H&H interview: Former Badminton media director Julian Seaman *H&H Plus*

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  • The ebullient former media director of Badminton is eclectically talented, with a “naughty air of indiscretion”. Martha Terry meets him

    “When people ask what I do, I say, ‘I haven’t worked it out yet,’” laughs Julian Seaman, who at 65 has just retired as Badminton’s media director.

    The happy snag for Julian is he’s been able to do an abundance of wildly contrasting jobs with aplomb. He’s something of a maverick who is just as at home picking himself out of a dirty lake after falling off a horse, as selling his fashion prints to Yves Saint Laurent and Liberty. For the past 18 years, he’s dealt diplomatically with royalty, paps, worried riders and hard-nosed hacks as Badminton’s media director, but retains a slightly naughty air of indiscretion. Above all, he is huge fun.

    Julian’s own eventing prowess gave him a certain standing in the media tent. He has ridden at both Badminton and Burghley six times.

    “I always thought my USP was that I’m the only press officer who has actually ridden at that level,” says Julian. “I could have empathy with both the riders and the journos.”

    We are sitting, metres apart as the situation dictates, in Julian’s brightly painted sitting room in Fulham, sipping red wine, an anomaly itself in my interviewing career. He’s wearing red spectacles, and there’s colour everywhere, the mustard walls covered with bold, Matisse-style paintings (his own), and a neon Badminton logo (his design) stands in the corner. There are a few horse photos, but they’re invariably of him falling off, and certainly play second fiddle to pictures of his alter ego: Julian in a band, with famous people, in drag, with The Queen… although that one is tucked behind one of him grinning beside Katie Price at Badminton – “my favourite picture,” he winks.

    But although there’s only a small nod to his own ridden career, it was – by amateur standards – pretty successful, despite him living in London and studying for a fashion degree at St Martin’s. Not only did Julian finish ninth at Badminton and 12th three times at Burghley, he also completed the Grand National course in the Aintree Fox Hunters.

    Having finished 12th at Burghley aged 20, Julian didn’t envisage taking four attempts to complete Badminton. Finally in 1977, despite an earlier fall in which he pulled the bridle off, he managed to jump the bounce into the Lake in cold blood after a hold and “went through the finish shrieking like a banshee”.

    “I fell off in the showjumping, too,” he whispers conspiratorially, “but I did complete.”

    The following season, he finished ninth on Master Question aged 22, franking the good form that had brought about his inclusion on the British team at Boekelo the previous autumn. But for all these successes, his Corinthian spirit is what stands out.

    Julian seems to relish jovially recounting the times it went wrong – especially if it makes people laugh. In 1980 he had a ghastly rotational fall and landed on his head. Despite being “completely gaga”, he stood up and did a flamboyant bow – a shot captured on camera and played in Grandstand’s opener for months. Later that year, his horse The Reverend broke into trot coming into a pig-pen treble, petering out and depositing Julian on to the final fence – “That was on ‘what happens next’ on A Question of Sport!” he gleams. “And Ginny [Elliot] got it right.”

    Aintree beckons

    After Badminton 1981, he hung up his eventing spurs. “I’ll tell you something odd,” he says. “I never really liked eventing but I did like the big ones. I only ever did it for the big ones. The idea of going to Tweseldown and riding five horses, never, never… But I was lucky, I had three decent horses and I got to do the biggies.

    “I was hopeless at producing horses, but quite a good pilot. I had a great chum called Andrew Day at one of the yards my horses were kept, and he said, ‘All you have to do is ride it, we’ll tack it up, trot it up, we’ll do everything. Just turn up, go when the man says go, and hand him back.’”

    Racing was the obvious next step. “Instead of retiring gracefully, I went from my kiddy dream of Badminton to ambition number two, the Grand National course,” he says. “It was a four-year quest, and I often tell Pony Clubbers in my speeches that if at first you don’t succeed, give up – don’t go through what I did!”

    With equal tongue-in-cheek, he recounts how he tells Pony Clubbers always to blame the horse, having done the best and worst tests at Burghley: “I had one that could do dressage, the other couldn’t. I just steered them.”

    Julian’s first three attempts at Aintree, on three different horses, ended in ignominy at the first fence, being ambulanced off when it should have been third time lucky.

