It is not often that a journalist is asked to ‘expose’ his own boss. On a summer Saturday in July 1969 I was working at a provincial news agency in Exeter when I took a call from the news desk of the Observer newspaper.
‘Have you heard of a man called Rodney Hallworth?’
‘We want you to expose him”.
I took down the details of the commission and set to work. The first person I called was the aforementioned Mr Hallworth, who as the owner of the news agency was my boss, a fact the Observer was clearly not aware of.
‘Rodney, I’ve just got an order from the Observer’. Pausing only briefly for effect, I went on; ‘they want me to expose you’. I then explained that the Observer had received a tip off that the rival Sunday Times was about to publish a sensational story about a solo yachtsman, Donald Crowhurst, who had disappeared from his boat in mid-Atlantic when poised to win the paper’s round-the-world race. The new development I reported to Hallworth did not come as a surprise to him. In his other role as the publicist for Crowhurst it was he who -with Sunday Times reporters- had retrieved a logbook from the abandoned trimaran when it was taken into harbour in the Caribbean.
This log revealed a very different story from the one which Crowhurst and Hallworth had been telling for the previous few months. Rather than follow the race’s course down the Atlantic to the Cape of Good Hope, east across the southern oceans and round Cape Horn back into the Atlantic, Crowhurst had never left the Atlantic. He had lingered there with his radio turned off for weeks pretending to follow the race course before re-emerging on the home straight back to Britain. Only then did he discover that with other contenders dropping out he, this weekend sailor with no track record of long distance sailing success, was going to be the winner of the £5,000 prize. The assumption to this day is that Crowhurst took his own life at sea rather than face the inevitable inquests into his unlikely success. It fell to Rodney Hallworth to answer for Crowhurst’s deception and sad demise. My job as one of two reporters in his agency was to try to provide impartial coverage of the story in which he was a central figure.
Released this month (February 2018) the movie ‘The Mercy’, starring Colin Firth and Rachel Weisz, tells the story of ‘the last voyage of Donald Crowhurst’ which began 50 years ago this summer. It is not the first film on the subject, the BBC made a TV documentary at the time and my former ITN colleague Louise Osmond directed a feature-length documentary ‘Deep Water’ for Film Four in 2006. To tie in with this new movie, the late Nicholas Tomalin’s excellent book ‘The Strange Last Journey of Donald Crowhurst’, written with Sunday Times colleague Ron Hall, is being re-published in paperback.
I’ve seen a preview of the film and it is, in the words of the Radio Times reviewer, ‘a compelling story told with care and compassion’. Both lead parts are well played but the scene-stealer is David Thewlis as Rodney Hallworth. Whereas the documentaries relied mostly on archive clips of Hallworth in relatively low-key mode after Crowhurst’s death, Thewlis is able to give it ‘full Rodney’ throughout the story. Endlessly optimistic and verbally extravagant, his spectacles always just about to fall off the end of his nose, a proud son of Stockport demanding to be the centre of attention, only Thewlis’s girth fails to capture the real thing. Hallworth always flaunted an enormous paunch, the result of years in investment in ‘light and bitter’.
There is no character called Stewart Purvis in the film, but by coincidence, a young journalist called Wheeler, played by Jonathan Bailey, captures the same awe that I felt in the company of this legendary former Fleet Street crime reporter (more of that later), the same scepticism about his techniques and the same reluctance to challenge them.
Half a century on it seems the right time to confess my bit part in the Crowhurst saga and tell a yarn or two about Rodney or ‘Rod’ or ‘Rodders’ as we called him in the newsroom of his freelance agency, the ‘Devon News Service’.
For me the summer of ’69 was a gap between graduating from Exeter University and taking up a post at the BBC as one of their first news trainees. I’d first come across ‘Devon News’ while editing the student newspaper. A reporter would turn up each week looking for stories in our paper that they might be able to sell to regional broadcasters or national newspapers. Soon I was doing Friday shifts for them, phoning over copy for the Sunday papers that paid the best. ‘Is there much more of this?’ was the inevitable refrain from the copy-takers. I also combed Devon’s weekly local papers looking for more stories which we could sell on. After a year of Friday shifts while still a student I became a full time summer relief reporter during the start and, a year later, the finish of the Crowhurst story.
