The tabloids and the headlines that say it all

If we remember Freddie Starr, it's because of the hamster. Some front pages outlive the stories they tell

In a nation apparently obsessed by lists, it had to happen. On the heels of such television schedule fillers as The 100 Greatest Albums and The 100 Greatest Movie Stars comes a countdown show designed to unveil The Greatest Tabloid Headlines ever written. The words "barrel", "bottom of" and "scrape" spring to mind. But wait ...

Those who consider that a vastly superior form of newspaper journalism is achieved by what until recently could be described as the broadsheet world might argue that coming up with tabloid headlines is no big trick. They are wrong. Writing a headline that remains seared in the reader's memory long after the story it sat on has become history is a very big trick indeed. How many "broadsheet" headlines are of the long-life variety?

In sorting out the 30 tabloid classics from which the journalistic "experts" on the show could choose, the makers of The Greatest Tabloid Headlines admit that they were spoilt for choice, as they trawled through the most eye-catching pages of the past 35 years or so. (I think they should have gone back further. The Sunday Pictorial's "Oma? Coma? Aroma!" - on its report of Bruce Woodcock's dodgy "knock- out" of Lee Oma in 1948 - could have been a contender.)

In the event, it is more familiar examples that have been rounded up for luminaries such as Piers Morgan (naturally), Roy Greenslade, Andrew Neil, John Sergeant, Ann Leslie, Max Clifford and politicians such as Roy Hattersley and Ann Widdecombe to pontificate on and then nominate as their favourites. Noticeable by his absence is Kelvin MacKenzie, possibly the most accomplished - if that's the word - and certainly the most controversial headline-writer ever to scrawl a memorable phrase on a layout pad. Contractual difficulties apparently ruled him out of the judging, although certainly not out of the running.

Of the 30 original nominations, 19 were from The Sun, many produced during Kelvin's rumbustious editorship. Of the remainder, nine were from the Daily Mirror, one from the Daily Express and one from the Sunday Sport, whose editor-in-chief, Tony Livesey, was also on the judging panel (one of my favourites, Sunday Sport's 1990 effort - I FOUND FACE OF JESUS ON MY FISH FINGER - did not make the cut).

Gross bad taste did not debar a headline from being included. Hence the infamous GOTCHA! - The Sun's celebration of the attack on the General Belgrano with considerable loss of life during the Falklands war - makes the top 30, as does UP YOURS DELORS, from the same paper. So, too, the Daily Mirror's offensive ACHTUNG SURRENDER!, for which, since he wrote it, Piers Morgan may well have voted.

Objective Productions quite sensibly won't tell me which headline came out top, but the smart money would be on FREDDIE STARR ATE MY HAMSTER (The Sun, via a poker-faced Max Clifford). This headline is truly great, in that it will almost certainly perpetuate the name of a comedian whose claim to lasting fame otherwise is no greater than that of ... well, of Piers Morgan, I suppose.

MacKenzie's 1992 IF KINNOCK WINS TODAY, WILL THE LAST PERSON TO LEAVE BRITAIN PLEASE TURN OUT THE LIGHTS has its admirers, although they do not include Neil Kinnock, and The Sun's front page on the singer George Michael's famous Los Angeles indiscretion, ZIP ME UP BEFORE YOU GO-GO, is brilliant lavatory humour. (The Daily Star originally ran with the same heading, the programme associate producer John Richland reminds me, but changed it to WHAM BAM FLASH IN THE PAN - which is almost as arresting.)

Richland says he had great fun making the show. "The people we've interviewed have been quite intelligent," he says, "which makes a change from things like 100 Greatest TV Moments, where everybody says the same thing or has nothing to say." Quite intelligent, eh? That should please Andrew Neil.

Bearing in mind that some of the cleverest headlines are obnoxious (HOP OFF YOU FROGS - The Sun), or patently rubbish (WORLD WAR 2 BOMBER FOUND ON MOON - Sunday Sport), is television behaving responsibly in celebrating them? I think so: how else will critics of the press learn that among the dross can be found intelligent thinking, as in ALL CHANGE (the Daily Mirror's front page on the day decimal currency was introduced) and even prominent apologia: SORRY ... WE WERE HOAXED, which followed Morgan's departure from the Mirror for publishing the apparently fake Iraqi prisoner pictures.

Anyway, it should raise a smile, even if the most wonderful headline ever written appeared not in a tabloid, but in a Private Eye parody of The Sun. KILL AN ARGIE AND WIN A METRO! Wish I'd written that.

'The Greatest Tabloid Headlines' will be shown on Channel 4 in September. Bill Hagerty is editor of the 'British Journalism Review'

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