Tuesday, 23 June 2009
Give me an overnight,
Anything will be alright,
We don't care if it's shite,
Our schedule's very light,
Bum tit or whore,
(which was the old phone number for The Sun, Manchester)
Friday, 12 June 2009
The late Screaming Lord Sutch was a good contact of mine. And through David I was introduced to a dozen or more raving loony eccentrics including a man who had changed his name by deed poll to John Major. He even altered his address to 10 Downing Street despite actually living somewhere like 3 Acacia Avenue. The local postmen, however, always impeccably delivered his mail. Strange, because I regularly get post for a Chinese restaurant.
One day John telephoned and asked in a matter of fact voice: “Can you find me a dwarf for the UK’s first ever dwarf throwing contest?” Apparently the pastime was a hit in Australia and John thought he could become rich here by turning people of restricted growth into missiles. Always ready for a challenge, I began my search and within a day I had contacted Britain’s tiniest man Mike Henbury Ballan. Sometimes it pays to start small.
Even at just 2ft 11in Mike, 32, was a larger than life character. He worked as a customs and excise officer in Hampshire and even managed the office football team. But he also had showbiz experience, appearing in movies like Labyrinth and Return of the Jedi. He warmed immediately to the idea and thought he could go far as a human projectile, although in reality it was unlikely to be more than about five feet. I sensed a big page lead in a Sunday tabloid and a decent pay day.
Then tragedy. John had been told by the venue he would need a licence for dwarf throwing and when he applied for the document a local authority pen pusher not only told him it was impossible he also alerted every other local authority in the land. Suddenly dwarf throwing was on a par with dog fighting. Another world exclusive bites the dust. Another wrong turn in the pothole of life. I broke the sad news to Mike, who, like a true gentleman, was not short with me.
A few months later the telephone rang and a voice said: “It’s Mike Ballan, do you remember me?” He explained that he was getting married to his 4ft tall girlfriend Debbie Spencer and wanted me to write the exclusive story. The ceremony made a heart warming page lead in the Sun on May 31st 1991 (see picture).
A day later, because Mike had a brother of normal size, an American magazine rang and asked me to adapt the story - for very generous remuneration - to coincide with the release of the hit Hollywood movie Twins starring Arnold Schwarzenegger and Danny DeVito. Kerching. Large ones all round, or not as the case may be.
Wednesday, 10 June 2009
I was enthralled by stories like the time the news editor stunned Cameron by ordering him to go out and buy a pith helmet and a mosquito net because he was off to interview the Dalai Lama.
I found myself similarly surprised the day I was assigned to go undercover in a transvestite hotel in
I had just turned in to do a casual night shift on the Sun in
“Look,” I said, almost absent mindedly, “it’s a hotel for goodness’ sake. Why don’t you just get someone to book in?” The look on the faces of my colleagues must have been very similar to the expression of Archimedes when his spilling bath water told him the volume of irregular objects could be calculated with precision.
Minutes later I was on my way to the Victorian terrace house, which was soon to be dubbed
If there were other guests booked in they did not stray from their rooms. Rupert sat and chatted throughout dinner. But every time he departed to collect the next course I removed an auto-focus camera from my cleavage and captured the ambience of the mysterious dwelling. In the lounge I found dozens of photographs of satisfied customers, one carrying the message “who’s a naughty girl, then?”
My report duly appeared two days later. But I was mortified to be ordered to telephone Rupert and seek his reaction. Over dessert he had told me how he hired a private eye to track down one customer who didn’t pay up. My hand trembling, I dialled the number and soon heard Rupert’s honeyed drawl on the line. “You were very naughty,” he chided. “But since the piece appeared in the paper the telephone hasn’t stopped ringing with bookings!” It’s nice to do something for local businesses I always think. Luckily he never offered me a loyalty card.
