Star Trek Part 3 
Bingo and Biffo


bingo


JEFF CONNOR continues his story recounting the early days of the Daily Star at the Daily Express Manchester offices in 1978

It would be nice to think that the early success of the Star owed everything to the brilliance of its staff: the scoops from our dogged reporters, adventurous snappers, superlative subs and page planners (can’t think of a suitable adjective for them, at least not one for a family blog). 

Putting aside the Sun and Hillsborough and that the English will always try something new and cheaper most of it was down to bingo. 

The story about the Star’s cautious teeter into bingo and its relieved dash out again comes from Paul Burnell, who was an executive in the newsroom then. It was the first time I’d heard this, more proof perhaps that I had spent 12 years with Express Newspapers unaware of what was going on a few hundred yards away. Or maybe Ray Mills had it right when he once informed me (maybe jokingly, maybe not) that there were ‘the sahibs and the punkawallahas in this business … and you’re one of the ones pushing a fan’.  

There was much back slapping when, thanks to bingo, the Star passed a million copies a day and there were also several attempts to claim the credit, notably from editor-in-chief Derek Jameson and the rest of the Fleet Street mafia. 

In fact, the credit should go to one of the circulation staff in Manchester who’d spotted it in the Plymouth-based Western Morning News and suggested the Star could try it. It went out in Manchester at first, closely followed by Liverpool, and overnight circulation went up by some 30%. 

The initial top prize was set at £10,000 (big bucks back then) before the Mirror and the Sun upped it to a cool million (both claiming credit for the original idea) and naturally the Star had to follow suit. Before you could say Robert Maxwell, bingo had morphed into what amounted to a high stake game of poker. 

One day Harry came across a very pretty black woman selling junk on the beach,’ says Burnell. ‘She had a couple of kids but that wasn’t going to stop Harry. He was going to marry her. That was it.

The Star had problems from the start, notably with the first million-pound winner Harry Dunston who was not, to put it mildly, the ideal candidate. Harry was from the West Country and had a mysterious partner called, Maude, who was from Blackpool. 

There were champagne receptions for both and telly appearances. There were splashes in the Star on a daily basis and another headline hailing ‘Our Million Pound Man’. It was then that Harry began to wonder when ‘Our Million Pound Man’ actually got his million quid.

It was 1979 and the actual physical act of handing over a million quid to a member of the public wasn’t going to happen overnight. It was explained to Harry that newspapers weren’t used to this sort of thing. The management had to authorise payment and accounts had to sort out a cheque. 

It was when Harry demanded ‘where’s my money?’ for the hundredth time and then threatened to take his complaints to other tabloids that it was thought best to sort him out a bank account with Lloyds along with an emergency credit card. 

Harry immediately headed for his nearest Jaguar showroom. 

He wanted the black XJ6 he’d seen in the window, but settled for the red one and paid using his new card — along with a down payment for the next black one to arrive. When he spent another £70k in an afternoon at a jeweller’s shop in Bond Street Star management began to realise that Harry was becoming a liability. 

According to Burnell, there were real fears that other tabloids would hear about Harry’s outrageous spending sprees (Britain was still getting over the recession) and do what tabloids do best, which was to screw him. The answer was to book Harry, along with top Star reporter Alistair Buchan and top snapper Stan Meagher, on the next flight to Bermuda, not the cheapest of holidays. 

There were, however, wonderful pics of Harry on the beach, swimming in the ocean, dining and drinking in a posh hotel and all safe and a long way from the tabloid hack pack. Or so they thought.

‘One day Harry came across a very pretty black woman selling junk on the beach,’ says Burnell. ‘She had a couple of kids but that wasn’t going to stop Harry. He was going to marry her. That was it. The Sun would get on his trail for sure so we ‘terminated’ Harry’s holiday. On his last night, he ordered a $750 bottle of Chateau Lafite, drank some of it and then insisted on the hotel sommelier having a glass, too. That was Harry.’

As things turned out the Sun and the Mirror never did out the Star’s million-pound winner, probably because their own versions were just as dysfunctional and just as unpresentable as Harry. The Sun’s man immediately did a Hugh Heffner and left his wife for a woman half his age; the Mirror’s winner, by all accounts, had just finished a jail sentence so there was some sort of gentleman’s agreement (if there is such a thing in tabloid journalism) and all the tabloids agreed to lay off their individual winners.   

As for bingo, it soon became an expensive liability. Punters hoping to win a million went out and bought every other tabloid, too, which rather negates the competition for circulation figures.

docker med hr

The Star’s editorial budget and content (the second always dependent on the first) improved when Jameson opted out of involvement and Lloyd Turner took over, with Ray Mills, pictured right, as his deputy.  

Ray knew the newspaper business and unlike many senior editorial staffers he could multi-task; from writing, subbing, stone work and anything else (though he was not the best senior editorial figure for TV or radio interviews). 

People often made the mistake of categorising him as an uncultured Lancastrian yob and that wasn’t him at all. He was from North Manchester and like me always insisted that anything south of Salford wasn’t Manchester at all. 

He had a great turn of phrase: 'I'm gonna cut your balls off with a rusty saw,' he’d warn some offender, invariably following it with a sly grin. He was almost childlike at times; waving his new and official MCC tie during conference then pointing out of the window at his new staff car, a Ford Granada as I remember. 

True, he did occasionally sleep overnight in his office rather than driving home to Saddleworth. He upset some of the cleaners, but I saw worse than that in my time at the Daily Mirror. 

We knew him as Docker, Dark Satanic (Mills) or Biffo (Big Ignorant Fucker from Oldham) nicknames he embraced as they somehow suited him: pugnacious, a bit of a hard man, but sort of nice with it. I liked him a lot.  

NEXT WEEK: I Come From a Land Down Under



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