Ink, drink and Larry Lamb

Ink700-min

Our Man in the Royal Box writes:

We were lucky enough to get tickets for Ink, James Graham’s much praised take on Murdoch’s purchase of the Super Soaraway Currant Bun in 1969. The plot concentrates, accurately, on the first few years of the extraordinary transformation of the setting Sun under IPC to the brash tabloid that soon overtook the Mirror. All that is well known and has been reviewed here and elsewhere at length and in justifiably laudatory fashion.

What struck me however is that although no physical lookalike was attempted in the characterisations of the main protagonists, Messrs Murdoch, Lamb and Shrimsley, the roles they played and the way they all contributed to the success of this upstart – against all the perceived odds – was brilliantly and faithfully portrayed. Rupert was determined and had absolute confidence in Larry, Larry was the great technician (which he certainly was) and Bernard was the sea of calm and arbiter of taste.

larry lamb

I was one of many of our lucky generation who had the pleasure – privilege indeed – to have worked closely with Larry, pictured left, and Bernard at the Express. It may be that Larry was past his very best but he was still formidable and (self-interest confession) was very good to me. He was also still a Big Beast. As for Bernard, we had crossed swords in the ‘70s when he asked me to leave the Mail and join as deputy chief sub of The Sun under his editorship. I was then offered what I very foolishly thought was a better berth at the soon-to-be-deceased Evening News and attempted to renege on the deal. Bernard was having none of it and it all got rather daft with threats of lawyers and the cry of ‘A contract is a contract is a contract’ from Bernard.

When he arrived at the Express shortly after Larry, I was Features Editor and he one rung above me on the greasy pole as Assistant Ed (Features). Out little spat was immediately forgotten and we became friends and colleagues. With the advent of Nick Lloyd I was promoted over Bernard to Executive Editor. I took him to lunch and explained and said I hoped this wouldn’t be a problem. “My dear chap, why on earth would it be … I’m delighted for you.” He was that sort of man, civilised, sophisticated, rounded and quite simply a delight.

Larry was a different bouilloire de poisson altogether. Surprisingly softly spoken, slightly stooped and aware that the Express was his last shot. He rarely took morning conference, arriving in the office little more than an hour before it was time for lunch. But by then he knew what he wanted the day’s agenda to be.

In his first week he invited me to lunch. It was an invitation I neither could nor wanted to refuse. A table was booked at l’Ecu de France, one of his favourite restaurants and off we set. Trouble was his new Ed’s Jag had not arrived so instead we set off in a pool Cortina, previously used by the Hon Winkle (the son of Lord Whelks had been general manager of the SX Magazine until his shortcomings came to light.)

Half way to Jermyn Street and with only the Test Match commentary to relieve the silence, snow appeared to fall inside the car – and this on the hottest day of that year. But it wasn’t snow and it wasn’t dandruff settling on Larry’s shoulder; it was foam escaping from a tear in the headlining of the wretched Ford, caused when Winkle’s pet parrot was hungry on the journey home one evening.

Larry, by then brushed down, became rather more loquacious once we got to l’Ecu. He had only recently arrived back from editing The Australian for Murdoch and the oily maitre d’ clearly was unaware that Thatcher has recommended him for a K. “Ah, Meeeester Lamb, how lovely to see you after so long.” Came the reply: “It’s Sir Larry Lamb.”

Believe it or not I can recall the next three hours: Two pints each of Black Velvet, a bottle of Chablis, one of Burgundy and when two glasses of marc de Burgoyne were delivered, the sommelier was asked rather stridently: “Where exactly do you think you are going with that bottle?” Yes, we did eat but food was definitely rather incidental.  

A bottle duly arrived and was passed to the Editor to taste. Verdict: “I wouldn’t wash my fooking car with this.” Strictly speaking of course Larry hadn’t been called upon to wash a car for decades 

Early in his tenure Larry visited our New York bureau, headed by the brilliant Phil Finn. A dinner was arranged, at the Four Seasons I think, and when the wine list came Larry asked Mike Parry, newly over for a stint from London, to choose. Parry reckoned that it would be unwise to opt for the most expensive vintage; on the other hand a cheapo had to be out of the question. Answer: compromise with something midway down the card. A bottle duly arrived and was passed to the Editor to taste. Verdict: “I wouldn’t wash my fooking car with this.” (Strictly speaking of course Larry hadn’t been called upon to wash a car for decades.) 

On one occasion, he suggested we go to the Savoy’s American Bar for a drink. His driver was summoned and we went down to the Front Hall to await our carriage. But no carriage came and attempts to locate the driver – any driver – failed. It was bucketing outside and all cabs were taken. Then a bus hove into sight heading for Charing Cross. “We could jump on that,” I ventured. Larry was pulling on his customary fag and clearly neither knew nor cared that smoking was permitted upstairs only. We took the first available seat downstairs and when the conductor arrived was instructed by Larry: Two to the American Bar please. 

His finest hour, at least in my view, came during the miners’ strike after one particular address by Arthur Scargill, effectively leading his members further down the road to perdition. Larry, himself from a West Yorkshire pit village and outraged by Scargill, had the inspired idea to ask Geoffrey Levy to write the speech the miners’ leader should have made. The power of Levy’s prose persuaded Larry to lead the paper with it under the splash heading THE SPEECH SCARGILL SHOULD HAVE MADE. 

When the front page was made up and proofed the print unions decided to stand firm with their NUM brothers, threatening to pull the plug on that night’s edition. Stalemate. So in order to preserve that night’s run – and to make the strongest possible point - Larry went with a blank front page except for the masthead and a WOB box in the middle of the page explaining that the unions had refused to print the offending article. It was a thousand times more dramatic than the planned front page.  The inevitable result was, of course, that the decision made the lead in the following day’s radio and TV news bulletins and became a focal point of the misuse of union power.  

carvel

Postscript 1: Shortly after the performance we were in St Martin’s Lane, a few yards ahead of our companions for the evening. I then realised I was being summoned by Brian Basham (for it was he) to return to the group to whom he was chatting. “This bloke used to work with most of those characters,” said Bash. “Yes”, I said, “and I thought the way they were captured was brilliant.” 

“So you enjoyed it then,” asked one chap. “Yes, how about you?” I replied. We were another few yards down the road when I was told that I had actually put my question to Bertie Carvel (pictured right), the actor who plays Rupert Murdoch… 

Postscript 2: On a more serious note, our tickets had a face value of £65. So four would be £260, yes? No. We were charged a total of £313, the vastly excessive commission going to London Theatres Direct. As Terry-Thomas would say: “What an absolute shower.” Avoid! 

ALAN FRAME  

   

© 2005-2018 Alastair McIntyre