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SUNDAY 19  MAY 2024

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A BRID TOO FAR

How David Hockney ignored my advice and moved to Bridlington — but at least it gave me a story for the new Sunday paper that never was

Hockney relaxes in  Los Angeles before his move to Yorkshire 

By CHRISTOPHER WILSON


Be honest, which would you prefer – a bleak break in breezy Bridlington, or a luxurious linger in luscious Laurel Canyon? No contest, surely — the high winds from the Arctic ice-shelf, even in high summer, battering that old-fashioned east Yorkshire resort should be enough to help even the gravest doubters make up their minds. In LA it's never less than 70 degrees.


Yet in 1996 our greatest living artist, David Hockney, decided to can the Canyon and set up home in Brid, as the locals call it, where his ageing mum was living. From the sublime to the gorblimey, most people thought.


A couple of years before I'd been to visit him in his California hills hideway and I was, as might be expected, spellbound. Up there, overlooking the lights of Tinseltown, he was living the legend — the house looking just like his paintings, the pool straight out of A Bigger Splash. We sat on the hand-painted verandah and film director Tony Richardson (ex Mr Vanessa Redgrave) dropped in to share the tea-tray served up by DH's charming assistant. All very English expat, all grand luxe.


All this came flooding back as Alan Frame asked me to come and help launch the best Sunday newspaper Britain never had (see his most recent Random Jottings). Alan, tasked by Mohamed al Fayed to produce a paper to blow away the Mail on Sunday and Sunday Express, unhesitatingly stuck out his chin and got stuck in. And he was magnificent — less the captain of the ship, more an Admiral of the Fleet, though with only a handful of ratings to help him.


I was given the features brief – find 'em or write 'em – so I suggested a trip to north-east Yorkshire to witness for myself the joys ahead for our Dave. All I can say is that while Bridlington may now have regained some of its mid-20th century attraction, at that moment its charms were at low tide – perhaps best summed up by the ladies' dress shop in the High Street which still had Coronation bunting in its dusty window.


It had been there unchanged for 43 years, and so had the chippies, the pubs, the shopping centre and the seafront, with its forbidding prospect of a sea that never smiled, or turned blue. What could Hockney be thinking?


I interviewed a few people on the street and when they expressed no interest in our most famous artist coming to live among them – the gas main that had ruptured in the High Street produced a more animated response – and before long I had my piece. Don't injure your muse by coming to Brid, I told David.


In time-honoured tradition Hockney ignore my advice.


Back in London, the making of Sunday AM, as the boss named it (I remember it as Life on Sunday) went ahead in conditions worthy of John le Carré. The office we commandeered was in a secretive but elegant Regency terrace just north of Oxford Street – though, like the Daily Express building, its glamour did not extend beyond the front hall. We had a couple of rooms, and took it in turns to make the tea, having glanced over our shoulders as we entered the front door in case Paul Dacre had a snapper trained on our activities. We clustered together on the 'editorial floor' and the atmosphere was pure Bletchley Park.


On the team were the Mirror's legendary Mike Molloy – genial, convivial, and given to long pronouncements as to who our target readers would be, while the rest of us relied on gut instinct to turn out popular but aspirational stuff to seduce Mail and Express readers alike. John Hill, renowned design guru, was drawing glorious-looking pages (easier when you don't have pesky adverts clogging up the works) while former People editor Bill Hagerty was a powerhouse in providing a colossal separate sports section. Kate Hadley was ... well, you probably remember Kate.


It was hard work for Admiral Frame's small band of naval ratings filling so many pages (the paper was to contain five separate sections), but it was inspirational – how many journos in our generation had the golden opportunity to help create a brand-new national newspaper?


The Independent had launched in 1986, the Sunday Correspondent in 1989, The European in 1990, but two of these titles were short-lived and the third pushed to the margins by market forces. None had the nerve to enter the popular tabloid market where the competition was vicious. But we did.


The final product – printed north of the border in great secrecy and guarded in cloak-and-dagger style on its journey back to London – was nothing short of a triumph. Sitting elegantly between Mail and Express, and with a polish neither possessed, it was worthy of a nationwide audience tired of the same routine material both groups were pushing out each Sunday. I was astonished and incredibly proud to hold it in my hands.


All it lacked now was the £80 million to get the paper underway, and that's where Mohamed Al Fayed – who'd done the decent thing and provided no-questions-asked funding to get the show on the road — drew the line. And however rich he was, who could blame him?


Opinions vary on this recently deceased Harrods colossus, and his suitability as a newspaper proprietor. What would he have done with the paper once it was up and running – what vendettas would he have pursued, what witch-hunts would he instigate? His background and business dealings barely bore scrutiny, his treatment of staff was often appalling.


All I can say is that when Beaverbrook came to London and bought the Daily Express, he left a tangled web back in his native Canada and was no saint. Northcliffe, similarly, could be accused of near-criminal activity - which placed Mohamed Al Fayed in just the right fraternity to create and maintain a great national newspaper.


It would have been fun if he had. And most of us would have loved working there.


CHRISTOPHER WILSON never worked for Al Fayed but he did work for the Express, Mail, Times, Telegraph and Today.