When Bernard Shrimsley took over the editorship of The Sun in 1972, he ordered that the Page Three Girls should have smaller breasts and less prominent nipples. “Make nipples less fantastic,” he scribbled across one photograph before sending it back to production to be retouched. Colleagues said that he had an unerring ability to know when the paper would upset its readers, but this empathy was born of his own dislike of gratuitous vulgarity.
Tall, slim, well-spoken, and urbane, Shrimsley was not a stereotypical tabloid editor. In his 50-year career he was, nevertheless, not only editor of The Sun but also the News of the World, Britain’s two biggest-selling newspapers, and the launch editor of The Mail on Sunday. He had a gift for writing headlines. His best known was “The Silly Burghers of Sowerby Bridge”, The Sun’s witty response to being banned from the Yorkshire town’s library. When Lord Longford produced his report on pornography in 1972, which attacked The Sun, Shrimsley pithily renamed him Lord Wrongford. It stuck.
Bernard Shrimsley was born in 1931, the son of a tailor’s pattern cutter from an immigrant family. His father had changed his name from Shremski by deed poll during the First World War to make it seem less foreign. The self-confidence and precocity that would carry Shrimsley to the top of his trade was shown when he was still a child during the Second World War. He and his younger brother Anthony were evacuated to an unpleasant family. Instead of suffering in silence, he marched Anthony to the police station and secured their release. Then, aged 13, he complained to the local authorities that he was not getting a good enough education. They moved him to Kilburn Grammar School in Northampton.
His parents wanted him to train as an accountant but, being wilful, he decided to become a journalist instead and began his career at 16 as a messenger boy with the Press Association in London. A fellow student at the Stoke Newington Literary Institute studying the craft of writing was Derek Jameson. The two men shared a dream of becoming newspaper editors. Both succeeded.
Shrimsley spent five years on The Southport Guardian, interrupted by National Service. Having opted to do his stint with the RAF, he soon landed the job of setting intelligence tests for prospective officers. “They weren’t very bright,” he later said. “I set a couple of questions that none of them could solve.” It did not occur to him that his problems might have been inappropriately hard. A character trait was emerging. Once he convinced himself he was right, he was reluctant to change his mind.
His National Service done, he moved to Manchester, where he became deputy editor of the Sunday Express and then northern editor of the Daily Mirror. Driven and energetic, he managed to raise the circulation enough to come to the attention of the paper’s proprietor, Cecil King. King instructed Hugh Cudlipp, editorial director of the Mirror group, to bring Shrimsley to London “to be groomed for greater things”.
The first that the Mirror’s editor Lee Howard knew of this was when Cudlipp brought Shrimsley into his office and said: “Lee, I’d like you to meet your new assistant editor in charge of features.” His colleagues soon noted that he was unlike the usual Mirror executives in one particular regard: he did not drink. “He also gave out a disturbing energy field,” recalled Mike Molloy, “as if he buzzed with ungrounded electricity.”
Shrimsley’s stubborn nature soon came to the fore when he tried to justify altering a quote from Oscar Wilde’s The Ballad of Reading Gaol. He wanted to change it to Reading Jail on the grounds that readers always read “gaol” as “goal”. His time in the features office was nevertheless popular with the staff because he insisted on doing much of the work himself, including rewriting everyone’s copy.
When in 1969 Rupert Murdoch bought the ailing broadsheet The Sun from the Mirror group, he appointed Larry Lamb, pictured right, as editor and announced that he would be relaunching the paper as a tabloid. Lamb requested Shrimsley be brought in as his deputy. Caught in a promotional logjam — and not being a natural Labour supporter — Shrimsley had been moved sideways at the Mirror to edit the Liverpool Post. Murdoch agreed, adding with a smile that unnerved Lamb that Shrimsley had been the next name on his shortlist for the editor’s job. The two men complemented each other: Lamb was instinctive, Shrimsley more intellectual. When Shrimsley announced to his managing director that he was joining The Sun, he was asked: “Do you think it will last?”
Compared to the Mirror with its staff of 400, The Sun was a lean outfit. Known as the Lamb 100, the plucky staff were crammed into a space on the third floor next to the composing room, where rows of hot metal Linotype machines belched lead fumes as they produced The News of the World.
