How Robin Esser pipped me to the editor’s chair

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BY ALAN FRAME
I was very sorry to hear of the death of our old friend Robin Esser. I knew he had not been well recently but his death at 84 came as a shock.

Although we had both worked at different periods for the Express in Manchester and for the Daily Sketch in London our paths didn’t cross until the mid ‘70s when we were at the Evening News under Louis Kirby. We had adjoining open top offices and one early evening there were raised voices coming from next door followed swiftly by a copy of Who’s Who which came sailing over the partition to land on my head. It was the nearest I came to being in the wretched volume.

Ten years later in 1986 and at the Express in London Nick Lloyd suggested I put my name forward to succeed John Junor as editor of the Sunday Express. Junor had been at the helm for 32 years and held absolute sway over his eccentric fiefdom, resisting all attempts of management interference. But Beaverbrook had been dead for more than two decades and the group was now part of United Newspapers following its sale by Trafalgar House. There were plenty of other candidates from within and without including my old friend Henry Macrory and the late and much missed Graham Lord. 

Cutting a very long story mercifully short, I went through two interview stages with the frightful chairman David Stevens and his deputy, the delightful Sir Gordon Linacre who actually knew and appreciated newspapers thanks to his great experience both as journalist and manager.

Fast forward a month or so and I was preparing for morning conference (I was features editor of the Daily Express at the time) when the house phone rang and I was asked to see the managing director Roger Bowes immediately. Bowes was a recent import from the Mirror group and I’m not sure, at this distance, if we had even met before this summons. Suffice it to say he informed me, much to my surprise, that I had got the job even though I had assumed that my plan to turn the SX tabloid was a step too far. I was told to tell nobody (I didn’t, except my then wife whom I phoned immediately!)

I was editor of the SX for less than an hour which must be a record though not much of a distinction

I even went to conference sitting smugly no doubt in my usual seat when a secretary entered and asked Robin to leave the room. Shortly after, my secretary arrived with the same request; Bowes wanted to see me urgently. I duly obliged to be told by Bowes that he had spoken too soon: the future Little Lord Stevens had changed his mind and Robin was given the job. I was editor of the SX for less than an hour which must be a record though not much of a distinction. Macrory later told me that a year or two earlier Lord Matthews had given him the job, or at least had until the awful Junor heard about it and had a major Scottish strop. Join the club Henry!

Robin made an excellent job as editor but faced all the problems I or anyone else would have done: Death by a thousand cuts by Management. Later he did what all good Expressmen did at the time – he joined the Mail where he thrived, using his wisdom and diplomatic skills to try to smooth the ruffled feathers of two Commons Speakers, Michael Martin and John Bercow who were referred to on every occasion by Quentin Letts in his sketches as ‘Gorbals Mick’ and the ‘Squeaker’ respectively.  

We saw each other regularly and he joined the WGLC for lunch on one occasion. Last year I recruited him (with Geoff Levy, David Eliades and Reg Lancaster) to have lunch with my pal Charles Williams who is writing a biography of Beaverbrook. They were all at the Express during the final years of the Great Man. In Robin’s case, he was editor of Hickey while the Beaver was ruling the roost and it came as no big surprise to learn that it was the proprietor who supplied most of the really scurrilous stories. Mostly about his friends…


© 2005-2019 Alastair McIntyre