Looking for Lucan — with John Downing

The sad death of top Daily Express photographer John Downing, pictured, who lost his battle against lung cancer, moved former Daily Express news reporter FRANK THORNE to relive his first meeting with JD on foreign soil, the sun-drenched Cote d'Azur...

I had been doing very well delivering results for every news assignment given to me during my first few months as part of the Express news team, which I joined in 1974, including a controversial exclusive talk with Lady Veronica Lucan, published on the Monday the official inquest into the murder of the Lucan nanny Sandra Rivett was due to start, June 16, 1975.

The inquest was almost derailed before it started when Lady Lucan appeared on Page One of that morning's Express front saying exclusively: I WILL NAME 'KILLER'

In exclusive talk with me, Lady Lucan vowed: "I will name my attacker in court." Of course, she had told me it was her estranged husband Lord Lucan who had battered the family nanny to death in their darkened basement kitchen, mistaking Sandra Rivett for his wife on that fateful night. Veronica Lucan, over Sunday morning Early Grey tea in that very same kitchen, gave me a graphic account of how she was bashed repeatedly by Lucan but fought back and after she grabbed him by the testicles and squeezed for all her life, did he stop and collapse on the stairs of their town house at number 46 Belgravia Street.

However, in the event, the official Coroner prevented Lady Lucan from naming her attacker, but the jury still very quickly reached the verdict: Murdered by Lord Lucan.

Vine was an intimidating character, an imposing figure who reminded me of Alfred Hitchcock. He had a similar shape and stature and a booming posh plumb-in-the-mouth voice.

One morning towards the end of that month, I was called into the shared office of my news editor, Brian Hitchen, and assistant editor and head of news Brian Vine. I was still fairly new to the paper and I hadn't done anything wrong that I could think of, so I was at a loss to know why I was being summoned to see both my bosses.

To me at the time, Vine was an intimidating character, an imposing figure who reminded me of the famous film producer Alfred Hitchcock. He had a similar shape and stature and a booming posh plumb-in-the-mouth voice. When I sat down in front of Vine in the scruffy green-painted corner office he shared with Hitchen, he went into a series of questions. 

First he asked me about my shorthand and typing speeds. My first instinct was to lie, fearing the wrong answer might cost me my job. However, I was so nervous at being put on the spot that I got the answer the wrong way round — I said my shorthand was 80 words a minute and that I could type at a speed of 120 words a minute! As soon as the words were out of my mouth, I knew I'd blurted out the wrong thing. Vine pressed on: "Can you swim?" ME: "Yes." Vine: “How far can you swim?” Me, as a fit 26 year old amateur footballer: "I once swam a mile across a harbour for a bet..."

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Vine: "Can you scuba dive?" Me: "I don't know, I've never tried." Vine, with a pompous guffaw: “If you don't know, you can't do it."

Vine could be something of a larger than life comic character, who would come out with remarks during a briefing including: "Kick the door down - and say you smell gas!" Or "You'd better write your name and address on the soles of your shoes in case it's a trap."

Hitchen sat at his desk smiling to himself but said nothing. But I'd had enough. I finally said to Vine, taking my courage in both hands: "Look, what is this all about?" Vine looked at me squarely and told me: "We've had a tip off about where Lord Lucan is hiding. He is in a villa in the south of France. We want you to go and find him.

"You might have to swim a mile under water, crawl through barbed wire, dodge dogs and armed guards to get to him..." The whole thing sounded like the plot of the latest James Bond movie and I would emerge from the ocean looking like a seal in a black wet suit with a plastic duck on my head. But, keen to get the job of finding Lord Lucan, I immediately relaxed and heard myself say, matter of factly "Oh yeah, I can do that..."

So I was given my first foreign assignment for the paper in late June 1975, looking for Lord Lucan on the French Riviera. Perhaps I could be a real-life James Bond after all. But looking back all these years, I realise Vine and Hitchen were enjoying having a bit of sport with me. They had clearly already decided to send me whatever I answered to their daft questions. 

There was one catch, however. I was not going off on my own. A very senior reporter, Don Coolican, was assigned to lead the way and keep an eye on me on my first foreign trip. Coolican, who had gained a reputation as a big hitter, has been poached from the Daily Mirror by Hitchen and was one of the highest-paid reporters on the Express. I was one of the lowest paid — a situation a later remedied.

On the face of it, the Lucan tip looked solid. It came from within the Aitken family, the owners of the Beaverbook empire, and, I was later informed they had provided an address of a luxury villa of a family friend where we were told the fugitive Peer was in hiding. 

