Week #27

Cudlipp lecture

Alastair Campbell, former Mirror man and Downing Street press secretary for most ofTony Blair’s time as prime minister, will deliver the annual Hugh Cudlipp Lecture at the London College of Communication on January 28, 2008 entitled The Media: a case of growth in scale, alas, not in stature.

In addition, the winner of the £1,000 Cudlipp Award for a student journalist will be announced.

The handout reminds us that the lecture was established to commemorate Hugh Cudlipp as a key figure in popular journalism between the 1930s and the 1980s. Under his direction the Daily Mirror gained a reputation for probity, clarity and a salutary disrespect for authority. In 1964 it made British newspaper history by reaching a daily circulation of five million copies. Alastair Campbell was a graduate of a pioneer training scheme run by the Mirror and eventually became the paper’s political editor.

The occasion is organised by the Hugh Cudlipp Trust and the London College of Communication which, until it became incorporated in the University of the Arts London, was the London College of Printing. It is a renowned centre of training and education in journalism and other media skills.

Hugh Cudlipp was born in Cardiff in 1913 and died in 1998 as Baron Cudlipp, a life peer. The Trust was founded by his widow Jodi, a magazine editor in the Mirror stable of the 1960s. Family friend Margaret Allen, once assistant editor on The Times, became the Trust treasurer.

Lady Cudlipp enlisted support from Mirrormen and Mirrorwomen of the Cudlipp era: former editors Tony Miles and Mike Molloy; Felicity Green, (the first woman appointed to a Fleet Street boardroom); columnists Geoffrey Goodman, John Pilger, Keith Waterhouse; and Tony Delano, a former Mirror managing editor now a visiting professor at the College.

The event is open to all. ‘Media celebrities and star journalists will mingle with students to hear Mr Campbell’s views—and to question him about them.’

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BACK to better days, and stroll down to read Paul Bannister on New Year resolutions and how he got into the trade that made Alastair Campbell famous; or Phil Finn (following last week’s piece from Liz Hodgkinson) on drinking tea; Stan Blenkinsop on the Charlton brothers; Plain John Smith on Tom Stoppard; Peter Kinsley on Henry Thody; Colin Dunne on star interviews; and… Peter Reece on, er, Colin Dunne.

Plus a Letter, from John Stevenson of Dobcross.

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You need resolution

By Paul Bannister

By now, safely into the new year, most of my iron-clad resolutions are lying by the wayside, gasping for air.

Exhausted after a galloping start, the poor old resolutions – most have been around for half a century or more – just want a nice lie-down, and a good thing, too.

A look at popular Resolutions to Do Better finds that people vow to spend more time with family and friends (the mind recoils!) to be fit or less fat; to stop smoking, drinking, being stressed or in debt.

Virtuous resolvers vow to learn new things, help others and get organised.

They probably aim at other lofty ideals, but that’s about the top ten, and enough for me, except for walking the dogs a bit more.

The fact is, with one exception, I can’t remember ever making it past about mid-January with whatever resolution I’d vowed definitely, really, would work this time.

My earliest newspaper-related resolve came to me in about 1950. It was a magical time. We still had a King Emperor, and money was big, from giant white fivers to large silver half-crowns and huge copper pennies that wore holes in your pocket.

Outside our front garden gate were tramlines I had to polish with Brasso as a Christmas party forfeit, and yes, the roads were that quiet. Inside the house, decorated with looping paper chains, with cotton wool and tinsel on the aromatic tree, were attractive, teenage female cousins who practised kissing on me, a delighted small boy with confused thoughts.

My brothers gifted me with a John Bull printing outfit, which comprised a collection of grooved wooden blocks, a pair of tweezers and a whole lot of grasshopper-lively, tiny rubber fonts.

Squeeze the bendy type into the grooves, ink the thing and press it to the waiting page, and behold: illegible smudges. I was entranced and immediately decided to publish books.

Two days and less than a paragraph later – I was copying from a ‘Just William’ tome – I opted out of an inky’s life. Resolution One had crashed and burned.

In prep school, I resolved to become an editor, and with others in Form 1A, from which I was unjustly and permanently demoted to the B stream after one term, produced a class newspaper, The Scribe.

The first and only production run went to, oh, four copies, all lovingly hand-coloured but it was thin on content and nobody actually paid anything to look at it. My ambitions on an editor’s chair wafted away.

Circulation was next up, but two weeks as a newsboy dealing with dogs who wanted fingers for breakfast when you poked the paper through the letterbox persuaded me that a grocery delivery job had less heavy lifting, was not so sanguinary and had better and more frequent tips.

With production, management and circulation avenues off the screen, I resolved to seek other areas for a media career.

Third-form German language classes with a spluttering Glaswegian gent provided the motivational springboard. I used my brother’s discarded hospital card and inked in my own fictitious appointments, which always coincided with afternoon double periods, for my Get Out of German Free card.