In the movie version, the Crowhursts lived in the Devon seaside resort of Teignmouth and thus his boat was called ‘Teignmouth Electron’. The real story is more revealing about the relationship between Crowhurst and Hallworth. When I first started working at Devon News it was explained that the business was multi-dimensional, though still small enough to fit into a two storey house near Exeter Central Station. There was the news agency selling words and pictures, a favourite combination was inventing stories about animals which apparently thought they were other animals, it being impossible for the animal to deny the story. The news photographers could double as wedding photographers. I remember when one was diverted from a church to the higher priority of a multi-car crash on the Exeter by-pass, the disappointed couple were invited to re-stage the ceremony for photographs to be taken in the office. In a new appendage Rodney announced that his next venture would be in rissoles which were to be the future of pub food. But the ancillary business which excited him as much as news was public relations and that was to be where the bear traps lay ahead.
It was Hallworth, not Crowhurst, who lived in Teignmouth, actually in Shaldon just across the water, and he had got himself appointed as the public relations officer for the town. As reporters we were under orders to get the word Teignmouth into as many stories as possible even if they had no connection whatsoever. Larger and more significant Devon towns would be described in copy as being ‘near Teignmouth’. I remember that after a comparatively modest flood Rodney took it upon himself to declare that Teignmouth was officially ‘a disaster area’. When the hotel keepers complained this would frighten away visitors, he responded that far from it they would come in droves to see the damage.
Donald Crowhurst actually lived in Bridgwater in Somerset where he ran a business called ‘Electron Utilisation’ and the reason that his trimaran was called ‘Teignmouth Electron’ and set off from Teignmouth was because Rodney persuaded him to. In return the town provided some funding, I never discovered how much but I do know that the BBC got the TV rights very cheaply. I don’t think Crowhurst had ever been to Teignmouth before. The Donald Crowhurst I met in those days before he set off was the way he appears in the news clips: shy, nervous, rightly daunted by what lay ahead. His wife Clare even more so.
Once at sea he would call in via Portishead radio and give his position. None of us in the office, including Rodney, knew anything about sailing and we would pass on these positions each week to the race organisers at the Sunday Times. Once he stopped calling in (I only discovered after his death that he did this deliberately because using his radio would give away his real position) we were faced with the dilemma of responding to the Sunday Times’s regular requests for updates. So without any knowledge or understanding of the prevailing winds or other influences on his position we would send in what I can only call our own estimates. Those Sunday Times readers with more nautical experience began to find the details of these somewhat surprising.
I have reflected many times on Rodney Hallworth’s own behaviour during this period and I am convinced he did not know then what Crowhurst was up to. I certainly didn’t. The tragedy was that when Crowhurst re-emerged from his silence and began reporting genuine positions on the final stages of his journey, Hallworth’s excitement created extra stress that probably helped to tip Crowhurst over the top. It wasn’t the main cause, that was the terrible deal Crowhurst had done with a Somerset businessman in which the Crowhurst family home would be mortgaged if the boat was lost, or he gave up the race. But undoubtedly it was an enormous pressure on him having Rodney on the radio telling him of the big welcome he would receive and the enormous interest there would be in finding out exactly how he had won the race against the odds.
From the moment the full story of Crowhurst’s demise broke Rodney never attempted to edit the copy I filed on the story. There were no more conflicts of interest. I remember phoning over to the national news agency, Press Association, a story which listed all the questions that the saga raised and being very excited a few hours later when it appeared in the Exeter Express and Echo and other evening papers around the country. But I’m not sure that anything I filed ever amounted to the ‘exposure’ of my boss that the Observer commissioned.
