Robin Esser, an exceptional human being

Chief Reporter ASHLEY WALTON joins the great and the good at the memorial service in London for Fleet Street giant Robin Esser

Robin Charles Esser. 6th May 1933 - 6th November 2017

Kindness, loyalty, an example to us all, an exceptional human being. 

The words of praise echoed around St Bride's. The congregation, packed shoulder to shoulder, had heard them all before.

The late Brian Hitchen once said that he often had to look at the memorial service sheet to make sure we were all talking about the same person.

But not this time.

Among all the luminaries (and there were plenty of them) lining up to heap genuine praise on Robin Esser, perhaps the most telling came from an outsider, someone who hadn't been a work colleague or even friend.

The Rev Canon Dr Allison Joyce had been at a press function remembering all those journalists who had died last year. Among the images on a roll of honour was Robin Esser in customary relaxed and smiling mode.

"As his picture appeared the applause sound doubled," said Allison. "There was a warmth and intensity, such was the respect Robin inspired in all those who knew him."

The luminaries literally queued up to pay their emotional and heartfelt tributes to a remarkable man who lived an astonishingly full life. 

First Sir Michael Parkinson, a former Daily Express feature writer who was programmed to read an extract from Robin's 1969 novel, The Hot Potato.

He revealed a life long close friendship with Robin which began during their National Service when they were promoted to become the youngest Captains in the British Army and were reunited at the Express where Sir Michael was a feature writer and Robin worked for Hickey.

It should be remembered that Robin was the first British journalist to interview the Apollo 11 astronauts on their return from the moon and during his 57 years in national newspapers gave both Nigel Dempster and Paul Dacre their first jobs in Fleet Street.

Then former Observer Editor Donald Trelford stepped up to read from Robin's second novel The Paper Chase 1971.

I admired his Rolex, but what he never told me was that it was a personal gift from the ruler of Saudi Arabia

The queue of Editors moved on to Paul Dacre who told how as a young reporter he was sent to Belfast at the height of the troubles by Robin who was then Express Manchester editor. "It was wonderful training," said Dacre. 

"Robin had inner charm and elegance, he could turn a crisis into a problem and the problem would go away."  He was a fearless campaigner for press freedom.

Dacre quoted Robin's own words on his campaign for press freedom: "My personal hope is that newspapers in all their forms, local, regional and national, serious and unabashedly popular will continue to entertain but above all to be a thorn in the side of cheats, wrongdoers, those who abuse the young and the old and the hypocrisy of those in power."

Then yet another editor stepped forward. Former Express supremo Christopher Ward dined with Robin in a Fleet Street bistro in 1977 and was surprised to discover that young Esser had dated Ward's sister.


He said that Robin was a person of great control who learned how to keep a secret. In a culture of Fleet Street bragging he was very modest.

"I was his friend for 40 years," said Christopher who revealed Robin's modesty and "matter of principle" which made him turn down an offer of a knighthood.

"I admired his Rolex, but what he never told me was that it was a personal gift from the ruler of Saudi Arabia."

After a management rebuff when Ward was refused extra pages to run a Falklands War Express souvenier issue, Robin told him: "We must fine the management."

The two went to the Savoy Grill to drown their sorrows with a long liquid lunch ending with a bill for an astronomic £1,000. Well this was 1982.

It went down on their expenses as a Falklands Victory lunch with contacts.

The Daily Mail arranged the St Bride's memorial and the lavish wake which followed and was pronounced a rare accolade unusual in today's Fleet Street climate.

Christopher Ward talked of Robin's kindness, compassion and loyalty: "He was an example to us all. How lucky we all were to have known him.

Philippa Kennedy read Christopher Robin Says Goodbye from The House at Pooh Corner.

Afterwards the entire congregation raised a glass or three in Robin's memory at a finely catered bash with photos of Robin's long life portrayed on a large screen. It was a wake to remember. Robin would have loved it.

There were three Express editors at the memorial including Christopher Ward, Sir Nicholas Lloyd and the last editor under the flag of Richard Desmond’s Express Newspapers, Hugh Whittow.

Among the Expressmen and women spotted were John Roberts, Alan Frame, Dick Dismore, Roger Watkins, David Eliades, Gill Martin, Ashley Walton, Maureen Paton, Peter Steward, James Mossop John McEntee, Henry Macrory, Scarth Flett, David Wadmore, David Billington, Phil Durrant and Brian Fremantle.

Lord Drone apologises to anyone he may have missed.

Our Music Critic writes:

The pieces selected for the service reflected the man we had come to honour: sophisticated, accomplished and, above all brilliant. Thus, the ultimate master, Mozart, played a large part, giving the wonderful St Bride’s Choir, under veteran Director of Music Robert Jones, another opportunity, were it needed, vividly to demonstrate its enduring talent.

But first, organist Charles Andrews gave us Walton’s languidly beautiful Touch Her Soft Lips and Part from Walton’s music for Olivier’s 1944 film of Henry V, followed by Elgar’s Nimrod from the Enigma Variations.

The choir warmed up with an intensely moving version of In Paradisum from the Fauré Requiem followed by Purcell’s anthem Hear My Prayer before really hitting its stride with the Mozart motet Ave Verum Corpus, written in the last year of the composer’s life, and the ethereal Lacrimosa from his valedictory work, the Requiem (K626).

Perhaps the musical highlight was the hauntingly lovely trio Soave Sia Il Vento from Cosi Fan Tutte:

May the wind be gentle,

May the waves be calm

And may the elements

Respond kindly

To your wishes.

And then the whole congregation joined in a rousing version of Parry/Blake’s Jerusalem before heading out for refreshment to Clarke’s organ masterpiece Prince of Denmark’s March aka Trumpet Voluntary.

A great send-off to our friend, Robin, our favourite guest at the World’s Greatest Lunch Club.

© 2005-2022 Alastair McIntyre