It was a road-to-Tarsus awakening. Forgery and deception worked. My career path beckoned like a lit-up flare path, and I made the one resolution I can recall ever actually achieving. I became a newspaper reporter and settled down to some very Happy New Years.

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Tea for two

By Philip Finn

The best cup of tea, or rather the two best cups of tea, I ever had were in Sao Paulo, Brazil. One saved my life; the other saved my job.

Mash yourselves a strong brew because it is a story that requires a lot of background.

It starts in New York’s Catskill Mountains in the early 70s when I was doing a prelim piece on Joe Frazier before the first of his tumultuous battles with Muhammad Ali.

The day I spent with Joe was numbingly cold. Paris Match snapped a pic that day of Frazier with ice on his brow during his morning training run. It was about 30 below.

After wrapping the interview I made a check call to the New York office of the Daily Express.

Fred Ellis, who was one of my six journalistic colleagues working the bureau, said the foreign desk in London wanted me to get to Brazil as quickly as possible.

That meant a 120-mile dash back to Manhattan, swiftly writing the Frazier piece, and a stop in my apartment to pick up an overnight bag, and the portable typewriter my old mates in Manchester gave me when I went off to Fleet Street.

I didn’t have time to change clothes, and set off in my Catskills gear, dark business suit, shirt, tie, sweater, thick socks, and heavy Crombie overcoat.

After an overnight flight I arrived mid-morning in Rio de Janeiro to find the temperature a near-suffocating 105 degrees.

Within minutes I was bathed in perspiration. Sweat oozed from every pore, and I found myself squelch, squelch, squelching through the airport to catch another flight to Sao Paulo.

The assignment: to find a divorced dad from Preston, Lancashire, who had absconded with his kids following what should have been a brief Sunday visitation.

He had in fact taken them to Manchester Airport, flown to Switzerland, and caught a connecting flight to Brazil. He was believed to have holed up at a brother’s home in a Sao Paulo suburb.

I found the address, which was heavily fortified, but managed to make my way to the front door, still squelching because I did not trust leaving my Crombie, typewriter and overnight bag in the waiting taxi.

The Preston man’s brother opened the door, and told me in no uncertain manner, where I could go.

I squelched my way back to the cab, and sat there in some distress, wondering what to do next. I asked myself what Tom Campbell, Bob Blake, or the guys on the Manchester news desk would say if I made a check call in similar circumstances from Warrington, or Penrith.

Easy. ‘Get yourself a pie and a pint, and try again later when the brother has cooled down.’ Not so easy: where do you find a pie and pint in Sao Paulo, a sprawling city where I didn’t know a single word of Portuguese?

But I knew the drill. About an hour later I squelched back to the house, and this time the response was even more hostile.

The Preston man’s brother told me under Brazilian law he could have me arrested for trespass, saying not even a postman was allowed up the garden path without permission.

Now, several gallons lighter from all that perspiration, and desperately fatigued, there was only one other idea I could try: a visit to the British consulate.

I climbed several flights to a third floor office-still squelching in my Crombie and carrying my bag and typewriter, bedraggled, disconsolate.

A stern-faced woman, who identified herself as a First Secretary listened to my plaintive tale, before responding:’I am sorry there is nothing I can do to help you. This is a private matter, nothing to do with the British government…’

It was obvious I was close to collapse because the woman suddenly softened her stance to ask: ‘Would you like a cup of tea?’

It was the last thing on earth I wanted-at that moment I could have drunk every pub in Ancoats and Fleet Street dry.

But good manners prevailed. ‘Yes, I’d love one’ I muttered through parched lips, and she led me, still squelching, into a side room. The cup of tea was served on the finest English china, with a couple of biscuits, and within minutes I was back from the dead.

‘That was the best cup of tea I have ever had’ I told the First Secretary. And that was the honest truth.

The following day, after a decent night’s rest, the only option was to go back to the consulate, if only to tell them where I was staying, and to see if old stern-face had mellowed.

I went back, climbed those steps with a renewed zest, and there she was, the same First Secretary. Again she went through a litany of reasons why she could not possibly help, and then, suddenly she said, ‘Would you like a cup of tea?’

‘Yes, please,’ I said with some alacrity,’ but I know it won’t be as good as yesterday’s.’

She paused a second, and I’ll swear there was a twinkle in her eye when she said: ‘Maybe it will be even better.’

She took me back into the side room, and soon the tray was back with the biscuits, and expensive china.

But before I could lift the cup from the saucer, the First Secretary Lady, put a finger to her lips, and motioned me not to utter another word.

As I lifted the cup I saw a tiny piece of paper neatly cut lying in the circular centre of the saucer.

The First Secretary lady brought her finger to her lips and again indicated I should not say anything.

On that tiny scrap she had written the initials of a Brazilian

airline, a flight number, and the date, and departure time for a flight from

Sao Paulo to Madrid. I almost choked, wolfing down the biscuits, and drinking the tea in one gulp. ‘That was even better than the one you made yesterday’, I said. And I have never been more sincere or grateful in my life.

