By ALAN FRAME
Roy Greenslade’s splendid Guardian piece on the official demise of Lord Lucan was a great reminder of what sheer fun Fleet Street was in the good old days. It really was the case that many a reporter could carve out a decent holiday in the sun by inventing the sighting of some famous fugitive in exotic climes. Lucan was undoubtedly the prime source of these expensive travels but he was not the only one.
Ronnie Biggs, not quite from the same stock as the wretched peer but just as big a story, provided some decent jaunts for imaginative hacks until the Express, in the form of the impeccably informed Colin Mackenzie, tracked him down. Colin was at a party when told by a fellow guest, in all innocence, that the Great Train Robber was in Rio (final sunny bolt hole after most other parts of the world which had provided decent trips for his quarry).
We sent Colin with Michael O’Flaherty and Bill Lovelace on an expedition brilliantly choreographed by the great Brian Hitchen. Almost nobody on the Express was let in on the secret and the rivals didn’t get a whiff of this until … well until the then editor Ian McColl decided Scotland Yard needed to know and almost scuppered one of the best scoops of the century. Never trust the judgment of a Scottish Presbyterian!
There were other examples: Hacks needing to top up their tans spotted Martin Bormann everywhere but the moon (already crowded by Elvis and his double decker). When in 1972 the Express finally tracked him down to South America we ran page after page of this great world exclusive. Until we all found out that Hitler’s deputy was in fact an innocent Argentinian school-teacher and that we had been hoaxed by a Hungarian aptly named Farago.
Not all of our colleagues were happy with assignments away from the office. When Shergar vanished from the Curragh on a cold February morning in 1983 I sent my pal the late and very great Ross Benson to Ireland to join the hunt. Ireland at that time of the year was not much to the lounge lizard’s taste and he made it very clear. His revenge was his expenses following stays in some of the country’s finest country house establishments.
A slightly different approach by journalistic sun seekers was once at my expense. I was in charge of features at the time and we had bought up a chap called Tim Seely who thought he was the product of the Duke of Windsor’s affair with Vera Dudley Ward, sister of his regular posh totty Freda. When John Downing and I went to the Savoy to meet Tim it was like running into the uncrowned king, complete with Prince of Wales check. In my mind Tim is the genuine article and a delightful chap.
And the royal icing on the cake was that he said he might have a brother with a vast acreage in Australia. It checked out and I sent a feature writer, again with Downing, to the outback to track down the second son. After two weeks of ‘exhaustive inquiries’ I was told by the writer, who with uncharacteristic generosity I am not naming, that the man had probably been the other son and was known by neighbours as royalty but had died some time before. Well, it had been worth a try.
Or so I thought until our anonymous colleague told me a few years later that his initial research before departing had revealed that very fact. But, he said, he had never been to Australia and wanted to visit at the paper’s expense!