Issue # 156

This Week

‘Lovely stuff today’… ‘Just what Ranters is all about!’… ‘Tip-top edition this week’… ‘These contributions took me back decades’… ‘Great pieces’…

We don’t normally get much feedback at Ranter House so it’s a pleasant change to receive messages like that about the website last week – even if only to prove that the people out there are reading the stuff.

Better still, it prompted two other stories, both about Harry Procter’s son, Bob (aka Barry), emanating from Harry’s classic memoir – The Street of Disillusion.

Phil Finn
remembered Bob joining the Yorkshire Evening News (South Yorkshire edition) office in Doncaster.

John Bell remembered working with him during a circulation drive for the Daily Express (and being fired, presumably for being the son of a man who had caused the Express so much grief during his working life).

And John Edwards told me about the story he’d heard when Harry had pinned down a guy who was a candidate for exposure as the Sunday Pictorial ‘Rat Of The Week.’ The miscreant broke down in tears and Harry looked at him convincingly and consoling and said: ‘Just sign this piece of paper agreeing you have been a rat and I’m sure you’ll hear nothing more about it’…

Indeed – that’s just what Ranters is all about, on a good week.

As is Peter Smith’s recollection – prompted by nothing more than the news of the hour – of Klaus Fuch’s defection from Wakefield Jail. The Daily Mail had a world scoop, on account of running the story a day early (or, according to how you look at it) on the same day…

And our recent series about wind-ups prompted Phil Harrison, down under, to recall a tale about pulling Garth Gibbs’ leg in South Africa.

But that’s enough from the prompt corner. It’s too hot to work.

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Two-bob Procter

By Philip Finn

Loved my old colleague Tom Mangold’s stories of Harry Procter, but was especially interested in John Rodgers’ references to the Procter kids, principally Phyllis and Bob Procter.

Phyllis, an excellent, hard-worker, sat next to me while I was a sports editor in the Doncaster office of the Yorkshire Evening News. She was more shapely and better looking than Brigitte Bardot.

But it was the arrival in the newsroom of her brother Bob that left an impression which lingers some 50 years on.

Bob, tall, gangly, cigarette-stained, and badly in need of a clean shirt, was introduced by the news editor.

He said a brief hello to all the reporters, photographers, subs, copy boys, cleaners, anyone who happened to be around.

Without being rude, I looked up perfunctorily to shake hands, and wish him well, pre-occupied at getting a lead for the afternoon sports page.

Bob disappeared to another part of the building to meet the editors and the staff of the Doncaster Gazette. He must have been greeted by over 30 people.

And then he suddenly re-appeared at my desk, stammering: ‘It’s Phil, isn’t it?… Ah hum, you couldn’t lend me two bob until Friday, could you?’

If Bob and Phyllis are still around, I’d like to send my best wishes.

And yes, Bob, you can keep that two bob.

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Sins of the father

By John Bell

What’s in a name? Poison if the name is Procter. I was one of the hacks on a Daily Express circulation drive in the North East in 1960 when a young reporter was sent to join us from Manchester. His name: Bob Procter, Harry’s son.

Bob, a personable young lad, about my age, 24, had been hired just a few days earlier by the news editor, Tom Campbell, and immediately dispatched to bolster the team in Newcastle upon Tyne.

We lodged together at the Rex Hotel in Whitley Bay and supped pints of Exhibition in the snug bar. Circulation binges were a riot. A time for hard work – and hard liquor.

The Express boasted a talented line up: Cyril Ainslie, George Gale, Vernon Armstrong, Jeremy Hornsby (William Hickey column) and Harry Pugh (for the Sunday), in addition to the resident journos, Alan Baxter, Jim Smith, Gordon Amory, Malcolm Usher and my recently retired football hero, Len Shackleton.

The idea was to push the Express circulation on to five million by bombarding Tyneside and Wearside with exclusives.