It saved my job, because it did not take long to check with the Brazilian airline that the Preston man and his children were booked on the flight whose details came from that glorious cup of tea.

The ExpressMadrid correspondent, Steven Harper, met the man and his children in Spain, and flew with them for an exclusive showdown on a connecting flight to Manchester.

My end of the story had an amazing sequel. I was arrested and held for several hours at Sao Paulo airport by military police carrying automatic weapons after the brother of the Preston man spotted me and told authorities he feared I was going to kidnap the children.

Guess who helped spring me? Yes, the stern-faced First Secretary lady, who saved my life, my job, and then my freedom. I’ll drink to her any time.

Phil Finn began his journalistic career on the South Yorkshire Times in Mexborough. He later subbed on the Sheffield Telegraph, and was sports editor of the South Yorkshire edition of the Yorkshire Evening News. He worked at Eastmid in Doncaster before joining the Daily Express, reporting in Manchester, London, and New York, for over 30 years. He is now savouring retirement and countless cups of tea-in Aiken, South Carolina.

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Wor Bobby

By Stanley Blenkinsop

Sir Bobby Charlton’s autobiography, ‘My Manchester United Years’ – ghosted by former Daily Express Manchester sportswriter Jim Lawton – has now been high in the hardback bestseller lists for four months.

Many readers have been surprised by references to family feuds between Bobby, now 70, and his older brother Jack and mother Cissie, once a female footballer of great renown.

But little or none of it is new to the surviving members of the old Tyneside national newspaper corps of the 1950s and 60s, Strange that the broadsheets and tabloids of half a century ago (albeit with a total circulation twice what it is today) were most reluctant to use such ‘reality’stories which would be page leads nowadays.

Here is a typical example from the 1966 Football World Cup weeks when brothers Bobby and Jack were stars of England’s winning team.

Both were given the freedom of the world’s biggest pit village, Ashington in Northumberland, to mark their triumph. And a mega-rich Geordie entrepreneur loaned them his immaculate white vintage rolls in which to lead the triumphal procession.

I was awaiting outside the Charltons’ miners cottage when Bobby, frowning as usual, strode out through the backyard to the glittering Roller beside a grinning Jack.

Suddenly Jackie lost his smile and rounded on his younger more talented brother: ‘For fuck’s sake, wor kid, can’t you make an effort and smile for the first time in your fuckin’ life?’

I put that verbatim in my copy – without the two F-words – only to be bollocked by the news editor: ‘We don’t want that sort of shit in a jolly, happy story!’ Somehow I can’t imagine that happening nowadays. Can almost see the Sun headline…

Cissie Charlton used to say of her football star sons: ‘Jackie always sends a card for my birthday and Mother’s Day; Bobby always seems to forget, but of my four sons I suppose he’s my favourite.’

England footballers each got a £3,000 bonus for winning the ’66 World Cup. Jack spent all his on a private house to replace his parents’ rented cottage. In gratitude they called it ‘Jules Rimet’ – name of the founder of the World Cup competition.

Jack – two years Bobby’s senior – played for Leeds United. When they had home games he travelled by train to Newcastle upon Tyne then on by bus – often strap-hanging the 20 lurching miles to Ashington for the weekend at home.

His mother Cissie often waited at the bus stop. One night she was frowning.

Earlier than day Stoke City were the visitors at Leeds and Jack had tripped the legendary Stanley Matthews. No live television of soccer then, but BBC radio covered one First Division match live every Saturday afternoon. (Matches were NOT announced it advance – the FA feared it would reduce the crowds and therefore the clubs’ income!)

Jack stepped off the bus as his frowning mother tore into him. ‘Why on earth did you do that to Mr Matthews (his knighthood – first for a British player – was still to come) ‘I hope you apologised properly to him.’

An embarrassed Jack mumbled agreement. Then Cissie insisted: ‘Before you go back to Leeds you will write a full apology to Mr Matthews and give it to me and I will post it to him at Stoke. That way I’ll be certain he gets it.’

Imagine anything like that today with the premiership gods…

During the 1966 World Cup the first England goal was scored by Bobby. I rang his parents, then in Beatrice Street, Ashington, via the public GPO telephone kiosk 60 yards from the back door.

Eventually the inevitable passer-by heard the phone ringing and answered my request to get mother Cissie or father Tommy to talk to me.

It was Cissie who came: ‘Wonderful – I heard it on the wireless. But Tommy’s on nightshift down the pit and he won’t know till he gets home for breakfast.’

The then chairman of the National Coal Board was Sir Alf Robens, former Labour MP for the Ashington area, who knew the Charlton family well. Alf had always been press-conscious and knew most of the Newcastle national press corps.

So I rang him at home and told him that Bobby’s father was at the coalface and would not know of his son’s goal till he came up at dawn.

But could Sir Alf not call him on the emergencies-only underground line to break the news? Immediately he agreed and ten minutes later rang back with father Tommy’s reaction.

It made a one-par exclusive in the last editions of the then world’s greatest.

