Hot off the press: The playwrights, novelists and broadcasters who started out at local newspapers

Tom Stoppard, Jeremy Vine and Linda Grant all cut their teeth on the locals

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The Independent Online

Long before internships, aspiring journalists cut their teeth on local papers – and some of them went on to very big things indeed. Five alumni of the town-council and flower-show circuit look back:

Tom Stoppard

Western Daily Press, 1954-1958; Bristol Evening World, 1958-60

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Stoppard spent six years working in local news (AFP/Getty)

My generation is nostalgic about our newspaper days. We easily turn into hot-metal-press bores. I was taken on by the Western Daily Press, a Bristol broadsheet, as a junior reporter in 1954, and, coming from an entire childhood of boarding school, I was thrilled to become, overnight, a person of consequence. So it seemed to me.

In provincial journalism there is a tighter focus between the paper and its readership, between reporters and the story. In covering local government, local crime, local culture, local everything, there’s a sense of reporting from within. In the press box in court we often knew the lawyers and policemen socially. Once or twice I knew the person in the dock. At the Bristol Old Vic, where I’d get second-week comps to write a couple of paragraphs in the wake of our theatre review, I knew the actors as well as I knew my colleagues.

I read The Front Page, a wonderful play by a couple of Chicago reporters, Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur, which in no way diminished my feeling for the Western Daily Press with its weekly page of livestock market reports. Our country coverage was important. In 1957 the paper celebrated its centenary, which made it not much older than a lot of its readers. The WDP would be dead now had it not been taken over by the publishers of the profitable Bristol Evening Post and, in the hands of a new, younger, brasher editor, ultimately turned into a  tabloid.

After four years, I moved to the Bristol Evening World and was thereby blessed by the experience, increasingly rare, of working as a reporter in a city with competing afternoon newspapers. Those were the high days of my life up to that point, once I had got over the shock of the 7am shift. That was probably the main incentive for my turning freelance as a feature writer for a year or two before I ended up in London. I much preferred the working hours when I did a stint as a sub-editor on my first paper, working from  6pm until one could walk home with the fresh paper to read and – yes – the smell of hot metal in one’s nostrils.

The World was produced in Northcliffe House, an imposing office with a clock face, which would have sat comfortably in Fleet Street. We considered ourselves brighter and unstuffier than the Post which had been founded by local money and enjoyed local fidelity from advertisers. The World was outgunned and inevitably came to an end.

I’m grateful for the chance both my papers gave me to show off a little while educating me in the ways of society, on a spectrum from amateur dramatics to coroner’s courts, from flower shows to planning committees. “The media” 50 or 60 years ago was a simple affair, and to be a journalist back then was to know tomorrow’s news today. I was intensely aware of that. There was a glamour to being ahead of the game. I still feel lucky to have been there.

Sir Tom Stoppard is a prolific writer for film, TV, radio and stage.  His latest play, ‘The Hard Problem’,  has just finished its run at the  National Theatre

Jeremy Vine

Coventry Evening Telegraph,  1986-87

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Vine is a BBC election night stalwart (Davd Sandison)

I nearly didn’t get the job. During my interview with the Coventry Evening Telegraph’s editor – a god-like figure called Geoffrey Elliott (his name was designed to root out people who had difficulties spelling) –a fire bell went off. As a 21-year-old student, I had no real sense of time and used the break in proceedings to go shopping. I ambled back. The bosses were still in the interview room. The break for the fire alarm had been a mere 10 minutes – but I had been gone for 50. “Where on earth have you been?”asked the deputy editor. Realising the trouble I was in, I answered: “I’ve been trying to investigate the cause of the fire.”

So I got the job. My very first day at the paper was my very first day at work. I had left Durham University in 1986 and appeared in their newsroom at the end of that summer. It was all manual typewriters and three-ply paper. The place sung with news: a metallic chorus, all those keys bashing ancient rollers and carriages angrily slammed backwards. New technology? That was a plastic tube which sucked copy round the building to the typesetters. They, by the way, were human beings. My stories came out of printing presses at the back of the building. They roared. I never knew they would be silenced so soon, and that “the computers” – spoken of reverentially as a way of making the paper more efficient at some point in the future – would deliver something more like a death blow.

I remember one story that first day. I was sent to the railway station in the centre of Coventry by the deputy news editor. Geoff Grimmer was short, grey, and (it seemed to me) a terrifying combination of knowledgeable and indignant. He always knew more than you, and was always upset that you knew less. He told me: “A group of students are raising money for the local hospital. Go and do a piece on them.” My very first paid piece in a newspaper, this would be. A bit of personal history.

