Farewell Callan, one of Fleet Street’s greats

By ALAN FRAME

Paul Callan, one of Fleet Street’s greatest talents — and greatest larger than life characters —died on Saturday (November 21). He was 81 and had a heart attack after falling at his home in Wimbledon.

Callan was a star on whichever newspaper he planted his ample frame and brilliant gifts. The Evening Standard’s Londoner’s Diary in the late 60s was followed by the Daily Mail Diary with Nigel Dempster in the 70s. That’s where I first met him, though that really should read ‘heard’ him as he made his high decibel return from lunch.   

During his tenure on the Mail he persuaded the notoriously reticent and difficult Greta Garbo to grant an interview (it was never ‘give’ with the big stars in those days) whom he met at the Hotel du Cap Eden Roc in Cannes. ‘Miss Garbo, I wonder…’ he began. At which point Garbo really did want to be alone, stalking off and muttering: ‘Why wonder?’  Resourceful as ever, our hero got a full-page feature out of it.

Then it was off to Mike Molloy’s Daily Mirror where he wrote a series of notable celebrity interviews, usually conducted around a sparkling swimming pool in Beverly Hills and with film types who actually did want to say something. 

In 1973 Paul joined the fledgling LBC radio, making an unlikely pairing with Janet Street-Porter as presenters on the station’s breakfast show. Sound engineers christened them ‘Cut Glass’ and ‘Cut Froat’ in recognition of their very different accents. He also had a spot on Classic FM.

It was in 1991 when he joined the Express and I was allegedly his boss. The truth is, he was a joy to attempt to supervise, the ultimate professional and despite the long and sometimes riotous lunches (as often as not in my company) he never failed to deliver. He was a master of all he was set; a TV column, the parliamentary sketch, news colour and the big feature. 

In 1995 on the anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz, I sent Paul, who was Jewish, to cover the event. The result was a spread which was as fine and as moving as anything he had done. His expenses a few days later also brought tears to the eyes…

He looked more like a judge having a quick snifter after a tricky fraud case, all pinstripes, bow tie and large vodka

Callan was one of the great fixtures of El Vino holding court along with Brian Vine, Dempster, John Edwards, Peter McKay, Peter Tory and assorted editors. By the 90s he looked more like a judge having a quick snifter after a tricky fraud case over the road, all pinstripes, bow tie and large vodka. Sorry, vodkas plural. He was very well read with wit to match. At dinner at my home I tripped when carrying roasted pheasants as I came out from the kitchen. As the late birds flew past the dining room door Paul exclaimed: ‘My God, they’re still alive!’

Tory, Callan’s great friend and one-time rival, gleefully recounted the story of Paul arriving at El Vino one lunchtime with a massive black eye. ‘We all had our suspicions about its origins but the recipient launched into one of his famed tales, replete with dramatic recreation. He'd been to the ‘Bank in the Sky’ at the Mirror the previous evening and after a sharpener was strolling elegantly to the Tube when viciously attacked by a huge black assailant. 

Ross Benson holds court at a diary writers’ lunch in December 1990 as John Roberts and Paul Callan look on. Mary Corbett is in the background

"Callan fought back heroically but his muscled attacker overpowered him, beat him down and raced off with the stash of expenses. As the mugger fled into the gathering gloom, a groggy Callan staggered to his feet and yelled after his fleeing assailant: 'But I still support the aspirations of your people!"’

Paul was born in London and, despite the myth, was not the product of Eton but of a small public school called Cranbrook College. His great sense of self deprecation was exemplified by the purchase of a bundle of OE ties (doubtless on expenses) which he then distributed to Fleet Street’s finest gossip hacks. The man had style.

Paul Callan was married to the lovely Steffi Fields, the former London Correspondent of Women’s Wear Daily, for 47 years. They had two children Jessica, one of the original Mirror 3am girls, and James. 

*****

Former Daily Express royal reporter ASHLEY WALTON recalls:

We were covering Prince Charles tour of India and Nepal, me for the Express, Callan for the Mirror.

