Dressing the part
By Paul Callan
Sartorially speaking, the Hacks Britannicus has long been a mixed bunch. There were always a few in the newsroom, mostly younger subs, who looked as though they had slept in their clothes (and probably had).
They contrasted with the snappy dressers among the reporters who, if they could not afford a tailor-made suit, still managed to look smart in Montague Burton’s best (that dates me).
But back in the 1960s, when I embarked on the inky voyage, I was instructed, even before I started jotting in my first reporter’s notebook, how I should dress.
The older Ranters will doubtless recall the advice themselves: news editors wanted to see you in a dark suit, white shirt (preferably clean), neat tie, and black, well-polished shoes. The idea was that you might be sent to cover a funeral or even a visit by royalty. You always had to look respectable, even if you were not. After all, you were representing the paper.
But there were always a few who scaled higher up the tailored ladder. I recall the dapper Brian Baxter on the old Norwood News who sported extremely elegant suits of a raffish cut. He stood out, particularly with the rolled-back cuffs.
And, later, with the Croydon Advertiser group, there was the very well-turned-out Iain Murray, neat in his well-cut dark suit and who would later become The Times man in Israel.
I managed to persuade a sympathetic parent to buy me a couple of decent suits – one dark and the other pinstriped. But I had also inherited my father’s style of bow-tie wearing, which I have continued.
For years I would be followed down a street by young oiks shouting ‘Oy! Robin Day’ But the look has served me well – although when I started wearing suede brogues while on the Evening Standard I was sent home to change by the paper’s fierce editor, Charles Wintour. ‘I do not expect my staff to dress like second hand Bentley salesmen,’ he said coldly.
But a few years ago the way I dressed proved useful when a well-known soap star brought a libel action against the Sun after the paper alleged she was providing, er, comfort for her husband in a motorway layby.
She lost the High Court case after some brilliant cross-examining by the late George Carmen QC. I had been sent by the Daily Express to write some colour – always a pleasure when Carmen (who was a drinking friend) was in court.
When the star lost and huge damages were announced, she promptly collapsed and was removed from the High Court, screaming.
The shattered actress was taken upstairs to be given first aid. But all entrances were blocked by burly security men and attempts by other reporters to talk to the actress were barred.
Then one of our numbers suddenly looked me up and down – I was wearing a pin-striped suit and usual polka dot bow tie – pointing out that I didn’t actually look like a journo and looked more like (as he put it) ‘a bleedin’ barrister’.
He had a point. So, with a borrowed briefcase, I walked upstairs to the banned area. The two muscular security men, much to my delight, though I was someone’s counsel and immediately stepped aside.
There sat the crying star being comforted by friends. I strolled languidly over – in the manner of bleeding barristers – and gently asked if she was all right. She then unwittingly gave me a splendid interview – until one of her minders became suspicious and asked if I was a reporter. I confessed – and made a fast exit.
We all shared the copy afterward in The George and there was satisfaction all round.
There have been other occasions when the pinstripe-bow tie look has helped. I recall the time I was able to walk unquestioned into a flat that was to be used by the Queen when visiting the Cayman Islands.
But, on that occasion, I was finally rumbled – by the Queen’s secretary, just I was ‘testing’ the Royal bed.
Then there was the time a very well-known glamorous film star removed my bow time and… but that’s another story.