Ben Jones: Photographer who helped establish Page Three

Monday 02 March 2009 02:35

Ben Jones was true old-school Fleet Street. His abiding legacy is his freelance photographic portfolio of Page 3 Girls in the 1970s and showbusiness figures in the ’60s and ’80s, such as Joan Collins, Barbara Windsor, Danny La Rue and Stephanie Beacham. Page 3 girls like myself loved his pictures because he made us look like film stars. And real film stars were moved to write to him, as Joan Collins once did: “These are the best photos I’ve had taken in YEARS. Just great…”

The award-winning photographer, KentGavin, calls Jones “the Pioneer of Page 3”, while the former Fleet Street editor Derek Jameson told me, “Ben brought Page 3 to Fleet Street”. Jones was known for his “clean, sexy pictures”; he would rarely photograph girls completely nude, as he felt a woman dressed, however scantily, was infinitely more desirable. The look in her eye was what he went for. The glamour model agent, Yvonne Paul, whose raft of girls photographed by Jones appeared daily in the 1970s, said, “I felt that Ben really liked and understood women and cared about their insecurities. He was also bloody good at hiding those wobbly bits!”

Being photographed by Ben was a jolly affair as he was rude and critical about your defects, but made you laugh at the same time. “How am I going to cover up all those freckles?” he’d say to me, as he did all his own touching up painstakingly by hand. Other photographers wouldn’t bother with a model with freckles when they could use one with a flawless complexion but Jones would make a feature of them in his corny captions.

Being a perfectionist and totally professional, Jones would have the shot set up and ready when you arrived at his studio, so he didn’t have you standing around for hours in your bikini, like some other photographers did while they figured out their best shot. The glamour agent Samantha Bond, a Page 3 girl herself before she was an agent, remembers: “Ben was the first to use back-lighting by cutting a hole in the backdrop. It gave the girls a lovely glow.”

Jones’ trick was to make the model feel at ease by using a telephoto lens to physically distance himself from her and by cracking jokes with his famous caustic wit. I introduced the beautiful ’60s model Flanagan to Ben Jones in 1972. When he opened the door to her, she asked him what he thought of her.

“Not bad looking for a fella,” he said.

Flanagan (whose first name was Maureen, though she was known by her surname only) became Jones’ picture agent in the late ’70s and remembers selling a pic of the former Miss Wales, Sian Adey Jones, to The Sun, even though by that time, most of the pictures they used were by their inhouse photographer, Beverley Goodway.

Ben could over-ride the staff photographers with his cleverly lit pieces.

Even though Jones referred to Flanagan as “Motormouth”, he proposed to her several times over the years, but she always made light of it, remaining an enduring friend. At the height of their romance in the ’70s, Flanagan could not locate Jones at his flat, but found him at one of his favourite haunts, Churchill’s Club. “I turned up in a full white Chanel dress, and there was Ben drinking champagne, surrounded by seven hostesses.

‘Ben Jones come here,’ I demanded. The hostesses scattered.

Ben got up, flung me over his shoulder, and marched out of the club with me.”

BorninTooting in 1928, Jones began his Fleet Street career as a 14-year-old tea boy at The Sunday Pictorial, now The Sunday Mirror. He was promoted to editorial assistant and then transferred to the Daily Mirror picture desk. After his National Service in the navy he returned to the Mirror, but insultingly was offered a job as a lowly messenger, which peeved him greatly and his south London guttural tones could be heard loud in El Vino. Hugh Cudlipp, then editor of The Sunday Pictorial, impressed by Jones’ skill and quick ability at picture lay-out, offered him the job of assistant picture editor.

Jones later went on to be picture editor of The People and night news editor for The Daily Sketch.

On 15 August 1952 Lynmouth in Devon was struck by an almighty storm. Jones was in charge of the picture desk, and was called from his bed at midnight to cover the flood, which would take the lives of 34 people. By three in the morning, he had mobilised photographers in the air and people on the ground with wire machines, scooping the rest of Fleet Street and winning plaudits fromWorld Press News.

He had a good eye for a picture and eventually, having gleaned much from the photographers he hired, turned his hobby into a freelance career, though having a sideline in selling pictures to his own papers and others sometimes caused friction with staff photographers.

The first of his pictures to sell was of a bikini-clad girl photographed in the sands at West Wittering, snapped up by Rex Features for £150.

In the ’60s, Jones, would frequent the cabaret clubs and was part of “the scene”. He was welcomed because in those days it meant good PR. Barbara Windsor told me, “Ben was a very important part of our lives. He was a real character. A good mate. He would wander into the Winston Club or Danny La Rue’s in Hanover Street and take a picture.”

He captured a moment backstage at the Whitehall Theatre on the first night of Come Spy with Me in 1966 when Windsor, La Rue, Rudolph Nureyev and Noel Coward were together. Another time he photographed Coward “at play” in Danny La Rue’s club.Worried that Coward would be annoyed that the pictures ended up in a newspaper, Jones wrote to him for forgiveness. Coward’s reply was forever treasured by Jones: “Of course I forgive you. There was nothing to forgive. I like your photographs very much indeed and they make a happy souvenir of a highly enjoyable and memorable evening…”

In 1961 Jones photographed Miss United Kingdom, an Ava Gardner lookalike called Rosemary Frankland.

After a whirlwind romance, Jones made her his second wife. Frankland won the Miss World contest that year,then was whisked off to America on The Bob Hope Tour and never really came back. Hope paid for their inevitable divorce. As Jones said, “There were 10 affidavits which would not have been good for Hope’s reputation if they had been made public”

(Franklin, sadly, committed suicide in California when she was 56).

Jones suffered straitened times in his later years but Flanagan helped him out a little. Jones had embraced the internet and would buy trinkets on eBay, which Flanagan would sell for him. He even had a Facebook page.

It seemed a fitting end that two of his favourite former Page 3 girls, Flanagan and myself, were at his bedside laughing at his still wry humour as he described the agony of the catheter the nurses had just inserted and berated them for the annoying ticking of the machinery he was hooked up to.

Cherri Gilham

Benjamin William Jones, photographer; born 6 October 1927; married twice (three sons); died Berkshire 13 January 2009.

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