At a reception on the lawns of the British Embassy in New Delhi Charles strolled over for a chat. This was pre-Diana and he was still very friendly towards the Press.

We chatted for around 10 minutes before the Prince spotted Callan's Old Etonian tie. "Surely a man from the Mirror did not go to Eton," said Charles in his unmistakable fractured vowels. 

"Certainly not Sir," said Callan in the same, beautifully copied vowels. "But it's a nice tie!"

 The conversation went on until the Prince suddenly realised he was being mocked. "You're taking the michael," he said laughing.

Callan was not put off and carried on with the, rather good, impersonation of Charles to the Prince, complete with the trademark facial grimaces and shirt cuff pulling.  Charles wandered off still laughing.

CHRISTOPHER WILSON: I loved Paul, always such fun to be with. Once, as diary writers, we found ourselves on the Isle of Wight covering Cowes Week. Having filled our columns with the mouse-droppings on offer from that annual non-event, we got down to the serious business of dinner.  

We drove down the the Peacock Vane on the south side of the island where he and I fell into a drunken argument about whether a piece of music playing in the background was Tartini (him) or Scarlatti (me). Our collective musical knowledge was not impressive — Paul claimed a non-existent music degree from Cambridge while I'd played three-chord guitar in a party band — it turned out neither of us was right, as the proprietor angrily pointed out when he came over to throw us out. Ah, culture!

RIP Paul, one of Fleet St's most fun people.

GEOFFREY LEVY: When Callan was on the Mirror and I was on the Express we often met on stories and would challenge each other to use a particular word or phrase. At the funeral in Manchester of Coronation Street's Pat Phoenix I challenged Callan to call her 'The people's star’.

Callan did, they were the first three words of his piece and he proudly — and  probably accurately — claimed in later years that Tony Blair pinched his words in describing Diana as 'the people's princess'.

Callan's years of pretending to be an Old Etonian  ended in exposure by Nigel Dempster (who had also spent his early Fleet St years making the same claim). His response was to turn up at an old gossip hacks' Christmas dinner boldly wearing an old Etonian tie.

RORY CLEMENTS: Paul Callan was a real drone. One day at a time of emotional crisis back in the late 80s (I think I was prone to such things back then) he took me out to a very boozy lunch and was a wonderful listener and great support. I have no idea what either of us said, but I was struck by his kindness and somehow he put a few things in perspective for me. He was one of the good guys.

JOHN ROBERTS: Years ago (isn’t everything now?) I had Paul Callan to thank for my inside job unlocking the Mirror treasure chest although it wasn’t that hard, as Maxwell found.

I was freelancing as a casual on the Inside Page gossip column edited by the splendid Willy Wolff. In those strong union days if a casual worked 13 weeks he/she had to be taken on staff.

On Week 12 Willy was axed and Paul arrived to take charge with Charles Lytte in tow, usefully contributing his knowledge of Eton! I was surplus, but Paul was advised by FoC attack dog Steve Turner I was to stay put while he investigated. 

I lazed about there for a week or so before Steve came in announcing he had negotiated a handsome pay-off as compensation since I had now reached Week 13! Also a share for me of “on-going shifts.” 

I tootled off to the Evening News or somewhere and two months later Steve rang. Had I done any ‘on-going’ shifts? Of, course I hadn’t. “Right, said Steve, “more money!” And lo, yet another compensation cheque arrived. Thanks for that among many memories Paul and RIP. 

PIERS MORGAN: Paul was a wonderful writer whose copy always sizzled with great flair. He was also one of the great characters in Fleet Street history, a fabulous raconteur and enormously good fun at any social gathering.

CLIVE GOOZEE: I was saddened to read my former chief reporter had died. I worked with him on The Norwood News in Crystal Palace in the early 1960s. He taught me a lot. 

He brought me down to earth one day when I was feeling very pleased with myself for getting a fabulous pic of a fireman who was killed by a train while tackling a trackside fire near Blackfriars. It showed him in firefighter gear pretending to chop off a workmate’s head. Paul congratulated me then gave me a kick up the rear for missing a story about a cottage hospital closure.

My hero Paul Callan

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