Bob Procter was doing fine until a human interest story cropped up. A young mother had to be interviewed in Newcastle General Hospital but all requests through official channels were turned down.

Resourceful Bob had other ideas. He borrowed a white coat, found a stethoscope, walked in unchallenged posing as a medic and spoke to the woman at her bedside. She didn’t object but the hospital kicked up hell and complained to the northern editor, Jack Fawcett.

Bob was hauled back to Manchester, we thought for a token bollocking and maybe a discreet word of praise for enterprise. Instead Fawcett fired him – to the disgust of Tom Campbell.

I never saw Bob again. A truly decent guy who had a promising national paper career cut dead – because his name was Procter.

Smith or Jones and he might have lived to enjoy a fat Express pension.

Fawcett was one of those editors who can be linked to the demise of the world’s greatest He offered little more than a smart suit and a smart mouth to his toadies in the Crown and Kettle.

His treatment of Bob Procter was disgusting and cowardly at a time when foot in the door did not mean you became instant Press Council fodder

I don’t know what happened to Bob. I do know his Express career was ruined by a gutless editor who thought Procter was a dirty word.

What the Express needed back then was a few more Procters.

Editor’s note: Bob, writing as Barry Procter, joined the Daily Herald and then the Birmingham Post and Mail from which he retired a few years ago as chief reporter. He lives in Rugeley, Staffs.

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Fuchs up

By Peter Smith

The news that Russian spies – however ludicrous and ineffective – are back in the headlines has provoked memories of a saga from a much darker period involving a more successful and sinister spy and yet, with the help of Fleet Street, one that has about it just a hint of Evelyn Waugh. It was a tale that my old friend and colleague on the Daily Mail, the late Dickie Whitehead, loved to tell though, as far as I know, its details have never been made public.

It involved the notorious atom spy – or traitor according to your point of view – Klaus Fuchs. A brilliant theoretical physicist, Fuchs was born in Germany but fled to Britain when Hitler came to power. Here he worked at Bristol and Edinburgh Universities, was granted British citizenship, had a spell of internment, and was then recruited to take part in the Manhattan Project at Los Alamos which resulted in those first nuclear bombs that were dropped on Japan. After the war, Fuchs returned to Britain where he worked at Harwell, Britain’s nuclear research centre. Amazingly, it had been known for years he was a communist yet the security agencies on both sides of the Atlantic seemed unconcerned.

That is, until the Soviet Union conducted its first nuclear test explosion several years earlier than the Americans had expected. There was no way the Soviets could possibly have achieved this, they reasoned, unless someone, somewhere, had handed them some very top secrets. The hunt was on.

It led, fairly quickly, to Klaus Fuchs, thanks to Britain’s expertise at breaking the codes of other nations. Faced with MI5’s top interrogator he confessed he’d been a spy for years – his codename was ‘Rest’ – pleaded guilty at a trial that lasted a mere 90 minutes and was sentenced to 14 years’ jail. There was much speculation about this jail sentence: why hadn’t he been sentenced to hang? Some theorized it was because, after confessing, he’d been extremely helpful to his captors, feeding them Russian secrets, others that he didn’t know many useful secrets anyway (which sounds suspiciously like secret service ‘spin’) while others said that 14 years was the maximum sentence for passing secrets to a ’friendly’ nation. At that time the Soviet Union was still deemed to be ‘friendly’, so jail it was. Which is where Fleet Street comes in…

Years later, in 1959, Fuchs was due to be released and naturally Fleet Street wanted to be there to record the event, but the Home Office and the prison authorities refused to give the slightest hint of the likely date. They were desperate to avoid a media circus – clearly unaware of the infallibility of the Law of Unintended Consequences. Since no hint of the date would be given out, the obvious happened: weeks before any possible release date a large contingent of Fleet Street’s and Manchester’s finest encamped themselves outside Wakefield Jail. The circus had indeed hit the town. My friend Dickie Whitehead was in the Mail team.

