a terrible accident last April. I was doing nothing dangerous, I was just riding my electric bike which I had been doing for the last eighteen months and I fell off. I was doing no miles an hour, but I had a terrible brake and, you know, this was every bit of serious.

you are all very very lucky to be here, you have got to make the most of it

“They were going to amputate my leg. It was just absolutely horrific. Fortunately, I still have my leg. But it’s another example of how you should just take your chances in life because you never know what is around the corner.” Now addressing the room, Claude says that “you are all very very lucky to be here, you have got to make the most of it.”

Claude is engaging, funny, witty and surprisingly approachable, so much so that when the interview is finished, my previous nerves have been replaced by a renewed sense of gratitude for life. The Cambridge Union will undoubtedly upload Claude’s talk on Youtube soon, and it is well worth a watch.