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SUNDAY 19  MAY 2024

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Wiggy Pop of the Express, charming Fleet Street icon and good friend of the stars

CHUMS: David Wigg and Freddie

FOR me there was no better Showbiz Reporter who summed up the music scene of our era in Fleet Street than David Wigg. He truly was a friend of the stars, sometimes too much so, because we often felt he didn’t always give us the warts and all we longed for.


The truth was however, that Expressman David could always get his man. The big stars trusted him. His word was believed. How many other showbiz writers could keep the secret that Freddie Mercury had AIDS for five years before the world knew? None. And how many of them could reveal the heartbreaking story that Freddie died smiling in the arms of Dave Clark, from the Sixties band The Dave Clark Five? Not many.


From Cliff Richard to the Beatles and on through the years of free love, Carnaby Street and Punk, Wiggy ruled and was a close friend of the flamboyant Queen singer until the day he died from AIDS on November 24, 1991. And he needn’t have died then at all. He could have lived longer, Wiggy revealed.


David knew that Freddie had decided he wanted to go, he was tired and had enough, so he stopped taking his life-prolonging pills. Wiggy was often a guest at Freddie’s luxury mansion in London where the wild parties took place and he became friends too with Mary Austin, the only woman Gay Freddie ever loved. When he died, he left her his mansion home and the bulk of his huge fortune.


Mary was 19 when she met him. She was working as the public relations officer for trendy London boutique Biba while Freddie and Queen’s drummer Roger Taylor ran a stall in nearby Kensington Market selling old clothes and Freddie’s art.


Wiggy told us: “They grew together. It took about three years for her to really fall in love with him and then she moved into a flat with Freddie in Kensington. For six years they had a normal physical relationship. One night he told her that he thought he was bisexual, to which she replied: ‘No Freddie, you’re just gay.’


They hugged each other goodbye. The time had come for them to lead separate lives, although Freddie assured her he would always be there for her. He bought her a £500,000 flat near his home, so that after splitting up they could continue to see each other. 


Wiggy went with Freddie on tours all over the world and shared his secrets backstage. But it wasn’t just Freddie, Wiggy got the inside stories on. He was close to the Beatles too … even though he had a legal row with them when he released their taped interviews with him. They were revealing. We learned about how George Harrison admitted he wrote the haunting song ‘Something’ for his wife Pattie Boyd when he was madly in love with her; we got the inside story of Lennon’s relationship with Yoko Ono … and his dedication to peace.


How Paul McCartney stormed out of a crucial Apple meeting leading to the Beatles breaking up; how Harrison was obsessed with Hare Krishna and meditation and fell into a world of drug abuse. How Ringo spent nearly all his money, was broke and wanted to come back to earth as a cat. There was more, much more of course, and about others.


Wiggy was close to drummer Dave Clark too. He, Dave and Freddie were often inseparable. Wiggy said: “Freddie trusted Dave … and didn’t like other people that much towards the end.”


David Wigg of our parish is a book all of his own. He is a time capsule of the showbiz world we dealt with day in, year out on the Express. A lovely man, always smiling and helpful, and always busy. It was difficult to pin him down sometimes. And you got the feeling he didn’t suffer fools gladly. He could be prickly but loved to laugh.


In 2008 the Dave Clark Five was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame by Tom Hanks. My mates and I often followed the band on tours back in the day. I was at the Mecca ballroom in Basildon, Essex, that life-changing night after they had just cut a record in London that morning. They got us to vote which side we liked best, rocking about with our hands in the air as they thumped out the songs …’Glad All Over’ and ‘Bits and Pieces’.


We voted in ‘Glad All Over’ by a handslide and in 1964 it rocketed to No.1 in the charts, knocking the Beatles off the top spot with ‘I Wanna Hold Your Hand.’ As Mary Hopkin would say: “Those were the days, my friend,” eh?

*****  













First episode of Rupert

A star is born   

One evening a few months before the end of 1920, Daily Express Editor, American-born Richard Blumenfeld was called into Lord Beaverbrook’s panelled office for a glass of ‘good Scottish whisky’ to discuss the growing interest and success of newspaper cartoons for children, featuring animals.


The Beaver, who had taken over the newspaper just three years earlier, was particularly impressed with the success of Teddy Tail, the adventures of a mouse in the rival Daily Mail and Tiger Tim in the Daily Mirror. By the end of their chat, and probably most of the bottle, Beaverbrook had tasked Blumenfeld with coming up with an Express children’s adventure strip that would capture the heart of the nation.


And so, a little bear named Rupert, who started his life brown but later turned white, came into the lives of millions of children across the world for over a century to come; be the focus of bitter legal battles; create an industry all of his own; be involved in a sex scandal and lead to the world’s richest rock star wanting to make a movie of him. Not to mention the rich and famous paying fortunes for his memorabilia.


Blumenfeld passed the task on … to his night news editor, Guernsey-born Herbert Tourtel, who was destined for great things. The Cambridge graduate and renowned champion swimmer was known to be a great humorist, and he had written a best-selling, sixpenny book of tales for children, called Child of the Cliffs and Other Guernsey Stories. He wrote poetry too.