To the station. The students, dressed as bears, were indeed raising money. I licked my pencil and opened up a blank page in my notepad. I asked them everything – names, ages, where exactly the hospital was, why were they raising the money, what would it buy for the hospital, had anyone they knew been treated there? I even asked them their heights.

Back in the office, I presented my story to the frightening Grimmer. He looked it over and then peered at me.

“Why were they dressed as bears?”

“I don’t know,” I replied.

“You didn’t ASK?” he cried, throwing his arms out as if physically trying to shake off my incompetence. “Go back to the railway station and ask them.” I did as I was told. I went back to Coventry station and asked them. And the funny thing was – they didn’t know either.

But I have often reflected on that exchange in the 29 years since. Perhaps “Why were they dressed as bears?”  is the purest question in journalism. The obvious question that no one  asks. I have asked many versions  of it down the years, in a desperate attempt never to make the same  mistake again.

Jeremy Vine is a writer and broadcaster. He hosts a daily weekday show on Radio 2

Linda Grant

Widnes Weekly News, 1969-70

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Grant won the Orange Prize for Fiction in 2000 (AFP/Getty)

I spent 18 months in my teens working as a junior reporter at the Widnes Weekly News, a paper that served a chemical and potato-crisp town on the Mersey.  A dozen of us were seated at a long table, anchored at either end by the chief reporter and the news editor, hard-boiled types in their forties. Each of us had our own black-enamelled Imperial sit-up-and-beg typewriter. You hit those keys like they were pop-up monkeys at the fairground. Bash, bell, SLAM! Our hands were covered in ink from changing  ribbons. We filed pieces about town council meetings, charity hat shows, shoplifting, and strikes. Our tools were words, but words with single-celled purpose: we were the galley slaves of the Fact.

A small bottle of expensive white fluid was frowningly permitted in case you made a mistake and needed to white it out, but you were not expected to make mistakes. We wrote on pastel-coloured sheets a third the size of A4, the shade indicating the type of story it was. They were interleaved with carbon paper, a paragraph per page, and when you reached the bottom you typed “m/f” to indicate that “more followed”, or “ends” to show that you’d finished.

There was no opportunity for revision. As each sheet was completed it was handed over to the chief-sub, who read it through, marked it up, made up a headline, and sent it over to the web-offset compositors on the floor above us, before it came back down via a chute to the proofreader in his quiet, lonely little cubicle, devoted to concentration. There were no bylines. The whole paper was anonymous, as if the news developed itself into paragraphs out of the events of the town, appearing on the paper as invisible ink held up against a flame.

“Stop what you’re doing. The convener at RTZ is playing silly buggers. Get on the bus and see what’s happening.” This was directed at the industrial correspondent, who was 20. His dad worked in the Golden Wonder crisp factory as a foreman and so he understood labour law (or at least could go home and ask). We reporters were mostly school-leavers. The editor would take us on as indentured journalists on the National Council for the Training of Journalists scheme and get rid of anyone who was dogged enough to last three years to qualify and have their wages raised according to the national industry pay schedule. A couple of pitiful old hands advised us on how to carry out our trade: a former night editor of the Daily Mirror who was dying of throat cancer, and an elderly character of 30 with a degree, who had once risen as high as an interview with the northern bureau of the Guardian, before he sank quickly back down to earth after a nervous breakdown.

The former night editor went to the pub every lunchtime and drank three pints. Before he drained the last glass he dipped his ginger moustache in the foam and returned to the office to suck his own upper-lip hair until the last story was put to bed and he went back to the pub. When it closed, he was forced to go home to his wife. I left and went to university. It took 30 years to break the habit of marking up my copy “m/f”.

Linda Grant is a journalist and novelist. Her second novel,  ‘When I Lived in Modern Times’, won the Orange Prize for Fiction in 2000.  Her latest novel is ‘Upstairs at the Party’, published by Virago

Val McDermid

Plymouth and South Devon Times, 1975-76

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McDermid is now an award-winning crime fiction writer (Getty)

After Oxford, I gained a place on the Mirror Group Newspapers Graduate Training Scheme. MGN owned a group of local papers in the West Country whose purpose was to supply the national titles with a steady flow of young talent. But before we got anywhere near Fleet Street, we had to spend two years as indentured trainees on local papers.

We started with three months in a Portakabin learning newspaper law, the art of the interview, how to write a news story, shorthand and typing. For one day a week, we were let out into the wild, doing day release on the titles we’d later be working for. We’d be sent off with photographers as minders on stories about miracle babies and charity fundraising events.

`Then I was assigned to the Plymouth and South Devon Times, one of the group’s local weeklies, and sent off to magistrates’ courts, parish council meetings, hospital fetes, and village cricket matches.

