Vic Giles, designer with a flair for the radical

Vic at a celebrity bash in 1984 with Geoffrey Boycott, impressionist Faith Brown and Page Three girl Linda Lusardi

By STEPHEN WOOD, Vic Giles’s son-in-law and former production editor, International Express

Vic Giles, former Expressman and one of the great Fleet Street art editors, died on May 14 aged 92 at a private care home in Tunbridge Wells.

His second wife June, 89, had died only nine weeks earlier. Vic, with advancing Alzheimer’s disease, suffered a stroke on May 8.

Vic was a design genius with flair for the radical in page layout — striking artwork and big headlines — and was a key figure in the birth and growth of the Murdoch Sun. He was never embarrassed to talk about his achievements in art direction but every conversation involved his ‘invention’ of the Page Three girl.

Stories about the sensational arrival of T and B on an early Sun news page tended to vary. Use of naughty pix was editor Larry Lamb’s idea but Vic argued for Page 3 prominence — and his will prevailed.

Born in the East End of London in 1927, Vic had to leave school at 14 and find work to support his family when his father became crippled by arthritis. He got a job as a Fleet Street messenger boy and set about creating a career path by applying natural artistic ability and (in his own words) “sticking my nose into everything I could, learning and noting what those blokes said, and using it”.

Towards the end of WW2 he served as a medical orderly in a Royal Navy shore establishment.  His wife Renée was in the Auxiliary Fire Service. Back in Civvy Street, Vic went on to work for, among others, the Daily Sketch, Daily Mirror, Sunday Mirror, the Sun, the ill-fated Plus magazine and some US projects under Rupert Murdoch. Every move was a step up.

Pages, pages, pages … Vic doing what he loved and did best at the Express

He was the right man for the job when the Daily Star launched from Manchester in 1978. The Express had gone tabloid a year earlier and Vic moved to Fleet Street to get a grip on design under editor Derek Jameson with whom he had worked on the Mirror. Renée died in January 1979.

Vic’s radical approach did not sit well with one or two executives who were unhappy to be instructed by an ‘art man’ but Express design was revolutionised, driven by Vic’s passion for sans faces. The shouty new look brought Vic’s dynamism to the paper but perhaps the readers choked on their cornflakes and circulation failed to take off as hoped. He retired on medical grounds in 1986.

The Daily went through many post-Giles redesigns as editors and managements mucked about with the idea that design could somehow make up for deteriorating content and cuts to writing, subbing and photographic staff. Serif founts returned.

Vic’s approach had generated vast amounts of extra work for us on the art desk; and for the chaps in Process who had rarely been troubled by much more than a steady stream of half-tones. The first centre-spread of Vic’s that I had to handle was about a horse-doping scandal and involved a huge line image of a hypodermic syringe and half-tones with pierces and cutouts.

Brilliant. Enter ashen-faced Process overseer Arthur Broadribb, brandishing layout. “What the **** is this? It will take hours.” All I could offer was: “It’s the future, Arthur.” They coped. They always did; and Giles designs set a standard for speed and execution few could match.

Vic with Daily Star founding editor Peter Grimsditch (left) and editor-in-chief Derek Jameson at a Star post-launch event in 1978. Second right is Nick Griffith, former chief sub of the Daily Express in Manchester

Our extra art desk responsibilities went unrecognised and were ignored by the NUJ chapel until [the late] Terry Evans and I had a chat with Jameson. Instant £500 added to salaries — great for us but peanuts compared with the fortunes claimed by Jimmy James and his case hands as the London Scale of Prices was applied to the huge increase in art proofs needed for blown headlines and fancy artwork.

Vic married divorcée June Moss in 1980. He loved to splurge the fruits of his success and took many luxury cruises with her on QE2, Canberra and Queen Mary.

On a voyage in the early 80s, the Captain got to hear that a “Mr Giles of the Daily Express” was on board. Posh frock for June, dinner suit for Vic and champagne dinner at the Captain’s table. As the courses came and went, embarrassment levels rose as it became clear this was not Carl Giles the legendary Express cartoonist.

In 1990 I married Vic’s daughter Jackie — much to Vic’s disappointment! She has the art-and-design gene but not, as she freely admits, the ambition one. She worked on Eddy Shah’s Today, the Sunday Express and with me on the International Express under Ray Mills soon after the Express move from Fleet Street to Ludgate House. Vic was proud of her talent but disappointed she failed to marry one of Murdoch’s sons.