Rodney Hallworth died in 1985 of heart problems. A number of Devon News alumni returned for the funeral and we walked behind the coffin across the Teignmouth-Shaldon bridge as a jazz trumpeter played ‘Bye Bye Blackbird’. Rodney had put money behind the pub bar for the drinks at the wake. Researching his life-story I discovered that nothing he ever said about his past was exaggerated, if anything it was understated. His primetime was 1950s and 60s Fleet Street, ‘Rumpole of the Bailey’ territory where reporters, detectives and lawyers would swap gossip on the real life equivalents of the ‘Penge Bungalow Murders’. Another chronicler of the period, Victor Davis, wrote of ‘the great crime men of the day’ who possessed ‘the ability to ingest enormous quantities of alcohol and still be able to duck and dive and file copy in time for the first edition’. Among those he listed was the ‘genial and rotund’ Rodney Hallworth of the Daily Mail and later of the Daily Express.
In the Mail’s digital archive I found Hallworth exclusives about Ruth Ellis, the last woman to hang for murder. He told friends he accompanied her to the gallows in 1955 which sounds unlikely but knowing him is possible. In 1956 he was one of the first reporters to spot the significance of a police inquiry into an Eastbourne GP whose patients share a predilection for dying and leaving money to him in their will. Over a decade 132 patients of Dr John Bodkin Adams fell into this category. Arriving for what became known as ‘the Eastbourne Job’ at the height of the holiday season Hallworth was told by the manager of the Grand Hotel that ‘all I can offer you is the Bridal Suite’. So that became his base for weeks as he reported ‘the most sensational investigation of the country’s criminal history’.
When Dr Adams went for trial at the Old Bailey Hallworth was in the press box each day alongside Mail legend Vincent Mulchrone writing jointly by-lined court reports. Mulchrone was always more of a wordsmith than Hallworth. Together they planned major pieces to run in the Mail once Adams was convicted. Then came a small hitch – Dr Adams was found not guilty, the jury accepting what he told Hallworth and others ‘all I ever did was to make my patients as comfortable as possible towards the end’.
In 1960 the Daily Express poached Hallworth from the Mail and soon he was at the front line of a story that combined crime and politics. In the Express archive is an extraordinary front page from March 25th 1963 ‘CHRISTINE -AT LAST’. Hallworth and fellow Expressman Frank Howitt had tracked down Scotland Yard’s most sought after woman and reported that ‘Christine Keeler swing her high-booted legs over a swish chair in a Madrid flat tonight and said ‘Suddenly I feel a load has been lifted from my mind’. She was now safe in the hands of Hallworth and the Express. When Conservative Minister John Profumo finally resigned over their affair Hallworth again made the front page with exclusive quotes from Keeler about ‘Our Secret Dates’. Hallworth was also an Express ‘minder’ to Keeler’s friend Mandy Rice-Davies and they were often photographed together.
But there was a sting in the tale during Hallworth’s time at the Express . The undoubted doyen of the crime corps was Expressman Percy Hoskins, Hallworth’s bitter rival, who had outmanoeuvred him in the Bodkin Adams case by keeping open the possibility that Adams would get off and getting an exclusive with the acquitted doctor who apparently had merely ‘eased the passing’ of his elderly patients.
In the British Journalism Review in 2004 Victor Davis wrote ‘I was an admirer of Rodney Hallworth at the Mail…who foolishly allowed himself to be bought up by the Express. He thought that by joining the staff he would inherit Percy’s mantle. What the paper actually did was to leave Rodney to wither on the vine so that Percy could carry on into old age without a serious rival’.
After a brief return to the Mail, Hallworth walked out of Fleet Street and set up in Devon as ‘Hallworth of Exeter’. Fleet Street loved to think that they had the country staked out by such colourful freelance characters as Hallworth and Lino ‘Dan’ Ferrari, father of broadcaster Nick Ferrari, whose manor covered Kent and South-East London. By the time I first met Rodney in 1968 the walls of his office in Exeter were already covered with front page photographs of the Aberfan disaster in 1966. A tip off from the Devon police that something big was happening across the Bristol Channel led him to put a photographer on a light aircraft to get the first aerials. He had the most extraordinary relationship with the Devon and Cornwall police, after a night’s drinking with detectives they would provide a patrol car to get him home safely. When I returned to Devon in 1976 to lead ITN’s investigations into the Jeremy Thorpe-Norman Scott saga, those old contacts held good and a senior detective tipped me off that the the Liberal Party had ‘good reason to be fearful’ of their inquiries.
