SUNDAY 21 JULY  2024


Our Chris, a legendary editor but a lousy actor

Arthur Christiansen, right, in The Day the Earth Caught Fire

 MOST OF us agree, Arthur Christiansen was a great and iconic editor of the Daily Express, a legend in all our lunchtimes — but when it came to acting his talents hit the spike. He couldn’t remember his lines, was difficult and frustrating to direct and not easy to manage.

 So says movie producer Val Guest who brought Bafta-winning The Day the Earth Caught Fire to our Big Screens in 1961. In a little known and revealing interview some years after the blockbuster movie now claimed to be one of the Top 10 sci-fi movies of all time, Guest recalls filming in the Great Man’s office and newsroom. Christiansen played himself in it, but under another name. But he was nearly replaced.

 “We had terrible trouble with him,” admitted Guest. “He was terrified in front of the lens. The poor guy could not remember a line, so I wrote them on paper and stuck them everywhere for him. We finally got him through it bit by bit. It was frustrating.”

The movie was based on nuclear weapons tests by America and Russia at the same time that had a devastating effect on Earth’s rotation, altering our path by 11 degrees and affecting our climate zones as the planet spirals towards the Sun. A Daily Express reporter gets the inside story as we speed towards the big fry up with record temperatures.

 “Truth is, I lumbered myself with Christiansen,” said Guest. “He was the one who did all our clearances for us to make the film, persuading Beaverbrook to give over the whole building and staff, he was also my press guy on the film keeping me on the right lines. He was invaluable as my technical adviser. So, I said: ‘Here, come and do the whole thing’!”

 Guest goes on to tell BBC writer and producer Roy Fowler how he wrote the film script eight years earlier but couldn’t get anyone to make it. British Lion turned it down along with Minter, Rank, and Columbia. They all said people wouldn’t want to see a film about nuclear bombs.

 The movie producer scraped together some cash from some private investors and finally made the movie at Shepperton on a shoestring.

 “It only cost £200,000, which was desperately cheap,” he said. “It was about London being deserted and breaking down with lack of water and the heat, and I had to clear the whole of Fleet Street and put down rubble, dirt, and dust, using the Daily Express building and plastering up their windows to make them look as if they were broken.

 “We didn’t do it on Sundays, we did it midweek and were allowed to clear Fleet Street for two minutes at a time. A whistle would blow, and police stopped traffic and people from the Law Courts to Ludgate Circus.

 “We drove a truck full of Fuller’s earth and rubble up the deserted street, past a car we had overturned on to the pavement, and prop men shovelled the mud from it on to the pavements all the way, as two cops followed on motorbikes. After exactly two minutes the whistle blew again, and the traffic would start as we cleared away.”

 Guest goes on to tell how he had to create fog to descend over Battersea. But as the fog machine whirred, the Chelsea Flower Show opened and visitors got lost in it, calling the police leading to a row with them and the movie makers.

 “The whole film was fraught with those kinds of difficulties,” Guest said. He had mixed feelings about Christiansen. “Some people said he gave a brilliant off beat performance; others said it was fucking awful.

 “I talked him into it. He was an intelligent guy. I never knew what would happen to him once I got him on screen. I didn’t expect him to be in such terror and he was. The first day he wasn’t in terror, and we’d gone so far by then; he started to get the terror when he realised that he’d bitten off more than he could chew. But by then it was too late, and I couldn’t really recast by that time.”

 So, Christiansen made his deadline.

How aliens boosted sales

Pearsons Weekly, forerunner to Express

NEWSPAPERS and sci-fi stories have always been bedfellows in the public eye, as long ago as the late 1800s.

 In the first 10 years of Pearson’s Weekly, the forerunner of the Daily Express, there was barely an issue which didn’t include an episode of a sci-fi serial such as The Finger of Fire where a scientist discovers how to burn water.

 Another was The Argonaut, where a man’s head was replaced by a metal ball to hold his brain, which somehow gave the resulting Cyborg superhuman strength. The public lapped the stories up. 

The Syren of the Skies told of The Brotherhood of Freedom, a worldwide network of anarchists fighting the world armed with fantastical airships. They had to be quick in accomplishing their goals, as a dangerous comet was heading for Earth.

