Fifty years of The Sun 1969 to 2019

HISTORIC: The book’s cover — the paperboy is now a company director

A personal reflection by ROGER WATKINS

Hugh Cudlipp rarely got things wrong but his judgment was totally eclipsed by The Sun.

The legendary Mirror editor took one look at Rupert Murdoch’s new tabloid challenger 50 years ago and declared: “That’s not worth worrying about. It’s no threat to anybody.”

Oh, how wrong could he be?

As the legendary first editor Sir Larry Lamb said: “I saw an opportunity to attack the Mirror which was turning its back on its working class readers.”

The super soaraway story of the super soaraway Sun has become the stuff of legend. Displaying panache, brilliance and brio, it led the field and set new standards in tabloid journalism, not just in Britain, but everywhere ...

Now, fittingly, the Sun has produced a truly fabulous record of its achievements over the past half-century: a 400-page, glossy, full-colour tome which measures 13 inches by 12 inches and weighs 10lb. No expense has been spared. I guess we’re talking £100 a copy.

It will have a limited distribution: all current staff members are to receive one plus the 200 or so who contributed or were interviewed worldwide.

SUN RISE: Rupert Murdoch announcing the paper’s launch in October 1969 with Larry Lamb, who had an eye infection, and Bernard Shrimsley

I never worked on the Sun (although I subbed in their Bouverie Street newsroom for the News of the World) but I always felt a close affinity to the brash new upstart.

 A schoolfriend joined the subs team in the early days and I learned all about the paper’s growing pains; I knew Arthur Edwards (a near neighbour) and his snapper sons long before he took his first picture of Diana.

Then, my eldest daughter became a Sun news sub whose duties, like Patsy Chapman, included writing the Page 3 girl captions. She married former Express reporter Graham Dudman (of whom more later) who enjoyed a glittering career in Wapping as Moscow Correspondent, Head of News, Head of Features and Managing Editor

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He was only one of a number of Fleet Street stars who have also worked on the Express. There were the editors: Sir Larry, Bernard Shrimsley, Sir Nick Lloyd, Kelvin MacKenzie and Victoria Newton, of course.

Then we must remember Vic Giles, Chris Roycroft Davis, Craig MacKenzie, Paul Buttle, Ray Mills, Pat Pilton, Jon Akass, Philippa Kennedy, Jon Zackon and Alan Stein plus Fergus Shanahan and Roy Greenslade who worked on the Daily Star. (apologies for any omissions).

The book charts the Sun’s rise to a peak circulation of 4,783,359 in March,1996, from the often chaotic early days when anything could happen - and usually did.

One night in December, 1969 a new “sub” who had made a complete arsehole of a couple of shorts confided to Ray Mills that he’d actually come for a job in the canteen.

And Nick Lloyd, an ambitious 27-year-old, left his job as Sunday Times deputy news editor, to be Features Editor to find that at least two more of his colleagues held that title.

There are reminiscences about, and from, all the editors: Lamb, Shrimsley, MacKenzie, Higgins (the Human Sponge), Yelland, Brooks, Mohan, Dinsmore, Gallagher and Newton.

Then there are sections on politics, pictures, showbiz, sport, cartoons, strips (“George and Lynne rarely got dressed”) the royals, women, bingo, agony aunts (dear Dear Deidre) and headlines.

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GOTCHA! Celebrated Sun editor Kelvin MacKenzie

The latter are, justly, famous. But Gotcha! and Freddie Starr Ate My Hamster are clichés now. A personal favourite, by Bernard on the councillors in a northern town who banned the Sun, is: The Silly Burghers of Sowerby Bridge.

Aficionados will be pleased to learn that no fewer than 14 pages are dedicated to the Page 3 phenomenon. Readers of a certain age tend to skip over these things nowadays but, rest assured, all the old favourites are there.

Viv, Luscious Linda, Sam et al, thanks for the mammary.

Sun stars with a link to the Express include art supremo Vic (“I thought the first edition was a bit scruffy”) Giles and Philippa Kennedy who, accompanied by a photo which must have been taken in her last year at primary school, reminisces about being one of the first women reporters on the Sun.

BIGGS STORY: How Great Train Robber Ronnie was brought back to Britain

Graham Dudman recalls a flamboyant Fleet Street of yesteryear in a piece about Sun exclusives. It concerned the repatriation of Great Train Robber Ronnie Biggs (also part of Express folklore) which Graham masterminded with a team of reporters.

No expense was spared, including hiring a private jet at a cost of £100,000! Jamie Pyatt recalls doorstepping Biggs’s wife, Charmian in Australia. She had never given an interview despite many cash offers from Fleet Street.

Jamie made one of those “do you know what time it is?” phone calls at dead of night to ask Graham to release more cash.

He then approached Mrs B once more. Again, she was not interested until he showed her a carrier bag stuffed with cash. The conversation then went:

“Will this make you change your mind?”

“How much is in there?”

“Thirty-five thousand dollars.”

“How do you like your tea?”

Although the emphasis was always on fun and frolics in the Sun, there were also dark times. Hillsborough is a running sore which has still not, and probably will not, be healed. This is covered in its awful detail.

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MUGSHOTS AWAY: The paper’s pioneers

Then there was Operation Elveden. I still recall with a chill the Saturday morning Dudman (again) was arrested by a squad of the Met’s finest and carted off for 12 hours’ interrogation. We took the grandchildren away as unsmiling, hatchet-faced plods scoured their home, their bedrooms, for “evidence”.

We tried to make light of it by saying that now we could look most of Essex in the face because we, too, were victims of a dawn raid but it became much more serious than that.

No fun seeing our son-in-law in the dock of No.1 court at the Old Bailey or spending weeks on trial at Kingston Crown Court as “the law” pursued its vendetta against journalists.

Dudman, John Edwards (son of Arthur), Ben O’Driscoll, Chris Pharo, Pyatt, and John Troup were all accused, and subsequently acquitted, in that particular case, of making inappropriate payments to public servants.

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DISCUSSING THE EDITION: Editor Larry Lamb holds conference with Bernard Shrimsley and Nick Lloyd, third and fourth from left

But even that trial had its bizarre side. One day in December 2014, the book recalls, the foreman of the jury asked the judge if he and his colleagues could take part in Wear Christmas Jumpers to Work Day. 

The accused were asked. How could they possibly object? So deliberations, which could have seen them sent to jail, were played out in front of 12 men and women dressed as Rudolf the Rednosed Reindeer etc.

Even the Sun in all its 50 triumphant years couldn’t have made that up.

The Half Suntury 1969-2019 is edited by Will Hagerty assisted by John Perry. Mike Ridley conducted the interviews and research. Kate Cohen was picture researcher. 


© 2005-2019 Alastair McIntyre