He was described as “a broad-shouldered man of the world, bursting with energy, information and humour”. He would tell how during the Boer war, he was always within two minutes reach of his office by night, as well as day.

Just the man, even if he did irritate staff by often slapping the backs of their heads when they fucked up, apparently. He once said: “Wherever I see a head up, I hit it.” He had joined the Express as a farming reporter, then became a sub-editor and climbed to finally be assistant editor. After asking around for ideas and artists, Herbert drew a blank. Now here’s the mystery. Why didn’t he ask his wife Mary Tourtel to create a character? No one knows, not even historians.  Finally, he did.


Mary, pictured, had left art school to be a professional illustrator and had been drawing characters and animals for books since 1897. Her father designed stained glass windows for Canterbury Cathedral and her brother was a well-known painter of animals in South Africa. They were an artistic family.


She came up with a brown bear in boy’s clothing but not the famous yellow scarf or red jumper … and Herbert wrote the captions in poetry, naming him Rupert after the poet Rupert Brook. The drawings were in black and white of course. No colour in Fleet Street then.


Mary’s new newspaper star, a bear drawn in ink, with an upright body and human hands, came on the scene on November 8, 1920, not as a comic strip … but a one frame drawing, to save space, because of a world newsprint shortage. The story continued each day. Sometimes, there were two frames.


Writing as (acting) editor of the newspaper, Herbert announced the arrival of the little bear by saying: “My dear children, I have splendid news for you …”

Mary’s creation lived in a lush green land of meadows, crags, caves and woodland and his escapades soon spread to distant lands full of mischievous animals, kings, ogres, witches, and dragons. 


His first tale took him on an errand to the market, seen off from his home by his father and mother, Mr and Mrs Bear. Told in Herbert’s rhyming couplets, the series proved an overnight success. Rupert went on to sell 50 million books.


From almost the moment Rupert was born, Herbert was overshadowed by the fame of his 27-year-old wife. Today there are no pictures of him that I could find, but plenty of her, including portrait paintings. 


As Rupert’s fame grew, the people of Guernsey wanted a picture of their local boy made good. But they couldn’t find one. Even an appeal failed. But one former Express colleague told them that Herbert was ‘a squat, dark-haired man, chain-smoking cigars and with a good humour’. Quite the opposite of other reports, I found.


The couple began to live a nomadic life, mainly living in hotels, and travelling when they could. They were fascinated by aviation and Mary piloted the couple’s own biplane, purchased when the money rolled in, to places like India, Egypt and most of Europe.


When colour permitted, Mary’s original Rupert wore a blue jersey and cream trousers. But when she handed him over to Punch artist Alfred Bestall in 1935, he got a new look, swapping clothes with Bill Badger adopting the distinctive red jersey, and yellow check trousers, we know today.


Like many of the Express executives of the time working long hours through both the Boer War and the Great War, Herbert was worn out and retired early with heart problems. 


He died aged 57 in a sanatorium in Germany in 1931. Mary died on 15 March 1948, aged 74, at the Kent and Canterbury Hospital, a week after she collapsed in the street from a brain tumour. A plaque remembers her nearby.


Next week: How Rupert became the star of a porn strip … and how Hollywood wanted to make a Rupert movie with Paul McCartney music.

*****

Taming of the Shrew   

I was fascinated to read that former Express Editor, R D Blumenfeld (1904-1929) liked to do his own interviews with the big names of the time. One such person was political activist Emmeline (Emily) Pankhurst, leader of the British suffragette movement. He knew her at the beginning of her dramatic mission to get women the vote … and the end.


He wrote: “The name Pankhurst was for years synonymous with riot, violence, hair-tearing, bomb-throwing and hunger striking.


“I first met this astounding creature in 1911 when she was arrested in the midst of a noisy window-breaking campaign. We spoke in her cell after she had been sentenced to nine months jail and I found her a tired, half-smiling, gentle-voiced little devil of a woman.


“She looked and was desperately ill, but there was fire in her eyes, and the will to go on through all the misery that prison life had in store for her. I saw her again shortly before the war when, to gain what she called the Charter of Freedom for Women, she had added arson and destruction to her methods, including, a fire at Lloyd George’s house.


“The memory of this struggling, snarling, shrieking tigress is unforgettable. I recall the strange feeling of revulsion which caused us all to wonder how this little termagant was so feverishly worshipped by thousands of women who followed her example.


“This strange, fanatical, shrill creature, torn and tousled and looking a million years old, had a hold over her people that was simply inexplicable. More imprisonment followed. More of everything that would have led to the death of any normal woman.


“But the virago became an angel. I shall never forget the gentle, exquisitely dressed, charming little lady who came to see me at the Daily Express office to discuss National Service Questions. Was this the hell shrieking Emmeline Pankhurst whom I had so often seen rushing pell-mell into the solid wall of blue-coated police?


“I remember saying: “But Mrs Pankhurst, you will forgive me if I express surprise at your metamorphosis. You used to be so violent in public.”

“Ah well,” she answered with a smile which betrayed somehow the secret of her success, “you see, I was never different inside. We would never have got women’s votes if I had kept on long suede gloves.”


Copy down the hole please someone!


TERRY MANNERS


8 April 2024