Telegraph obituary Paul Callan


Paul Callan in 2012  CREDIT: Ian Vogler/ The Daily Mirror

From the Daily Telegraph, 23 November 2020

Paul Callan, who has died aged 81, was one of the last monuments to old Fleet Street, cutting an unmistakable figure in pinstriped suit and his trademark Turnbull & Asser spotted bow tie; when covering court cases he was frequently mistaken for a barrister.

For some 20 years from the mid-1960s Callan worked as a gossip columnist, starting on the London Evening Standard before being poached by the Daily Mail to launch the paper’s new diary page with a young Nigel Dempster as his deputy.

For seven years from 1975 he was on the Daily Mirror, initially with Inside the World of Paul Callan, a fount of embarrassing stories – some of them true – about famous people, but soon mutating into a miscellany called Close-Up.

Callan considered the page’s original title “rather ludicrous”, but it was a nod to The World of Paul Slickey, John Osborne’s 1959 play skewering Fleet Street’s gossip grubbers (“professional snoopers [and their] dumb twaddling”), and a thinly veiled assault on the long-running William Hickey column in the Daily Express.

Not long after launching his Mirror page he ran a spoof headed “The Inside World of Lady Antonia Fraser”, twitting the popular historian and socialite over her affair with the playwright Harold Pinter. Callan claimed to be a golfing partner of “my friend” Lord Longford, Lady Antonia’s father.

Callan at the Evening Standard in 1969 CREDIT: Evening Standard/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Responding to the “hysterical” reaction from privacy campaigners, Callan wrote to the New Statesman in defence of gossip columnists, saying that “the right to investigate the private lives of public figures [should] be jealously guarded and maintained.”

By the end of the 1970s, with the flowering of a new celebrity culture, gossip had moved on to the front pages, with rock singers, film stars, television actors, radio disc jockeys, nightclub owners and fashion models all jostling for attention in Fleet Street’s new “popocracy”.

Accordingly Callan renounced the label of gossip writer, noting that with the entrenchment of the Permissive Society, nobody any longer cared much about who was sleeping with whom.

Nevertheless, he retained his ability to cause upset and offence, in 1979 running a full page in the Mirror profiling the writer and broadcaster Gyles Brandreth, who, confiding to his diary, found it “vile … a horrible, horrible piece”. To his credit Callan rang to apologise (“You know how it is. We have to spice things up a bit – make them readable”).

He interviewed the Kray twins – Ronnie in Broadmoor in 1983 and Reggie three years later in Parkhurst – nearly 20 years into their sentences. He also lunched at Versailles with Sir Oswald Mosley, leader of the pre-war fascist Blackshirts, but when Callan mentioned that he was Jewish, Lady Mosley “went ashen, snapped a crimson nail and left the room”.

Callan in 1972 CREDIT: ANL/Shutterstock

Sent to Belgium in 1987 to compose a colour piece on the Zeebrugge Ferry disaster, Callan arrived excessively refreshed or, as he put it, “too pissed to file”. A colleague on the Mirror newsdesk in London told him to sleep it off, bashed out a colour piece in his style, and gave it a fine show in the next day’s paper, complete with Callan’s byline.

In 1991 he returned to Fleet Street on the Daily Express, where he combined feature writing with colour news reports, and was subsequently theatre critic and a regular contributor to the comment pages.

In the ruck of his inky trade, Callan was an unregenerate stand-out, amiable and gregarious, who disdained political correctness. “He would get drunk when he shouldn’t,” recalled one colleague, “he goosed girls who didn’t want him to (but he would never take umbrage when they told him to push off) and he would behave outrageously when threatened.”

One such occasion was at El Vino, Callan’s favoured Fleet Street watering hole, where in 1970 a band of feminist journalists stormed the premises demanding admission to the male-only bar. Amid cries of “repel boarders” and, in the words of one witness, intense fire from massed soda-siphons, Callan dashed to the telephone to dictate a snatched diary paragraph, but was pursued by one of the most fearsome intruders who vaulted the bar and kneed him in the groin. He was later awarded £50 compensation from the Standard for an industrial injury.

