Emil Savundra

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
Jump to: navigation, search

Michael Marion Emil Anacletus Pierre Savundranayagam, usually known as Emil Savundra (6 July 1923 – 21 December 1976), was a Sri Lankan swindler, most notable for the collapse of his Fire, Auto and Marine Insurance Company, which left about 400,000 UK motorists without cover.

As a post-war black marketer, Savundra conducted bribery and fraud on an international scale, before settling in the UK, to sell low-cost insurance to the fast-growing car market. By defaulting on mandatory securities, he was able to fund a lavish lifestyle, mixing in fashionable circles. But this drew the attention of the press, who uncovered evidence of major fraud. In a dramatic TV interview with David Frost, he showed contempt for his defrauded customers, some of whom were in the studio audience, and shocked the nation by denying any moral responsibility. As the police had also been investigating him, he was soon arrested and sentenced to eight years' imprisonment, but released after six, and died two years later, in an advanced state of drug addiction.

Early life and career[edit]

Born into a Tamil family of lawyers in Ceylon during the period of the British Raj, he grew up with a mixture of respect for and resentment of Britain. He served for a brief period with a commission in the Ceylon Engineers but was refused entry into the Royal Air Force during the Second World War although he held a pilot's licence. He married a young Tamil woman who stayed loyal to him throughout a turbulent thirty-year career.

When Ceylon was granted independence in 1948, Savundra tried to develop a business career on the island at age 24. At about this time he developed insulin-dependent diabetes that would shorten his life. During this period of time, he was used as a local intermediary in an economic sabotage of a shipload of oil that he appeared to be selling to China but which his American contacts had ensured did not exist. This was in the context of the ongoing Korean War. Having used this device to support the US war effort, he went on to repeat the process.

In 1954, at the age of 31, he came to the attention of the Belgian authorities, accused of swindling the Kredietbank of Antwerp over a non-existent cargo of rice. He served a sentence in prison in Belgium. In 1958, he resurfaced as a middle man for a company called Camp Bird in Ghana, representing this American company with mineral interests in the country. He was involved in bribes at the highest level of government and claimed in his diaries that this was the typical business practice in Ghana in the 1950s. It is notable that he did not face trial but was deported from Ghana, presumably because a trial would have led to local embarrassment. But he had developed a career of sharp practice characteristic of a post-war black marketeer and went on with a fraud at the expense of the Costa Rican government in 1959, based on coffee beans.

The only record of any offence in Ceylon was a failure to pay an inland revenue bill based on the earnings of some of the economic frauds, but it was because of this that he did not return to the island between 1951 and 1965, when he returned finally at the age of 42.

Fire, Auto and Marine[edit]

By the early 1960s, Savundra had emigrated and settled in the United Kingdom. Here he perpetrated the fraud for which he was convicted in 1968. In 1963, he had formed the Fire, Auto & Marine Insurance Company (FAM), which exploited the thriving motor insurance industry – at a time when car ownership in the UK was increasing and road networks were being further developed – by offering very attractive insurance rates and by a revolutionary but by modern standards rather crude computerisation by a collaboration with IBM.

He lived a lavish high-profile lifestyle before FAM eventually collapsed due to failure of cash flow and subsequent exposure by the Sunday Times Insight Team of the lack of proper securities. This lavish lifestyle had included racing powerboats including in the Daily Express Cowes-to-Torquay powerboat race where he mixed with rich and powerful figures of the time, who were unsure what to make of Savundra – a character from the Far East. There are many photographs of him posing with such figures. In his first race he fractured his spine and was referred by one of his high society friends to an osteopath called Stephen Ward. This is when he became involved with Christine Keeler and Mandy Rice-Davies and Savundra is referred to at Stephen Ward's trial as 'the Indian doctor',Scandal (1989) though he was Ceylonese.

Because the scandal centred around the Minister of War, female escorts, the Russian defence attache, a famous actress, a senior member of the House of Lords and so many other society figures, Savundra did not come to great attention although Keeler and Rice-Davies have published their accounts including Savundra in their autobiographies and this may be when Private Eye began to notice Savundra's activities in London, which arguably was the beginning of his downfall. It is perhaps notable that Savundra's eventual nemesis, the renowned interviewer David Frost, posed in a photograph in the classic Christine Keeler shot for the BBC's That Was The Week That Was, both photographs having been taken by Lewis Morley.A Modern Icon – Victoria and Albert MuseumDavid Frost photographChristine Keeler photograph{broken link}

Savundra was one of the first controversial businessmen to use UK libel law to try to prevent publications like Private Eye from publishing damning allegations about his life and his business practices. At his trial in 1968, witnesses confirmed to have seen documents that he had presented demonstrating that he had securities worth £540,000 and ownership of £870,000 of 'blue-chip' shares underpinning FAM. No such securities were available when the company failed. In any event, once the company was known to be failing, it still continued to trade and issue cover notes but only part of the premiums were being submitted by the insurance brokers who were becoming aware of difficulties and some of whom themselves began to act fraudulently.

