Mea Culpa


I NO doubt got away with lots of undiscovered mistakes during 35 years of subbing on the Daily Mail – errors are inevitable under the pressure of approaching deadlines and apoplectic editors. However there were two gaffes which would cause me grief – and teach me a valuable lesson.

The first came in the Manchester office circa 1980. I had a streaming cold and phoned in sick but the chief sub begged me to come in because he was extremely short-staffed. Foolishly I agreed. It was indeed a busy night, towards the end of which I was given a court assault story about an irate husband named something like Frank Tattersall bashing a milkman who was having an affair with his wife in a village somewhere in South Yorkshire. The copy came from an agency and was terrible, needing a complete rewrite. Befuddled by illness and a surfeit of Night Nurse and Lemsip, plus a couple of whisky all-ins at the Press Club, I managed to transpose the first names of the husband and the Romeo milkman, Tom Judkins. Just my bloody luck, there was another milkman in the village who was actually called Frank Judkins, and he turned out to be very upset at being named as an adulterer. He claimed and got damages.

Called in by the editor and asked to explain myself, I protested that it was an easy mistake to make and I shouldn’t even have been working anyway. Blame the chief sub for dragging me in when I was ill. I got no sympathy and a written warning.

Fast-forward to 2002 and the murders of Holly Wells and Jessica Chapman in Soham, Cambridgeshire. Who can forget the photographs of the sweet little ten-year-olds in their Man United shirts taken shortly before they were lured to their death by school caretaker Ian Huntley?

By this time I was assistant night editor with responsibility for subbing the main project of the night, which tended to go straight into the paper without being revised – never a good thing because everybody makes mistakes.

Two mornings after a splash story about Holly and Jessica I got a phone call at home from the managing editor, Lawrie Sear. ‘You know what this is about, don’t you?’ ‘No’, I said, ‘but I’m guessing I’ve done something wrong.’ ‘Look at yesterday’s front page.’ I did, and could find nothing amiss. ‘Look at the intro.’ To my dismay, it mentioned the names Holly Evans and Jessica Chapman. ‘Oh my God,’ I said. ‘That’s terrible. I can’t understand how that happened. I’ll write my resignation letter now.’ ‘W-w-wait a minute, Alan,’ said Sear. ‘It wasn’t actually your mistake. The reporter got it wrong and you let it through.’ ‘Yes but I’m the last line of defence and it’s my job not to let mistakes through.’ Sear was clearly wrong-footed by my willingness to take the blame and began to supply excuses for my error – no one on the newsdesk or the back bench had spotted it, the chief subs should have revised it, etc etc. It turned out that the reporter had been speaking to news editor Chris Evans (now editor of the Telegraph) shortly before filing his copy and was thinking about their conversation as he typed, causing him to write Evans instead of Wells.

The upshot was that I came out of the mess with reputation enhanced for not trying to drop anyone else in it. The night editor instituted a system where any subs who were doing nothing had to read page proofs intently, checking all the facts and signing them off. The moral of this story being, if you’ve dropped a clanger, cough to it and cough to it big-time. With any luck, others will make your excuses for you.

Whistle Down the Wind and earn a quid

HAYLEY MILLS has been all over the papers recently following the release of her memoir Forever Young. And by coincidence, mentions of my Lancashire homeland led Burnleyite Bob Lee, now exiled in Spain, to contact me last week with some reminiscences from his youth including how he took part in Whistle Down the Wind, the 1961 movie in which Mills is acted off the screen by local youngster Alan Barnes. For those who haven’t seen it, three farm children find a bearded fugitive in their barn, mistake him for Jesus Christ and start sneaking food and cigarettes out to him. After he is discovered and taken away by police, two nippers arrive at the farm and ask to see Jesus. Hayley’s character Kathy Bostock says they missed him this time, but he’ll be back one day.

Filming took place around North East Lancashire and extras were recruited from schools in Clitheroe, Burnley and Chatburn. Which is where the 12-year-old Bob comes in. He recalls that he and a group of chums had heard filming was to take place on Barden recreation ground in Burnley and turned up hoping for a glimpse of Hayley Mills.

‘Sure enough, we saw her being driven to the filming location in a very swish, for the day, Vauxhall Cresta, (blue as I recall). We caught fleeting glimpses of her, but that was it.

‘Seeing a gang of us mooching around, a honcho from the movie production team called us over and asked if we’d like to be in a film and earn ten bob in the process. We were little more than “urchins” in appearance. (My mum, a single parent, was working 13 looms at the time). We all jumped at the chance.

‘The instruction to all two dozen of us was to walk over a canal bridge and, on a pre-determined signal, to come running and shouting towards the camera positioned by the bridge.

‘On no account were we to wave at the camera or acknowledge its existence. Six or seven takes later, lads still couldn’t resist gurning for the camera or waving at mum. After what seemed like an age, it was all over and done with, I assumed to the director/cameraman’s satisfaction.

‘A dozen of us were then asked if we wanted to earn a further ten bob for another scene. It involved us playing football in the background, jumpers for goalposts, whilst filming some other scene in the foreground (sadly, sans the delightful Hayley). That take lasted only 15-20 minutes.

‘When it was “wrapped” (that’s what us movie stars called it in those days) a chap I later identified as the director Bryan Forbes gathered all us lads around and began distributing crisp ten-bob notes to the excited throng. He began by doling out two each to the “footballers” who’d done two stints, and one each for the rest.

‘We never caught a glimpse of any other actors, and sad to say, having watched the film on several occasions 50-odd years ago, I never saw either of my two moments of fame captured on celluloid. Nevertheless, I almost made myself sick, spending my earnings on chocolate and crisps.’

Prats on stage

I read with incredulity last week that while appearing at the latest Isle of Wight festival, Kaiser Chiefs singer Ricky Wilson called on the audience to cheer for the particular vaccine they had been jabbed with. ‘Let me hear it for Moderna! Who had Astra/Zeneca?’ Thankfully the stunt fell flat as a pancake.

It reminds me of the time when the preposterous behatted leprechaun Bonio started clicking his fingers at five-second intervals during a U2 concert, telling the crowd: ‘Every time I do this a child dies in Africa.’ Voice from the front row: ‘Well don’t f***ing do it then!’

Culinary Corner

THERE are few simpler delights than the banana sandwich, preferably on toast. A tip that turns the enjoyment factor up to eleven is to sprinkle the banana with salt.

By the way, if any readers have their own idiotproof recipes and cookery tips, please email them to me at and I’ll publish the best.

A PS from PG

Bertie Wooster is having a conversation with the ghastly Madeline Bassett, who believes the stars are God’s daisy chains and that every time a fairy blows its wee nose a baby is born. They are discussing Bertie’s friend, the newt-fancier Gussie Fink-Nottle. La Bassett asks:

‘Have you not sometimes felt in the past, Bertie, that if Augustus had a fault, it was a tendency to be a little timid?’

I saw what she meant, says Wooster.

‘Oh, ah, yes, of course, definitely.’

I remembered something Jeeves had once called Gussie.

‘A sensitive plant, what?’

‘Exactly. You know your Shelley, Bertie.’

‘Oh, am I?’

PG Wodehouse: The Code of the Woosters

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