David Randall: 'I was young, I needed the money... It all seemed so natural - innocent even'

David Randall bares his soul 35 years after the launch of one of Fleet Street's most controversial institutions
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The Independent Online

I was young, I needed the money and they said it would help me in my career. I knew it involved clothes being shed, but it was a foot on the ladder that could lead to the big time. They told me no one would ever find out - that it would only be seen in places where men go. And I believed them. How was I to know that someone would find these grainy images and drag them up again after all these years? But there's no mistaking that it's me in there, coming out with those dirty words and being part of the whole smutty business. I admit it.

For a few weeks in 1980, I was a Sun Page 3 caption writer.

At the time it all seemed so natural - innocent, even. I was a young journalist in my twenties. I was doing some work for a man called MacKenzie, and he mentioned he had a son called Kelvin who worked in a building on Bouverie Street in London. They might be able to give me some "shifts", he told me. It was more temptation than I could resist. I was a small-town boy offered a role in the Big Smoke. So I fell for it.

They got me along for a "test" and put me in this room with all these men (and a token woman). They asked me to do things. Things I'd never done before.

At first it was simple - write this small story, come up with a little headline here or a page lead there. And then they started to press me to show them more. And the moment I knew they'd got me was the day the Shah of Iran died. "Dave," said the foreign editor, "the Shah's just croaked. Do the story, son - 250 words." And he dumped all this wire copy on my desk.

I sat there frozen for a minute. The nearest I'd been to Tehran was Bognor Regis. I knew hardly anything about the man, or his country. And now I had to capture the significance of his death for seven million readers in fewer words than a Bernard Levin intro. Maybe now I'd be rumbled, and it would dawn on The Sun hierarchy that the person who was, by day, the deputy editor of the Epsom and Ewell Advertiser (shoplifting offences a guaranteed page lead) was not, perhaps, the ideal person to write this story.

But I did it, and the means I used I commend to any young shifter starting their career on the tabloids. For weeks before my first shift, I had not only bought and read the paper, but had secretly, in an old school exercise book, compiled a Sun vocabulary - much as people do when learning a new language. Down one side of the page were the expressions used in normal life, and beside them I wrote the Sun equivalents. "Armed robbers", for instance, became "gun-toting raiders", and a group of young women were "a bevvy of beauties". "Slap-up dinners" had rather had their day by then, but "love triangles"' and "grim task" (the two occasionally being combined) still had their uses.

With the aid of this home-made phrase book, I not only reduced the Shah's life to 250 words of effortless cliché, but stole my way into the staff's affections.

So much so that one day I looked up to see a man called Roger Wood approaching me, proof in hand. It was a picture of a largely naked young woman, or, to put it another way, a nakedly large young woman. The crowning moment of my career as a Sun shifter had arrived. I was being invited to try my hand at the Page 3 caption - the equivalent of a Sandhurst graduate being asked to carry the sword at passing out. I smiled inwardly. Those hours of practice at home had not been in vain.

And so, in celebration of the fact that this was the beginning of Cowgirl Week in The Sun, I wrote the following:

"West is best, girls, if you wanna round up the fellas like lovely Linda Lusardi. Her cowboy style has been driving 'em wild on Ibiza's beaches, bringing her a posse of would-be pardners. In a 10-gallon hat and Western monokini, Linda, 22, from London, is enough to make any wandering gunman stay at home on the range."

Thus, of course, exhausting all the obvious puns for those who had to compose captions on later days of Cowgirl Week.

I wrote a few more of these confections, and then the siren voices of quality journalism lured me off to The Observer. I missed, therefore, making anything other than a trivial contribution to the 35-year Page 3 legend- unlike Bernard Shrimsley (who once scribbled on a proof of a spectacularly endowed young woman, 'Make nipples less fantastic') and Patsy Chapman.

She was the item's most adept and prolific writer, the highlight of her stint reportedly coming when a feminist delegation arrived at Bouverie Street demanding to see the chauvinist pig who wrote the captions - only to be introduced to the small and very female Chapman.

So do I - like an actress now known for her Lady Bracknell roles who once shed her kit in a couple of early stag films - rue this episode in my past? No. The Sun taught me how to tell a story in very few words ("168 for that, son; first par 14; second 15; third 13"), that every word should count, that punchlines of stories or intros should come at the end (not nearly at the end), and that conjuring up puns required almost no skill at all. And besides, I was young, I needed the money...