Mohamed’s dummy

al fayed.jpg

ALAN FRAME reminds us of the
al-Fayed Sunday paper that never quite made it

My old chum Christopher Wilson (better known, Guardian style, as Wislon or more probably these days as TP Fielden, author of the splendid Miss DImont series of whodunits on the English Riviera) has been taking me on a trip down Memory Lane, a byway I am frequenting with alarming regularity these days. To explain: I had found a picture of the Great Man in faux actorly pose and wondered where it had been taken. 

His reply that the location was Cavendish Square brought happy memories flooding back. When I left the Express in 1995 I was offered a job by Mohamed al-Fayed, pictured. Not in surgical appliances at Harrods but to establish a publishing arm for his considerable empire. I had known the controversial shopkeeper for some years and he gave generously to the Express’ Chernobyl children’s fund I had set up after the 1986 nuclear disaster. 

The first target we identified was the old Today newspaper, then owned by Murdoch who had bought it from its founder Eddy Shah. Approaches were made and Rupert was interested. The basis of a deal was agreed until, as I was leaving for the funeral of the great Tim Holder, the phone rang and Les Hinton, heading negotiations for News Group, announced that his boss had changed his mind. I never found out why and I’m not sure Les did either.  

Seasoned hacks will remember that the Sunday Express was going through its macabre musical chairs period. Between 1991 and 1999 six editors had come and, just as quickly, gone. The poor old girl was rudderless and the wretched David Stevens was solely to blame. The Mail on Sunday had no serious competition and I believed it could be challenged. So in late 1995 I persuaded Mohamed to investigate launching a new middle-market Sunday paper. I gathered together a group of very talented people I respected and liked and we began work on a dummy. But with a difference.

This dummy was to be produced ‘as live’; in other words, no Latin text but real stories, real interviews and real pictures. Mirror Group agreed to print it on its Glasgow presses, premises were secured in Cavendish Square and our happy band assembled for the first brainstorm. It was to be called Sunday AM and there were to be five sections: News, Sport, Business and Finance, Arts and Leisure, and the Magazine. 

It might be discreet not to name the cast of stars as some were working for the publications we were out to beat. Suffice to say the throng included two very distinguished former Fleet Street editors and one of the best women’s editors in the business. 

Wislon/Fielden was to be Cavendish, as the Diary page was called, and was in charge of the Arts section. He wrote a wonderful feature comparing Bridlington with Laurel Canyon following the news that David Hockney was swapping his Californian ‘Bigger Splash’ home for his Yorkshire roots. 

All went according to plan until Feb 9, 1996, the night all the pages had to go through the pre-press stage at the Mirror in Canary Wharf. Our two make-up chaps left with all the files and the rest of us, inevitably, adjourned to the pub. From this distance I can’t remember if I had a mobile phone other than the fixed one in my car, but I do remember that I didn’t hear from these two and it was a great worry. Why? The Provisional IRA had decided to detonate a massive truck bomb at South Quay and for all we knew the two people killed in the blast were our pair. 

The dummy was printed that day and was very well received by the ad agencies we showed it to

The following Monday morning I was at Gatwick with a colleague inching through a huge security check queue for an early flight to Glasgow. We had been assured that flights were being held because of the volume of passengers being frisked. Fake news! In fact our flight had closed and we were nowhere near the departure gate. 

When we did arrive at the gate, sweating and dishevelled after a quarter mile sprint, the lovely girl packing up the detritus of departures, took one look at us and decided we needed a change of fortune. Instead of the usual ‘There’s absolutely nothing I can do about it,’ this angel of mercy led us on another shorter sprint to the plane. 

All doors were closed and through the cockpit window we could see pilot and co-pilot running through their final checks. It was at that point they received a loud rap on the windscreen. Delivered by our saviour. To or great relief and surprise we were allowed to board, though it has to be said to a mixture of astonishment and derision from our fellow flyers.

The dummy was printed that day and was very well received by the ad agencies we showed it to, and Press Gazette, which somehow (!) got hold of a copy, was most complimentary. 

So what happened, why no birth? Mohamed simply didn’t want to fund the £50million or more that would have been required to promote the fledgling paper against everything that Associated Newspapers would undoubtedly have thrown at us. It was disappointing, to say the least, because we had a good product. But Mohamed had other less ambitious targets. And that’s another story…

Part 2: Just a Mo, there’s radio silence

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