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Rewriting the bard

By John Smith

It’s been more than 40 years since Tom Stoppard and I shared a typewriter.

In case this conjures up a misleading picture of close collaboration, a vision of me and the great playwright huddled side by side while struggling to produce some joint theatrical masterpiece, I should point out that at the time we were both young provincial newspaper reporters.

In the ill-equipped newsroom of the BristolEvening World, with its ancient stand-up telephones and scarred, scrub-topped tables, there was a daily scramble to grab one of the few available antique Remingtons. As there were not enough of these battered machines to go round, Tom was forced to share one not only with me, but with a dozen other muttering hacks who stood around impatiently waiting for a chance to bang out their stories.

That scruffy newsroom with its ragtag crew of aspiring journalists must have seemed a million miles away when Sir Tom reached one of the highpoints of his brilliant career back in 1999 and threaded his way through an audience of Hollywood greats to claim his Oscar for the screenplay of Shakespeare in Love.

But as I watched on TV and saw him mount the podium to receive his award, my own thoughts were still of that dreary, paper-strewn office where we had met so many years before.

I am sure he will always remember the glamorous night when he received Hollywood’s glittering prize for rewriting Shakespeare. I will never forget the chaotic Bristol morning when I acquired a prized and personal memory by rewriting Tom Stoppard.

At the dawn of the swinging sixties, Bristol was a fiercely competitive newspaper town, with a morning paper, the Western Daily Press and two afternoon tabloids, the Evening World and the Evening Post.

The city became a magnet for ambitious journalists en route to Fleet Street, but it was the brash and breezy Evening World that seemed to attract the more colourful characters. They included a twinkle-toed feature writer called Hilton Tims, who lightened proceedings by tap dancing on top of his desk while singing Powder Your Face With Sunshine and a pugnacious Glaswegian, Charlie Wilson, whose rough and ready demeanour provided no portent of the fact that he would become editor of The Times.

On to this eclectic stage swept Tom Stoppard, who added an entire new dimension to our West Country Wild Bunch. In a pre-Beatles era when barbers knew only short back and sides, his curly, tousled hair was shockingly long and shaggy. He wore a long, dark overcoat and an even longer, flamboyantly wrapped, multicoloured knitted scarf which dangled almost to the ground. With his dark, Slavic good looks, the man was straight out of Dr Zhivago.

While most of us young reporters hung around the Assize Courts pub drinking halves of bitter, the brooding Mr Stoppard enjoyed the more esoteric company of actors from the Bristol Old Vic. It was rumoured that he drank wine.

So it was that Tom was hunched reclusively in a corner of the reporters’ room on a slow news morning, jealously guarding one of the rare working typewriters and pecking out the newspaper’s around-the-town diary column. Suddenly the news editor, Reg Eason, a man of erratic temperament who had reached Olympic standard in Throwing The Typewriter, sprang to life.

A road repair workman drilling in Park Street, one of the city’s main thoroughfares, had cut through a gas main. There had been an explosion and a huge crack had opened up. The front wheels of a double decker bus had become lodged in this crevasse. Some passengers had been injured and rush-hour traffic was approaching gridlock.

In the great scheme of things, this unfortunate event may not rank as sensational. But for the Bristol Evening World, the deadline for the first edition fast approaching, it was a disaster that ranked alongside the Titanic. Reporters scattered from the newsroom like the Red Arrows. Reg Eason, red faced with excitement, looked urgently over at Tom Stoppard, who was still languidly chronicling the previous night’s activities of local luminaries.

Hard news was not normally Stoppard’s domain. Besides doing the Diary, he was also the theatre critic. Many a hapless juggler at the local variety theatre, valiantly trying to survive music hall’s dying days, had been advised of the inadequacy of his performance by one of Tom’s lacerating reviews, which frequently made Kenneth Tynan’s appear benign. But this was an emergency. BRISTOL BUS IN HORROR PLUNGE.

‘Colour, Mr Stoppard,’ barked Reg Eason. ‘Get up to Park Street and write me bags of colour.’

Stoppard, in his Cossack overcoat and Dr Who scarf, disappeared moodily through the door like Heathcliff going on a reluctant blind date.

For the next 30 minutes I sat in the office, frantically pulling together the strands of the drama, compacting a splash story from the flurry of accounts phoned in by our reporters.

With 15 minutes to go to deadline, I spotted the agitated figure of Ernie Averis, the chief subeditor, striding towards me. His well worn cardigan flapped behind him and his glowing pipe puffed smoke like an overworked tugboat.

‘Can you make some sense of this?’ he snapped, thrusting a thick wad of copy towards me. ‘All is need is 12 crisp paragraphs and there are enough pages here to wallpaper the bloody Mansion House.’

It was Stoppard’s colour story, dictated from the site of the crash. No one could say he hadn’t done a thorough job. He had even interviewed the unfortunate workman whose drilling had caused the chaos and recorded the labourer’s shock and regret.