There was an atmosphere of chaos but launching The Sun was an adventure and, as Shrimsley recalled, a lot of fun. Staff would work 14-hour days and then celebrate with a glass of champagne. The tabloid was a success. Within a year its daily sale had doubled to 1.6 million. By 1981 it was selling more than four million a day and was described by The Financial Times as the “soaraway Sun”. Shrimsley was the éminence grise, recruiting officer and technician.
He was also the creative brain of the paper who did much of the day-to-day editing while Lamb was the front man who also handled relations with Murdoch. Shrimsley was a meticulous — some thought obsessive — editor who pored over page proofs, making detailed corrections and suggesting improvements to headlines and layouts. This habit became a source of friction with Lamb because it held up production and made the paper late off the presses, with the result that sales were lost. Sub-editors called him the “Avon lady” — whenever he called by he wanted a new make-up.
Like Lamb, Shrimsley wanted a bright and aggressive look for the paper, which they would get from using a new typeface for headlines. The choice favoured by Shrimsley was called Tempo. It arrived 48 hours before the launch with so few letters for the main headline size that they only had three of the crucial “e”s. Headlines mentioning the Bee Gees had to be avoided.
Shrimsley was appointed associate editor of The News of the World, The Sun’s sister paper, in 1972 and later that year became editor of The Sun. Three years on, he became editor of The News of the World where he stayed for five years, at that time an unusually long stint in the chair — there were four editors in the next five years. He failed to persuade Murdoch that the paper should become a tabloid. That occurred four years later, by which time Shrimsley had accepted an offer from Lord Rothermere, chairman of Associated Newspapers, to become launch editor of The Mail on Sunday. Rothermere did not consult David English, the editor who had created the modern tabloid Daily Mail. This was a snub that was to make life difficult for Shrimsley. The Machiavellian English did not obviously obstruct Shrimsley but neither did he go out of his way to help. None of the Mail’s star writers, for instance, were available for the new Sunday paper.
He nevertheless recruited a talented team that included Jilly Cooper and Michael Parkinson as writers, Christopher Fildes as city editor, and Patrick Collins as chief sports writer. Yet the launch in 1982, during the Falklands war, was a disaster. As one commentator put it, The Mail on Sunday looked both serious and fussy, with headlines that were too small and a run of “unprepossessingly grey” pages. Nor was it the Daily Mail on Sunday. After ten issues Shrimsley was fired and David English took over, brought in 20 of his own staff, sacked several of Shrimsley’s appointments and introduced a colour magazine.
He spent the last 13 years of his career on the Daily Express, first as assistant editor to Larry Lamb, who had left The Sun in 1981, and then as associate editor to Nicholas Lloyd, pictured left, whom he had recruited to The Sun in 1969.
After this he took on elder statesman roles, his qualities of decency and honesty serving him well when he became vice-chairman of the Press Council, the predecessor of the Press Complaints Commission, and a member of the D-notice committee which advises editors on news stories that compromise national security.
He remained busy in retirement, writing leading articles for Press Gazette, serving as a spin doctor to James Goldsmith’s Referendum party, and becoming a regular at the Garrick club. He also wrote three novels, one of which, The Silly Season, was a well-received satire on tabloid journalism. Novels about Fleet Street are inevitably compared to Evelyn Waugh’s Scoop and adjudged to fall short, but Waugh did not write about the modern tabloid press. Shrimsley captured that red-topping, bed-hopping, story-spinning, sales-winning world with considerable comic brio.
His brother Anthony, who died in 1984, was political editor of the Sunday Mirror, Daily Mail and The Sun. Anthony’s son, Robert, is managing editor of the Financial Times’s website FT.com.
Shrimsley’s wife, Norma, died in 2009 and he is survived by his daughter Amanda, who was a feature writer on The News of the World. In the final of University Challenge last year his grandson, Ted Loveday, correctly answered ten starter questions leading his college, Gonville and Caius, Cambridge, to victory. Ted has broken with family tradition by becoming a barrister.
Robert recalled his uncle as having a booming voice and real energy, “a sort of Peter Bowles figure. He was a huge presence in a room, but not in a boorish way”. Amanda recalled her father as a wonderful family man, “always immaculately dressed and with a laugh so loud it could shatter glass”.
Bernard Shrimsley, newspaper editor, was born on January 13, 1931. He died on June 9, 2016, aged 85￼