The Daily Sketch was all French to me

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The pen is mightier: Howard French pictured in 1955

Former Expressman JON ZACKON spent some years on the Daily Sketch when he first arrived in Fleet Street. Here are some recollections of those wacky times.

After a few months on the paper I began to realise that the Daily Sketch was a very unusual place to work. It wasn’t that the editor, Howard French, had a Black Shirt past. On the contrary, he now seemed bent on demonstrating what a decent human being he had become.

He was surrounded by a bunch of able and amiable executives – the former Sunday Express editor Harold Keeble, Donald Todhunter, Lou Kirby, Peter Grover and the Scots Andy Ewart and Bob Johnson.

In 1947, at the age of 21, Johnson had been PR to the Royal Family during their HMS Vanguard visit to South Africa. He had witnessed at first hand the scandalous affair between Princess Margaret and Group Captain Townsend, which culminated in an infamous tryst on a beach near my home town of East London.

What set the Sketch apart was the incredible number of amusing stories that arose in-house on an almost daily basis. You would go to work miserable as sin at the prospect of another hard slog on an understaffed subs table only to find yourself, in double quick time, laughing your head off at the newest yarn.

You’d learn about the late night visitors taken on a tour of the paper by reporter John Cotter. They came across Danny Halpern, the Canadian night stone sub, who was in charge of covering late breaking news. These were the anxious days of the Cold War and the original A-bomb early warning system. One pretty young visitor asked Halpern: “What would you do if the Russians declared war at this minute, Danny?” Quick as a flash he replied: “I’d jump on John Cotter’s back and get in four minutes fucking.” The tour party moved on.

The office had more than its share of former Express people. The splash sub, Ronnie Higham, used to come in and place his jacket over the back of his chair. What few realised was that he had a second jacket hanging on a peg outside the subs room. When he left his desk it was assumed he was going down to the stone. Not so. He was sloping off undetected to the pub for a snifter. Jimmy Hall, a brilliant chief sub, had an even more disconcerting habit. When he came upon a wrongly nosed story or infelicitous sentence in subbed copy he’d slap his bald dome loudly and swear. This had a distressing effect on the younger subs, particularly if it was your copy that was the cause of him nearly braining himself.

They got into a stinking argument and Bob slugged the man he was supposed to be sacking. Hence the reinstatement and salary rise.

One night I noticed a Scottish reporter, John L at his desk. He had been a persistent absentee for some years and rumour had it that our union chapel had finally consented to him being sacked. In fact, he was supposed to have got the boot 24 hours earlier! When I asked about this I was told he had been reinstated with a pay rise, which was very difficult to understand.

Eventually the story emerged. As Managing Editor, it was Bob Johnson’s sad duty to sack his fellow Scot. But Bob, a kindly man, could not face doing this in a cold, bureaucratic manner. He also liked to do things in style. So he took John L to Aunty’s – the Rose and Crown public house made famous by Michael Frayn in his novel, Towards The End of The Morning. “Sorry to see how things have worked out, John, have a drink,” said Bob. Their Scotches were downed in minutes. “I know, Bob. Sorry to have caused you so much distress. Have another,” said John L. And another, and another. The end was inevitable. They got into a stinking argument and Bob slugged the man he was supposed to be sacking. Hence the reinstatement and salary rise. Bob needn’t have worried, though. A few months later John L left the country never to be seen at the Sketch again.

Jack Paterson joined us (from the Express, of course) as the new Night Editor, and nearly got himself sacked on his first shift. That night Cassius Clay beat Sonny Liston and Jack’s splash headline read, “Cassius is champ” It counted neatly in two lines of 144pt and looked good. The next day Howard French called Jack into his office and dressed him down like a head prefect would a naughty 13-year-old. “We don’t use Americanisms in this newspaper,” raged Howard. “I won’t have them!”

To tell you the truth, I didn’t even know “champ” was an Americanism. It seemed like a perfectly acceptable abbreviation.

Howard was very much the product of his public school education. For example, his teachers had told him that we in England always pronounce “sch” the soft way. Let the damned Yanks say “skedule.” We British say “shedule.” His teachers should have warned him that a dogmatic approach to pronunciation could carry its own dangers. Like the time the back bench emerged from conference holding their sides. When they’d caught their breath they told us that there had been a general discussion over whether a woman who had killed another woman should be the splash. Howard French had the last word. “I don’t think so,” he told his minions. “After all, she’s just a shitzo.”

It mustn’t be thought that I was in any way against Howard French’s editorship. Not only was he always nice to me but he actually put on sales, making the paper safe from closure, or so we thought. What singled him out though, was his sheer wackiness. And wacky editors made for wacky staffs and wacky papers, which I loved.

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David English, pictured right, serious as a mongoose eyeing its next meal, spoilt everything. As a person, I really liked David. He was charming and charismatic and brilliant. But far too serious and single-minded to run a wacky paper. After taking over from French he brought Brian Freemantle with him from the Express to run the foreign desk. What? I can hear you ask. The Daily Sketch Foreign Desk? It’s true! The paper whose readers would have had trouble pinpointing France on a map was now to have a FOREIGN DESK.

I’ll never forget the first time I walked into Brian’s snug little office, partitioned off from the reporters’ room. Brian held up his hand and said, “Please hang on a tick …” and then, into the speaker, he said, “Hello, is that Tokyo?”

Inside my head a Lady Bracknell-like voice screamed: “Tokyooooo?”

Readers may be saying that sounds pretty wacky to them. Not so. Howard French was wacky. David English was misguided, at least in trying to impose on the Sketch readership a seriousness it could never get to grips with. He was simply on the wrong newspaper as his later success at the very non-wacky Daily Mail was to prove.

But this is really Howard French’s story. He was my hero. His wackiness knew no bounds. It reached its climax in a short period some months before he left the paper. It was extravagant, never to be forgotten. And two great moments stand out above the rest.

Conference time again and Jack Davis, the newly-promoted Night Editor, emerged with a handkerchief stuffed in his mouth. His face was red and tears streamed down his cheeks. “What is it, Jack? What’s wrong?”

“It’s Howard … (gasp, snort) … he’s just told us, you can lead a horse to water but it’s like batting on a sticky wicket.”

Two weeks later and Jack and the Features Editor and the Deputy Sports Editor fell out of conference with handkerchiefs stuffed in their mouths. The sports bloke leaned against a wall and slowly slumped shaking to the floor.

“What, what?” we cried.

“It’s Howard,” gasped Jack. “He’s just said … ha ha hee hee… he’s just said … (gasp) … The Russian bear will … (gasp, gasp, cough, snort, cough) … will never change its spots.”

And nor did Howard, for which we were all grateful.

DAVID HARDY adds: Howard really was a one-off. I worked with him at The Sun. He was absolutely brilliant at what he did, particularly as he was pissed most of the time.

The offending headline that cost him his job as a sub years earlier was not as told by Roy Greenslade. The actual filler headline he wrote was KILLER FOR TRIAL.

Howard was a strange, ludicrously brilliant guy. I only went for a drink with him once. His capacity for booze was frightening and I melted away into the Fleet Street night quite quickly.

* Howard French died in 2008 aged 95

A sub normal night on the Sun



© 2005-2017 Alastair McIntyre