Unfortunately such salient facts were immersed in a torrent of lyrical prose, taking in everything from hovering blue skies to the banks of flowers on the corporation lawn which provided such an ironically peaceful back-drop to this rush hour tragedy. Along the way were musings on the human condition, reminders that fate controls our every waking moment and some erudite philosophising on the twist of karma that had so explosively brought together drill and gas pipe.

‘Can you cut out the crap and knock this stuff into shape?’ pleaded the harassed chief sub. ‘You’ve got 10 minutes.’

So, surrounded by overflowing ash trays, hastily abandoned canteen mugs and half eaten cheese rolls, I sat down to rewrite Tom Stoppard.

Mr Averis, meanwhile, stumped back into the subs’ room, despairingly clasping his forehead and wailing: ‘God save us from reporters who think they’re bloody poets.’

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Racing certs

By Peter Kinsley

Henry Thody was a freelance working mainly for the Sunday Times out of Rome and the French Riviera during the film festival, and later in Australia, and we shared many long nights of drinking on the Via Veneto and meeting the stars. One night we were talking of gambling,and I told Henry that when I was on the Daily Express there were posters all over England advertisng: Clive Graham, Britain’s No.1 Racing Tipster, but Clive had had to escape from the bailiffs by going down the fire escape of his house in Drayton Gardens, Kensington, while they were hammering at the front door. Thus the life of a gambler.

Clive, tall and frequently bronzed from the open air of the racecourses, an Etonian and a gentleman, carried a silver medallion with the words, if memory serves me right: ‘Is it known to TheBeaver Clive Graham’s gambling fever?’ It was a present from John Aspinall for all the money Clive had lost at his tables.

Henry, who had been a cavalry officer and sported a magnificent Dundreary moustache, told me that he was awakened one morning in the lean-to hut that served as the officers’ sleeping quarters in the jungle by the sight of Clive Graham, binoculars around his neck, trying to creep silently out of the hut. Henry asked him in a hoarse whisper, what he was doing.

‘Shhh. There’s a race meeting in the south of Burma today and I’m getting a lift by plane. Do you want to come?’

‘But the Japanese are only five hundred yards away…’

‘Shhh… shut up then. Or you’ll wake them. Do you want to come or not?’

Henry slid out of bed and threw on his uniform and set off with Clive for the airstrip.

They spent the day on a racecourse, with Clive looking over the field with his binoculars and cheering on the winners.

In the evening they flew back to the front line.

When his leave came up, Henry went to Australia and walked into a bar and asked for a large scotch. ‘Wotta we got ‘ere then?’ said the huge bartender. ‘Large scotch? Don’t you know there’s a bloody war on? Anyway what are you doing in civvies? Dodging the column?’

‘Well, no, as a matter of fact, old chap. I am on leave. Been up in the jungle in Burma, y’know, fighting the Japanese, and they’ve given me a spot of leave.’

‘Oh, in that case: Charlie – a large scotch for the Pom officer, and put the bloody bottle on the bar for him.’ He said to Henry: ‘Sorry about that, sport. Drinks are on the house. Welcome to Australia.’

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Stardust

By Colin Dunne

Thanks to my faithful friends the snappers, they’re all there in the suitcase in the attic. Photographs of my encounters with those two imposters, triumph and disaster.

Here I am, in a white suit, dancing in the style of John Travolta. This was the idea of Nick Lloyd, brilliant features editor of the Sun and – although I didn’t suspect it at the time – clearly an even more brilliant practical joker. Actually, I look more limping pimp than a strutting stud. Come to think of it, I can still hear Tony Prime’s hysterical giggles as he took the pic…

In this one, I’m sinking in terror beneath a wave of dozens of slavering foxhounds (‘Find out how the fox feels’ was the brief, I think). Why didn’t photographer Dennis Hussey also get covered in hound-gob and mud and general animal crap like me? Because he was on top of a ten-foot bank shouting: ‘Pretend you’re screaming, Colin.’

Pretend…

What am I doing here, at the wheel of my brand-new, stylish, hideously expensive Panther Lima sports car on the hard shoulder of the M1? Are those tears running down my face? Yes. On its first trip out it broke down every half-mile. I suppose I was lucky that Roger Bamber was there to record it all. He laughed so much he nearly blew his fag out.

Come to think of it, they’re all disasters, except for my one triumph – the photograph of me being sexually molested by the most desirable woman on the planet. This was the occasion when Brigitte Bardot, at the very peak of her sexual prowess, slipped a silken arm around my neck and pulled my mouth down towards her moistly opening lips…

Nurse! Nurse! I’m having that dream again!

No, this is true, I swear it. The one oasis in a career that was mostly Saharan sand, and where’s the photograph? Can’t find the bloody thing.

Bardot apart, the truth is that I’ve had rather a patchy record when it comes to interviewing celebrities, which possibly explains why I’ve been unemployed for the last 30 years.

I’m really not very good at it, largely because I invariably don’t know who they are. After Bing Crosby, they all became a bit of a blur to me. And if there’s one thing celebrities don’t like, it’s being a blur.