It was a great life that ended after months of distress as June developed cancer and Alzheimer’s tightened its awful grip on Vic. They loved their home at the Barbican but eventually the move into care on February 28 was unavoidable. June died only nine days later. The care offered by the staff of Chamberlain Court, Tunbridge Wells, was exemplary — all the more so in the face of the C19 crisis. Their dedication made a huge difference. And if anyone rattles an Alzheimer’s Society charity tin near you please give generously.

PAT PILTON adds: Your Daily Drone headline says it all — Vic was a genius. I was privileged to work with him on The Sun and the Express and marvelled every day how skilfully he transformed our back bench scribbles into works of art. 

Not only was Vic a creative and original newspaperman (I'm a journalist not an artist, he always insisted), he was also a wonderful spotter and mentor of talent. Through protégés like Ray Cave, Tim Holder, Johnnie Haxton and Jackie and Steve, themselves, something of his magic survived and flourished on art desks across Fleet Street. 

In later years I became his neighbour at the Barbican and enjoyed many happy Sundays with Vic and June on the balcony of his beloved Barbican tower. He edited the residents' magazine with the same enthusiasm and attention to detail he had demonstrated at the Black Lubianka. Larry Lamb claimed the credit for Page 3 and the distinctive Sun masthead. But in truth, as with Larry's rough-sketched Page Ones, it was Vic wot done it!

Just for the record, it was a year after the launch — 17 November 1970 — that the first topless girl appeared on Page 3.

JON ZACKON writes: The death of the great newspaper designer and artist Vic Giles reminds me that the Daily Express owed him a debt of thanks, of sorts. We all loved Tim Holder and thanked him for his enormous contribution to the DX before his untimely death. Well, I was on The Sun when Tim joined that paper’s art desk back in the 70s. Vic was like a professor, dispensing wisdom and knowhow to those around him, including Tim. I am in no doubt that Tim the greenhorn absorbed a lot of what Vic both showed and told him.

There are two stories about Vic that are worth airing. He told me how he had recommended Kelvin MacKenzie, then a down-table sub, to Rupert Murdoch. This was corroborated by some on the subs’ table, as well as those on the middle and back benches. It was common knowledge. So I once asked Vic whether MacKenzie had ever acknowledged the part he’s played in his rise to the top. “You’ve got to be kidding,” said Vic. “He’s never thanked me.”

The second story has Express interest because it involves Sir Larry Lamb. I went to see the play Ink by James Graham. Despite it being widely praised I was absolutely appalled by it because at its heart is a huge lie. A calumny against the late Sir Larry. 

The essence of the play is The Sun’s race to overhaul the circulation of the Daily Mirror. Larry appears to be obsessed by this possibility, and that’s probably based on the truth. But then, much to my horror, the play maintains that the topless Page Three girls were Larry’s idea and that he went over the head of the disapproving Murdoch. What nonsense! Murdoch was very keen on getting sex into his papers. For example, look at the use of rape stories, which until he came along were largely confined to the Sunday papers.

Those of us on the Daily Express will remember the lack of salaciousness in the paper when Larry was Editor. You could even say he was a bit prudish, so to see him portrayed as a purveyor of topless images was pretty damn disgraceful.

So what proof do I have of this? About ten years ago (I’m poor on dates, I’m afraid), long before Ink, The Guardian printed a telling letter from Vic Giles. Here it is in its entirety:

For the first seven years of The Sun I was its art director. Every page that I created had to be shown to the editor, Larry Lamb,  for his approval. I had chosen a news picture for Page Three one day in the early 1970s. However, Rupert Murdoch was sitting in the editor’s chair while Larry reclined on the settee the other side of the room. 

I held up the fully drawn normal page so that Rupert could see it. He said: “Great, Vic.” Then I placed my “fun” – topless – version so that both could see. Larry immediately shouted: “No, that will lose readers.” But Rupert said: “I like it. Let’s print it.” 

The next day Rupert appeared at my elbow. “Keep that Page 3 style going, for ever.” By the end of the week the circulation figures were climbing at a fantastic rate and continued to do so. Many have claimed the idea as their own. I am happy to tell you that it was my “fun” page 3 accident, instantly approved by the chairman.”

Where did James Graham get his information from? Certainly not from Vic, then. In fact, in yet another travesty of the truth, as far as I can remember he is not mentioned in the play at all. Vic may have based his style on the ideas of Hugh Cudlipp, who in turn was influenced by the papers of Jazz Age Chicago. But one thing is for sure. There was only one person responsible for those magnificent spreads and powerful page ones in the early Murdoch Sun – and that was Vic Giles.

THE GENIUS OF VIC


© 2005-2020 Alastair McIntyre