Lynda Lee-Potter

Abrasive columnist who became the 'voice of the "Daily Mail" '
Click to follow
The Independent Online

Lynda Higginson, journalist: born Leigh, Lancashire 1934; OBE 1997; married 1957 Dr Jeremy Lee-Potter (one son, two daughters); died Stoborough, Dorset 20 October 2004.

The barbed, opinionated female columnist, rushing to judgement on everything and everybody, was a uniquely American contribution to the craft of journalism until it crossed the Atlantic in the late 1960s. Lynda Lee- Potter joined the ranks of the strident sisterhood in the Daily Mail in 1977 and instantly established herself as one of its most gifted practitioners - a position she maintained to her death.

The technique is to start with a set of basic and fairly obvious hates and enthusiasms and apply these core values judgementally to people and situations in the news. Lee-Potter railed against hypocrisy, pretentiousness and self-regard, while lauding modesty, fidelity, decency and achievement. Along with the best of her fellow columnists, she sought to share the prejudices of her readers and put them into the words they would themselves have chosen if only they had the gift.

"There is a great feeling of malaise in Britain," she wrote in a 2004 column that neatly summarised her (and the Mail's) view of the contemporary world:

There is an angry belief that decent, kindly, indomitable people have been betrayed and the exploitative, the charlatans and the crooks have won.

She thrived in the celebrity culture that emerged in the late 20th century because it gave her a large and rapidly changing cast of heroes and villains to write about. There always seemed to be more of the latter than the former. In the main they were show- business (chiefly television) personalities of questionable talent who had, in her view, got above themselves. And the majority were women.

Particular targets of her venom in recent years were the television presenter Anthea Turner, the singers Lulu and Elaine Page, the model Jordan ("manipulative, steely, avaricious"), Cherie Blair ("shameless and greedy") and Edwina Currie ("I imagine she doesn't really like anyone very much").

Whole categories of people would go under the lash. She flayed, for instance, "female Labour MPs" who "adopt slow, patronising voices, assume expressions of saintly understanding and speak at length but don't actually say anything". Nor did she have much time for minor members of the Royal Family, finding that they lacked both restraint and common sense.

As well as her weekly column, she wrote incisive and observant celebrity interviews. Sometimes she would use the two outlets in tandem, to inflict doubly wounding blows on her enemies. In a published interview with Lulu, she described the unfortunate Glaswegian as "tedious and prone to spouting cliché-ridden rubbish". A few days later, in the column, she added the epithets "self-obsessed, unrealistic and selfish". And, after she had written a clearly difficult interview with the Conservative politician Kenneth Clarke, she sniped at him in the column as "rude, shameless and obnoxious".

It was a feature of her style that such insults came in threes. In a posthumous attack on Sir Robin Day, she described him as "vain, irascible, unreasonable". Germaine Greer was lampooned for being "muscly, greying and scrawny".

Her own appearance and mien were in stark contrast to the poisonous persona that she contrived for her work. Demure, small - even birdlike - and dressed unostentatiously, often in black, she had the appearance of a leisured lady of the upper middle class. Her life style bore this out, centred as it was on a rambling family house and garden in Dorset and a pied à terre near the Daily Mail office in Kensington.

She was unfailingly courteous, with a high-pitched voice and a vocabulary that seemed frozen in 1950s schoolgirl slang. When I telephoned her a few years ago to request an interview, she giggled and exclaimed "Oh crikey! Oh my!", before politely turning me down. She went out of her way to be considerate to sub-editors and other lowly toilers in the Mail office. Even though she was one of the highest-paid writers on the paper, and among the few whose contract stipulated that her copy was never to be altered without her permission, she resisted playing the prima donna.

Lynda Higginson's origins were far from upper-middle-class. Her father, the son of a coal-miner, was a house painter in Leigh, between Wigan and Manchester. Her mother worked in a shoe shop. At 11 she won a scholarship to the local grammar school, where, despite being shy, freckled and rather plain, she harboured an ambition to be an actress. She won a place at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama in London and later claimed that she rid herself of her Lancashire accent on the train to Euston. Soon afterwards she met Jeremy Lee-Potter, a medical student and the son of an air marshal. They fell in love and married in 1957.

In her 2000 book Class Act, in part memoir and in part satirical instruction manual on how to cope with the British class system, she drew heavily on the embarrassment that she, a working-class girl from Lancashire, felt in the company of her fiancé's distinguished family, struggling at mealtimes to cope with unfamiliar food and table manners. But the marriage held fast and produced three children, two of them journalists. Asked in a 1992 interview about the secret of her lasting marriage, she replied: "You just wander through it, really."