The pop group I interviewed backstage in Newcastle were, to me, just a bunch of guitar-strummers who couldn’t sing ‘White Christmas’ to save their lives. They’d certainly never co-starred with Bob Hope. I’d just watched them on stage and it was clear to me they were no-hopers. What’s more, during the interview they were a touch cheeky and a scrub down with a Brillo pad wouldn’t have gone amiss. So when I wrote the piece, I changed their names to Nick Stagger and the Strolling Groans – pretty funny, what-what? – and gave the readers my personal guarantee that they would never hear of them again.

To be quite fair, they did insist on signing a programme for me, together with lots of abusive and coarse comments. Now I know a chap who’s a dealer in showbiz memorabilia and the other day I asked him what he could get for a programme signed by the Rolling Stones just before they were famous. He said we could probably both retire on it. Where was it, he asked, the sweat beading on his brow. I told him when last seen it was in the wastepaper bin just outside the Turk’s Head Hotel where I chucked it on my way home.

That was the start of my legendary career as a talent spotter.

Why anyone should send me to interview Bill Shankly was as much a mystery to me as it was to Shankly. He was, I should tell you, something to do with football and Liverpool a few years ago and was highly esteemed by hooligans the world over. The idea was that since I knew nothing about football – see how well I conceal it! – this would make it revelatory. (If that were true, you’d send John Penrose to interview nuns, but we’ll not think too much about that, shall we?) Although Shankly loathed non-football people, he reluctantly agreed to do it, and when I got there, from the look on his face, he was less than impressed with my shoulder-length hair and suede jacket. He had allocated me one hour. For the first 55 minutes, he said nothing more interesting than that fu’ba’, as he called it, was a team game and they all worked hard.

At this point, I think my concentration must have wavered. Liverpool – if that was indeed the name of his team – had just acquired a player called, I think, Steve Heighway who was a graduate. Naturally enough, I said I thought it must be so encouraging for the other players to be allowed to mix with their intellectual superiors and how it must lift the level of conversation in the changing-room. Or words to that effect.

Strangely, the man went mad. In fu’ba’,. he raged, if it was brains that mattered then you’d find people like him waiting outside Oxford and Cambridge to sign up all these shithead intellectuals, but it wasn’t, because in fu’ba’ you had your brains in your boots… I tell you, he really was quite cross and he went on for quite a while in a similar vein. As I left I heard him snarl: ‘Who’s that fuckin’ cowboy?’ I think it was the jacket he took against.

Oddly enough it got on the Mirror spread and everyone said it was the best interview he’d even given, which just goes to show you can’t beat ignorance and stupidity.

At times of stress, I thought, celebrities would be grateful for a light quip to cheer them up. Wrong again. When a magazine – I think it was the MoS YOU mag – sent me to see Elaine Paige, it was at a time when she was breaking up with a famous chap who I will not name. I will not name him because it was a condition of the interview that I should not, under any circumstances, mention any very tall song-writers of public school background who loved cricket and who were ever so slightly married. It was absolutely forbidden. So of course I didn’t. It would have been unethical.

However, when I came to write it I did mention Trim Ice, Eric Mit, Ric Time, and Ci Mitre, for the pleasure of any anagram fans. Elaine (or El Anie, as I came to think of her) was not pleased. Another star interview I’d cocked up.

When I got back from interviewing my great childhood hero, I was shaking so much I could hardly type a word. He was Joe Louis, sometime boxing heavyweight champion of the world, but by now a sadly reduced figure, in Britain to do a question-and-answer session in night-clubs.

It was heart-breaking, because by this time he was stumbling, mumbling wreck who was being humiliated by scoundrels for profit. And – as I had learned in my early years reporting the Ladies Happy Hour – the true journalist would never flinch from exposing wickedness, and wasn’t I the boy to do it?

I shared a taxi with him afterwards, Joe’s hulking shape on my right, and on my left a man with a broken nose and an East End accent and eyes that didn’t blink nearly as often as they should. Although they were both big blokes, I felt there was nothing to feel nervous about: after all, they had no doubt noticed by my own finely-tuned ten-stone of whipcord and muscle. Then the Londoner, who said he was helping Joe out, expressed the hope that whatever I wrote it wouldn’t reflect poorly on his friend. I think the phrase was ‘make Joe look an arsehole.’ I spoke up cheerfully for the freedom of the writer to express his opinions. The Londoner looked down at his broken knuckles, sniffed and said he personally would be distressed – again, I think the actual words were ‘fuckin’ pissed off’ – if that were so.

As I squeezed out of the taxi, he shook my hand with a grip so firm that I couldn’t put my mascara on for a week. ‘The name’s Kray,’ he said. ‘But you can call me Ronnie.’

The piece I wrote was so boring it was never used. Thank God.

