Another 25 years or bust!

14,000 breasts on, Chris Horrie looks at how Page Three became the Sun's greatest asset
Click to follow
The Independent Online
Theories about the abiding appeal of the Sun's Page Three abound. My own favourite:

The babyboomers of the 1950s were the first generation to be predominantly bottle- rather than breast-fed. This gave them a collective obsession with all things mammarian. About a year after the launch of the paper, the editor tossed in a topless picture as a desperate measure to fill up space. Bingo! The experiment connected with the exact psychological feel-good centre of a (male) generation. The fleshy Rubicon had been crossed. The Mirror failed to follow suit. The rest, as they say, is history.

There are those who say Page Three has little to do with breasts at all. Christopher Ward, a former editor of the Daily Express, who found himself on the losing side of the Sun's circulation war with the Mirror in the 1970s, says it is all about the "smile count". Each night Ward would count the number of beaming faces in the two papers. The maniacally cheerful Sun, selling itself as the print equivalent of Prozac, usually clocked in with twice as many grins. As a result (and despite his exhortations), Ward says, the Sun soared ahead of the "well-intentioned gloom" of the Mirror.

Page Three provided the Sun with an instant solution to the smile problem on its third page, which, according to newspaper lore, is a hotspot: the most-looked-at inside page and best reserved for "picture power" of one sort or another. It sets the tone for the whole paper and can give a lift to the frequently tedious and resolutely unvisual agenda of the home news pages.

And so it has remained since Stephanie Rahn first got her kit off for the lads on a miserable morning in November 1970. More than 14,000 breasts later, seven thousand pairs, Page Three is still going strong.

From the start, the formula for the feature was defined as "breezy, not sleazy". Beverley Goodway, the official Page Three photographer, diverted from his career as a sports photographer with the Times, quickly groped his way towards the required style. This was to be the wholesome "naturist" approach of Health and Efficiency rather than the seedy porno style being developed by the exploding top shelf magazine industry.

The Golden Rule: nothing should be printed that would disgust women readers. To ensure this did not happen, female secretaries and feature writers in the Sun offices were consulted and given the right of veto. Even then, the pictures were re-touched before printing. Normally this was to improve the quality of the all-important smile, or to tone down some of the more purely physiological details. The skilled application of white lead paint on the composing room floor, it was reckoned, could achieve the same effect as millions spent on orthodentistry.

Given that the pictures could be shot in batches and selected months in advance, problems were rare. The only time things went seriously wrong was when a vindictive printer drew a few strands of stray pubic hair protruding from one of the girl's knickers. The paper's executives, who were out of town attending a country hotel think-in when the first copies arrived off the presses, were apoplectic and pulled the paper at vast cost.

And it is still a legend at the Sun that ex-editor Bernard Shrimsley once scrawled the following re-touching instruction: "Nipples too fantastic; make nipples less fantastic". Interviewed years later, Shrimsley vividly recalled that the offending pair "looked like a couple of plastic coat pegs".

In the late 1970s Page Three did stray for a while towards some of the visual cliches of the soft porn industry with the addition of suspenders and stockings. But this was more to do with the newly launched, aggressively downmarket Daily Star, which Rupert Murdoch feared might do to the Sun what the Sun had once done to the Mirror.

The Star's launch editor, Derek Jameson, told his staff in a memo: "No newspaper in history lost sales by projecting beautiful birds. Sex sells - that goes for pictures and words. So the Star will have its quota. Bigger and better than anyone else." The result was "Starbirds", the first tabloid pin-ups in full colour, instantly judged to be more raunchy than Page Three.

Jameson was wrong. The full-colour suspender belt offensive was seen off. The plummeting Star got into bed with the frankly pornographic Sunday Sport and almost closed down. Page Three reverted to the original formula.

But there have been exceptions to the "smiles not tits" rule. Samantha Fox, who personified Page Three in the Eighties, had a nice enough face, and straight teeth. But there was no doubting that her main "assets", as the Sun never tired of punning, involved the combination of a 36D bra size with being only five feet tall.

The women in the office thought her breasts made her look like a freak. Set against this was Sam's game-for-a-laugh attitude, which allowed the paper to transform her into a saucy seaside postcard cartoon character, operating as its in-house clown-cum-mascot. She was used for endless editorial stunts, including a jokey "crusade" against a Bill to ban Page Three proposed by Clare "Killjoy" Short. Sam even led Sun journalists through the pickets during the Wapping industrial dispute, complete with tin hat and armoured car.

The freak-show aspect of Page Three has surfaced most recently in the form of Ms Pandora Peaks: "the sex goddess with the 62HHH bust"as the Sun calls her. Partly clothed, Ms Peaks looks as if she is carrying a couple of basketballs under her T-shirt. But she does the job of getting the paper passed around during the coffee break ("Cor Blimey! Just look at the state of that!"), raising a smile, albeit more of a nasty sneer, on a bleak and miserable morning in November.

Chris Horrie is co-author of `STICK IT UP YOUR PUNTER!: THE RISE AND FALL OF THE SUN', published by Heinemann.