Initially, Coolican and I flew to the south of France and during that first languid afternoon in the glorious sunshine, we collected a hire car from the airport, drove into Cannes, where we enjoyed a leisurely lunch and a beer before he took me on what amounted to a sightseeing tour of the millionaire's playground of harbours and, to me, dazzling yachts along the Cote d'Azur. 

Along the way, Coolers made a couple of phone calls and we had a pleasant day with no mention of looking for Lord Lucan. I did no work and was completely unaware that Coolican had been in touch with Laura Aitken for some background information and, without my knowledge, later filed an elaborate, flowery piece about reports of the runaway Lord Lucan living it up at a party on a yacht.

The story duly appeared in the next day's Express. It was all news to me, and as it turned out a complete fairy tale Coolican had dreamt up with Hitchen. Like Vine, Hitchen had a few favourite sayings. I once heard him bellow down the news desk phone to Midlands district man Kingsley Squires: "You're a professional - make it up!"

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However, Coolican's Lucan spoof peaked enough interest for the picture desk to dispatch their best photographer, John Downing, to link up with us on day two. 

Meantime, Coolican drove me to Saint Jean Cap Ferrat to the address we had for the home, Villa Paladium, where Lucan was said to be hiding with his best friend, Royal portrait artist and playboy Dominick Elwes, pictured left. 

So much for swimming a mile under water and climbing over barbed wire, dodging armed guards and savage dogs, this lovely Italian-syle villa was on top of a hill, about a mile from the sea above Cap Ferrat, set among other similar luxury villas on a dirt road. 

My own modest two up two down terraced house near Rochester in Kent would have fitted into the porch of the villa. By now, it was about 11 a.m. and the sun was already beating down when Coolers dropped me in the road outside the low-walled villa, handed me a camera with a long lense, gave me a brief tutorial in how to focus and press the button "just in case” — then drove off to the Aeroport du Cannes to pick up Downing.

Coolican gave me strict instructions that I was to do precisely nothing. On no account was I to knock on the door or make any approach to anybody who came out or went into the villa. So I just sat on the low wall outside the neighbouring villa and not a soul came by on the narrow private road. I was alone for a couple of hours but then I was suddenly bursting for a pee. What was I do do? This was my first foreign job and I feared that if I pissed in the street and someone reported me, I feared the Gendarmes would come and arrest me and I'd be sure to be sacked. There was no sign of Coolican returning with the photographer and it could be another hour yet, for all I knew...

There was only one thing for it. I needed a toilet urgently. So I knocked as hard as could, repeatedly, on the villa door. A couple of minutes later, as I was doing jig on the doorstep, Elwes opened the door a fraction. Enough for me to see the hallway was in pitch darkness and the bright sunshine blinded him as he blinked bleary-eyed as if he had just got out of bed at what must have been gone one o'clock by now. Elwes looked frail and ill. I blurted out my name, told him I was from the Daily Express and, then, in the same breath, said: "Sorry Dominick, I need a piss! Where's your toilet?"

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In that moment, I pushed the door and dashed inside, almost knocking Elwes over. The thought that Lord Lucan might have been in the next room was the last thing on my mind. I made it to the toilet with seconds to spare. Oh, what a relief. That minute in the loo gave me the time to collect my thoughts. I was inside now — and I wasn't about to leave, whatever happened. 

When I came out, I found Elwes and apologised profusely. I explained some of what had happened to land me on his doorstep, without mentioning the Express had information that he was hiding out with his best mate Lucan. I calmly introduced myself properly and told Dominick that I had interviewed Lady Lucan at her home earlier that month and I had seen his magnificent portrait of Lord Lucan propped up in the living room of the house. I complimented him on the painting and the ice was broken.

Dominick asked me to call him by his first name and asked me if I fancied a drink. Of course. He explained that since his name was shortened by his friends to "Dom", he only drank the champagne named after him — Dom Perignon. He scuttled off to fund a bottle and two glasses. That gave me the opportunity to walk to the end of the large manicured garden with the intention to take pictures of this magnificent villa just in case it did turn out to be Lucan's hiding place. 

Elwes admitted to me he had tried to wipe the blood off the step at the Lucan townhouse in Belgravia after the murder.

To my dismay, I found the long lens Coolican had armed me with, was way too big. I couldn't fit the villa into the frame. At that moment, Dominick came back onto the terrace and could not see me. "Frank, Frank, where are you?" he shouted. I sauntered back to join him and said I had just been admiring the garden. There was no sign of Lucan, so Dominick — Dom to me by now — got tucked into his Dom Perignon. 