One day an old lag emerged from the jail, was grabbed and questioned by the Mail hacks to whom he revealed – exclusively and no doubt out of the corner of his mouth and with hand outstretched – that Fuchs had actually been released, secretly, at the crack of dawn that morning. Not believing their luck the Mail rapidly ferreted him away to a secure hotel room where they interrogated him in very great detail. Everything he said seemed to add up, all cross-checks were positive. He certainly knew a very great deal about Fuchs and what had happened to him. The one big snag was that the Home Office and the prison authorities denied emphatically that Fuchs had been released. In London the Mail received the same emphatic denials. But the decision was made: the authorities were clearly lying and so the Mail went ahead and published.

You can imagine the panic, in London and Wakefield, when the Mail first edition dropped. Hacks in Wakefield were dragged out of their beds, or more likely the bars, to be asked what the hell they were up to, or words to that effect. In such circumstances night news editors are not noted for the temperance of their language. But try as they might, all they got from the authorities, in London and Wakefield, was that the Mail story was rubbish and Fuchs had not been released. The denials were so emphatic that no other paper followed the Mail. And they were right to do so, for Fuchs had not been released. But…

At around six the very next morning Fuchs did walk out of the jail. So by the time the Daily Mail was on the nation’s breakfast tables its story was actually true. Imagine trying to explain that to the daily news editors, who are not noted, in such circumstances, for the temperance of their language. No wonder that, a decade or two later, my friend Dickie Whitehead was still chuckling about it.

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Winding up Garth

By Phil Harrison

The recent stories of great wind-ups (Ranters, passim) brought to mind a classic perpetrated on Garth Gibbs in South Africa in 1963.

Garth had been sent to the Argus group’s Bloemfontein morning paper, The Friend, as a stand-in chief sub till the new permanent chief sub, Ed Van Olst, arrived from Salisbury, Southern Rhodesia, as it then was. Now, of course, it’s Harare and Zimbabwe.

It didn’t take long before the subs’ desk noticed a particular trait of Garth’s: he had an infatuation with Brigitte Bardot. Of course, most blokes in those days did; but not everyone was in a position to make sure she was featured on the front page of a daily paper at least once a week.

He was ripe for a wind-up.

The teleprinter room was next to the subs’ room, so it was simple for one of us to talk the girl who supervised the three teleprinters into keying in a series of headline alerts we had written. She left the office after the first edition had gone to bed, leaving the prepared stories on her desk. The subs took it in turns to monitor the teleprinters.

Garth asked me to check for any late stories before preparing the front page about 10.30 pm. I wandered into the teleprinter room and came running out with a teleprinter tear-off in my hand: ‘Jesus, Garth, someone has shot Brigitte Bardot.’

There it was, hot off the SAPA (South African Press Association) wire – ‘Snap snap snap. French film star Brigitte Bardot shot at movie premiere.’

Garth nearly fell off his chair. ‘Get me every file pic of Bardot we have,’ he yelled.

Bloemfontein, capital of the Orange Free State, was mostly Afrikaans-speaking and extremely conservative. This conservatism was shared by The Friend’s English-speaking readers. That is why the pictures of Bardot that Garth ran were usually confined to head-and-shoulder shots.

It was a stroke of genius, therefore, that one of the subs had prepared a second snap – Brigitte had been shot in the chest.

Was there ever a better reason for a front-page, three-column pic of Brigitte in a low-cut dress?

If so, Garth could not think of one. It would be the biggest picture ever to be placed on page one of The Friend.

Garth was beside himself with excitement.

Then it dawned on us that someone would have to break the news that it was a hoax.

Not an easy thing to do with Garth elbow deep in Bardot pictures trying to pick the most revealing yet reader-appropriate one.

Let’s say that Garth eventually took the bad news in reasonable spirits, but not until his echoing shouts of ‘YOU BASTARDS!’ had brought the guard one floor below rushing up to see what was going on.

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