Saturday, December 21, 2013

Brian Hitchen CBE

This terrible year of tragedy has continued. Its latest victims are my old boss and first national newspaper editor Brian Hitchen and his wife Nelli, who died in Spain, mown down on a pedestrian path by a car driven in heavy rain by a retired Brit. A terrible accident.
I worked for “Hitch”, as he was known in the newsroom, from 1988 to 1994 while he was Editor of the Daily Star. 
I was its Showbiz Reporter and, latterly, its TV Editor and Columnist, and found him to be a great boss and a real character with his Churchillian persona, barrel of a chest, thick red braces and, of course, big cigar.
Joining the Daily Star at the Express Newspapers building, the so-called Black Lubianka, on Fleet Street from the relatively urbane Coventry Evening Telegraph in 1988, I was immediately in awe of Hitch. 
To me he was to me a fearsome yet fascinating figure – a great presence in the midst of a newsroom of the often-sozzled and sometimes mad.
I was a full time “casual” at first but when Hitch summarily dismissed my boss, a chain-smoking, fishnet-wearing pop hackette from the Black Country, I bailed out to spend a couple of weeks, working for the Features Department of the now-defunct News of the World a.k.a. The Screws.
There I fell in with the Features boss who promptly took me drinking at the Printer’s Pie bar on Fleet Street with my former chief, Hitch, and his coterie of old hacks. 
It was a most amusing evening.
Seeing him at close quarters, I learned what an inspired raconteur he was, with a crowd of ancient cronies around him whom he regaled with many a yarn. 
He was the centre of their working world and they hung on his every utterance.
Somehow, he took a shine to me and I returned to the Star to work for and, for a time, run the pop desk and then join the showbiz desk. 
Hitch was a tough boss but I felt he was fair and compassionate in his editorship.
Brian Hitchen was a huge figure on Fleet Street.
He had been a legendary Daily Mirror reporter and the paper’s man in New York. 
His investigative skills helped to find Martin Luther King’s killer and he was also instrumental in the tracking down of Great Train Robber Ronnie Biggs.
Hitch seamlessly moved from reporting to being a Fleet Street executive as news editor of the Mirror and then the Express before taking a job in America where he ran the picture desk at the National Enquirer, infamously securing a photograph of the late Elvis Presley in his coffin.
He seemed to me one of those indestructible men who could survive any setback.
So, it was a huge shock when on 2 December he was mown down while walking with his beloved wife Nelli in Spain.
The funeral was last Monday (16 December) at a rain-lashed Downs Crematorium, Brighton. 
It was a very beautiful service, conducted by Father Jerry O’Brien, of St Peter’s Roman Catholic, Hove.
Nelli was Irish so it was so surprise that she was Catholic but I was surprised Hitch had “crossed the Tiber” to convert to Catholicism.
Gabriel’s Oboe, from the Mission, by Ennio Morricone featuring Yo-Yo Ma, was played, a lovely piece, and, later, the mourners heard Cinema Paradiso, also by Morricone featuring Yo-Yo Ma and Chris Botti.
The poem Death Is Nothing At All by Henry Scott Holland was read, and Father O’Brien’s eulogy was moving. 
He said that in almost half a century this was his first double funeral. 
His message was "death is not the end".
Indeed, the two coffins, side by side, were a moving sight.
The Lord’s Prayer was said, a Final Prayer and When the Saints Go Marching In by Fritzel’s New Orleans Jazz Band played out.
It was a no-nonsense service that Hitch would have loved.
Outside the crematorium, Brian’s son Alex – a chip off the old block – and his daughter Claire talked with the congregation with great charm. 
Among them were the Daily Express Editor Hugh Whittow, who did a lot to facilitate the return of the bodies to Britain from Spain, and the former Editor of the Daily Express and Daily Star, Peter Hill – both former leading lights at the Daily Star.
It was also very good to see the Star’s former Deputy Editor Nigel Blundell who was for years my main boss, former Sports editor Phil Rostron and legendary Fleet Street reporters Don MacKay and Dick Durham.
There were so many other familiar faces. 
I admit he trouble I have at funerals is recognising people from the past.
We have all become so much older, you do a double-take sometimes, wondering what on earth the ravages of time have done.
The wake took place at Brian and Nelli’s mansion apartment in Hove – coincidentally a few hundred yards from where I now live.

It was interesting meeting his family and friends. 
I enjoyed talking with the Irish contingent and hearing some very amusing tales of Brian and Nelli’s family life such as their squabbling over who should change a grandchild’s nappy and how it should be done.
As the fizz flowed, all the stories came out. It is always good chatting with Don Mackay and his actress wife Nicola McAuliffe.
Dick Durham (pictured here with Alex and Sabina Hitchen), too. 

He told the story of his falling out with the British Olympics squad on the long flight to South Korea. Drink was involved. When the fertiliser hit the fan, it sounded to me like Hitch has been remarkably tolerant of his reporter’s conduct.
 I had similar experiences at least twice while working for Brian.
Once, when I was unfortunate enough to have an altercation with a notorious film actor at a showbiz banquet, witnessed by my Editor, Hitch’s only question to me afterwards was: “Ollie, how hard did you hit Oliver Reed?”
Nervously I replied: "Pretty hard, boss!" and he boomed: "Good man!"
Hitch turned a blind eye to an even more unfortunate incident involving the cast of a TV programme called Soldier, Soldier on location in Cyprus, to my great relief.
Brian would proudly say I was the only graduate in his newsroom. He gave an interview to The Guardian newspaper's Education Editor to lambast graduates in journalism. 
Asked if he had any graduates on his staff, he replied: “Only one. He has a degree in astrophysics and runs the pop column!”