John Dempsie and I should’ve had a major hit when we were the first to dig out television chef Keith Floyd as his rise to fame was trembling for take-off. It was 10am when he opened the door his flat over his Bristol restaurant and his face was evidence of an evening well-spent. Although I had never seen him at his best, I felt sure this wasn’t it. Fresh (if that’s the word) out of bed, he was wearing an old dressing-gown over his pyjamas and holding a shaky cigarette.

As we reminded him why we were there, he caught Dempsie’s Motherwell accent and cheered up immediately. ‘Ah, a Scot. I expect you’d like a glass of Glenfiddich…’

Ah well, it had all been going so well until then.

When I look back on it, these brushes with fame – other people’s fame, that is – have always ended in pain and failure. Does anyone remember a television show called ‘The Avengers’? It was centuries ago, back in the days when Callan weighed nine stone, Molloy’s only card game was Happy Families, and Peter Senn had a full set of teeth. I was sent to interview the glamorous female star, Honor Blackman, who came up with a snappy answer when I asked her how she’d got the role. However, the Yorkshire Post didn’t agree, refused to use it and gave me a bollocking. I still think: ‘Because I had the biggest tits’ was a good quote.

So when Ken Donlan, the Sun news editor, told me to get an interview with Bardot, I steeled myself for another humiliating farce. The occasion was, I seem to remember, her 45th birthday, and, long embittered by fame, she hadn’t given an interview for six years. In fact, she’d hardly been seen in six years. She’d begun to devote most of her time to animals. Over the next few weeks, I fired off several letters and phone calls. No response.

Ken Donlan insisted I should go to Paris. Well, it wasn’t my idea of fun but I went. I dashed off a hand-written letter emphasising my hatred of animal cruelty, seal-bashing, fox-hunting, gerbil-stuffing (she’d know about that from Hollywood), haddock-teasing, and included a photograph of myself with my children’s Airedale, Roly. I pushed it through her letter-box. Then I found an English freelance called Roger who was helping me with my researches into the effect of pastis on the Anglo-Saxon brain.

The next morning I was awakened by a call from her PA. Miss Bardot would see me at 11am.

Ken had selected me for this task because he’d heard I spoke fluent French. It was quite true, I did. I spoke only 14 words of French but each one was perfectly pronounced. I took Roger with me because, as a French-based freelance, he’d help with any language problems. And although her PA had specified no pix under any circumstances, he also had a small throwaway camera.

When she came into the room, we were both speechless in several languages. In those six invisible years, she’d flowered unseen. That careless moon-blonde hair was still piled above the perfect heart-shaped face, and the eyes… well, with eyes like that no wonder she loved baby seals. When she glided into the room in a sheath of cream cashmere, it was all moving, even the bits we couldn’t see. She smiled the smile of a woman who could read men’s minds, and she was right.

She sat down opposite me, legs together and elegantly slanted. We exchanged pleasantries. She was charming. I tentatively moved on to one or two harmless questions. Immediately she stood up and, with a gentle sway of the hips, left the room.

What had I done, for God’s sake? After six years, after all those letters, after all those phone-calls, I’d got into her house, it was all going beautifully, and now – whoosh, she’d gone. Somehow I’d blown it.

I was gathering together my recorder and note pad when she came back in. She was carrying a silver tray with three glasses and a bottle. ‘For such a charming Englishman, we have champagne, yes?’

I was saved, but only for the moment. As she lifted her glass to me, she said: ‘I get so tired speaking English. Now we speak in French.’

I looked at the freelance. Roger shrugged. ‘Haven’t got the hang of it yet,’ he said. For the next 90 minutes I worked every possible permutation of my 14 words, plus some truly excellent mime. Most of my own French, I could understand. Hers… well, all I can say is that she didn’t learn it at Skipton Grammar School.

She rose to her feet. Time up. All over. No, she said, Roger was not to take any pictures. Not even a photograph with me? Just for me?

Laughing, he slung herself down next to on the sofa, wrapped her arms round my neck and turned my face to hers. It was a kiss all right. Lips indubitably met and the after-shock travelled all the way down to my desert boots. I’m the last man to besmirch a woman’s reputation but I had the impression she’d done it before.

Then she was gone, and so were we, straight into the café across the road. I listened to the tape. I checked my notes. I dredged my memory for every last word.

Whether she’d actually given a good interview, I’m not so sure. But when I came to think about it, it seemed to me that she’d said some pretty good stuff. In fact, the more I thought about it, the better it got. By the time I left that café, I’d got enough for a pretty strong three-parter. If I’d stayed another hour or two, I think it would have made a five-parter.

And I think Brigitte would’ve been surprised at just how fascinating, how controversial, how frighteningly honest she’d been. It was one of the very few interviews that gained in translation.

I had that photo for years. I used to get it out to show colleagues. And friends. And family. And complete strangers in the street too. And now I can’t find it – the record of the only successful star interview I ever did.

Actually I lie. I did once have a goodish interview with Bernard Manning. But he didn’t kiss me, the big softie.