So I don’t regret my time at Devon News Service. I learned a few of the black arts of tabloid journalism but most importantly I realised this was not for me. I could never write the intros built around a pun and never master getting into a jail to get quotes from a prisoner. I was never happy inventing quotes from somebody who didn’t exist despite Rodney’s advice to give them an address in a very long road -Stockport Road,Manchester was his favourite- because nobody would ever walk that far to check.
When in much later life I was a Visiting Professor at Oxford University researching the concept of ‘crossing the line’ in journalism I dedicated my first lecture to Rodney. He had inadvertently taught me not to cross that line.
This blog prompted other journalists’ memories of Hallworth in particular and their own time in local agencies. Tom Mangold of the Daily Express and later the BBC remembers:
‘Rodney,Frank Howitt and I did Keeler/Ward for two years solid. Rodney was the archetypal tabloid reporter, a bit too grand for foot in door stuff (he left that to me and Frank) and an arch plotter and schemer and a man to whom we L plate hacks gravitated naturally. I’m certain that when Mandy Rice-Davies asked him what she should say in court if Lord Astor denied sleeping with her it was ‘Rodders’ who suggested the now iconic reply ‘Well he would,wouldn’t he’.
Paul Potts, who worked on the Daily Express before becoming Chief Executive of the Press Association said the blog evoked ‘echoes of a bygone age when expenses were paid and the bridal suite an acceptable upgrade. He saw a parallel between Devon News’s lack of nautical knowledge and his own episode ‘with the weather off the coast of North West Spain, an abandoned Greek oil tanker and vulnerable shellfish beds’. His bad luck was that ‘the night editor was a keen yachtsman and weather bore’.
Turning to the world of local agencies, broadcaster Nick Ferrari confirmed that his father was ‘Ferrari of Dartford’ who started what is now the 2nd longest running press agency in the land although there is no longer any family involvement. He explained that the oldest is Cassidy and Leigh out of Surrey.
Nick Pollard, former Head of Sky News and currently Chairman of the Ofcom Content Board, recalls ‘Blyth of West Lancs’. He says Roger Blyth ‘relished his reputation (as I suspect did most agency proprietors) as ‘that bloke who sends little boys up chimneys’. Nick’s particular chimney was ‘to drive from my parents’ house in Birkenhead to East Lancashire (quite a long way actually!) to do an early shift on Radio Blackburn from 0600 to 1400 and then drive to Liverpool to do the Radio Merseyside late shift from 1500 to whenever the work was finished – usually after midnight. And of course, like all good agency hacks, I was required to provide newspaper copy from every story I came across on the radio shifts’
Blyth became best known from his time as a reporter/presenter on Granada TV in the North-West where he was married to Judy Finnigan for a time. He had also taken over Liverpool’s Mercury Press Agency from founder Terry Smith who’d gone to become MD of Liverpool’s first commercial radio station Radio City where Roger Blyth and Nick Pollard also worked for a time.
Nick’s abiding image of Roger is ‘him dictating copy in the late morning on one phone with another tucked in to his neck already dialling, a cup of coffee with four sugars in front of him (probably his tenth of the day), grazing from a plastic tray of fish and chips and lighting the next Players Untipped from the stub of the previous one’. Like Rodney Hallworth who died at 56, Roger Blyth didn’t make it past his fifties. Nick says: ‘I’m amazed he made it into his thirties, let alone any further!’
‘echoes of a bygone but rather wonderful age when expenses were plentiful and the bridal suite an acceptable upgrade!’ and ‘smiled at your prevailing winds copy.I had a similar problem with the weather off the coast of NW Spain – Corunna – with an abandoned Greek oil tanker and vulnerable shellfish beds!Main problem was the night editor was a keen yachtsman and weather bore.Just my luck’.