Tuesday, 2 June 2009
When I started in journalism a staff or freelance reporter attended almost every case in every court in the UK. The shame of being convicted was part of the sentence, in my view. Nowadays, with the sad demise of local and national newspapers, only a tiny fraction of cases are properly covered. In 2002 when I attended Glossop magistrates to see former Manchester United star Lee Martin convicted of benefit fraud the clerk to the court told me I was the first national reporter who had set foot in the chamber for five years. The man who scored the winning goal in an F A Cup Final had swindled £3,000 while earning thousands as a television pundit. The court heard that Martin felt ''nothing but shame and embarrassment''. Quite. There may always be mitigating circumstances and these can be put before the court. But surely a genuine show of contrition is part of the rehabilitation process. I doubt whether Martin transgressed again.
Clever people talk of micro-blogging replacing local journalism. But what blogger will sit in Glossop magistrates court all day? And court reporting is an art, for which an impeccable shorthand note is needed. Even if he was willing, does that micro-blogger have the relevant skills? Of course, newspapers should not be immune from general economic pressures. But the plight of companies like Strand News is an example of the very serious consequences that will follow the breakdown of traditional news coverage.
The stunning glass fronted building, designed by Sir Owen Williams, boasted a spectacular front hall with an ornate floor and curving marble staircase and featured in the 1961 film The Day The Earth caught Fire. It had an identical twin in Ancoats,
In the London office I remember a sign which read "Starway to the Stairs", which I thought was very clever. In Manchester, we had a writer called Pat Codd and there was a sign on the wall there with extracts from his work below the headline "Codds-wallop".
That evening the requisite number of celebrity reputations had been puffed or poisoned, the weather story had been done (was it “hailstones as big as golfballs” or “paving-stone cracking sunshine”? I can’t recall) and a few jars in The Old Bell beckoned. However, tonight was different.
My accomplice reporter Pam Francis and I had taken ownership of two invitations to a swanky PR event in The Savoy. We strolled in, mingled and sank as many glasses of champagne as decorum allowed. Now to find the exit before the tedious speeches began. Unfortunately, the Press officers had done their logistics and in a pincer movement of which von Clausewitz would have been proud, Pam and I were ushered into a large auditorium where someone began droning about something like fluoridation or animal rights in Kazakhstan.
We had to find a way out before deep vein thrombosis took hold. I spied a door so we wriggled along a side wall as inconspicuously as two Turkish greasy wrestlers in a nunnery and dashed for freedom. We found ourselves in the hotel’s kitchens, where the sharpening of knives did wonders for our slight inebriation. Having negotiated the stainless steel maze for less than a minute I spotted another door and urged Pam to follow me through it as quickly as possible.
I was still checking that Pam was right behind me as I burst through the door and collided shoulder to shoulder with Harold Wilson, who ended up on his back. Amid profuse apologies we both hauled the statesman to his feet, brushed him down and as befits our calling made our excuses and left. Luckily, he wasn’t smoking his pipe at the time.
Monday, 1 June 2009
Thursday, 28 May 2009
But one of my strangest assignments was from a showbiz contact who wanted a new face for one of his singers. She was an accomplished club act but her career was in the doldrums and she wanted to become the UK’s top Madonna look-alike and sound-alike.
There was just one drawback. While she could passably sing like Madonna she looked more like Maradona. At the time the necessary cosmetic surgery cost around £16,000 and she could only afford half.
I set to work writing to about 20 plastic surgeons outlining the case. I was offering substantial coverage in a national newspaper in return for a hefty reduction in their fees. Nine replied and it so happened that one lived close to the lady’s home 300 miles away from mine.
I duly contacted a friend who was deputy editor of The Sun and received from him a letter saying how the story had the potential to be a double page spread in the world’s biggest selling daily newspaper. I drove down, picked up the warbler and eventually found the clinician’s lavish home.
The crunch of the gravel drive under our feet went on for some time as we passed the Rolls Royce and the huge mobile home. The surgeon asked me to wait in the “drawing room” while he interviewed my “client”. Some 20 minutes later the two of them emerged and he pronounced the singer physically and mentally fit to undergo the operation. It involved pulling the skin off her face like removing a Marigold from your hand and cutting here and there. Thankfully I hadn’t had breakfast.
“Wonderful,” I said and pulled the Sun letter from my inside pocket with a flourish. The surgeon read it carefully and handed it back to me. “Interesting, but there’s just one problem,” he said. “A few years ago the Sun newspaper called me Dr Frankenstein.” I gulped. “Really, you sued, of course?” He gave a shrug. “Well yes, but let’s put it this way, their lawyers were cleverer than mine!”