 Most of the serialisations were anonymous, but some were by sci-fi writer George Griffith who became an iconic figure in the space book world.

 The motto of Pearson’s Weekly, a 16-page tabloid, was to ‘interest, elevate and amuse’ readers and the first issue sold a quarter of a million copies, soon growing to one million.

 Founder Sir Arthur Pearson sent Griffith on a record-breaking trip to fly around the world, inspired by Jules Verne’s novel which told of an 80-day adventure. Two women journalists had already achieved it in under that time … but Griffith created a new record of 65 days, and he wrote about it for Pearson’s readers every step of the way.

 In 1898, Pearson purchased the Morning Herald, and in 1900 merged it into his new creation, the halfpenny Daily Express and here we all are today.

 Pearson’s former company became an imprint of George Newnes Ltd in 1914 and was acquired by Odhams Press in 1960. All three companies became the International Publishing Company, (IPC) in 1961.

Expressman reached out to blind

Arthur Pearson who created the Express

THE STORY of Daily Express founder, Sir Arthur Pearson, who went blind, is an incredible one and I shall tell it sometime later. But I cannot sign off on the former founder of our parish without mentioning that according to all accounts, he was a sensitive and kindly man, with a big heart who did more to raise the awareness and understanding of the British public to being blind than anyone else of his time.

 Pearson founded St Dunstan’s Hostel for sailors and soldiers blinded in the Great War of 1914-1918. Many were blinded by shrapnel wounds and trauma. Others lost their sight up to 20 years after the war suffering from the effects of mustard gas on the Front Line.

 Pearson opened a hostel in Regent’s Park so the injured soldiers and sailors could ‘learn to be blind’. By 1929 there were 2,000 men in his care. Not only were blinded soldiers trained in basket weaving or massage, but also in social skills such as dancing, braille reading or sports to give them back self-confidence.

 News of what Pearson was doing to help blind people spread across the UK … and the world. The Swiss National Association of Goldsmiths sent 800 braille watches for the men of St Dunstan’s but ran into tax trouble from the British Treasury.

 When the public learned that the injured sailors and soldiers had to pay tax on the gift, there was an outcry. Chancellor Bonar Law finally paid it from “a special fund”.

 Pearson was much loved by the British public and several years after his death, Sidney Dark, Editor of the Church Times, who wrote his biography, said of him: “He took the men who in the heyday of their youth had lost their sight fighting for their country … inspired them with courage; filled them with hope; taught them how to overcome their handicap and contrived to make their lives happy and useful. But he did far more than that.

 “He revolutionised the attitude of mind of the sighted towards the blind. He gave them back their dignity. Rarely has there been a greater example of the courageous and even cheerful acceptance of handicap and misfortune than was shown by Arthur Pearson when he lost his own sight. He would never submit or yield.”

 Pearson died on 9 December 1921, aged 55, when he drowned in his bath after knocking himself unconscious in a fall. He was buried in Hampstead Cemetery after a service attended by Cabinet Ministers, the British and Norwegian royal families, and many institutes for the blind. Two of his pallbearers were blind.

 He had been blinded by glaucoma in 1908.

Sewell could play snooker too

My old chum Tony Boullemier of our parish and an honorary Drone, writes to me: ‘I just caught up with your piece on tough guy actor George Sewell, Tel. I met him in the 80s in Northampton. Our office was right opposite the Derngate Theatre where George was appearing in a play.

 ‘He turned up in the basement of our offices one lunchtime!

 ‘We had rented it out to a snooker club, complete with an ever-open bar and I had a drink with him and Hugh Lloyd – remember him? (Of course, I do Tony). He was a very nice gent and seemed totally removed from the gangster image that followed him around.’

The listening spy catchers

Chapman Pincher

YOU can’t beat a good spy story. And many dream of being Smiley, the fictional British secret service agent in John Le Carré’s books such as Tinker, Soldier, Sailor Spy. Even the spy catchers themselves are admired. 

Who wouldn’t want to be a famous journalist like Chapman Pincher when they grew up?

 But are they truly investigative journalists, or just good listeners passing on leaks from inside the secret walls of MI5 and MI6? Were they often just used to grind grudges against others? Some people think so and in the 1960s, at the height of the Cold War, the phrase conspiracy journalism was born.