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Dunne writing

By Peter Reece

What a joy it is to read any tale written by Colin Dunne. He is a fine and entertaining writer, a copper-bottomed ‘wordsmith’ with an irrepressible sense of fun. Long ago – or so it seems now – I had the pleasure of occasionally sharing a desk with him at the Daily Mirror in Manchester.

If memory serves me correctly, I listened in total fascination one afternoon as Colin called the reception desks of any number of posh hotels with an inspirational idea.

Puritanical whims of acceptable sexual conduct still ruled the hotel industry when Colin dreamed up a tongue-in-cheek mission – to book a double bedded room, not for ‘Mr. and Mrs. Smith’, but for ‘myself and my secretary’.

He gathered a whole host of impolite knock-backs – plus an astonishing handful of totally outrageous acceptances – then crafted them together into a great feature piece. Oh how I wished I’d dreamed up that idea; it was brilliant.

And then there was the day we invented the world’s first Lawn Mower Grand Prix at Sale Cricket Club. Colin won with a finely tuned Qualcast Junior. His hairy little legs won through any number of heats before he finally defeated the super-fit DJ Jimmy Savile in the final.

I recall his intro to this day: ‘A funny thing happened to me on the way to the world’s first Lawn Mower Grand Prix… I won!’

This week I was entertained yet again by his erudition (sorry: no other word for it) of how he, and various mates, accidentally ended up as journalists.

Like Colin, I was never any good at maths and recall hopelessly trying to pass my GCE in geometry by the exclusive use of the Theorem of Pythagoras.

Pythagoras was familiar only because I had deduced he might be Greek and therefore cultured, and should probably rate alongside my real loves, Keats, Wordsworth and Ian Fleming. (I had already dismissed Hank Janson as a bit of a wanker, and devoted myself to Lady Chatterley instead.)

The examination paper didn’t actually contain a question even remotely connected with Pythagoras. This fact, and the possibility that I didn’t know much about his theorem either, probably explained my final award of 5% (I think I got my name correct). But oh how I wish I’d had the wit to ask: ‘5% of what?’

On the other hand, my sexual schooling was nothing short of a master class. It was provided in-depth and often by a young lady called Janet. In fact all the lads spoke highly of her.

I stumbled into working life with a short but distinguished career in the RAF. Rather sadly, by accidentally damaging my eye-sight during training, I automatically excluded myself from any hope of becoming a Spitfire ace or air crew of any kind.

I was offered the opportunity to buy myself out for £50 and ended up standing to attention before RAF Halton’s station commander. He demanded to know what I proposed to do with my life in voice which pre-supposed that any existence outside the Royal Air Force was unlikely to be up to much

Totally lost for words, I heard myself declare: ‘I’m going to be a journalist sir.’ It was sometime later that I set my mind to wondering where that daft idea had suddenly popped up from.

It was a thought that led me to the office door of the Nantwich Guardian, where they reluctantly took me on as a trainee.

One condition was that I must live in the town itself. It was rule intended to immerse parochial market town life into the human soul and, presumably, to flow naturally into any written story. I lived in another market town 10 miles away and considered my soul to be in fine fettle already.

So was my liver. My weekly wage was £11.50 and the outlay of £4 for digs in a cheap working men’s hostel was to my mind an intolerable expense – particularly so in light of the high price of alcohol. It was an irresolvable issue that became a thorn in side of the editor, Geoff Nulty, and even more so to his head office colleagues at Warrington.

It was further aggravated by the fact I had daily use of a pea green Ford Prefect, albeit the property of my mother.

Cub reporters were expected to gather the truth on foot. Any travel extravagance should be confined to a bus and my use of a car was considered an unforgivable heresy.

Which was all very well, until a protracted rail strike totally disrupted the daily flow of copy from the numerous district offices to the print works in Warrington.

Problem solved… I was invited to spend my days touring the Guardian empire collecting copy in the very car they hated me having. Head office was suddenly delighted.

There was just one fly in the ointment. It was company policy, chiselled in stone, not to pay car allowances in any circumstances, rail strike or not.

They came up with the most mystifying compromise: they would pay me the equivalent to a third class rail fare.

I left the Nantwich Guardian and set off for the rival Sandbach Chronicle in search of another job and sanity.

I didn’t last long there either. Within a couple of weeks I broke an exclusive story concerning one of the most revered scientists of the day, Sir Bernard Lovell. The urban spaceman was about to reveal plans for a second giant radio telescope at Jodrell Bank, and this was big news in those days. Quite recklessly, it later emerged, I actually engaged the great man in conversation about it.

My story made the splash in the Chronicle and was followed up by every national. The Congleton based editor-in-chief was not best pleased.

Who the **** was this cub reporter with the temerity to cobble up such an important story without breathing a word of it to him first?

In the ensuing row his final act was to fire me. He seemed to take exception to being described by a term that foreshortens the word vagina by some measure.

I think it was the only time I topped my old pal Ian Skidmore in any arena of journalism. I decided all by myself that I was totally unemployable. Skid needed to be told. I have been freelance ever since and never regretted it for a moment.

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