When I got home I checked the cuttings. The surgeon was quoted as saying: "I especially don't like doing operations in December. I don't like patients ringing me up moaning that they are bleeding while I'm carving the Christmas turkey."
I eventually arranged for another surgeon to perform the operation. We agreed to let the scars heal and then arrange a photo-shoot. But while I was away on holiday the singer gave an impromptu interview to a rival newspaper which sunk the whole project and left me out of pocket. Freelances live on results. I felt like rearranging her face myself. Mind, I’ve never seen or heard of her again. It just hurts whenever I hear Madonna sing "I'm So Stupid".....
Wednesday, 27 May 2009
I’m not quite sure how and why the term monkey was coined. I vaguely recall former Daily Express photographer Peter Jackson who used to take a monkey doll to the political conferences of the major parties but I suspect the epithet was in use long before that. (Jacko, incidentally, died tragically when he fell from the bedroom window of a Maltese hotel room I was due to share with him. But I had to miss that Press trip).
Mirror snapper Andrew Stenning thinks the term comes from photographers following Prince Charles on foreign royal trips in the Seventies and Eighties. They had a habit of climbing up trees to get a better shot. Charles was annoyed about this and gave a packet of peanuts to some reporters with the comment "Here's some nuts for your monkey friends!"
While former Daily Star lensman Ciaran Donnelly swears it comes from Joe Gorrod of the Daily Mirror in Belfast during the troubles circa 1974. When Cyril Cain the photographer in Belfast was being asked about a story Joe opined if anyone wanted to know about it they "should talk to the organ grinder not the monkey".
Photographic lecturers or grumpy picture editors are accustomed to calling a particular image "a monkey shot" meaning a monkey with a camera could have taken it. Also, according to my old Fleet Street snapper pal Peter Wilcock, the term for continually looking at the LCD screen of a digital camera is called...' chimping'.
Anyway, monkeys are a legendary breed, a bit like goalkeepers really. Many of them are barking. But the world would be a sorrier place without them and their ability to do the unexpected has saved many a blunt (often from physical harm, see my earlier blog on Big Daddy: Question Time) while also delivering superb results of the painting-with-light variety.
My favourite monkey story involves a Liverpool-based photographer called Chris Neill, one of whose many skills is snapping footballers. Indeed, having read about his own alleged exploits (often inaccurately reported) in the autobiographies or biographies of Alex Ferguson, Phil Thompson, Robbie Fowler and Peter Crouch he is now thinking of writing a book on himself.
Chris, who works mainly for nationals, had been commissioned by the Manchester Evening News to take a picture of actor Bryan Mosley, who played Alf Roberts in
Having a drink in the piano bar, Chris spotted a figure in the distance whom he took for his former assistant head teacher at North Manchester High School for Boys, Alan Atherton (the dad of ex England cricket captain Mike by the way). Sidling over to him Chris said: “Hello, it’s Alan Atherton isn’t it?” To which the customer said: “No, my name is Dustin Hoffman.”
After apologising, Chris and the
Another sherbet later, the feature writer turned up and they proceeded to the lift to ascend to Bryan Mosley’s room. The lift door duly opened and out walked Hoffman, in tuxedo, saying: “Hi, Chris, and thanks for the directions.” Alas, Chris omitted to snap the look on the blunt’s face, which was, most certainly, a picture.
Sunday, 24 May 2009
What's that big circle for in the middle of a football pitch?
Bobby Ball...is he part of a comedy duo?
The BBC radio programme Start the Week...is it on a Monday?
The Olympics, they're every five years aren't they?
I'm writing about that famous cricketer W.G.Wells
When Nat Lofthouse was dubbed the Lion of Vienna who were England playing?
This actor Michael Douglas...is he local?
What's a Mexican wave?
What's the word for one of those stories that we keep all to ourselves and no one else has got?
John Lennon...didn't he write most of the Beatles' songs?
Dunlop, they makes tyres don't they?
Screaming Lord Sutch, what was his real surname?