We became instant friends and after a few glasses, Dom started to open up to me about his heartbreak over his best friend going missing and being accused of murder. I had switched my mini tape recorder on while I was in the garden, so although we were getting pissed together, every word he said was going down on tape. Elwes admitted to me he had tried to wipe the blood off the step at the Lucan townhouse in Belgravia after the murder. We polished off two bottles of champagne and there was no more booze left in the house, which was clearly empty. 

There was no-one else in the villa, which Dom showed me around, and told me he was there on his own, ironically, to escape the Press after being accused by the Lucan set, led by millionaire gambler John Aspinall, James Goldsmith and their Clermont Club set, of selling a photograph of Lucan to the Sunday Times magazine and allegedly betraying friendships by talking too much. A wealthy friend, the Earl of Compton offered Elwes his villa so he could lay low in the south of France.

I was really hungry, so I suggested that I take Dominic down to the nearest bar/restaurant where the Daily Express would pick up the tab and I could repay him for his generous hospitality. We were both so pissed that we leaned on each other, shoulder to shoulder, as we staggered down the hill to a suitable watering hole. 

Once there, overlooking the azure ocean and watching wealthy beautiful people coming and going in their Rolls-Royces, Mercs and open-top Porche sports cars, I decided I must be in a Hollywood movie. It was all so unreal for a working class lad from Manchester. Here was I getting up close and personal with a renowned artist who had painted a portrait of the Queen and whose painting of the 7th Earl of Lucan, pictured right, I had seen in the lounge of the murder house when I Interviewed Lady Lucan after she had survived the attempted murder by her deranged husband. So I ordered whisky sours for me and my new mate Dom. I had no idea what they were, but it sounded good and theatrical. I was living a Hollywood moment and Dom decided to go with the flow. 

We had a few whisky sours and continued talking over a delicious rabbit cassoulet, which helped to soak up the effects of some of the alcohol. Over lunch, Dom told me he was bereft because not a day had gone by when he did not speak to his best friend Lucky. He could not accept that the man he had known so closely for so many years could be a murder.

Although after he visited the injured Lady Lucan in hospital and heard her account, he must have known that his missing best mate WAS the killer of the Lucan nanny, who had almost killed Lady Lucan, also.

Dominick said he could not explain why he had not heard from Lucan. The best part for me was when, well into the lunch, he made an appeal, though the Daily Express, to Lucan: "If Lucky is still alive, as I believe he is, please contact me."

That was the icing on the cake — and it all went down on tape. I could not have interrupted things either at the villa or over lunch by taking out a note book that might have caused the emotional Elwes, who kept on drinking and talking, to clam up. Instead, he opened his heart to me. All right, I had not found Lord Lucan but I had found his best friend, who had given me an exclusive interview. "I suppose I am one of Lucky Lucan's best friends," he told me. Then the distraught Elwes added: "Every day during our 15 years of friendship we have always been in daily touch with each other - we were almost like brothers.

"If Lucky did contact me, I would tell him to go to the police to sort this whole bloody mess out. I am sure he is still alive somewhere and hiding in the most desperate circumstances.

"I and the rest of his friends would like to help him and do our duty as far as the law is concerned.

"Why oh why doesn't he get in touch with any of us? We all have our personal problems but we still feel Lucky needs help badly.

"We are all prepared to accept his alibi and help him in every way possible … I feel desperately sorry for him. This whole thing is a tragedy."

He confided to me that the whole affair had pushed him to the bring a depression, adding: "This is a ghastly business with police asking me questions all the time."

Thanking his aristocratic friend Lord Compton for the free use of his villa, Elwes said: "He offered me this refuge to disappear to. I still can't relax, even though I am totally alone. I feel so lost..."

Coolican, on the other hand, was anything but cool. He was almost purple with anger and it showed. He had left me stranded

Meantime, Don Coolican had returned to the villa up the hill from the restaurant we were in with John Downing in tow. It didn't take them long to find me in the company of Elwes in that bar/restaurant on the oceanside at Cap Ferrat. It was the first time I had really met Downing. He was what I came to know as his normal, laid back self, quietly assessing the situation and going along with the situation, cool and professional and all smiles. 

Coolican, on the other hand, was anything but cool. He was almost purple with anger and it showed. He had left me stranded on top of a hill and expected me to be there when he returned hours later. Instead, he found me getting pissed with one of the main subjects of our story and getting on like a house on fire.

Coolers and I had a talk away from Elwes and I told him that I not only had dynamite quotes about Lucan but an appeal through the Express directly to Lucan to please get in touch with him. When I told him I hadn't made notes but had tape recorded everything, in front of Downing, Coolican demanded I had over my tape recorder, so he could go off to the AP office in Cannes and telex the story over to London. I refused. 

