Michael Owen

Arts editor with a reputation for toughness
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The Independent Online

Michael Owen was a leader of the West End pack of journalists before the advent of the loner "showbusiness reporter".

Michael Owen, journalist: born Carmarthen 5 March 1945; Arts Editor, Evening Standard 1979-98; married 1966 Penny Rowbottom (two daughters; marriage dissolved); died Birmingham 23 August 2004.

Michael Owen was a leader of the West End pack of journalists before the advent of the loner "showbusiness reporter".

During the interval of one Earl's Court pop concert a bar was laid on for the press but the barman was late. Owen duly took on the duties and went behind the bar, passing out generous measures all round, and when the barman eventually arrived he was sent scurrying as surplus to requirements.

But although he had a great verve in enjoying himself and never blanched at making enemies - he had a robust contempt for critics, among other fellow creatures - Owen was the consummate reporter who, as Arts Editor of the London Evening Standard, 1979-98, possessed the proverbial contacts book to die for.

For many actors, he had a reputation for toughness, which he did nothing to disabuse them of, but which rarely manifested itself in the Friday interviews he compiled for the paper for a quarter of a century. "He was the best, because it wasn't an interview so much as a conversation," said the actress Nichola McAuliffe, "which is why everybody from Maggie Smith to Placido Domingo was keen to talk to him when they wouldn't be interviewed by anyone else."

Michael Owen was born in 1945 in South Wales, the son of an Anglican cleric who moved his family to Liverpool. Michael went to Quarry Bank High School while John Lennon was there and creating his first skiffle group called the Quarry Men. It was from his schooldays that Michael Owen took his lifelong passion for Liverpool FC.

He began his career in journalism at 18, not in Liverpool but on the Surrey Advertiser, just as the successor band to the Quarry Men, the Beatles, were ushering in a new cult of youth, and Owen introduced a teenagers' column to the weekly for which he got to interview Sixties icons like the Walker Brothers and the Rolling Stones.

Having completed his indentures Owen moved to the Birmingham Post and then the Press Association, joining the Evening Standard in 1969. He was by then married to Penny Rowbottom, who had been a fellow reporter at the Advertiser.

He joined the Standard in a heyday for its theatre coverage, when Milton Shulman was the drama critic and Sydney Edwards ran the showbusiness pages. It was under Edwards's tutelage that Owen began his "Friday People" page, covering all of London's performing arts scene.

Edwards also took the rather provincial-feeling Evening Standard Awards for theatre and turned them into a glittering ceremony at which the cream of British theatre had to be seen, and it was Owen and his close contacts with celebrities that ensured their presence, winners or not. When Edwards died in 1979, Owen took over the planning and organisation of the annual event, allowing himself six months to get it right each time, and it was his attention to detail that ensured their continued success.

In 1998, however, he was a victim of the clear-out of the "old school" which has become familiar in Fleet Street, this time by the new editor of the Standard, Max Hastings. He was offered a modest severance deal, but got it substantially improved, in a typical act of Owen bravado, by marching into the office of the proprietor himself, Viscount Rothermere.

By then his marriage had ended in divorce, though he remained on good terms with his former wife, and Owen had established a relationship with Sir Peter Ustinov's daughter, Andrea, with whom he moved to Majorca. That relationship foundered, however, and two years later he returned to live in his daughter's house in Sheffield.

Although he completed Sydney Edwards's Celebration: twenty-five years of British theatre (1980) as editor after Edwards had died, and wrote the biography of the deaf actress Elizabeth Quinn, Listen To Me (1984), Owen resisted friends' urgings towards further authorship, saying, "I'm a journalist, not a writer."

He still attended first nights in Sheffield - and Liverpool matches whenever possible - and enjoyed a new-found interest in gardening, but he never recovered from being rejected from the job that he loved and was frequently engulfed by depression.

He was found dead in a Birmingham hotel room with a bottle of good claret and packet of his favourite Gauloises cigarettes beside him.

Simon Tait