Paul Stanley Lester Callan was born on March 13 1939 at Redbridge in Essex to an Irish father and a Jewish mother. A promising cellist – his father was a professional musician – after leaving Cranbrook School in Ilford he studied at the Royal Academy of Music in London.

At a book launch with Dai Llewellyn in 1981 CREDIT: Alan Davidson/Shutterstock

He joined the BBC Overseas Service in 1955 and two years later emigrated to New Zealand, working for the Auckland Star as a reporter and music critic. He travelled extensively in the South Pacific and Europe before returning to Britain in 1961.

After a year on the Norwood News in south London, Callan joined the international news service of Radio Sweden, returning to join the Yorkshire Evening Post, for whom he reported on the funeral of Winston Churchill in January 1965, and covered the great man’s lying-in-state at Westminster. Callan’s newsdesk had instructed him to solicit quotes only from Yorkshire folk in the lengthy queue.

“No bloody southerners,” grumbled the dour news editor. “We want t’ salt of t’ earth saying what they thought of the old boy. Anyway, he was probably a Yorkshireman.”

Later that year Callan was offered his first gossip job, joining the Londoner’s Diary on the Evening Standard, the paper’s central feature, and promoted to diary editor in 1969. A year later he was attacked outside the paper’s offices after print unions objected to a political cartoon that appeared on his page, escaping with only minor injuries.

For years he used to boast that he went to Eton. As well as an eccentric, patrician air, the Essex boy had cultivated a plummy voice, and while Nigel Dempster knew it was a charade – “Villain, I know your secret” – Callan routinely posed as an Old Etonian, notably in an interview for a job on the about-to-be-launched Sun, then part of the IPC empire.

“We’re not actually looking for public school types,” said his interlocutor.

Callan reminded him that the IPC chairman, Cecil King, had been educated at Winchester.

“But he’s the guv’nor … You’re not applying for his job, are you?” “Not at this interview, no,” said Callan. He was not offered the position.

In 1971 he was poached from the Standard by David English, the new editor of the Daily Mail, the first middle-market paper to recognise the stirrings of the new celebrity culture, relaunched as a tabloid aimed at attracting women readers. Callan’s brief was to concentrate on stories about marital rifts, a throwback to the discredited ways of the late 1950s. As one Fleet Street commentator remarked, Paul Slickey was back at the typewriter.

His ambitious deputy Dempster gave no quarter, and routinely kept the best stories to himself, often running them on Callan’s days off in order to reap the glory. After two years at the Mail, Callan switched to Punch, where he wrote a weekly gossip column, before joining the Mirror in February 1975.

In 1978 he published a children’s book, Gladwyn Goes To Town, about the Queen’s corgis. From gossip columns, Callan in the 1980s progressed to celebrity interviews. Over 40 years, he interviewed dozens of visiting Hollywood stars as well as members of the British Royal family.

Possibly apocryphally, he was credited with the shortest interview ever published. Meeting the reclusive Greta Garbo at the Hotel du Cap Eden Roc near Cannes, he got as far as “I wonder …” before Garbo cut him dead with “Why wonder?” and stalked off. The story made a full page in the Mail.

Callan also returned to radio. With the journalist Janet Street-Porter, he presented the mid-morning show on LBC when it launched in 1973, the urbane Callan pitched against his estuarial-sounding partner with accents known respectively as “cut-glass” and “cut-froat”.

She considered him “a snooty slimeball, something out of PG Wodehouse” and moaned about his suede shoes, the stench of his French cigarettes and his ceaseless harping about his houses in the country and in “town”.

“Day in and day out,” Janet Street-Porter recalled, “the morning was spent settling scores and trashing each other’s taste in everything from food to décor to music to fashion. The listeners were riveted.”

In the early 1990s Callan presented the weekly Celebrity Choice on Classic FM with guests ranging from Henry Kissinger to Harry Secombe.

Paul Callan married, in 1973, the New York journalist Steffi Fields, London correspondent of the fashion bible Women’s Wear Daily and later news editor at the London bureau of the NBC television network. They had two children, James, and Jessica, sometime deputy editor of the Daily Telegraph’s Peterborough column, who became a 3AM Girl gossip writer on the Mirror and in 2019 was appointed deputy editor of Hello! magazine.

Paul Callan, born March 13 1939, died November 21 2020

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