Have you heard of a television company called CNN?
And my personal favourite...
The Sooty Museum...is that someting to do with Indian burial rituals?
Wednesday, 20 May 2009
What’s the toughest question you have ever had to ask? No, apart from “can you kindly settle that outstanding invoice?” I’d appreciate your examples. The three questions I would really love to ask are (a) “God, is there life after death?” (b)
Tuesday, 19 May 2009
Monday, 18 May 2009
The scandal over MPs' expenses rather puts to shame the so-called Spanish practices and creative accountancy of journalists over the years. I can't recall any colleagues claiming for maintenance of a moat or the purchase of a chandelier. But I can't be sure. Few hacks, especially those on national newspapers, have not been taken conspiratorially to one side over the years by a more experienced hand and shown the craft of fooling the beancounters upstairs. The late, former Daily Express man Trevor (Kennard) Reynolds had an ingenious ploy. He banked on the news editor, who signed the expenses forms, being too busy, so would put a reasonable claim in the box at the bottom although the actual figures above would often amount to almost twice as much. A diligent calculator-jabber would correct the error and authorise the higher amount to be paid. The perennial joke in the accounts department was of Trevor’s poor numeracy skills. But, of course, it was TKR who always had the last laugh. For a joke another Expressman once put in a claim for something like “hire of spaceship £1m”. Without checking, the busy news editor duly signed the chitty and the next thing to happen was an angry summons from the pub at lunchtime to attend a meeting with the chief accountant. Top sportswriter Peter Batt is said to have interviewed a racing trainer over the phone for a substantial article and duly put the receipt for a meal he’d had with his wife and two young kids on expenses. When quizzed as to why there were two “children’s portions” on the restaurant receipt a straight-faced Peter said: “They were jockeys”. One hack, in a district office, claimed for an imaginary pair of gumboots he said was essential to cover a story. Later he was told to bring in the actual boots because someone else might need them. He raced to the nearest army surplus shop, paid for a real pair, smeared them with mud and offered them to the news room. Later an accountant wrote: ‘Next time you go out on a job, maybe you could move a little faster if you undid the string at the top.’ I'm obliged to the website www.gentlemenranters.com for that story. One reporter sent to interview a talking dog charged £10 for a bone. When grilled by an incredulous news editor who said: “It must have been a big bone” the hack thumped the desk in anger and roared: “It was f***ing big dog.” Former Daily Star journalist Gordon Wilkinson went on a job to
Put it on expenses
We will show you how
Do not tear the a**e out
But the last word must go to photographer George Birch, sent to snap a cat peering through a mouse hole. He had to secure the cat’s hind legs with a tie purchased from a local ironmonger’s so it didn’t actually devour the rodent before George’s shutter had clicked. His expenses claim later famously read: “Money for old rope”.
Thursday, 14 May 2009
Wednesday, 13 May 2009
Tuesday, 12 May 2009
Monday, 11 May 2009
Sunday, 10 May 2009
My pal Gavin Hill is a genius. After more than a year of negotiations he is about to embark on filming a series of eight one hour fly-on-the-wall television documentary programmes under the working title Thai Cops. The shows follow the work of the police in exotic and sometimes seedy locations in Thailand, focusing a lot on the British recruits who have been specially hired to deal with the high numbers of foreign tourists. Many visitors, of course, end up worse for drink and in trouble with the law like the England fan in the picture taken from the "teaser tape" Gavin used to gain the commission. Gavin, who has come a long way since he read the news on Radio Piccadilly, has obtained amazing access from the authorities and will be visiting, among many places, the notorious "Bangkok Hilton" jail. What you might call his "Get Into Jail Free Card". Apparently several journalists have been killed on similar trips by inmates serving sentences of 60 or 70 years who rap their chains around your neck and choke the life out of you before you've even got your Press card out. Gavin is no stranger to danger, having dodged bullets in Afghanistan and in Iraq and been kidnapped by a tribe of cannibals on an island off Papua New Guinea, all high after munching on some hallucinogenic root vegetable. He also risked life and limb filming the outrageous antics of young people in the UK for a show called Generation Xcess here.