If, fifty years ago the man from Central casting had been asked to conjure up the image and character of a newspaper Diarist he might have included the following:
a pin stripe suit, suede shoes, bow tie, a loud voice, bundles of charm, and a head for strong drink. Add in Nick Tomalin’s Plausible manner and rat-like cunning and you start to get a picture of Paul, whose life we are here to celebrate today.
In truth he was much more than a movie-man’s caricature. For a start, Paul was much kinder and generous than any journalist you have seen portrayed on the screen. He was also fearless, often asking the question at which some of us baulked.
But above all he was an extremely funny man who peppered almost every conversation with a story, usually involving some form of mimicry and ending with gales of laughter.
His first Diary editor on the Evening Standard in the mid-sixties, Magnus Linklater, said that the reason that Paul became his closest friend at that time, was because he was such very good company, both at the bar and away from it.
“He was just jolly good fun to be with” was how he put it.
A lot of those times, it has to be said were spent at watering holes in this parish, most of them within a decent drive and a five iron of where we are gathered. And how fitting that we are able once again to be here at St Bride’s because Fleet Street was very much Paul’s manor. He was never designed for Canary Wharf or some of the other outposts whence we dispersed. He was at home here.
When I first knew Paul, the centre piece of that home away from the office was El Vino’s where he could be found most lunch times, usually accompanied by his great friends Charles Lyte and Michael Watts This would involve quite a lot of champagne, sometimes some gin too before crossing the road for lunch proper at the an Italian restaurant, the Val Ceno where more red and white wine followed. This of course was just a prelude to the evening events which one hoped would provide the copy for the following day’s Diary.
It was not a life-style recommended for longevity.
Yet here we are, over 50 years on, and many rounds of drinks later, celebrating a life in journalism and broadcasting which, even by Fleet Street standards, was peripatetic, eclectic- often brilliant- and just occasionally rackety.
From early days on a local paper in Croydon, followed by a stint on the Yorkshire Post, Paul joined the Londoners Diary on the Evening Standard, then almost exclusively manned by Old Etonians: Magnus Linklater, Mark Amory, Michael Morton-Evans, Ian Dunlop, John Morehead. And Paul.
He became the column’s editor towards the end of the sixties but finally left to become the first diary editor of David English’s tabloid Daily Mail.
Broadcasting came next, as first breakfast presenter of LBC with Janet Street Porter:
Cut-glass and Cut-froat as they became known.
While there he also became a contributor to Bill Davies’ Punch magazine.
Then it was back to newspapers with his own column on the Daily Mirror. This morphed into that field of journalism which had been so expertly pioneered by Vincent Mulchrone for the Mail: the application of feature writing to one of the main news stories of the day… in Fleet street short hand this was News Colour.
At the same time, Paul cultivated the celebrity interview- which frequently took place in Hollywood, and other sunny places where the living was good.
More often than not, Paul’s co-conspirator was that legendary photographer, Kent Gavin.
From Sirhan Sirhan in his prison cell, via Greta Garbo to Bo Derek, taking in the Kray twins and Oswald Moseley. He even engineered the rapprochement between Mandy Rice Davies and Christine Keeler.
Paul was a master of the chat-up line too.
He was a regular presenter of What the Paper’s say, and Classic FM’s more leisurely version of Desert Island Discs called Celebrity Choice. As the independent reviewer remarked:
“ Callan is more Plomley than Lawley”
Latterly, he wrote many features and reviewed theatre for the Daily Express where he was one of the few journalists to endear himself to Richard Desmond.
Throughout all this, down the years, there was the constant which is Paul’s wife Steffi. They had met some fifty years ago when Steffi had arrived in London from New York, working for Women’s Wear Daily. Steffi and their children Jessica and Jamie have been the family centre-piece around which Paul’s world rotated.
They are an object lesson in how much easier it is to ride the rough seas and squalls of journalism when one is blessed with good anchors.
One of those early squalls I’m ashamed to say was when I reneged on an undertaking to go as Paul’s deputy to start what was to be the new gossip column on the embryonic tabloid Daily Mail. After I’d agreed to go, Charles Wintour offered me the editorship of the Londoners Diary which Paul had vacated. I was allowed the following weekend to make up my mind which I spent with three others in Ibiza as a guest of some very rich socialite. Among our party was Quentin Crew who said I would be mad to pass up the Evening Standard job in favour of the uncertain Daily Mail adventure
I explained my trepidation about telling first Paul and then David English that I was welching on them.
“Quite simple “ said Quentin. “Just suggest that our mutual friend here who has been sacked from the Daily Express should go in your place”
And thus on the Monday I withdrew my acceptance from English and Callan and suggested that my friend Nigel Dempster would be just the man they were looking for.
There were days subsequently when Paul did not thank me.
I have mentioned Paul’s kindness and this is perhaps the time to remove the blot on his escutcheon which says that Paul was once responsible for killing one of Doris Day’s dogs.
I am grateful to Kent Gavin for the true version which is as follows. The two of them visited Doris in her 21st floor Penthouse on Sunset Strip for an interview. To assist Kent with his picture, Paul engaged the dogs by bouncing a ball across the floor. All worked fine. Interview completed. Pictures taken. Job done.
Two days later a tearful Miss Day rings up to say that while re-enacting Paul’s ball bouncing trick, her favourite dog had leapt to catch and disappeared out of the penthouse window, falling 21 floors with the inevitable outcome. Did Kent have a set of photographs by which she could remember her much loved pooch?
A day or two later, Miss Day arrived to collect the prints at the Polo Lounge of the Beverley Hills hotel where Gavin and Callan were having breakfast.
Doris was ecstatic with the pictures and tried to pay for them. When this was refused, she asked what she might do by way of saying thank you. To which Paul said:
“I tell you what, Miss Day… would you sing Que Sera, Sera ?.”
Our Doris duly obliged…. not anticipating that Paul would join in.
To rapturous applause from the Polo Lounge staff and customers the pair performed one of the most unlikely, never to be repeated, duets in Hollywood history.
I will leave the last words to Paul’s editor at the Mirror, Mike Molloy who sadly can’t be with us today.
“In times of peace, Paul could, shall we say, be the very best of exuberant rascals. But on a big story, he was truly superb, and worth three or four of the opposition.”