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Daily Express: Hirings and many firings at the Black Lubyanka

The Art Deco headquarters of the 'Express' practically had a revolving door for editors. On the eve of a staff reunion, Craig Orr remembers them

I was at the Daily Express for 10 years, from 1975 to 1985. During that time, I worked for three owners, and no fewer than six editors. The turnover was so fast that on one occasion the news editor was heard to say to his deputy as he headed out to lunch: "Hold the fort, old boy, and if the editor calls, ask him to leave his name."

In those 10 years, the Daily Mail, the Express's great rival, had one proprietor and one editor. But we had more fun. I guess some of that fun will be recalled tomorrow when former Express employees will meet once again at the wonderful Art Deco glass building at 133 Fleet Street known as the Black Lubyanka. The current occupiers are Goldman Sachs, who have graciously agreed to host this reunion, organised by the Express Old Boys and Girls Social Club. Such events have been known to end in tears or worse. Let's hope, for Goldman Sachs' sake, we're older and wiser.

I believe it was Private Eye who first dubbed the building the Black Lubyanka. Built in 1932, it housed Express Newspapers and latterly the London Evening Standard – journos, printers, pressmen, the lot (none of your remote printing then) – until 1989. The architect Sir Owen Williams was responsible for the black glass exterior, and the interior, including the spectacular front hall with its ornate floor and curving marble staircase, was designed by Robert Atkinson.

It was an incredibly glamorous place to work, and I think for most of us old Express hands, the building is synonymous with the glory days of the newspaper. In 1961 the building, the paper and its most famous editor, Arthur Christiansen, starred in the British science fiction film The Day the Earth Caught Fire. It's not the greatest movie, but it featured a young Michael Caine and had its moments, not least the final scene, with the machine minders standing by presses plated up with pages to cover two eventualities: "WORLD DOOMED" and "WORLD SAVED".

My first editor at the Express was Alastair Burnet, better known now as a TV news anchorman and a former editor of The Economist. I recall only two meetings with Alastair – the first and last. I went for an interview and was greeted by Pat, his formidable PA, who said: "Alastair's a bit tied up. Would you like a drink?" She poured me the biggest glass of malt whisky I had ever seen. I waited as people came and went. Ten minutes later, Pat said: "I'm sorry about the delay. Would you like another?" Eventually the buzzer went, and Pat said: "You can go in now." In I went, and almost before we had shaken hands, Alastair said "Care for a drink? I'm having one." I got the job, despite being half cut.

The last thing Alastair said to me was: "Whatever shall we do with Rupert Bear?" Rupert was one of the Express cartoons, and I guess he must have been under pressure to get rid of it. Alastair was a lovely man, but not really cut out to be editor of a paper like the Express. The story is that, on his departure, he turned down the traditional golden handshake. I don't know whether that is true, but I can believe it of him.

Next up was Roy Wright, a protégé of Charles Wintour, who had been translated from deputy editor of the Evening Standard. He was closely followed by Derek Jameson, much maligned by Private Eye and Fleet Street's high-quality, low-circulation broadsheet pundits. Derek was proud to describe himself as an old hack who started as a copy boy. He was much given to homespun homilies, such as: "Don't use the word 'Britons' – the only Britons my old mum ever heard of were ancient ones." Or similarly, reproving a sub for using some French phrase: "We don't use frog words in the Daily Express. The only French my old mum knows is 'Ooh la la'."

But Derek could write a leader in the time it took most people to decide whether they had an opinion on the issue, and he was the only editor in my time at the Express who managed to stem, albeit briefly, the horrendous circulation decline. When the Daily Star was launched, Derek was shipped off to Manchester to look after that. In exchange, we got Arthur Firth, who had been northern editor of the Express for years.

His major appointment was Kelvin MacKenzie as night editor. Kelvin had fallen out with The Sun and was only at the Express for a very short time before Rupert Murdoch realised what an asset he had lost and hauled him back as editor. For a short, hilarious time, he was editor of The Sun and night editor of the Express while the Express management tried to hold on to him.

Kelvinisms, of course, are legion. There was the time he attended a former colleague's memorial service at St Bride's. On his way out of the church, he came across a senior colleague looking rather gloomy, as was his wont. "Hardly worth your while going home, is it, Tony?" Kelvin quipped.

He loved to have a go at Arthur, the most genial and good-humoured editor I ever worked for. Kelvin discovered that his middle name was Percy and would address him as follows: "Arthur Percy Firth, you stand accused of destroying a once-great newspaper. How do you plead?" Arthur would smile benignly, like a generous uncle indulging an impish nephew.

When Kelvin finally escaped back to The Sun, I took over from him as night editor. Unfortunately, Arthur did not last long after that, and was succeeded by Christopher Ward, who had been a columnist at The Mirror. It was he who asked the unanswerable question: "Why can we not put the banner [the main front page headline] at the bottom of page one, rather than at the top?" (It seemed daft then, but it has happened since. Maybe Christopher was ahead of his time.)

I don't recall what I replied to his question, but it must have been a less than enthusiastic response, because shortly after that I was despatched to the Express equivalent of Siberia – in other words, Manchester, to run the Scottish Daily Express.

Larry Lamb took over as London editor, and although I did not have much to do with him, he did venture north to Manchester on one occasion. About 10 of us were lunching with him in the boardroom when Larry, a self-proclaimed wine expert, was given some red to taste. "Take this rubbish away and get me something half decent," he ordered. I think it was the production director who scuttled off to the nearest off licence.

Larry soon returned to the Black Lubyanka. I did not.