 Historian EP Thompson accused our legendary spy catcher Pincher and journalists like him as: “A kind of official urinal in which ministers and intelligence and defence chiefs could stand patiently leaking.”

 It is true that our icon Pincher got most of his stories by taking politicians and senior government Ministers to lunch at expensive London restaurants such as L’Ecu de France in Jermyn Street. And Lord Beaverbrook, paid for Pincher’s flat in St James’s as well as for regular doses of oysters and Chablis.

 He became a sort of chum to all kinds of people such as Lord Mountbatten, Charles Forte and Michael Havers QC and went shooting with them. Shooting grouse, Pincher said, was the key. At a shooting party “their guard has gone, you’re all pals, together.” And so, Pincher listened.

When you scratch the surface of Fleet Street and dig deep on spy stories you discover that it was listening that brought in many of his scoops. Take The Fifth Man.

 Back in the 1960s a small group of MI5 officers, led by Peter Wright, (king of conspiracies) were convinced their organisation was being run by a Soviet agent. One of their operations after another had failed. But they didn’t blame themselves, they blamed a traitor in their Mayfair building.

 Soon another spy hunt would begin for the Fifth Man after the treachery cases against four Cambridge spies Burgess, McLean, Philby and Blunt. At first, the small group of agents went to their boss, Sir Roger Hollis.

 He refused a probe fearing it would tear the agency apart. “We would be acting like the Gestapo,” he said, blaming the agency’s own mistakes for operations going wrong. The agents were turned away and now they suspected that Hollis was the traitor.

 They rang Pincher and arranged a secret meeting when they told him of their fears. Pincher, whose ear was always open, went to his typewriter and the revelation that the head of MI5 might be investigated sparked a witch-hunt against Hollis that shocked the world. And lasts to this day.

 Over time, other stories later came out about the murky dealings of the Secret Services. It became the ‘bag a spy’ season from then on. All sorts of names of so-called traitors came out of the hat over the years. One that Harold Wilson was a Soviet spy. All great copy, whether true or not. The Secret Services had lost their elite and untouchable image.

 Hollis went to his grave shrouded with accusations that he was the Fifth Man. It had all made front page news. Pincher wrote a best-selling book on him.

 But in the 1990s British literary scholar John Cairncross was finally named as the missing link in the Cambridge spy ring. Hollis was innocent after all. Or was he? That’s the beauty of the spy game, you never know. Pincher still thought so.

 Pincher, who never took notes, died of old age at 100 in 2014. He will always be an iconic Express journalist. He summed it all up when he said: “The security services were like an Aladdin’s cave of stories that made scoops.” He listened.


Eliades puts on a great show

David Eliades, right, in the Daily Express newsroom with 

photographer John Rogers

A young priest in the tiny French village of St. Pierre-des-Monts answers the phone. It is a call from God warning that he is about to destroy mankind with a second great flood.

 Only Father Benoir and his misfit flock will be saved, but they must hurry, said God, and build an ark like Noah’s.

 What a storyline for a book. It was. Called After Me The Deluge it went on to be a major musical too, all written by our very own David Eliades. David was our long-suffering night news editor on the Express for years. He wrote books with his friend Robert Forrest-Webb, under the pen name of David Forrest.

 The Deluge stage show has been running in Italy for 44 years and has been seen by 15 million people. Its English version, Beyond the Rainbow, ran at the Adelphi Theatre in London in the late 1970s.

 The two friends have written other bestsellers too. Another, The Great Dinosaur Robbery, became a Disney movie, One of our Dinosaurs is Missing, starring Peter Ustinov.

 Despite his great success, David put up with us all on the editorial floor, even his sophisticated boss (subs please check adjective) Mike Parry who never seemed to go home … and was with us for years in the Front Line. A member of our legendary World’s Greatest Lunch Club, he has retired now and lives with his charming wife in Switzerland.

 I mention David’s achievements because I don’t think they have been recorded on the Daily Drone, our iconic history volume of life in the Black Lubyanka circa 1970s and on.



 Terry will be back in June with another series of Off The Spike.

29 April 2024