He was undoubtedly a reporters' editor.

For instance, he was very supportive of his pop editor, Linda Duff, who, sadly, died this year as well. Brian clearly thought the world of her despite her great scruffiness and unconventional, though brilliant, approach to reporting. 

It did amuse me at the wake to hear how Linda had invited the pop stars Take That to the paper's charity awards, The Gold Star Awards, at London's Savoy Hotel, but Hitch would not let them in because they were wearing jeans. That is until Take That agreed to his condition that they do a little jig for their fans in the foyer of the hotel!

Hitch worked a miracle at the Star – giving the paper gravitas by sheer dint of his personality. 

Few Fleet Street editors could have pulled off that trick.
The Star had been through a disastrous time before Hitch became Editor with an ill-judged merger with the smutty paper The Sport when “bonk” became its byword and semi-naked lovelies adorned every page. 
I don’t think I realised how newsy he managed to make The Star until he left and it became a fully fledged showbiz and sports paper. 
At the end of the 1980s, when the then Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, was booed at a function, I filed copy on the story at past midnight and found my story on that morning’s front page. Hitch had also been on the phone instructing his backbench to change the front page to take my story.
Hitch was one of those guys who either liked or disliked someone.
It was a period of Fleet Street journalism when many of the tabloid showbiz reporters were simply inventing most of their stories.  
Hitch disapproved of the so-called “make-up artists”, getting rid of them where he could.
Of course there were mistakes.
The decision to hire at great expense The Sun’s Cockney TV reviewer went disastrously awry, resulting in desperate tannoy messages for the in-house lawyers, and published comments in The Sun that there were more drunks at the Star than on The Embankment! Though, personally, I found the whole episode highly amusing.
I recall that Hitch also hired the Liverpudlian singer cum TV dating show host Cilla Black to write a column, ghost-written by one of his more imaginative executives. 
It was a genuine shock to discover that even with the help of a most creative ghost-writer the affable Scouse star appeared to have little to say for herself. Perhaps, she was just too nice. The column was axed amid some embarrassment.
On the paper’s heavy drinking culture, he was extremely tolerant. 
He threw a massive surprise party for the entire staff to celebrate the Star’s success at being awarded the “Colour Newspaper of the Year” title. 
It ended with the feature subs breaking into his office and drinking all his whisky.
Brian was a forthright character – a jingoistic right winger – with a great admiration for Margaret Thatcher who he persuaded to visit our offices at Blackfriars Bridge when she was Prime Minister.
He was also hugely supportive of her successor John Major during a grim time for the Conservative Party when few editors (or even Conservatives) had a good word for the Prime Minister.
Remarkably, for a Lancashire lad who started on a local newspaper as one of the copy boys - known as "gofers" up North - Hitch became an establishment figure, the only tabloid editor to be a member of the Reform Club.
His former secretary told me at the wake of how Hitch took her to lunch at the Reform and very soon she was chatting to the Prime Minister.

He certainly had charisma and the gift of the gab. 
I could never really understand why he held such right-wing views.
The rabid rhetoric he sometimes poured out in his no-holds-barred weekly column did not seem to chime with his kindly nature and his love of people.
He was a good writer and one who hated his words tampered with. 
When his copy was sub-edited, you would hear him thundering down the office and furiously booming at the besozzled feature subs, one of whom would have been responsible: “Where's Ernest Hemingway?”
After Hitch moved from the Star to the Sunday Express, I did not see much of him, although one year at the UK Press Awards I enjoyed again his skills as a raconteur as he held court at his table.
He never failed to impress. Hitch turned up at another Star showbiz reporter’s funeral and gave the widow a personal cheque for several thousand pounds to help her – someone he had probably never met before - through tough times.
After his retirement, he was booked as a turn on cruise liners, regaling the passengers with his stories of Fleet Street derring-do.
For a time he embraced social media and I would occasionally banter with him on Facebook and exchange messages. He was enthusiastic about my book and said he would mention me in his. I understand his son intends to finish it and get it published and this is important work. It would be a major contribution to a key period of newspaper history.
It is hard to sum up his legacy. He believed in real news journalism but was a pragmatist in the tabloid marketplace. He was a right-winger flushed with compassion. In so many ways Brian Hitchen was a contradiction in terms.

There were so many great stories. He worked for James Goldsmith's Now magazine, but, when it went belly up, Hitch was espied manning a market stall, flogging off the office typewriters! 

And Brian Hitchen never lost the fire in his belly!
I recall that last year I posted a comment on Facebook, after being almost run down by a reckless Brighton taxi-driver, to receive a tirade from Hitch praising the mini-cab drivers of the city and roundly abusing cyclists in Brighton.  
And, you know what, when I am driving, rather than cycling, I thoroughly agree with him.
He had a reputation for grinding his foes into the dust but as one mourner said at the wake: “Even his enemies liked him.”

Absolutely right - and I am sure everyone who knew him will miss the big guy.

Brian Hitchen, 1936-2013.
Brian and Nelli are pictured below at Alex and Sabina's wedding in Chicago 
(image:Slack Photography).

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