I knew nothing of cricket, but that didn’t matter. I only had to turn up to the match and stick around to the end, when the club secretary would give me the results and any other useful information. It was the glorious summer of 1976; I spent my Saturday afternoons lying in the long grass beyond the outfield with a jug of cider and a burgeoning suntan.

It wasn’t all fun and games. We were paid pitiful wages; after rent and food there was precious little left over. We couldn’t afford cars, so we were reliant on limited rural bus services. I once went to cover a factory fire on press day on the bus. And our managing editor was one of those lickspittles who acted as if spending the company’s money was a sin; he wouldn’t reimburse our bus fares unless we submitted a used ticket. We were often to be seen poking around in the litter bins on buses to see if we could find a discarded ticket that might bump our expenses up 50p.

After a year on the local weekly – during which I interviewed Leonard Cohen and shook the hand of Margaret Thatcher – I was promoted to the Exeter office of the Sunday Independent, a regional Sunday paper. I developed a knack for feature writing, which was much more interesting than parish council meetings. I once went to interview the Earl of Devon at Powderham Castle on a cold, wet winter day. The bus deposited me about a mile from the castle itself and I set off to walk. About halfway up the drive, I came upon a flood that extended over the bordering fields.

There was nothing else for it. I took off my shoes and socks, rolled up my trousers, and waded thigh-deep through the freezing muddy water. Nothing would come between me and a story…

After two years, I sat my National Council for the Training of Journalists exams and came out top in the UK. My prize was an interview with Prince Charles. By the time the interview happened I’d been posted to the Daily Record in Glasgow where, thankfully, nobody cared. By then, I was running with the big dogs.

Val McDermid is an award-winning writer of crime fiction. Her new book, Splinter the Silence, is out in August, published by Little, Brown)

David Edgar

Bradford Telegraph and Argus, 1969-72

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Edgar has published more than 60 plays (Simon Hadley)

T

he best decisions I took as a young man were to go north. First to Manchester University, ostensibly to read drama but in fact to be caught up in the ferment of the late 1960s student revolt. In my second year I became editor of the student newspaper, and my big story was the defence of two students who’d been expelled for shouting down a Labour minister. I still wanted to write plays, but I needed to earn a living, so I applied round for a newspaper job.

Having been turned down by the  obvious suspects, I was taken on by the Westminster Press, which owned a number of local newspapers, including the Oxford Times. When asked which I’d like to work on, I said “the biggest”. It was the Bradford Telegraph and Argus.

When I arrived in late 1969 I discovered they didn’t much like graduate trainees – particularly ones with fancy southern accents – so I was put on dull jobs such as weddings (you didn’t go, you just worked up two paragraphs from a template, mostly about the bride’s dress). Eventually, of course, I carved out a niche, as university reporter: the former Bradford College of Advanced Technology had just been converted to a University, whose radical vice-chancellor (Edward Edwards) was known colloquially as “Red Ted”.

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Edgar in his 'Bradford Telegraph and Argus' days (Simon Hadley)

But my biggest story wasn’t about the higher education, but about the then flourishing industry of local government corruption. Our deputy news editor, Ray Fitzwalter (later to run World in Action on ITV), had heard rumours of dodgy dealings between a Pontefract-based architect called JGL Poulson – whose business contacts included the Tory home secretary Reginald Maudling – and a number of local authorities. Ray asked if I’d assist him on this story, which we published the week before Private Eye (“Don’t look now,” I said to Ray at  Pontefract station, “but I think that’s Paul Foot”). Neither of our stories had much impact at the time. But in 1973 Poulson was arrested and later jailed, and Maudling’s career was destroyed.

My role in the Poulson story was largely writing up (though I did interview Maudling, who said he wasn’t sure he saw the importance of all this), and I realised I didn’t have the patience to be a real investigative reporter. By now I was getting plays put on, and in 1972 I decided it was time to give playwriting a go full time. But I wouldn’t have missed my three Bradford years for the world. Apart from anything else, it’s the best possible way to get to know a whole town: albeit, often, through the slightly skewed prism of its cops, its councillors, its crooks and its cranks.

Speaking of which, Bradford gave me my first big play. A maverick ex-Tory councillor called Jim Merrick had set up an outfit called the Yorkshire Campaign to Stop Immigration (later to become part of the National Front). He tried to pitch us stories (mostly peddling appalling myths about the health implications of Pakistani immigration in Bradford schools) which we politely listened to and then didn’t run. But I did attend a couple of chaotic and angry meetings, which persuaded me that the racist right was speaking to people with real fears and a real sense of loss. This ended up being the core of a play – Destiny – that the Royal Shakespeare Company premiered at Stratford in 1976. But that’s another story.

David Edgar is a writer and playwright who has had more than 60 plays published and performed on stage, radio and television

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