    In 1988, he took Ballyvoneen, “who went like an eventer”. Before the race, the BBC cornered him to ask how he was feeling having had three first-fence falls, and played them all back to him on air with an arrow highlighting his misdemeanours, “like I was a total idiot”.

    “But this time I jumped the first fence; unknown territory!” he laughs. “I hacked round after that, and I remember tapping Ballyvoneen on the neck on the approach to The Chair and saying ‘hup’ – at the biggest racing jump in the world. Ridiculous!”

    Later he recalls imitating Peter O’Sullevan out loud as he crossed the Melling Road, and a “very agricultural effort” at Becher’s. He trailed in joyfully last of the nine finishers, to a humongous cheer – he had finally done it.

    “My valet was John Buckingham of Foinavon fame, and as I came out of the shower with my towel round my waist, he came up and said, ‘Mr Seaman you’ve done it,’ and tweaked my tits. It was the best day of my life – but don’t tell my wife. My finest equestrian achievement was ninth at Badminton, but the biggest thrill? Aintree.”

    Another high came in the form of filming International Velvet, in which Julian was asked to ride the year he graduated from St Martin’s with a first. He took his best cross-country horse, Copper John, and recalls the stint being “like grown-up Pony Club camp”.

    “We did Chase Me Charlie round Burghley just after it held the European Championships,” he says. “One day they wanted someone to jump a puissance wall and kick it out spectacularly. I said I’d have a go, but it was well over 6ft. I pointed Copper John at this huge thing, and the little bugger took only a slat off the top. So I came round again and he cleared it. He jumped it so well, I wasn’t going to ask him to try again.”

    Major surgery

    What is extraordinary about Julian is how he maintained a serious hobby alongside his real job – even if he still hasn’t worked out what that is.

    He’s an artist, a fashion designer, a fashion lecturer, a public speaker; he’s written 13 books, including the bestselling Sixteen Hands Between Your Legs, presented Thrills and Spills and other films, commentated, featured as Royal Ascot’s TV artist in residence, skied with rockstars, written for publications as diverse as H&H, The Field and Erotic Review, drummed in several bands and – his claim to fame – “been the only man pictured in Penthouse magazine wearing silver lurex tights and a fez”.

    And of course, media director – not only at Badminton, but for Britain’s biggest equestrian event of all time, the London Olympics. That year, Badminton was cancelled due to flooding, but that was only one of Julian’s worries.

    “I was quite ill in 2012,” he says understatedly, without wanting to divulge the details.

    It’s testament to his professional sang-froid that he somehow managed to muster the strength to fulfil the hectic Olympic schedule alongside major surgery.

    “I felt a bit weak, but I’m a tough git,” he laughs – perhaps those Aintree episodes stood him in good stead. “Getting the Greenwich gig was the highlight of my press officer career, totally dependent on my Badminton experience. A fab location, fab team, fab British results, fab media coverage. I took all the credit,” he beams.

    Julian had in fact previously been the equestrian press manager remotely for Barcelona, Atlanta and Athens, prior to his Badminton tenure.

    But for all the fun he has had – and provided – at eventing’s showpiece, Julian firmly believes the time has come to “hang up his boots”.

    “First David [the Duke of Beaufort] died, then Mitsubishi pulled out followed by Hugh Thomas retiring – and, to put it more flippantly, Steve the Badminton butler also retired, so it was definitely time to go,” he says. “My final Badminton was great, a lovely memory.”

    Julian seems content to realise that this is the first time since his riding school debut on 1 January 1963 that he has had no connection with horses.

    “I’ve gone through every conceivable experience I could have in the horse world: I’ve ridden in Hickstead’s main arena, Wembley, Burghley, Badminton and Aintree. I had the best days as a rider, doing quite well as an amateur alongside the likes of Lucinda Green and Richard Meade, and then with the Mitsubishi days at Badminton, I was spoilt.

    “Horses owe me nothing. I’ve got loads out of it, though I like to think I’ve put quite a bit in.”

    So now it’s time for Julian to find out what he really wants to do. There will be more painting, art crit, perhaps a media training set-up. One thing is for sure, he won’t be idle. He may be a jack of all trades, but he’s mastered plenty. It will be fascinating to see the next instalment.

    Ref Horse & Hound; 8 October 2020