Her first stage break came as she was about to graduate from the Guildhall. She had taken a job in a coffee bar close to the Whitehall Theatre, where Brian Rix was casting for Dry Rot, one of the series of successful farces he staged there at this period. She was encouraged to audition and won the part, adopting the stage name Lynda Berrison.

In his memoirs, Rix described her as an "awkward, snub-nosed girl" and said he gave her the part because of her croaking voice. "She was awful," he concluded, and she appears to have agreed, although that part led to others, mainly touring in the provinces. She once wrote a nostalgic column about staying in a succession of theatrical digs in the north of England. "It was a world where it never seemed to be summer."

After marriage she continued her stage career for a time. Her performances must have improved because in a 2004 column, urging Victoria Beckham to move to Madrid to be with her errant footballing husband, she cited herself as an example:

I gave up a fulfilling career as an actress, just as I was on the verge of fame, to move with our two young daughters to the Middle East, where my husband was a doctor in an RAF hospital.

The hospital was in Aden, then a British colony but now part of Southern Yemen. And it was in that unlikely place that she began the career that was to bring her fame and fortune. She began writing a spirited column for the Aden Chronicle. On her return to Britain a few years later, she had a raft of cuttings to show potential employers.

In 1970 she was one of several future stars to catch the eye of David English, who had become editor of the ailing Daily Mail with a brief to make inroads into the middle-market dominance of the Daily Express. He hired her as a feature writer and interviewer. Jean Rook - the original model for Private Eye's Glenda Slagg - was then the featured columnist, but in 1977 she was lured away by the Express.

English asked Lynda Lee-Potter to take over the Wednesday column and to follow the Jean Rook style as closely as she could. She found she could match her predecessor in bitchiness, epithet for epithet, but leavened it with a degree of compassion - if highly selective compassion - that Rook largely lacked. As Sally Taylor put it in An Unlikely Hero (2002), the third volume of her history of the Mail group:

Lynda Lee-Potter, under David [English]'s tutelage, was destined to become the "voice of the Daily Mail", embodying David's vision of the ideal woman reader he was seeking for the newspaper. In some guises she was the conscience of middle-class womanhood; in others a carping fishwife; in still others a highly sophisticated social commentator.

In 2001 she was honoured by her peers when she was named Columnist of the Year in the National Press Awards. (She had been a previous winner in 1984, as well as Woman Writer of the Year in 1989 and twice Feature Writer of the Year, in 1987 and 1993.) In 1997 she was appointed OBE. But she did not claim infallibility and events sometimes forced her to retract her harsher judgments. She berated the former cabinet minister Mo Mowlam for letting her looks go to pieces not long before it was revealed that she had a brain tumour. She quickly apologised - as she did more abjectly over the death of Diana, Princess of Wales, which came just after Lee-Potter had written a number of pieces criticising her over-affectionate public behaviour with Dodi Fayed, the escort who was killed alongside her in the Paris car crash in August 1997.

Only three days before the crash, she had urged the couple to show more self-control in public for the sake of the children, and declared that, of the two parents, Prince Charles had "inflicted less damage and anguish and hurt" on the two young princes. Following the crash and the unprecedented outpouring of grief that ensued, she felt obliged to declare: "Last week I wrote harsh things. Now it's too late, I'm full of regret and shame and guilt."

In the aftermath, the press came in for criticism for indirectly causing the Princess's death by hounding her incessantly. Lee-Potter rose to the defence of her colleagues in words that spelled out her commitment to her trade:

I'm extremely proud of my profession and the clever, talented, witty, disciplined and dedicated people who work within it . . . Journalists as a race are not a group of drunken, louche, indifferent layabouts with hearts of stone. On the whole we are highly strung, care desperately about our work and do our best. During the past 10 days I have been savaged, praised, sworn at and shaken by the hand by strangers in the street. I have been thanked and excoriated and I make no complaint. I'm just an old hack who feels very blessed to belong to a great and venerable profession.

Early this summer she was diagnosed with a brain tumour and had to give up the column. Yesterday's paper, published shortly before her death was announced, carried the poignant announcement at the foot of the page where her Wednesday column customarily appeared: "Lynda Lee-Potter will return soon." Paul Dacre, the paper's editor-in-chief, said that this announcement was printed every week at her request. "In her heart Lynda knew this was not to be, but it cheered her up so much to believe that she would be returning."

Michael Leapman

Comments