Fire, Auto and Marine was one of a number of insurance companies that failed in that period of time but was most notable by being the first failure and by Savundra being possibly being the most noticeably garish Asian in Britain in 1962. However, Vehicle & General laid the claim to being the biggest of the six insurance companies that failed in the 1960s and early 1970s. True or not, the belief that FAM was deliberately failing to meet its obligations to its customers grew.

The Sunday Times Insight team investigated Savundra's affairs and reported that his "reserves" in stocks worth nearly a million were forgeries. Commentators in his defence have asserted that Savundra was taking on high-risk clients and was not sufficiently sophisticated to realise that he should have been allocating far more resources to deal with the inevitable claims that these clients would generate, while overlooking his track record in fraudulent trading. It was claimed that Savundra was transferring FAM assets to a bank in Liechtenstein, an "offshore" institution beyond British control, allowing much greater secrecy. In the end no such funds were ever found.

In May 1966, the 42-year-old Savundra – suffering from a long history of insulin-dependent diabetes – suffered a heart attack and he sold his FAM shares to his directors at FAM. The company, led by Stuart de Quincey Walker, collapsed within days, leaving its clients uninsured in fact as well as in practice. It is estimated that 400,000 motorists were affected. Savundra was pursued by the media who besieged his north London mansion in Hampstead for days.

He fled to his native country of Ceylon, where he was sheltered by his relatives-in-law. The Government of Ceylon refused to confirm that they would deny any British request for his extradition from Ceylon back to England. In December, he returned to Europe, and was in Rome for a month, still being pursued by the British press. In January 1967, he re-entered the United Kingdom. By now, at age 44, he was dependent on insulin and also a pethidine drug-addict for his back pain and his angina.

Frost Programme controversy[edit]

Emil Savundra on The Frost Programme

The fraudulent nature of Savundra's business affairs once again burst into public prominence in 1967 as a result of a television interview by David Frost on the Rediffusion London show The Frost Programme (made for ITV) – a seminal and ground-breaking interview-based chat show with Savundra as its first notable "victim".

The background to this was that on the previous week, David Frost announced he was going to include the story of the FAM debacle and Savundra in his next programme. Savundra's ego was inflated enough for him to initiate contact with the David Frost production team because he believed that he would be able to exonerate himself on television given a suitable audience. Whether this was a flaw in his character or a reflection of his use of pethidine is not clear. Certainly he injected before he went on the show and throughout the recording appeared to be excessively calm despite the level of accusation and disdain by David Frost.

Savundra appeared secure and confident in his ability to defend his conduct, as well as anticipating no problems in handling Frost's questioning. Whatever the previous arrangements were with the production team, it was clear he was not ready for the hostile heckling studio audience being led by David Frost. He seemed to expect an opportunity to lecture on the finer points of the law and to debate with Frost. He referred to Frost as being the 'finest swordsman in England', and also referred to the audience – which included some of his clients and victims of the insurance company failure – as "peasants", and claimed to have "no moral responsibility" for what had happened.

Frost had obviously anticipated Savundra showing contrition and remorse before his victims and not defiance. Savundra's attitude towards these clients who were present in the audience provoked Frost into confronting Savundra over his conduct. The programme ended with shouts from the audience of "Well done, Frostie!". Frost finished the show without its usual sign-off and he spoke to the wrong camera before walking off the set, this being attributed to his anger.

The episode was quickly dubbed "trial by television" and caused serious misgivings in the corridors of power in the television world and beyond, causing Rediffusion senior management to be ultra-cautious in future. It was felt that the television treatment of Savundra by Frost severely compromised Savundra's right to a fair trial in a British criminal court. However, the programme created the reputation of Frost as a vigorous interviewer in the UK and may have helped develop his career in the US – culminating in his famous interview with a post-Watergate Richard Nixon in 1977, where again he was underestimated. It also opened the door to a more aggressive style of television interview with politicians and other notable people as typified by Robin Day and continuing with Jeremy Paxman.


Savundra was arrested not long after his appearance on The Frost Programme. The police had been undertaking investigation for two years and an arrest would probably have occurred whether he had appeared on television or not. The case had been in the newspapers for a long time.

In March 1968, he was sentenced to eight years' imprisonment with a fine of £50,000 or a further two years. The trial was very long and antagonistic between the defendant and the barristers.

Savundra was eventually placed in the prison hospital where he became addicted to drugs to control persistent heart disease pain. Whilst in prison, it was discovered that he had used his wealth to go to different clinics around the world and paid for the treatment HE wanted for his diabetes. Records from all these clinics were collected and collated. Savundra was released from prison just before Christmas in 1974, by which time he was living in a drug-induced world of fantasy. He died in England, in Old Windsor, near Windsor, Berkshire, on 21 December 1976, aged 53 years, survived by his widow, and was registered as a "retired banker".

Savundra perceived himself as a devout and pious Roman Catholic.

Popular culture[edit]

In the popular British television comedy, Yes Minister, Jim Hacker confesses in The Death List that he once wrote a character reference for Savundra.

External source[edit]