Coolican wanted to abandon me again, take my tape and leave me behind to mind Elwes. The fun amiable atmosphere had changed despite Coolican’s efforts not to show his anger and Elwes sensed it and didn't like Coolican's pompous big 'I am’ attitude. Despite Collican's efforts to exchange friendly small talk to ingratiate himself with Dominick, he didn't like Collican and was highly suspicious of him. It was this point that the wonderful John Downing did what he did best.

Full of smiles, he absolutely charmed Elwes while Coolican quietly seethed. John talked Elwes into posing for a set of exclusive pictures. Our lunch was over. When I refused to part with my tape, which Dominick knew nothing about, there was nothing for it but for all four of us to drive to Cannes to telex the story to London and Downing could wire his pictures from there. We parked Dominic in a nearby bar with plenty to drink and Coolican, myself and Downing went upstairs into the AP offices for about an hour.

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I sat beside Coolican as we went through the tape and he typed what turned out to be the following day's splash with a separate story on page 3. I didn't need the tape to recall the main points of the memorable story and we just found the appropriate direct quotes on the tape. Of course Coolican got the lead byline with my name second but everyone in the office knew it was my story. Downing let everybody know and I was happy with that.

We had a few more drinks with Dominick then dropped him back at the villa. Then Coolican decided we had earned a night in Monte Carlo, so we headed off and booked into a hotel there. We had dinner and more drinks, but I was done for after drinking for Europe all day. 

Downing and Coolican helped me back to my room and dumped me on the bed. Then they went out to the world famous casino and enjoyed a big night out. My powers of recovery from getting trashed the night before have always been pretty remarkable, so by the time the phone rang in my room at just after 8 the next morning, I was already up and showered. It was Downing on the other end.

He told me: "You didn't get this from me, but Coolican is talking about leaving you behind. Do yourself a favour and get down to breakfast with us in half an hour." Thanks to JD, who I had never worked with until then, I appeared at breakfast bight-eyed and bushy tailed and enjoyed a lovely breakfast in the hotel restaurant overlooking Monte Carlo harbour together with JD and Coolican, who seemed affable and said nothing about leaving me behind. I was still part of the team. 

There was no talk of my behaviour in scooping my team leader the day before. Instead, we all enjoyed another day in paradise supposedly looking for Lord Lucan, who, of course was not there. Downing wore a floral tropical shirt. Sun tanned and handsome, he looked like an actor out of the then hit US TV show Hawaiian Eye. 

Along the way, we met up with Laura Aitken, the boss’s daughter if you like, [Lord Beaverbrook’s grand daughter] who was a good looking blonde lady, delightful and one of the prettiest informants I ever met. She had a twinkle in her eye when she saw Downing, they knew each other and John swept her off her feet, literally, lifting her up in a big friendly hug. 

We had a chat lovely to Laura and thanked her for leading us to Dominick Elwes. John introduced me and treated me like an equal. He was very gracious, helpful and positive, knowing I was a rookie reporter on my first foreign for the Express and actually thanked me for getting him on to such a dream job. He moaned that because his name was Downing, he was usually sent to Downing Street, often in the pissing rain. 

Elwes never got over his depression brought on by the Lucan murder. Back in London after an ill-fated trip to Spain, he took his own life that September with an overdose.

Looking at him in the blazing sunshine with a backdrop of millionaire yachts bobbing up and down in the blue ocean, I quipped: "Why don't you change your name to Joe Bahamas so you'll get sent there?" We laughed but forever after that, Downing was "Joe Bahamas" to me.

What a lovely man. There was one extra treat after John said his goodbyes and flew back to London direct. As something of a Thank You from Vine and Hitchen, Coolers and myself were allowed to fly home via Paris, where we had a night out on expenses, dining at the legendary La Coupole Art Deco brasserie in Montparnasse, a haunt of movie stars, pop singers and models.

Fabulous. Lord Lucan wasn't there, either, but I comforted myself by demolishing the house special of a tier of mixed seafood, washing down with the finest red wine. The world was my lobster...

On a very sad note, Elwes never got over his depression brought on by the Lucan murder. Back in London after an ill-fated trip to Spain, he took his own life that September with an overdose.

I left the Express after a whirlwind 18 months of big stories including the IRA London bombing campaign to return to my first love, investigations on the Sunday People. By then, thanks to working with top pros like Downing, I was a much better all-round reporter - and a great admirer of photographers. And whenever I met John over the years in Fleet Street at various bars, usually in the company of his great mate, Express snapper Tom Smith, who I was also fortunate enough to work with, I always called him Joe Bahamas.

RIP JD. I will never forget looking for Lord Lucan with you. You will always have a special place in my heart.


© 2005-2020 Alastair McIntyre