Times tribute to Callan

When Paul Callan met Greta Garbo at Hotel du Cap-Eden-Roc in Antibes he thought the scoop of a lifetime was about to land in his lap.

The reclusive actress had not granted an interview in decades and Callan, in town to cover the Cannes film festival for the Daily Mail, saw the headline “GARBO SPEAKS!” flashing before him on a world exclusive that was bound to be syndicated around the globe. His sense of elation lasted no more than a few seconds. “Miss Garbo, I wonder . . .” he began as he framed his first question. “Why wonder?” she interrupted and walked out.

Resourceful as ever, Callan got a full-page feature out of his two-word interview and a fine anecdote with which to regale his fellow hacks over a glass or three in El Vino. His reputation as one of the last of the old-style Fleet Street “big beasts” parodied in Private Eye as “Lunchtime O’Booze” was hard earned.

Sent to Belgium by the Daily Mirror in 1987 to write a piece on the victims of the Zeebrugge ferry disaster, he freely admitted that he had arrived “too pissed to file”, yet his byline was considered such an asset that back in London the news desk composed a piece in his colourful style and put his name on it.

He could survive such occasional mishaps thanks to a vast back catalogue of enviable front-page exclusives. Without bothering with the formality of seeking Home Office permission, he interviewed both the Kray twins for the Mirror. In Broadmoor he cajoled Ronnie Kray into recounting with an alarming relish how he had calmly murdered his fellow gangster, George Cornell, with a bullet to the forehead, adding: “I done the earth a favour.”

In Parkhurst he persuaded Reggie Kray to confess for the first time to the murder of Jack “the Hat” McVitie. “I heard he was going to kill me, so I killed him,” he told Callan. “He deserved it.”

He also talked Bobby Kennedy’s murderer, Sirhan Sirhan, into singing during a two-hour interview in a maximum security cell in California’s Soledad prison. In a front-page Mirror splash headlined “Kennedy Killer Speaks”, Callan dramatically reported how Sirhan had coiled his fingers around an imaginary revolver and pointed it at his interviewer’s head to show how he had assassinated the man who might have become president.

One of his crowning triumphs came in 1995 when the Express sent him to cover the 50th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz. Callan, who was Jewish, filed a moving piece which his executive editor said brought tears to his eyes, as did the expenses claim which followed a few days later.

By then Callan had adopted the airs of a patrician, which belied more humble origins, his frame well-upholstered after a lifetime of long and bibulous lunches. “He looked more like a judge having a quick snifter after a tricky fraud case, all pinstripes, bow tie and large vodka,” Alan Frame, executive editor of the Express observed.

Gregarious and proudly politically incorrect, he was in his element holding court to his peers in El Vino, even after the ending of its males-only policy, a change of which he deeply disapproved. He had been to the fore in an infamous battle in 1970 when feminist journalists invaded the Fleet Street watering hole in protest at their exclusion.

As he shouted “repel boarders!” and aimed a soda siphon in the direction of the insurgents, one of them kneed him in the groin. Typically, he claimed £50 compensation for an industrial injury from his then employer, the London Evening Standard. Needless to say, it also provided him with a good story for the following day’s paper.

For many years he posed as an alumnus of Eton and Cambridge, fictitious claims that he even propagated in the notices of his 1973 marriage. One of those who saw through him was the Prince of Wales. At a reception at the British embassy in Delhi while covering a royal tour of India, Callan fell into conversation with the heir to the throne, who noticed his striped Old Etonian tie.

“Surely a man from the Mirror did not go to Eton?” Prince Charles inquired. “Certainly not, sir,” Callan admitted. “But it’s a nice tie!”

His Fleet Street reputation was initially made as a gossip columnist. After editing the Londoner’s Diary in the Evening Standard he arrived at the Daily Mail in 1971 to create a column intended to rival the pseudonymous William Hickey diary in the Daily Express. One of the contributors to the Hickey column was the 29-year-old Nigel Dempster (obituary July 13, 2007), whom Callan promptly recruited as his deputy. It was an appointment he came to regret, for within two years Dempster had taken his job in a coup d’état, turning in humdrum stories when Callan was editing and keeping his best tales for when Callan took a day off.

He is survived by Steffi Fields, his American wife, who for many years was desk editor for NBC’s London bureau. He is further survived by their two children: James, an editor at Bloomberg News, and Jessica, a journalist who has worked for the TelegraphMirror and Hello! magazine.

Paul Stanley Lester Callan was born in Redbridge, Essex, in 1939. His mother was Jewish and his Irish father, James, was a musician whose academic achievements, according to his son’s not always reliable testimony, included professorships at Harvard and Cambridge. Educated at Cranbrook School, Ilford, he studied cello at the Royal Academy of Music before joining the BBC Overseas Service.

By 1964 he had joined the Yorkshire Evening Post. One of his favourite stories involved being dispatched to London to cover Winston Churchill’s funeral by a news editor who was convinced that the great man must have had Yorkshire blood. Callan was instructed to solicit tributes from only “salt of t’earth” mourners from God’s own country. Shortly after, he moved permanently to London to join the Evening Standard.

After his ousting from the Mail he returned briefly to radio, fronting a morning chat show on the newly launched LBC in an unlikely pairing with Janet Street-Porter.

Callan considered her common, and revelled in telling listeners that his co-host looked a complete fright, with a bad hangover and bags under her eyes. She considered him “a snooty slimeball, something out of PG Wodehouse” and moaned on air about his “suede shoes, the stench of his French cigarettes and his ceaseless harping about his houses in the country and in ‘town’ ”. Their contrasting accents earned the nicknames “cut-glass” and “cut-froat” among broadcasting colleagues. “Day in and day out the morning was spent settling scores and trashing each other’s taste,” Street-Porter wrote in her memoir, Fall Out.

It made for entertaining listening but was short lived. In 1975 Callan joined the Mirror to write a gossipy column called “Inside the World of Paul Callan” and later “Close-Up”. As his star rose he was given free rein to write colour pieces about the biggest news stories of the day and to jet around the world conducting celebrity interviews, more often than not “around a sparkling swimming pool in Beverly Hills”.

Away from the typewriter and the lunch table, his abiding passion was music. Few assignments in his long career gave him more professional pleasure than the weekly Celebrity Choice show he presented in the 1990s on Classic FM. His knowledge of the classics was extensive, if not quite flawless. While covering Cowes Week one year he got into an argument over dinner with a fellow journalist, Christopher Wilson, about whether the baroque music playing in the background was by Tartini or Scarlatti. The dispute became so heated that the proprietor threw them out, adding tartly that they had both been wrong.

Paul Callan, journalist, was born on March 13, 1939. He died of a heart attack on November 21, 2020, aged 81


© 2005-2021 Alastair McIntyre